The 15 Best Blues Artists of All Time
Blues is an incredibly significant and wide-spanning genre and form of music. It deeply influenced many other styles of modern music.
The history of the blues is a painful one that started out as a form of folk music among African-American communities in the deep south of the USA. The blues brought a sense of community and togetherness over shared trauma. From the oppression and abuse came a whole new style of music that shaped modern music as it is today.
Over time, as people migrated, they took the blues with them to different states. Today, blues can mean different things to different musicians and listeners. Blues has evolved into many new genres such as electric blues, rock and roll, soul, rhythm and blues, country, and even pop.
Of course, it’s impossible to write a definitive list of the absolute best blues artists of all time. That said, all of the artists on this list are certainly among the best!
Let us take a look at some of the greatest blues artists of all time and their impact on music:
1. Robert Johnson
A proponent of Delta Blues, many of Robert Johnson’s songs are considered blues standards. From Keith Richards to Eric Clapton, his music inspired many guitar players. Although very little is known about his early life, it is widely believed that he was born in Mississippi and worked as a traveling musician during his lifetime.
Unfortunately, Johnson experienced very little fame and success during his lifetime and it was only after his death that the world took notice of his prowess as a guitar player, singer, and songwriter.
In the 1960s, there was a renewed interest in his life and work that led to the release of landmark records such as ‘King of the Delta Blues Singers’, ‘King of the Delta Blues Singers, Volume II’, and ‘The Complete Recordings’ in 1990.
2. Muddy Waters
The ‘father of modern Chicago Blues’, Muddy Waters released his first record in 1946 with Columbia Records. Many consider Muddy Waters as the founder of genres such as rock and roll and rock. He influenced the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, etc, who have often referenced his music in their songs.
Also born in Mississippi, Muddy Waters was first introduced to music at his church where he would sing. With being able to play the guitar and harmonica at age 17, he achieved commercial success in the 1950s and 60s, even performing at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960.
He was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and four of his songs feature on their ‘500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll’ list.
3. Ma Rainey
By effortlessly blending vaudeville theater with blues performance, Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainy was truly a pioneer. Her signature deep voice made her an idol for Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, and even Bessie Smith, the next musician on this list.
What makes Ma Rainey so special is her unapologetic celebration of female sexuality, giving her the title of ‘Mother of the Blues’ and ‘Songbird of the South’. Ma Rainey recorded music and toured extensively with Louis Armstrong, Thomas Dorsey, and Tampa Red before retiring in 1935.
She was inducted into the Rock and Roll, and Grammy Hall Of Fame. The 1982 play by August Wilson called ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ was also turned into a film adaptation in 2020.
4. Bessie Smith
The ‘Empress of Blues’, Bessie Smith was born in Tennessee in 1894. Before going on her solo venture, she toured with Ma Rainey in 1912. Her career was tragically cut short after she succumbed to injuries in a car crash at age 43. But Bessie Smith remains one of the most influential blues musicians of all time.
Her music was a commentary on the lives of the African-American working class and the themes often included uncomfortable topics such as poverty, racial discrimination, and female sexuality. The songs ‘Poor Man’s Blues’ and ‘Washwoman’s Blues’ are often regarded as the foundation of African-American protest music.
What makes Bessie Smith an important musician in the history of the Blues is that her public behavior and conduct along with her musical themes made her unpopular among the elite of the time but listening to her body of work now, one can’t help but recognize the brilliance and feeling of empowerment most of us aspire to have.
One of the most important guitar players of all time, B.B. King started his career playing in juke joints in Mississippi before moving to Chicago. He went on to tour across the country and would lay down the foundation for genres such as rock and roll.
In February 1952 his song ‘3 O Clock Blues’ charted number one on Billboard’s ‘Rhythm and Blues’ list. He would follow this up with many historically significant songs such as ‘Every Day I Have The Blues’, ‘Sweet Little Angel’, ‘You Know I Love You’, etc.
Over the next few decades, King performed and recorded music extensively and his guitar, “Lucille”, a Gibson ES-355 became his signature sound. King is an inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, and the Blues Hall of Fame.
6. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Combining the spirituality of gospel music with electric guitar, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the first one to use distortion on the guitar, which eventually led to the development of electric blues. She successfully blurred the line between sacred gospel music of the church with secular performances at venues such as nightclubs and concert halls.
Musicians such as Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Chuck Berry were greatly influenced by her and incorporated her guitar and songwriting techniques into their craft.
As with many musicians of the early period of electric blues, not a lot about her work and life was documented. In the 2000s there was a renewed interest in her work and this led to her being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an Early Influence.
7. Albert King
Ranked number 13 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of ‘100 greatest guitarists of all time’, Albert King’s record ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ is considered a rite of passage by blues musicians today and the title track has since been covered by numerous artists.
King led an eventful life. He made his first guitar out of a cigar box before he was able to buy a real one. He worked in construction, drove a bulldozer, picked cotton, and had many jobs before he was able to support himself as a musician.
