TICKETS WILL BE AVAILABLE AT THE CEREMONY ~ MAY 4 | 5:30PM | HALLORAN CENTRE

Making a Mark in Blues History

The Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame honors those who have made the Blues timeless through performance, documentation, and recording. Since its inception in 1980, The Blues Foundation has inducted new members annually into the Blues Hall of Fame for their historical contribution, impact, and overall influence on the Blues. Members are inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in five categories: Performers, Individuals, Classic of Blues Literature, Classic of Blues Recording (Song), and Classic of Blues Recording (Album). Since 1980, The Blues Foundation has inducted over 400 industry professionals, recordings, and literature into the Blues Hall of Fame. Of the 130 performer inductees, 120 of them are African-American.

An anonymous committee of Blues scholars and experts representing all subsets of Blues music convenes each year to review potential Blues Hall of Fame candidates. Recommendations are shared with the committee via The Blues Foundation offices, but we do not accept active campaigns for any potential inductee in order to keep this process fair, devoid of political overtones, and based upon actual contributions rather than individual popularity. Candidates selected for induction are determined exclusively on their body of work over their lifetime. Names of all inductees are released to the public each spring.  The Blues Foundation hosts a special Blues Hall of Fame Induction ceremony, held annually on the evening before The Blues Music Awards, as a ticketed event open to the public.

Search for Inductees

Blues Hall of Fame Museum

Opened on May 8, 2015, the Blues Hall of Fame Museum serves the community as a center for people to enjoy physical exhibits honoring the legends of Blues. Located in downtown Memphis – across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum – the museum holds the history and music of Blues greats for visitors to enjoy year-round.

Visit the Blues Hall of Fame Museum

Join us in Memphis on Wednesday, May 4, as we honor the 2020 and 2022 Blues Hall of Fame Inductees at the Halloran Centre.

Tickets to the BHOF Induction Ceremony are $75 per person. You can purchase your BHOF ticket on May 4, at the Halloran Centre beginning at 5:30pm.

The Blues Foundation’s 2022 Blues Hall of Fame Inductees

Blues Hall of Fame Inductee biographies and descriptions were researched and written by Jim O’Neal (bluesoterica.com) with thanks to Bob Eagle, Bob McGrath, John Broven, Roger Armstrong, Larry Cohn, Malaco Records, and Roger Naber.

Performers

Lucille Bogan recorded some of the most memorable blues songs of the pre-World War II era, including some that were landmarks in blues and some that continue to sensationalize her reputation decades after her death. She was the first African-American singer to record blues at a session outside of New York or Chicago when she sang at sessions for OKeh Records set up in a warehouse in Atlanta in 1923, and several of her records were later covered or adapted by various artists who preceded her into the Blues Hall of Fame. But by far the predominant association now made with Bogan is the lewdness of two unexpurgated songs she recorded in 1935 that were not intended for public release. 

Sexual references were common in blues recording but the proprieties of the day called for them to be disguised in double entendre form. Bogan made a number of those, but presumably, for the entertainment of the recording staff and friends, she used explicit language in “Till the Cows Come Home” and an alternate take of “Shave ’Em Dry” that makes most hardcore rap lyrics seem tame. Though these were “private” recordings, bootleg pressings made their way into circulation and eventually were transferred to legitimate albums in more permissive modern times.

Bogan, however, had already long been a favorite among blues collectors and historians for the depth of her talent and recorded repertoire, and was a significant artist in the blues market of the 1920s and ‘30s. She lacked the name recognition of some of her contemporaries because most of her records were released under the pseudonym, Bessie Jackson.

Some of her songs embodied controversial themes including prostitution, lesbianism, and—since most were recorded during prohibition—drinking. Some veteran researchers doubt that she lived the rough street life she sometimes sang about, but her lyrics did reflect a familiarity with the underside of polite society. Bogan’s 1923-1935 recordings for OKeh, Paramount, Brunswick, Banner, Melotone, and other labels featured various notable accompanists including Will Ezell, Tampa Red, and Walter Roland. Among her influential records that survived via later artists were the first version of “Black Angel Blues” (later recorded by Tampa Red and Robert Nighthawk, and by B.B. King as “Sweet Little Angel”), “Sloppy Drunk Blues” (Leroy Carr, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Jimmy Rogers, and others), and “Tricks Ain’t Walking No More” (Memphis Minnie).  

