Blues Beginnings

Jim Morrison once said “I am an American first.” The Blues, one of only a few truly American artforms, appropriately provides the backbone to the music of the Doors. Here you can explore it's roots, history and players.

The West & South

While the Chicago blues factory rebuilt the Southern downhome blues of guitars and harmonicas into a supercharged urban model, musicians in California took the big band line-up apart, stripped it down to a few horns and a rhythm section and created music that jumped with life. But there were still places where a crowd would hush for one man and a guitar.

In the re-charged atmosphere of the blues scene after World War II, a new style bloomed on the west coast: Jump Blues, blues for leaping up and dancing to, lively, jazzy music made by small bands doing their best to sound like big ones. The defining jump blues records were a pair of massive hits of the mid-forties, Joe Liggins' The Honeydripper and Roy Milton's R.M. Blues, both medium tempo blues based on repetitive, seductive riffs. Milton modelled his six-piece band on Louis Jordan's Tympany Five, the hippest black combo of the forties, known on every juke box for their peppery party songs like Saturday Night Fish Fry, Let The Good Times Roll and Five Guys Named Moe.

While Jordan and Milton wooed the jitterbugs in the dance halls, the west coast's more intimate night spots offered the quiet, genteel music of trios like The Three Blazers, featuring the crooning pianist Charles Brown and his wispy, smoky Driftin' Blues. This understated style had been introduced at the beginning of the decade by Nat King Cole. Years before his hits with Mona Lisa and Unforgettable, Cole fronted a piano-guitar-bass trio, deftly improvising on standards.

Meanwhile, Floyd Dixon and Amos Milburn pounded the keys in a frenzy of boogie-woogie hedonism, as they lip-smackingly hymned African-American nightlife in Hey Bartender and Chicken Shack Boogie. There was a boogie riot on the other side of the tracks, too, as hillbilly guitar - pickers like the Delmore Brothers or Merle Travis, or even bluegrass bandleader Bill Monroe exploited the energy of the eight-to-the-bar beat.

Dixon, Milburn and Brown were all Texans who had made the trip west to California as young men. Guitar playing contemporaries like T-Bone Walker and Lowell Fulson had made the trip too. Walker's supremely relaxed singing and playing were a whole blues style by themselves, one that eventually percolated down to Texas again to inspire Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Johnny Copeland and Joe Hughes.

But in the late forties and early fifties the most distinctive sound to come out of the Southwest was Lightnin' Hopkins, a John Wayne with a guitar, re-asserting the worth of the individual blues singer. "Lightnin' seems an unlikely nickname for the slow-talking Sam Hopkins; he got it duetting with pianist 'Thunder' Smith."

Lightnin' Hopkins proved that the solo storyteller could still be a force in blues, and in Detroit, John Lee Hooker backed him up, but in most places the mood of the public favored band music. Memphis, as always a crossroads, witnessed a collision of Chicago and California styles, a kind of down-home jump blues.

Downriver in Helena, Arkansas, station KFFA's daily show King Biscuit Time became an informal college of the blues, presided over by Sonny Boy Williamson II. Many of Chicago's stars were alumni of the "King Biscuit Academy".

Copyright ©2002-2008 by Tony Russell/

Blues Beginnings: The West & South