During his career, he worked with musicians such as Ike Turner, Booker T & The MGs, BB King, Rory Gallagher, and the Doors. He released 15 studio albums including a rework of songs by Elvis Presley titled ‘Blues For Elvis – King Does King’s Things’.
8. Etta James
Discovered at the tender age of 14 by Johnny Otis, Etta James accompanied by the Peaches toured with Little Richard in 1955. Her solo debut album ‘At Last!’ was an amalgamation of blues, jazz, doo-wop, and rhythm and blues.
Although this record charted on the Billboard Hot 100, it wasn’t overly successful commercially. However, it cemented James’ role in the history of blues music and introduced the world to her vocal prowess.
Her song ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ is considered a blues classic and singers such as Christina Aguilera, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, and even The Rolling Stones have been deeply influenced by her.
9. Buddy Guy
Buddy Guy inspired generations of musicians including Jimmi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Keith Richards.
Originally from Louisiana, he moved to Chicago where he would meet and eventually work with Muddy Waters. Apart from Waters, he also played sessions for Koko Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, etc.
He continues to headline Blues and Jazz festivals across the world and was also featured on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the ‘100 Greatest Guitar Players of All Time’.
10. Jimi Hendrix
Armed with his Fender Stratocaster, Jimi Hendrix revolutionized not just the Blues but also electric guitar playing in his tragically short career.
After serving in the army, Hendrix became a part of Little Richard’s touring band and recorded the single ‘I Don’t Know What You Got (But It’s Got Me)’ with him. Interestingly, he became popular in the UK before making it in the USA with his songs ‘Wind Cries Mary’ and ‘Hey Joe’.
Although Hendrix was able to record and release only 3 studio albums, his guitar technique and use of overdrive are still used by almost all modern guitar players. Jimi Hendrix is an important figure in the history of the blues because he seamlessly added the melancholy and soul of the genre with the angst of rock and roll music.
11. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Growing up listening to artists such as Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, and Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan became a prominent figure in Blues in the 70s and 80s. Although he recorded multiple albums including ‘Texas Flood’, ‘In Step’ and ‘Family Style’, he is also known for collaborating with many of his contemporaries.
Pearl Jam’s Mickey McCready and John Mayer consider him an influence and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2000 posthumously.
Although his life was tragically cut short because of a helicopter crash, his legacy as a blues guitar player lives on even today.
12. Janis Joplin
One of the greatest artists and performers the world has seen, Janis Joplin recorded two albums with her band Big Brother and the Holding Company before going on her way.
She was a part of the original Woodstock 1969 and on the Festival Express train tour which included acts such as The Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy, The Band, etc.
She had a lasting impact on artists such as Pink who said that the reason why she was so inspiring is that she sang the blues “when it wasn’t culturally acceptable for white women, and she wore her heart on her sleeve.”
13. Ray Charles
Ray Charles is considered one of the founders of Soul music by blending blues, jazz, gospel, and rhythm and blues to create a unique new sound.
Released in 1960, his first national hit was the single ‘Georgia On My Mind’, which won him multiple Grammy awards. By 1961 Charles transitioned from a trio setup to a big band and became one of the first African American artists to crossover to mainstream pop music without losing creative control over his music.
He collaborated with many musicians such as Quincy Jones in his career and his last record, ‘Genius Loves Company’ featured Gladys Knight, Bonnie Raitt, B.B. King, Van Morrison, Elton John, and even Willie Nelson.
In 2004, his biopic ‘Ray’ not only won numerous accolades but also introduced a younger generation to his life and music.
14. Rory Gallagher
When we think of Blues music, American artists have a sort of monopoly over the genre since the USA was the birthplace but a list of Blues musicians would be incomplete without the mention of Rory Gallagher who introduced the world to Irish blues.
He started the band ‘Taste’ in the 1960s before releasing his self-titled debut solo album in 1971. Gallagher released a total of 10 albums in the 70s and along with Van Morrison and Thin Lizzy, became some of the biggest names in Irish music history.
Queen’s Brian May and Eric Clapton were greatly influenced by his music, which include songs such as ‘Moonchild’, ‘Bullfrog Blues’, and ‘A Million Miles Away’.
15. Mamie Smith
The first African American artist to make a recording of vocal blues music was Mamie Smith in 1920. The commercial success of songs such as ‘You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down’ and ‘That Thing Called Love’ led to record companies looking for other female blues singers and this brought in the age we now call “classic female blues”.
Known as the ‘Queen of the Blues’, Smith was a singer, pianist, and dancer who performed in various styles such as jazz, blues, and even vaudeville. She appeared in ‘Jailhouse Blues’ a sound film in 1929 and motion pictures such as ‘Stolen Paradise’ and ‘Sunday Sinners’ in the 1940s.
Although there has been very little documentation of her life, without her contribution to music we would not have so many female voices in not just the blues but music in general. She was a trailblazer and remains one of the greatest blues artists of all time.
The Blues is an incredibly significant genre of music. Without it, we would not have most of the modern music we enjoy listening to today. Over the decades we have seen it bring so many communities across the world together.
Who is your favorite blues artist? If they are not on this list, I hope you will be able to discover some new music today. So happy listening!