10 Early Artists Who Defined the Blues

They influenced other bluesmen plus Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix

Over the decades many artists have helped to define the musical genre known as the blues. Each contributed to the music, through their instrumental skills—usually on the guitar—or vocal talents. Their early recordings and performances influenced the cultural impact of the blues and the generations of artists who followed. Whether you're a fan of the blues or a newcomer to the music and want to know more, here are 10 blues artists you should know:

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Bessie Smith (1894-1937)

Bessie Smith, 1930
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Known as "The Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith was the best and most famous female singer of the 1920s. A strong, independent woman and a powerful vocalist who could sing in both jazz and blues styles, Smith was the most commercially successful of the era's singers. Her records sold tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of copies, an unheard of level for those days. Sadly, the public's interest in blues and jazz singers waned during the early 1930s and Smith was dropped by her label.​

Rediscovered by Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond, Smith recorded with bandleader Benny Goodman before dying in a car accident in 1937. Smith's best material can be heard on "The Essential Bessie Smith."

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Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958)

Bill Broonzy Playing the Guitar
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Perhaps more than any other artist, Big Bill Broonzy brought the blues to Chicago and helped define the city's sound. Born on the banks of the Mississippi River, Broonzy moved with his parents to Chicago in 1920, picked up the guitar, and learned to play from older bluesmen. Broonzy began recording in the mid-1920s, and by the early 1930s he was a commanding figure on the Chicago blues scene, alongside talents including Tampa Red and John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson.

Capable of playing in the older vaudeville style (ragtime and hokum) and the newly developing Chicago style, Broonzy was a smooth vocalist, accomplished guitarist, and prolific songwriter. The best of Broonzy's early work can be found on "The Young Big Bill Broonzy," but you can't go wrong with just about any collection of his music.

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Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897-1929)

Photo of Blind Lemon Jefferson
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Arguably the founding father of Texas blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the most commercially successful artists of the 1920s and a major influence on younger players including Lightnin' Hopkins and T-Bone Walker. Born blind, Jefferson taught himself to play the guitar and was a familiar figure busking on the streets of Dallas, earning enough to support a wife and child. 

Although Jefferson's recording career was brief (1926-29), he recorded more than 100 songs, including such classics as "Matchbox Blues," "Black Snake Moan," and "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean." Jefferson remains a favorite among musicians who appreciate the artist's simple country blues. His songs have been recorded by Bob Dylan, Peter Case, and John Hammond Jr. Jefferson's crucial early work has been collected on "King of the Country Blues."

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Charley Patton (1887-1934)

Charley Patton
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The biggest star in the 1920s Delta firmament, Charley Patton was the region's E-ticket attraction. A charismatic performer with a flashy style, talented fretwork, and flamboyant showmanship, he inspired a legion of bluesmen and rockers, from Son House and Robert Johnson to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Patton lived a high-flying lifestyle full of liquor and women, and his performances at house parties, juke joints, and plantation dances became the stuff of legend. His loud voice, coupled with a rhythmic, percussive guitar style, was groundbreaking and designed to entertain a raucous audience.

Patton began recording late in his career but made up for lost time by laying down 60 songs in less than five years, including his best-selling first single, "Pony Blues." Although many of Patton's earliest recordings are only represented by inferior-quality 78s, "Founder of the Delta Blues" offers a solid collection of two dozen tracks with varying sound quality.

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Leadbelly (1888-1949)

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Born Huddie Ledbetter in Louisiana, Leadbelly's music and tumultuous life had a profound effect on blues and folk musicians alike. Like most performers of his era, Leadbelly's musical repertoire extended beyond the blues to incorporate ragtime, country, folk, pop standards, and gospel.

Leadbelly's temper often landed him in trouble, however, and after killing a man in Texas, he was sentenced to the notorious state prison in Huntsville. A few years after he gained an early release, he was convicted on an assault charge and sentenced to a term in Louisiana's Angola Penitentiary. While in Angola Leadbelly met and recorded for Library of Congress musicologists John and Alan Lomax.

After his release, Leadbelly continued to perform and record and eventually moved to New York City, where he found favor on the city's folk scene spearheaded by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. After his death in 1949, Leadbelly songs including "Midnight Special," "Goodnight, Irene," and "The Rock Island Line" became hits for artists as diverse as the Weavers, Frank SinatraJohnny Cash and Ernest Tubb. The best bet for the new listener is "Midnight Special," which includes several of Leadbelly's best-known songs and incredible performances captured in 1934 by the Lomaxes.

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Lonnie Johnson (1899-1970)

Lonnie Johnson playing in Chicago, 1941
Russell Lee/Wikimedia Commons

In an early blues field that boasted a number of innovative guitarists, Lonnie Johnson was without peer. With a sense of melody unmatched by pre-war players, Johnson was equally capable of knocking out dirty blues and fluid jazz phrasings, and he invented the practice of combining rhythmic passages and solo leads within a single song. Johnson grew up in New Orleans, and his talent was infused with the city's rich musical heritage, but after the flu epidemic of 1918 he moved to St. Louis.

Signing with Okeh Records in 1925, Johnson recorded an estimated 130 songs over seven years, including several groundbreaking duets with Blind Willie Dunn (actually white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang). During this period, Johnson also recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and Louis Armstrong's Hot Five. After the Depression, Johnson landed in Chicago, recording for Bluebird Records and King Records. Although he scored few chart hits on his own, Johnson's songs and playing style influenced blues legend Robert Johnson (no relation) and jazz great Charlie Christian, and Johnson's songs were recorded by Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. "Steppin' on the Blues" includes several of Johnson's best recordings from the 1920s.

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Robert Johnson (1911-1938)

Robert Johnson
Riverside Blues Society

Thanks to the reretelling of the story over the decades, many fans know the tale of Robert Johnson allegedly making a deal with the devil at the crossroads outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, to acquire his incredible talents. Although we'll never know the truth of the matter, one fact remains: Johnson is the cornerstone artist of the blues.

As a songwriter, Johnson brought brilliant imagery and emotion to his lyrics, and many of his songs, including "Love in Vain" and "Sweet Home Chicago," have become blues standards. But Johnson was also a powerful singer and a skilled guitarist; throw in his early death and the aura of mystery that surrounds his life and you have a bluesman ready-made to appeal to a generation of blues-influenced rockers including the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Johnson's best work can be heard on "King of the Delta Blues Singers," the 1961 album that influenced the decade's entire blues revival.

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Son House (1902-1988)

Son House
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The great Son House was a six-string innovator, haunting vocalist, and powerful performer who set the Delta on fire during the 1920s and '30s with scorched-earth performances and timeless recordings. He was a friend and colleague of Charley Patton, and the two often traveled together. Patton introduced House to his contacts at Paramount Records.

House's few Paramount label 78s remain among the most highly collectible early blues recordings. They caught the ear of Library of Congress musicologist Alan Lomax, who traveled to Mississippi in 1941 to record House and friends.

House had virtually disappeared by 1943 but was rediscovered by a trio of blues researchers in 1964 in Rochester, New York. Re-taught his signature guitar licks by fan and future Canned Heat founder Al Wilson, House became part of the decade's folk-blues revival, performing live into the early 1970s and even returning to recording. Although many of House's early recordings remain lost or difficult to find, "Heroes of the Blues: The Very Best of Son House" includes a diverse selection of material from the 1930s, '40s, and '60s.

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Tampa Red (1904-1981)

Tampa Red's Don't Tampa with the Blues

Known during the 1920s and '30s as "The Guitar Wizard," Tampa Red developed a unique slide-guitar style that was picked up and expanded upon by Robert Nighthawk, Chuck Berry, and Duane Allman. Born in Smithville, Georgia, as Hudson Whitaker, he earned the nickname "Tampa Red" for his bright red hair and upbringing in Florida. He moved to Chicago in the mid-1920s and teamed with pianist "Georgia" Tom Dorsey to form "The Hokum Boys," scoring a big hit with the song "It's Tight Like That," popularizing the bawdy blues style known as "hokum."

When Dorsey turned to gospel music in 1930, Red continued as a solo artist, performed with Big Bill Broonzy and helped recent Delta immigrants to Chicago with food, shelter, and bookings. Like many pre-war blues artists, Tampa Red found his career eclipsed by younger performers in the 1950s. "The Guitar Wizard" collects the best of Red's early hokum and blues sides, including "It's Tight Like That" and "Turpentine Blues."

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Tommy Johnson (1896-1956)

Tommy Johnson
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Some say it was the underrated Tommy Johnson who met with the devil at the crossroads one dark and stormy night, hoping to strike a deal. Regardless of the myth's origins, Robert Johnson must have been the better negotiator of the two (unrelated) musicians because Tommy Johnson has become a mere footnote in the blues genre, beloved by hardcore fans but relatively unknown (even after a character based on Johnson appeared in the hit movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?").

With a primal voice that could rise from a guttural howl to an ethereal falsetto throughout the course of a song, Johnson possessed a complex and technically advanced guitar-playing style that influenced a generation of Mississippi bluesmen, including Howlin' Wolf and Robert Nighthawk. Johnson recorded briefly, from 1928-1930, and "Complete Recorded Works" includes the artist's entire groundbreaking oeuvre. Johnson suffered from acute alcoholism his entire adult life and died in obscurity in 1956.