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Blues Musicians

Top Fifty Blues Musicians

(In order of birth date)

W.C. Handy (1873-1958) - Blues Musician

Considered the "Father of the Blues," W.C. Handy first heard the Blues being played by a lone Bluesman at the railroad depot in Tutwiler, Mississippi, in 1903. Handy obviously did not create the Blues, but he is the first person to publish a composition with the term "Blues" in the title and utilizing "blue notes" (flatted thirds and sevenths). This song - "Memphis Blues," published in 1912, along with his famous "St. Louis Blues" two years later, first brought the genre to the mass public. This is the man after whom the Handy Awards (the Blues "Grammys") are named.

Mamie Smith (1883-1946) - Blues Musician

This is the woman that started it all, as far as Blues on record. Her "Crazy Blues" is considered the first Blues recording ever. The record sold an incredible million copies in the first six months! This success opened the floodgates, as record labels and talent scouts began to scour the country for more Blues singers to record.

Gus Cannon (1885-1979) - Blues Musician

Gus Cannon bridged the gap between early Blues and the Folk and minstrel styles that preceded it. He was the man, along with his band Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers, featuring legendary harpist Noah Lewis, that helped start and define the early Jug band style, prevalent in Memphis in the '20s and '30s.

Ma Rainey (1886-1939) - Blues Musician

Considered the "Mother of the Blues," Ma Rainey was instrumental in bringing Blues music into the vaudeville tradition. She was a mentor to many of the classic women Blues singers that followed. She had been performing the Blues for twenty years before her first recording in 1923. She would go on to record with such Blues legends as Blind Blake and Tampa Red, along with Jazz greats Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong.

Leadbelly (1888-1949) - Blues Musician

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, was the first Blues artist to achieve fame with white audiences. Many of his compositions from his extensive songbook have become classics of Folk, Blues, and Popular music. After Leadbelly's release from prison in 1934, Alan Lomax recorded a multitude of his performances for the Library of Congress. One of the first Bluesmen to travel to Europe, his songs "Goodnight Irene," Midnight Special," and "Rock Island Line," among others, were a profound influence on the Skiffle craze in England and the subsequent Blues scene there.

Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958) - Blues Musician

Big Bill Broonzy, through the years, was a most versatile performer, being equally adept at solo acoustic Folk-style, Ragtime, and early urban small combo Chicago Blues. He was one of the first artists to spread the Blues overseas, in addition to being a major force and mentor to many fellow Blues Musicians stateside. Broonzy was an exceptional guitarist, fine singer, and exceptional songwriter.

Mississippi John Hurt (1893-1966) - Blues Musician

This gentle man was an anomaly of sorts in that he was from the Delta region, but his guitar playing had much more in common with the more sophisticated finger-picking of Piedmont style Blues. He recorded a few sides in 1928, but was out of the music business until his rediscovery in 1963. He became one of the most beloved of Bluesmen in the '60s Folk-Blues resurgence, influencing a horde of aspiring guitarists in the college and coffeehouse circles.



Bessie Smith (1894-1937) - Blues Musician

The woman who best defines the term of "classic" Blues singer. She earned the title of "Empress of the Blues" with her sassy, bold songs that earned the respect of both Blues and Jazz artists. The finest musicians performed behind her, helping to create an exceptional body of work before her tragic death. Her swagger, style and strong, passionate voice epitomized what the early vaudeville style Blues was all about. Most women Blues singers point to Bessie Smith as the one who set the standard.

Tommy Johnson (1896-1956) - Blues Musician

Along with Charley Patton and Son House, Tommy Johnson was one of the pioneering Delta Blues Musicians. His characteristic vocal growl that would rise to an eerie falsetto howl was a big influence on both Jimmie Rodgers (the "Father of Country Music") and fellow Bluesman Howlin' Wolf. His songs' structures, including "Cool Water Blues," "I Asked For Water (She Brought Me Gasoline), "Maggie Campbell" and "Canned Heat Blues," found their way into many other artists' repertoires.

Reverend Gary Davis (1896-1972) - Blues Musician

In the late '20s, Reverend Gary Davis was one of the main practitioners of the Piedmont Ragtime-style guitar picking, being a great influence on Blind Boy Fuller and many others. His career received a huge boost during the '60s Folk-Blues boom, due to his exceptional guitar technique and thoughtful songwriting. He was a huge inspiration to Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Jorma Kaukonen, and Ry Cooder.

Rice (Sonny Boy Williamson II) Miller (1899-1965) - Blues Musician

Aleck Ford "Rice" Miller was older than the original Sonny Boy Williamson, but decided to take on the same nickname, due to the original's great success, when Miller was holding forth on the famous "King Biscuit" radio show in Helena, Arkansas. Rice Miller's career eventually eclipsed the original Sonny Boy's. Miller influenced such Blues legends as Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter and James Cotton, who all learned directly from him. Outside of Little Walter, probably the most imitated Blues harp player ever.

Son House (1902-1988) - Blues Musician

Eddie "Son" House was simply the most intense sounding Blues artist of all-time. A contemporary of Charley Patton and Willie Brown, his pioneering Delta Blues sound directly influenced such musicians as Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, and most importantly, Muddy Waters, who cited House as his biggest inspiration. Son's pounding rhythmic guitar and anguished vocals epitomized what the Mississippi Delta Blues was all about and was a window into his tortured soul.

Tampa Red (1904-1981) - Blues Musician

Hudson Whittaker, better known as Tampa Red, was a prolific recording artist and talented guitarist. His smooth slide guitar style and sly lyrics made him one of the most popular Bluesmen of the early Chicago Blues scene. Earning the nickname of "The Guitar Wizard," Tampa Red penned many songs that have become classics, including "It Hurts Me Too" and "Black Angel Blues" (which B.B. King later reworked as "Sweet Little Angel"). He also helped create what became known as "hokum" with its humorous, double-entendre lyrics. 

Pete Johnson (1904-1967) - Blues Musician

Along with Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson was one of the kings of Boogie-Woogie piano. A mainstay of the vibrant Kansas City Blues scene, he often recorded with Blues shouter Big Joe Turner. In fact, the pairing of the two on John Hammond's Spirituals To Swing Carnegie Hall concert in 1938 ignited a renewed Boogie-Woogie craze, which swept the nation.

Pinetop Smith (1904-1929) - Blues Musician

Clarence "Pinetop" Smithwas one of the most influential Blues figures of the late '20s. His song "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie" was the very first song with the term in the title and its lyrics and stop-time arrangement became the template for many subsequent piano Boogie-Woogie workouts. The beloved Pinetop Perkins not only borrowed the style, but also the nickname, keeping the flame burning today.

Well, there are the first 25 of T-Bone's 50 most influential Blues artists of all-time. See next week's BluesWax for the other 25 artists. After checking out the whole list, feel welcome to respond with any thoughts, comments or your own suggestions. During the last month of the official "Year of the Blues," this is a great way to reflect on the people who have made the largest contributions to the music.

Part 2 - 50 Blues Musicians

Don "T-Bone" Erickson is the founding editor ofBluesWax. T-Bone may be contacted at


This article appeared in BLUESWAX. Used by permission.

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