What is the Chicago Blues Style?

Chicago Blues style defined

Muddy Waters At Legends
Muddy Waters helped define the Chicago Blues sound. Paul Natkin / Getty Images

When American became embroiled in World War II, it served to increase the exodus of African-Americans from the Southern states northward to cities like St. Louis, Detroit, and Chicago. Former sharecroppers were moving out of the rural areas of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to find jobs in the growing industrial sector and provide better opportunities for their families.

Along with the many agricultural workers who came to Chicago in search of jobs, there were a number of blues musicians that made the trip as well. Arriving in Chicago, they began mixing with the first generation of immigrants, taking on an urban sophistication in place of their rural roots.

A New Blues Sound

The blues music made by these newcomers took on a new sheen as well, as musicians replaced their acoustic instruments with amplified versions and the basic guitar/harmonica duo of Delta blues and Piedmont blues was expanded into a full band with bass guitar, drums, and sometimes saxophone.

The Chicago blues sounded more full-bodied than its country cousin as well, the music pulling from broader musical possibilities, reaching beyond the standard six-note blues scale to incorporate major scale notes. While the "southside" blues sound was often more raw and raucous, the "west side" Chicago blues sound was characterized by a more fluid, jazz-influenced style of guitar playing and a full-blown horn section.

Classic Chicago Blues Artists

What we consider to be the "classic" Chicago blues sound today developed during the 1940s and '50s. Talents like Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, and Memphis Minnie were among the first generation of Chicago blues artists, and they paved the way (and often lent valuable support) for newcomers like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, and Willie Dixon. During the decade of the 1950s, Chicago blues ruled the R&B charts, and the style has heavily influenced soul, rhythm & blues, and rock music to this day.

Subsequent generations of Chicago blues artists like Buddy Guy, Son Seals, and Lonnie Brooks have incorporated significant influences from rock music, while other contemporary artists like Nick Moss and Carey Bell adhere to an older Chicago blues tradition.

Chicago Blues Record Labels

Several record labels have specialized in the Chicago blues style. Chess Records, founded in 1950 by the brothers Phil and Leonard Chess, was the trailblazer and could boast of artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Willie Dixon on its label. Checker Records, a subsidiary of Chess, released albums by artists like Sonny Boy Williamson and Bo Diddley. Today the Chess and Checkers imprints are owned by Universal Music subsidiary Geffen Records.

Delmark Records was formed by Bob Koester in 1953 as Delmar, and today it stands as the oldest independent record label in the United States. Originally located in St. Louis, Koester moved his operation to Chicago in 1958. Koester is also the owner of the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago.

Delmark specializes in jazz and blues music, and through the years has released essential, groundbreaking albums from artists like Junior Wells, Magic Sam, and Sleepy John Estes. Koester has also served as a mentor to several former employees that formed their own labels, such as Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records and Michael Frank of Earwig Records.

Bruce Iglauer launched Alligator Records in 1971 at the urging of Delmark's Bob Koester to record and release an album by Chicago bluesman Hound Dog Taylor. Since that first album, Alligator has released nearly 300 titles by artists like Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks, Albert Collins, Koko Taylor, and many others. Today Alligator is considered to be the top blues music label, and Iglauer still discovers and supports new talent in the blues and blues-rock genres.

Recommended Albums

Muddy Waters' At Newport 1960 provides a glimpse of the Chicago blues giant in his prime, while Junior Wells' Hoodoo Man Blues offers up the sound and feel of a mid-60s Chicago blues club.