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 Sixties

"The blues went completely dry at some point around the end of the 1950's," Willie Smith remembers. He started out as a harmonica player. When harp gigs vanished he took up drums, eventually playing in Muddy Waters' band. "Muddy couldn't get work. Even B.B. King wasn't getting the work. He used to have almost an orchestra, you know, and he had to cut back to three or four pieces. It got so bad, I finally quit in '64 and started driving a cab."

He was one of many who gave up the blues as a bad job. Labels that supported the blues turned to soul, as Motown and Stax set a new agenda for black music. Muddy and Wolf were yesterday's men beside Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye.

Yet by the end of the Sixties, Muddy, Wolf, B.B. King and many of their peers were internationally famous. They were making European tours, appearing at pop festivals and recording again. Their audiences were no longer black and tending toward middle age, but white and young. What earned them this born-again career, apart from talent and persistence, was the discovery of the blues by white musicians half their age. Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Canned Heat, the Doors and their British counterparts John Mayall, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, by introducing the blues to new listeners, also revalidated it for the old players. "Before the Rolling Stones", said Muddy Waters, "people didn't know anything about me and didn't want to know anything. I was making records that were called 'race records'. I'll tell you what the old folks would have said to kids who'd bought my records. They'd have said 'What's that? Take off that nigger music!' Then the Rolling Stones and all those other bands came along playing this music, and now the kids are buying my records and listening to them."

What was the attraction? "The romance of it", says Rod Stewart in a MOJO article. "Just the name, Muddy Waters Chicago Blues Band sounds so romantic. It's funny, you think you're the only one who's listening to it and then ten years later you realize that everyone was listening to it at the same time - the Stones, the Yardbirds. Everybody in their own little corne r. . . Long John Baldry had this one album (The best of Muddy Waters) and I borrowed it, and he said, 'You must bring it back in two days because Mick Jagger wants to borrow it.'''

Before the Sixties were over, masters and newcomers were playing side by side on Muddy's and Wolf's London Sessions albums. During the "beat group" boom you could throw a stone at random in London or Liverpool and bet on hitting a band doing Hoochie Coochie Man.

But though Chicago needed an infusion of respect, blues activities elsewhere were self-supporting, like the big band blues of Junior Parker and Bobby Bland, south Louisiana's "swamp blues" clique of Lightnin' Slim and Slim Harpo, who dismantled the styles of Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed and rebuilt them to sound more rural and archaic. Then there was New Orleans, where music lives in the street - the home turf of parade bands, echoing to horns and drums. New Orleans had a wonderful time during the Sixties, turning out witty, weightless R&B classics like Lee Dorsey's Ya Ya and Chris Kenner's I Like it Like That.

The blues' main territorial gain in the Sixties was invasion of foreign parts. Under the banner of the American Folk Blues Festival, a concert party annually visited Europe. It was something to see, in 1967, Son House, Skip James and Booker White on the same bill - never to be repeated.

Copyright ©2002-2008 by Tony Russell/

Blues Beginnings: The Sixties