Railroad references also cropped up in her songs, not surprisingly since her father, brother, and husband all worked for the railroad in Birmingham, Alabama, or Amory, Mississippi. Both towns have been purported as her birthplace (as Lucille or Lucile Anderson on April 1, 1897). Misinformation and speculation on her life is rampant on the internet, where Amory is most often cited. She and other relatives did live in Amory at times, but most census entries indicate Alabama, and Bogan herself gave Birmingham as the site on her Social Security application. She returned to the Birmingham area in between stays in Amory, Chicago, and elsewhere. Her brother Thomas “Big Music” Anderson was a musician, as was her son Nazareth Bogan Jr., whose group Bogan’s Birmingham Busters she reportedly managed. A few months before her death on August 10, 1948, she had moved to Los Angeles and kept a hand in the music business, as a song posthumously crediting her as writer appeared on a record on the L.A.-based Specialty label by bluesman Smokey Hogg. 

The meteoric rise and tragic fall of William Edward “Little Willie” John, who died in prison at the age of 30, is one of the most dramatic chapters in rhythm & blues history. A “singer’s singer” in the words of some (including one of his early inspirations, B.B. King), John was a pioneer of soul music, a rock ‘n’ roll star, and a blues and ballad vocalist extraordinaire who burst on the national scene as a teenager with the hit “All Around the World” in 1955. Born in Cullendale, Arkansas, on November 15, 1937, John grew up in Detroit, singing with his family’s gospel group (including sister Mable John, who also became a blues and soul singer) before he started sneaking out to nightclubs and theaters. He cut his first record, a Christmas single, for the local Prize label, in 1953. “All Around the World” (later recorded by Little Milton as “Grits Ain’t Groceries”) was the first song he waxed for King Records and was followed by 16 more R&B chart hits for the label over the next six years, including “Need Your Love So Bad,” “Talk to Me, Talk to Me,” “Heartbreak,” “Take My Love,” and, most famously, the original version of “Fever.” Ten of his records also crossed over to the pop charts, and John rode the wave of success headlining shows across the country and appearing three times on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

Small (five feet four and 126 pounds, according to his biography by Susan Whitall and John’s son Kevin) and boyish in appearance, John was a sharply attired and exciting showstopper, recalled by fellow singers as mischievous, fun-loving, and generous. But offstage troubles, drinking, and drugs took a toll on his career and lifestyle. An altercation at an after-hours party in Seattle in 1964 led to a manslaughter conviction, and he died on May 26, 1968, at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. The official cause of death was cited as a heart attack, but other sources said John—who suffered from epilepsy—had contracted tuberculosis and some suspected he died from an assault in prison. James Brown, both a friend and rival, later recorded an album, Thinking About Little Willie John and a Few Nice Things, and was one of many who have sung his praises and recorded his songs over the years. John was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. The Susan Whitall-Kevin John biography is aptly titled Fever: Little Willie John—A Fast Life, Mysterious Death and the Birth of Soul.

Johnnie Taylor liked to emphasize that he could sing more than blues, as indeed he amply proved when performing gospel and soul, but among African-American audiences, he reigned as the top headliner of his era at blues events. Famed for his 1976 hit “Disco Lady,” Taylor set sales records for several labels and had more than three dozen hits on the national charts.  

