One of the biggest ‘guitar stars’ of the first generation of blues recording artists was Blind Blake, whose facile, fingerpicked rags and blues set the standard for guitarists who played in the genre later geographically designated as Seaboard blues, East Coast blues, or Piedmont blues. Biographical details on Blake have been hard to come by; he probably moved to Chicago from Florida, but only in 2011 did researchers unearth a death certificate that revealed that he was born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1896. He reportedly played around the Southeastern states, in Ohio, and in Chicago, where he began his recording career with Paramount Records in 1926. At a time when guitar was still a novelty on blues records, still ranked behind the piano, Paramount advertised its new six-string sensation in the Chicago Defender: ‘Early Morning Blues’ is the first record of this new exclusive Paramount artist, Blind Blake. Blake, who hails from Jacksonville, Florida, is known up and down the coast as a wizard at picking his piano-sounding guitar. His ‘talking guitar’ they call it, and when you hear him sing and play you’ll know why Blind Blake is going to be one of the most talked about Blues artists in music. Blake recorded prolifically for Paramount until 1932, often singing alone with his guitar but also in combination with other blues and jazz artists, performing with such dexterity and precision that guitar aficionados have speculated that Blake must have been an experienced ensemble player. Blake’s affiliation with the Wisconsin-based label probably explains how he ended up in Milwaukee, where he died on Dec. 1, 1934. His blindness did not deter him from gambling and carousing, according to Paramount producer J. Mayo Williams. Blake’s name, as he gave it himself on one recording, was Arthur Blake (verified by a number of song credits and copyrights, as well as the Chicago Defender and the death certificate), but it was also thought to be Arthur Phelps, the name under which his entry appears in Blues Who’s Who. Many of Blake’s finest recordings, including ‘Diddie Wa Diddie’ ‘Police Dog Blues’ ‘Southern Rag’ and ‘Rope Stretching Blues’ were collected on the Yazoo album Ragtime Guitar’s Foremost Fingerpicker, and on reissues on Biograph, Document, and other labels.

— Jim O’Neal