Rock Hits You Didn’t Realize Were Blues Songs


A wildly energetic and gyrating Elvis Presley took to the stage on The Milton Berle Show in 1956 to sing the now legendary rock hit, “Hound Dog.” The controversial televised performance — set to the swoons and giggles of excited female audience members — won the singer his nickname “Elvis the Pelvis.” The song topped the Billboard charts and remains one of the most-loved tunes in rock ‘n’ roll history — but it actually made its first appearance today in August, back in 1952. Rhythm and blues singer Ellie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton recorded her chart-topping original version in Los Angeles, produced by famed bandleader Johnny Otis (who also played drums).

You don’t have to be an expert to know that rock music evolved from several styles, including blues/rhythm and blues. The term “rock and roll” was early African American slang for sex, and Cleveland record store owner Leo Mintz employed the phrase to get white teens to buy rhythm and blues music without racial prejudice. Early blues recordings have influenced musicians throughout history, and we’ve highlighted several rock songs that borrowed from the genre past the break. Test your knowledge after the jump, and leave us your favorites in the comments below.

Kai Winding and Irma Thomas and “Time Is on My Side”

Jazz trombonist Kai Winding and his orchestra first recorded the Jerry Ragovoy-penned “Time is on My Side” in 1963, but the only refrain he included was the song’s title and “You’ll come runnin’ back.” It featured backup vocals from powerhouse singers Cissy Houston, Dionne Warwick, and Dee Dee Warwick. Soulful Irma Thomas recorded her version of the song in 1964, with the help of songwriter Jimmy Norman, who elaborated on the lyrics. Thomas’ version is the one most people are familiar with since The Rolling Stones covered it. It became their first top ten hit in the US and an enduring classic.

Kansas Joe McCoy/Memphis Minnie and “When the Levee Breaks,” Otis Rush and “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” and Muddy Waters “You Shook Me”

Husband and wife blues music duo Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie wrote a song in response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which devastated the region and forced many African Americans to relocate to the Midwest. Led Zeppelin covered the track in 1970. Jimmy Page called it “the most subtle thing” on the English rock band’s fourth album, elaborating on the lyrics and musical arrangements. The opening drum riff they added — which was recorded at the bottom of a stairwell — has in turn been sampled by many. Zeppelin has also borrowed from blues musicians Otis Rush and Muddy Waters for “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “You Shook Me” — both songs written by Willie Dixon — which appeared on their debut album.

Erma Franklin and “Piece of My Heart”

Big Brother and the Holding Company — led by singer Janis Joplin — are credited for popularizing “Piece of My Heart” in 1968, but R&B singer Erma Franklin (older sister of Ree Ree) also topped the charts with her version a year earlier. Feminist music journalist Ellen Willis described the difference between the two:

“When Franklin sings it, it is a challenge: no matter what you do to me, I will not let you destroy my ability to be human, to love. Joplin seems rather to be saying, surely if I keep taking this, if I keep setting an example of love and forgiveness, surely he has to understand, change, give me back what I have given.”

Franklin’s single was used in a Levi’s Cinderella-style commercial, which reignited its popularity and prompted a 1992 rerelease.

Blind Willie McTell and “Statesboro Blues”

Most people are familiar with The Allman Brothers’ slide riffs when it comes to the song “Statesboro Blues,” but Piedmont and ragtime blues singer and guitarist Blind Willie McTell demonstrated his own “astonishingly rich” and “dazzling” guitar work on the song in 1928. The Allman Brothers’ sound incorporates blues elements — like many of the bands on our list — so its often mistaken for an original arrangement, but the number hails from the early twelve-string fingerpicker with smooth vocals.

Robert Johnson and “They’re Red Hot”

Your average music lover probably wouldn’t associate the Red Hot Chili Peppers with a 1930’s blues guitarist — who supposedly made a deal with the devil — but the band did borrow from the famed Robert Johnson for a song on Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The album catapulted the band to widespread popularity, and the closing track “They’re Red Hot” was originally recorded by Johnson. It has a ragtime sound, which was unusual for a blues maestro of his time. The 1992 Chili Peppers documentary Funky Monks filmed the band recording their version of the track outside Rick Rubin’s Mansion studio in the wee hours of the morning.

Howlin’ Wolf and “Back Door Man”

Jim Morrison became a “back door man” for The Doors’ self-titled debut album, but the original guy taking a “midnight creep” was booming blues legend Howlin’ Wolf. The original “Back Door Man” refered to a promiscuous fellow making a discreet visit to a married woman through the back door of her home, but later took on pervier connotations when Morrison remade it in the ‘60s.

Muddy Waters and “I Just Want to Make Love to You”

After a 1996 Diet Coke commercial revitalized Etta James’ 1961 song “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” there’s probably no confusion that Foghat’s 1972 guitar fuzz-heavy take on the tune is an original blues song — except James’ recording isn’t original, either. Blues songwriting maestro Willie Dixon wrote the slow and sexy track for Muddy Waters in 1954, topping the Billboard charts.

Little Willie Littlefield and “Kansas City”

There are more than 300 versions of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Kansas City,” which was written by the duo and recorded by Texas blues artist Little Willie Littlefield in 1952. Most people assume Wilbert Harrison’s popular 1959 rock-heavy guitar recording is the one that The Beatles and many other bands have covered over the years, but the ditty is a Littlefield original.