Gospel was Taylor’s forte in his early years, although he first recorded as a member of a doo-wop group, the Five Echoes, in 1954, in Chicago. Born on May 5, 1934, in Crawfordsville, Arkansas, Taylor was raised in West Memphis and Kansas City, where he sang gospel with the Melody Kings before he moved to Chicago. There he sang lead on most of the first songs recorded by the Highway Q-C’s gospel group in 1955-56 for the Vee-Jay label, and similarly took the lead role when he replaced Sam Cooke in the Soul Stirrers on their 1958-59 records for the Specialty imprint. Taylor became an ordained minister but followed Cooke into the secular world of rhythm & blues, cutting a series of records for Cooke’s SAR and Derby labels including “Rome (Wasn’t Built in a Day).” After Cooke’s death in 1964, Taylor, back in Kansas City with an uncertain future as an entertainer, enrolled in college. His career soon took an upturn when he signed with Stax Records in Memphis.  

While he once sounded much like Sam Cooke, Taylor developed a more identifiable style incorporating gospel-influenced blues, soul, and funk during his tenure with Stax from 1966 to 1974. The company touted his 1968 hit “Who’s Makin’ Love” as “the fastest-selling single in the history of Stax Records,” and Taylor kicked his touring activity into high gear displaying a mix of polish and grit while continuing to hit the charts with his Stax recordings. In 1976 Taylor’s chart success peaked with “Disco Lady” on the Columbia label. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) instituted its platinum record category, symbolizing sales of a million units, that year, and the first platinum single award went to “Disco Lady.” By then residing in Dallas, Taylor hosted a local radio show and traveled to studios around the country to record for Columbia, but sales tailed off. He only truly his stride again when he began recording for Malaco Records of Jackson, Mississippi, the flagship of soul-blues labels where he likened the atmosphere to that at Stax. With two heart attacks a drug rehabilitation stint behind him, he recorded and toured as the top star of the “chitlin’ circuit,” purveying a mix of Southern soul and blues. His “Last Two Dollars,” “Still Called the Blues,” and “Wall to Wall” were among the favorites of blues followers. His Good Love album eclipsed Z.Z. Hill’s classic Down Home as Malaco’s best seller. Malaco owners Tommy Couch Sr. and Wolf Stephenson had decided to sign Taylor after hearing him sing at Hill’s funeral in Dallas. He also sang at the funeral of Little Willie John, among others. Taylor was honored with a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1996. 

Taylor, a Malaco artist until the end, succumbed to a heart attack on May 31, 2000, in Dallas. Among his children, he left several who carried on his music, including Floyd Taylor and Johnnie Taylor, Jr., who have both since passed on, T.J. Hooker Taylor in Kansas City, and Jon and Tasha Taylor in Los Angeles. The late Little Johnny Taylor, who recorded the Blues Hall of Fame single “Part Time Love,” was often confused with Johnnie Taylor, but the two were not related. 

Individuals – Business, Production, Media, & Academic

Mary Katherine Aldin began six decades of service to the music world when she worked at the Ash Grove, the legendary Los Angeles folk club, not long after she moved from New York in 1962. The first in a series of radio shows soon followed and she is still broadcasting on KPFK’s “Roots Music & Beyond” following long tenures on “Preaching the Blues” and “Alive and Pickin’,” which earned her entry into the Folk DJ Hall of Fame in 2018. While working at a record store specializing in blues, she began annotating and compiling albums for Rhino Records and has since worked on blues, folk, bluegrass, and country reissues albums for Rhino, Vanguard, MCA/Chess, Columbia, Decca, Mercury, Smithsonian Folkways, Hightone, and other labels. Her notes to The Chess Box by Muddy Waters were nominated for a GRAMMY. Her writings include chapters in Nothing But the Blues and other books, and she once served as associate editor of Living Blues magazine and U.S. editor of the British periodical Blues & Rhythm: The Gospel Truth, in addition to publishing a Blues Magazine Selective Index and contributing photos to various publications and record companies.

For 25 years Aldin worked for Folklore Productions, where her duties included securing publishing rights for the traditional artists the agency represented. A co-founder of the Southern California Blues Society, she served as a festival MC and organized fundraising benefits. Along with the way, Aldin developed friendships not only with Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Big Joe Turner, Pee Wee Crayton, Long Gone Miles, George “Harmonica” Smith, Roy Brown, and others but also with many of their wives and children, who knew they could call on her for help if they needed to arrange or pay for funerals. Many archival materials from her historic body of work are now housed at the University of North Carolina and the University of Mississippi. Always intent on shining the spotlight on the music and performers and not on herself, one of her mottos has been “It’s the work, not the worker.” 

Otis Blackwell was a struggling blues singer in New York City when he struck gold on a different path—writing songs for others to sing, and in particular, Elvis Presley. A fortunate meeting with a music publisher led Blackwell to submit a demo of his song “Don’t Be Cruel,” and Elvis—singing it much like Blackwell—made it into a No. 1 single for RCA Victor in 1956. Many other hits, written wholly or in part by Blackwell, were to follow, including “All Shook Up,” “Paralyzed” and “Return To Sender” for Elvis, “Breathless” and “Great Balls of Fire” for Jerry Lee Lewis, “Hey Little Girl” and “Just Keep It Up” for Dee Clark, and “Handy Man” for Jimmy Jones. Because of a conflicting contract with another publisher, Blackwell also wrote songs under his stepfather John Davenport’s name, most notably the Little Willie John/Peggy Lee hit “Fever.” His catalog at Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI, the music rights organization that collects royalties for songwriters and publishers), numbers over 400 songs and he claimed to have written over 1000. 

Blackwell was born in Brooklyn on February 16, 1932 (although other dates are sometimes cited) and began singing and dancing in local bars in his youth. He recalled that many songs he wrote were based on piano boogies and shuffles he devised. Blackwell began recording for RCA Victor in 1952 and for various labels thereafter. “Daddy Rollin’ Stone” on the Jay-Dee label was the best known of his records but none of them reached the national charts.  

Finding his niche as a songwriter and less enamored with performing, he tended to avoid the limelight–so much so that he never even met Presley or many other singers who recorded his songs. “We had just a great thing going and I just wanted to leave it alone,” Blackwell later said. “I just wanted to keep writing and let him do the singing.” 

Blackwell enjoyed a moment of fame when he sang “Don’t Be Cruel” on Late Night with David Letterman in 1984, and, capitalizing on the interest his songwriting reputation had generated, he began performing again in later years with a repertoire of his compositions made famous by the stars. A Brooklyn resident most of his life, he lived his final years in Nashville, where he died on May 6, 2002. 

Classic of Blues Literature

Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast was hailed as the definitive study of traditional blues from the Southeastern states when it was published in 1986, and it remains so today thanks to the thoroughness of author Bruce Bastin’s research. Bastin, an Englishman who earned a folklore degree at the University of North Carolina and co-founded the prolific Flyright record label in the U.K., covered all the seminal recording artists who emerged from the area as well as many who never recorded and were known only to local audiences. The biographies, data from record companies, census reports, sociological studies of various communities, and contributions of fellow researchers including Pete Lowry and Kip Lornell render this a densely packed volume, one of special interest to fans of Blind Boy Fuller, Reverend Gary Davis, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Blind Willie McTell, Josh White, Blind Blake and others who helped define the acoustic blues sound of the Carolinas, Virginia, Georgia and the surrounding areas.

(University of Illinois Press, 1986) 

Classic of Blues Recording – Album

Bo Diddley was the stage name of Ellas McDaniel and the title of both his debut single and this, his first LP, which compiled 12 sides from the groundbreaking singles on Chess Records’ Checker subsidiary that made him a one-of-a-kind rock ‘n’ roll icon. Along with the “Bo Diddley beat” rockers are blues (including the original version of “I’m a Man”) and brash and boastful novelties from the fertile Diddley mind. Several of the 1955-58 sessions represented on the LP feature Bo with a cast of stellar Chicago bluesmen including Willie Dixon, Jody Williams, and Billy Boy Arnold.

(Chess/Checker, 1958)

Classics of Blues Recording – Singles

Rock fans may recognize “Eyesight to the Blind” as the only song from The Who’s rock opera Tommy that was not written by the band. This paean to a woman who could bring eyesight to the blind and heal the deaf and dumb came from Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2 (aka “Rice” Miller among many other names), who recorded it as an evocative blues piece for the Trumpet label in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1951. It was, in fact, the first record released by the master harmonica player and singer, and one of many to feature his poetic lyrical talents. Accompanying him on the session were guitarists Elmore James and Joe Willie Wilkins, pianist Willie Love, and drummer Joe Dyson. (Trumpet, 1951)

Though famed for soft, romantic blues ballads, Bobby “Blue” Bland could wail hard-hitting blues, too, as he did in 1957 with the Bill Harvey Orchestra on “Farther Up the Road.” Guitarist Pat Hare’s menacing fills and sizzling solo push the intensity even higher. The song was copyrighted by Joe Medwick Veasey and Duke Records owner Don D. Robey as “Further On Up the Road,” which is the way Bland sings it. Joe Medwick, who dropped the Veasey from his stage name, later recorded as a singer for Duke and other labels in Texas. (Duke, 1957)

A contender for the title of first rock ‘n’ roll record—or at least one that paved the way to rock, “Good Rocking Tonight” was a product of Cosimo Matassa’s legendary New Orleans studio where blues shouter Roy Brown and Bob Ogden’s Orchestra recorded in July 1947. DeLuxe Records released it as a single with some success but it was a cover version by Wynonie Harris on the King label that went to No. 1 on the R&B—or, as it was known then, “Race Music”—charts in 1948. Brown was still able to make it part of his trademark jump-blues sound and generated more sales with lively followups such asRockin’ at Midnight.” Elvis Presley’s 1954 Sun version introduced new listeners to the song, which has since been recorded by many blues, R&B, and rock singers. (DeLuxe, 1947)

Many blues have been recorded on the “rock me” theme, but it was B.B. King’s 1964 single that climbed the charts and solidified the song as a standard in the blues canon. King’s other hits featured larger combos or orchestras, but only a trio played on this staunch, straight-ahead blues. It was one of his biggest hits on the Billboard pop charts and made both the R&B and pop charts in the rival trade magazine Cash Box. Kent Records’ documentation of sessions was scanty, with no recording date to be verified, but it was released in 1964 while King was under contract to ABC Records. Sources at Ace Records, the U.K. company that acquired Kent and other labels owned by the Bihari brothers of Los Angeles, have speculated that “Rock Me Baby” and others may have been the products of “midnight sessions” King recorded under the ABC radar. (Kent, c. 1964)

Few records can match the raw exuberance of the Baby Face Leroy Trio’s two-part “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” on Parkway, a small and shortlived Chicago label. Muddy Waters and Little Walter join singer-drummer Leroy Foster on this rambunctious 1950 rendition of an old Hambone Willie Newbern tune. Part 2 has no verses at all—just a mélange of the trio’s moans, hums and yelps. When Leonard Chess heard the record, he had Muddy cut his own two-part version on Aristocrat, the label that preceded Chess Records. Muddy added more verses and delivered the goods but his record not did have the wild abandon of the original. When Little Walter’s fame later rocketed as a solo artist, the Herald label reissued Part 2 of the Parkway single as a Little Walter record, “Rollin’ Blues.” (Parkway, 1950)

2020/2021 Blues Hall of Fame Inductees

PERFORMERS

Billy Branch, once hailed as a leader of “the New Generation of Chicago Blues,” now finds himself a respected elder of the scene, following many of his idols into the Blues Hall of Fame. One of the premier harmonica players in the blues, he is also an avid spokesman for the music and the culture and history it represents, dedicated to passing the legacy on to future generations. 

Branch has carried the torch for the blues with a band called the Sons of Blues (S.O.B.’s), a group that indeed originally featured sons of blues musicians—except, ironically, Billy Branch. Born at the Great Lakes Naval Station hospital north of Chicago on October 3, 1951, Branch grew up in Los Angeles and returned to Chicago to attend the city campus of the University of Illinois. When he attended the city’s 1969 blues festival in Grant Park, his passion for the blues was ignited. Picking up blues licks on his harp and sitting in at blues bars, he approached blues maestro Willie Dixon and was hired for a session. The first public recognition of his talent came in 1975 when he was denied the prize at a legendary harmonica contest staged (and judged by) Little Mack Simmons, who declared himself the winner. The Sons of Blues came together in 1977 as a part of the New Generation of Chicago Blues package assembled for the Berlin Jazz Festival by Living Blues magazine and hosted by Dixon. In Chicago, Branch worked with pianist Jimmy Walker and others and continued to learn by watching Carey Bell, Big Walter Horton, and Junior Wells. He soon replaced Bell to go on tour with Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars while also regrouping the Sons of Blues. In addition to putting the blues world on notice with their spirit and talent, it became part of their mission to attract younger African-American audiences at South Side clubs with their fresh approach to the blues. 

Meanwhile, in 1978 Branch began teaching in the Illinois Arts Council’s Blues in the Schools program, and has since conducted hundreds of blues classes around the country and overseas, instructing students not only about musical technique but about the roots and cultural importance of the blues, just as he had learned from Willie Dixon. Either on his own or with the Sons of Blues or other artists, he has recorded albums for Red Beans, Verve, Blind Pig, Alligator and other labels, continuing to grow as an artist and songwriter, and he is the most in-demand harmonica player for blues sessions in Chicago. A two-time recipient of the Keeping the Blues Alive Award in Education, Branch has shared top billing on three winning Blues Music Awards albums, including Harp Attack!, a 1990 collaboration with James Cotton, Junior Wells and Carey Bell spotlighting Branch as “The New Kid on the Block.”

Bettye LaVette had a hit singing blues as a teenager on her first record, “My Man” on Atlantic in 1962, and though her repertoire has evolved into one of the most eclectic imaginable, blues audiences have embraced the depth and passion of her performances, no matter what she may sing. No one puts more of herself into her songs with such soul-baring drama than Bettye LaVette.  

However LaVette may identify herself as a song interpreter, her life story could certainly be turned into a series of blues songs. Her autobiography, A Woman Like Me, begins with a pimp dangling her over the ledge of a 20-story building, and brazenly recounts her years of struggles, catastrophes, and dashed hopes, pulling no punches about herself or anyone else. Onstage she exudes the same brash boldness. 

Born Betty Jo Haskins in Muskegon, Michigan on January 29, 1946, she was raised briefly in Pontiac and mostly in Detroit in a house where her parents sold corn liquor to a clientele that included R&B and gospel singers. She adopted the name Betty LaVett when she first recorded, later modifying the billing to Bettye LaVette. An introduction to singer, producer, and songwriter Johnnie Mae Matthews led to the hit recording of Matthews’ song “My Man,” but despite cutting many more records over the years, some of them (“Let Me Down Easy” in particular) regarded as soul classics, LaVette never enjoyed another Top Ten record. Some 45s generated chart action, but spurts of success ended in misfortune or in lack of interest or promotion by record labels, and LaVette sometimes had to take other jobs or find local club gigs to support herself. Joining the cast of the Broadway musical Bubbling Brown Sugar kept her going for several years. 

LaVette’s perseverance into the new millennium finally set her on the road to widespread acclaim. Soul and blues aficionados not only sought out her old records but discovered that as a live performer she was even more exciting—even stunning. One such LaVette devotee, Kevin Kiley, brought her not only continuing support, but also wedded bliss. European labels issued a live CD and rescued a Muscle Shoals album that had been kept in the can by Atlantic. A U.S. album on Blues Express netted her a Handy Award from the Blues Foundation in 2004, and she subsequently was voted best female artist in both the contemporary blues and soul blues categories in the Blues Music Awards. Her unique adaptations of songs from country singers, British rock groups, Bob Dylan and other sources on albums for ANTI-, Cherry Red, and Verve earned GRAMMY nominations in the fields of R&B, Americana, and blues. Rosebud Agency bookings, blues and soul festival appearances, performances at the Kennedy Center and the inauguration celebration for President Obama, and television guest spots brought her profile into well-deserved prominence at last.  

Eddie Boyd, a proud, outspoken artist, channeled the injustices and mistreatment he experienced and witnessed into memorable songs that embodied the heartaches and outrage of the blues. During his years singing and playing piano in the Southern United States, Chicago, and Europe, he learned how to entertain audiences with more upbeat blues as well, but his legacy is more widely hailed for the themes of hard times and troubled affairs in his three chart hits, “Five Long Years,” “24 Hours,” and “Third Degree.” 

Born November 25, 1914 on Frank Moore’s plantation near Stovall, Mississippi, Boyd was childhood friends with Muddy Waters. He worked the cottonfields when he had to, but after learning enough piano he began traveling the route of Highway 61 from the Mississippi Delta through Memphis, Arkansas, and Missouri, playing at boarding houses and nightspots, and working with a band in Memphis for a few years. In 1941 he headed for Chicago, where he hooked up with Big Maceo, John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, and others. He made his first records for RCA Victor in 1947, but his classic hit “Five Long Years” came with a much smaller label, J.O.B., in 1952. Two hits followed on Chess Records in 1953, but his relationship with the company was contentious, and he never had another hit despite coming up with more fine material on singles for Chess, Bea & Baby, and other labels.  

Finding a welcoming atmosphere in Europe when touring with the 1965 American Folk Blues Festival, Boyd decided to stay and leave behind his battles with American racism and record business practices. He lived and performed in several countries, finally settling in Helsinki, Finland, where he was a vital force in generating interest in the blues. He recorded over a dozen albums for European labels, and collections of his vintage Chicago sides were also compiled in Europe and Japan; the only albums of his work ever issued in the U.S. were reissues of the foreign releases, including some historic sides with Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac. He visited the U.S. on occasion and although he believed America had improved, he continued to live with his wife in Helsinki, where he died on July 13, 1994.

George “Harmonica” Smith is often rated by hardcore blues fans and musicians in the top tier of harmonicists ever to play the blues—not as widely known as others who have entered the Blues Hall of Fame before him, but in the same league. A master of the traditional 10-hole diatonic blues harp, Smith was also celebrated for his superior skills on the larger chromatic harmonica. Smith played with the Muddy Waters band at different times, recorded with some of the leading names in blues, and mentored a corps of young disciples in California, including William Clarke, Rod Piazza, and Doug Macleod.  

Smith learned harmonica from his mother, Jessie Smith, and began traveling to play with older musicians and on the street, learning pop standards and swing tunes as well as blues. His published biographies offer conflicting details due in part to the fact that none of them reveal his real name, which he gave as Allen George Washington when he applied for a Social Security card in 1939, citing his birthplace as Barton, Phillips County, Arkansas and the date as April 5, 1921 (in various bios he was born in Helena, Arkansas or Cairo, Illinois in 1924). The fact that he recorded under different names, including Little Walter Jr., Harmonica King, and George Allen, and said he also performed as Big Walter, further obscured his identity. He joined the Kansas City musicians’ union as George Washington in 1955, but when his first records came out that year he was Little George Smith—yet he was not a little man either.  

His family lived in the Missouri bootheel and southern Illinois after leaving Arkansas, but his rambles took him back to his parents’ home state of Mississippi, where he sang with a spiritual group in Jackson and played harmonica in Itta Bena and other towns. The first band he joined in Chicago was Otis Rush’s, and his first recording session was with Otis Spann in 1954. His first stint with Muddy Waters ended when he decided to go on his own in 1955. He found work in Kansas City, where he recorded for the RPM label and attracted enough attention for Universal Attractions to book him on an R&B package tour with other artists, including Champion Jack Dupree. Some of his finest recorded work came on a session with Dupree in 1955. He ended up in Los Angeles and recorded more singles under his various stage names, and eventually created a following in a city not previously known for harmonica players. Though he did not lack in originality in either style or songwriting, he was called on to do a set of Little Walter tunes for his first album in 1968, backed primarily by the Muddy Waters band (which he had rejoined in 1966, only to resign so he could take care of his large family at home). Thereafter, his albums, most recorded in L.A., Europe, or Japan, focused on his own music, and the renown of George “Harmonica” Smith continued to grow even without the benefit of hit recordings. He also played on sessions with Lowell Fulson, Sunnyland Slim, Little Johnny Taylor, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Turner, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Witherspoon and others. Despite heart trouble and financial struggles, he never gave up, and recorded his final album in Tempe, Arizona, just a few months before his death on October 2, 1983. 

Syl Johnson parlayed a background steeped in blues and a streetwise sensibility for soul and funk into a hit-making career that turned even more profitable when hip-hop artists began sampling his vintage records. Johnson, who joins his older brother Jimmy in the Blues Hall of Fame, was born into a blues family in rural Benton County, Mississippi on July 1, 1936. Their surname was Thompson, but when Syl recorded under the name Johnson in Chicago in 1959, Jimmy followed suit. Their brothers Mac and Grundy and their father Sam Thompson also played.  

After moving to Chicago, Syl befriended a young Magic Sam, and brother Mac became Sam’s regular bass player. Johnson’s guitar playing came to the attention of fellow 2020 Blues Hall of Fame inductee Eddie Boyd, who hired Syl to play in his band. Johnson also teamed with Billy Boy Arnold and played on recording sessions with him in 1956 and 1957. The Blues Discography also lists him on sessions with Elmore James, Junior Wells, and Harmonica George Robinson, and Johnson recalls playing in a five-guitar lineup with Jimmy Reed in the studio. Johnson secured his own contract with Federal Records in 1959 and waxed several blues and R&B singles for Federal and other labels, finally hitting pay dirt in 1967 with a funky play on a popular catchphrase, “Come On Sock It to Me” on the Twilight label. In keeping with the times, “Different Strokes” and “Dresses Too Short” also hit the R&B charts. In a more serious, socially conscious mode, the classic “Is It Because I’m Black” and “Concrete Reservation” joined his Billboard hit list, which came to encompass 19 singles on Twilight, Twinight, Hi, Boardwalk and his own Shama imprint. The biggest hit was “Take Me to the River,” produced by Hi Records’ Willie Mitchell in Memphis. 

One of the top stars on Chicago’s soul scene during the 1960s and ‘70s, Johnson embraced his blues roots in the ‘80s beginning with the LP Brings Out the Blues in Me—inspired, he says, by the request of Japanese fans. His last hit, “Ms. Fine Brown Frame,” was recorded with James Cotton’s Blues Band, and Buddy Guy’s brother Phil accompanied him on sessions in Chicago and in France, where Johnson cut the LP Suicide Blues. Mixing his soul, blues, and funk, he recorded for blues-oriented labels Delmark and Antone’s and began playing more guitar and harmonica at blues clubs and festivals while also launching a chain of seafood restaurants, which soon took up most of his time but eventually failed. He and Jimmy—whose musical path had likewise taken him from blues to soul and back—recorded together on the 2001 CD Two Johnsons Are Better Than One. 

Meanwhile, many hip-hop stars had been picking up on Johnson’s 1960s work, especially “Different Strokes,” which has been sampled several dozen times. The resulting income—some of it by litigation—allowed Johnson a comfortable lifestyle he never earned through his own record sales and performance fees. A new wave of enthusiasm for Johnson greeted the release of a 2010 box set of his early recordings from the Numero Group, and the Johnson legacy has continued as his daughter Syleena has recorded hits of her own.

A belle of the blues with a head for business and a visceral gift as a songwriter, Victoria Spivey enjoyed a long career that took her from the role of ingenue to that of queen mother. Along the way she was a theater pianist, movie star, comedienne, bandleader, manager, church organist, record label owner, historian, and an inspiration to Bob Dylan and many others.  

Spivey was born on October 15, 1906 (or November 12 in one official document) in Houston, