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The 10 Most Influential Blues Musicians Of All Time

Updated on June 10, 2015
(Top row from left to right: Charley Patton, Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, B.B. King, Robert Johnson) (Bottom raw from left to right: Albert King, Son House, Freddie King, Blind Lemon Jefferson, John Lee Hooker)
(Top row from left to right: Charley Patton, Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, B.B. King, Robert Johnson) (Bottom raw from left to right: Albert King, Son House, Freddie King, Blind Lemon Jefferson, John Lee Hooker)

The blues emerged towards the end of the 19th century and remains with us in contemporary American culture, and as a traditional musical form it has been subjected to countless revivals and reinterpretations. Its current practitioners often integrate the sounds and instrumental pyrotechnics of rock music and the sheen of urban soul; but the twelve-bar form, variations on the blues chord progression, and emotive lyrical content remain relatively unchanged. Compiled here are who I believe are the best of the best, and the most influential all throughout the history of blues music.

1- Charley Patton

He is known as the father of the delta blues, and is credited with creating an enduring body of American music and personally inspiring just about every Delta blues man. The aggressive intensity of Patton’s performances is particularly notable, a quality that influenced his successors such as Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett), Son House, and Bukka White. His best-known recording is “Pony Blues” which was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2006.

2- Mamie Smith

She was the first African-American artist to record a vocal blues, the "Crazy Blues" for the OKeh label on August 10, 1920. It sold 10,000 recordings the first week and 75,000 within a month. Her pioneering musical career paved the way for more successful female blues and jazz artists like “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.

3- Bessie Smith

No blues singer can escape the influence of Bessie Smith, "The Empress of the Blues." Her broad phrasing, fine intonation, blue-note inflections, and wide, expressive range made hers the measure of jazz-blues singing in the 1920s. She recorded with important early jazz instrumentalists such as Williams, James P. Johnson, and various members of Fletcher Henderson's band, including Louis Armstrong, Charlie Green, Joe Smith, and Tommy Ladnier.

4- B.B. King

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and is considered one of the most influential blues musicians of all time, earning the nickname "The King of the Blues." Over the years, B.B. has developed one of the world’s most identifiable guitar styles. He borrowed from Blind Lemon Jefferson, T-Bone Walker and delta blues players, integrating his precise and complex vocal-like string bends and his left hand vibrato, both of which have become indispensable components of rock guitarist’s vocabulary. His economy, his every-note-counts phrasing, has been a model for thousands of players, from Eric Clapton and George Harrison to Jeff Beck. B.B. has mixed traditional blues, jazz, swing, mainstream pop and jump into a unique sound.

5- Robert Johnson

Although he recorded just 29 songs, the bluesman had a huge influence on guitarists such as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. Many of his songs became not only blues standards but would be a huge influence on rock music. Johnson is now recognized as a master of the blues, particularly of the Mississippi Delta blues style. He once related the tale of selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for his talent. Johnson tells the story in his song "Crossroads Blues."

6- Albert King

In an era blessed with a wealth of fine blues guitarists, King's tone and individual style rose above the competition. His single-string solo style was unmatched, and he would bend the instrument's strings, or use odd tunings to achieve a truly tortured sound. King’s readily identifiable style made him one of the most important artists in the history of the blues. He was the inventor of the rock guitar sound that still dominates popular music today.

7- Son House

House's 1930s recordings stand as a testament to the raw beauty and emotional intensity of early country blues, and their influence over everyone from Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters to Howlin' Wolf is more than apparent. House's powerful vocals and slashing slide guitar style established him as a giant of the Delta School but did not lead to commercial success. He is regarded as one of the preeminent blues artists, but during his early career in the Delta, his renown was largely confined to local jukehouse audiences. House was rediscovered during the country blues revival of the 1960s, finally achieving the acclaim he had long since deserved.

8- Freddie King

Among the "Three Kings" of electric blues — along with B.B. and Albert — Freddie is probably the least well-known, but he has arguably had the most influence on rock guitarists. King had an intuitive style, often creating guitar parts with vocal nuances. He achieved this by using the open string sound associated with Texas blues and the raw, screaming tones of West Side, Chicago blues. As King combined both the Texas and Chicago sounds, this gave his music a more contemporary outlook than many Chicago bands who were still performing 1950s-style music, and he befriended the younger generation of blues musicians.

9- Blind Lemon Jefferson

He is considered one of the founders of Texas blues and a leading figure in country blues. Jefferson’s high voice, shouting style, and advanced guitar technique, which used melodic lead lines, bent notes, and imitative effects, as well as his lyrics and themes, became staples of the blues through such disciples as Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), who worked with Jefferson for a time. Although his recordings sold well, he was not so influential on some younger blues singers of his generation, who could not imitate him as easily as they could other commercially successful artists. However, later blues and rock and roll musicians were strongly influenced both by his songs and his musical style.

10- John Lee Hooker

He was a true original, a musical colossus whose compelling and mysterious sound towered over the blues and echoed the very soul of African-American experience. He played a role in the development of the blues from the late 1940s through the 1990s. Playing both electric and acoustic guitar, Hooker's distinctive vocal and instrumental style also shaped the development of rock and folk music during the 1960s and 1970s.

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