We were beyond saddened to hear of the death of blues legend Etta James this week. We grew up with her indomitable voice and blues standards, and her passing is certainly a tragedy for American music. To celebrate her legacy, we’ve put together an essential blues playlist for the uninitiated, interested, or even any of you experts out there who might need some reminding. Click through to check out our picks, or stream the whole playlist here. And of course, since there are far more than fifteen blues songs you should listen to (a possibly infinite number, in fact), make sure to chime in with your own favorite standard if we’ve neglected it here.
“At Last” — Etta James
Sure, this is actually a cover of a redone version of a song written for a film, but all that is irrelevant. James made this song her very own, and turned it into one of the most devastatingly beautiful blues numbers of all time.
“Smokestack Lightnin'” — Howlin’ Wolf
Though the incomparable Howlin’ Wolf had been performing some version of this track since the 1930’s, it wasn’t until 1956 that it was released as a record. Of the song’s meaning, Wolf said, “We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning.” Maybe it’s just us, but we’ve also always thought ‘smokestack lightning’ was a perfect way to describe that voice of his.
“Crazy Blues” — Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds
This song, recorded by vaudeville performer Mamie Smith in 1920, made history as the very first blues record ever released, which we think qualifies it as “essential.” It’s also pretty darn good on its own merit.
“Call It Stormy Monday” — T-Bone Walker
A classic blues standard in the traditional 12-bar blues format, there’s nothing to do when listening to this song but sit back with your scotch, close your eyes, and shake your head slowly back and forth. You’ll see what we mean.
“Mannish Boy” — Muddy Waters
We just can’t argue with that deep, dark Muddy Waters sound. Plus, this this track comes with a little insidery history — it was written in response to Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” which was itself inspired by Muddy Waters’ and Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man.” It’s like a modern rap feud, except so, so much better.
“Boogie Chillen” — John Lee Hooker
A prime example of electric blues done to perfection, this 1948 track from the legendary John Lee Hooker was just as influential for the burgeoning rock n’ roll genre as it was for other blues artists.
“The Thrill is Gone” — B.B. King
One of the later songs on this list, “The Thrill is Gone” was popularized by B.B. King in 1970, and has continued to be a popular hit ever since. There’s no real arguing with the King.
“Dust My Broom” — Elmore James
The king of the slide guitar, James has a piercing voice and a powerful musical style that causes pretty much everyone to sit up a little straighter.
“Hellhound on my Trail” — Robert Johnson
A master of the Mississippi blues, Johnson is one of the most important musicians in the genre, despite the fact that he only recorded 29 songs in his lifetime, including this ominous, winding number. In fact, Eric Clapton once called him “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” So that’s relatively high praise.
“St. Louis Blues” — W.C. Handy
Of course, we couldn’t leave off a track by W.C. Handy, “Father of the Blues”. This 1914 track has been called “the jazzman’s Hamlet,” so we think that’s good enough for us.
“Spoonful” — Willie Dixon
Willie Dixon wrote “Spoonful,” but it was originally recorded by Howlin’ Wolf in 1960. Though we can’t get enough of that Howlin’ Wolf growl, we like something about the simplicity of the song as sung by its originator.
“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out” — Bessie Smith
Though it seems like almost everybody recorded a version of this song, we’re sticking by the “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith with her devastatingly silky tones and ferocious growl.
“I’m a King Bee” — Slim Harpo
Yowza. This swamp blues standard, which won a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2008, stings from the first line and never lets up.
“Born Under a Bad Sign” — Albert King
The title track from King’s 1967 sophomore album, this song marked a turning point in American blues — a move towards modernism from a guitar giant (literally and figuratively) and according to some, “the point at which the music was rescued from slipping into derivative obscurity.” Also it just wails.
“I’d Rather Go Blind” — Etta James
With Etta being the girl of the hour, we couldn’t but circle back to our other favorite track of hers. Covered by many but never topped, it’s the ultimate blues masterpiece.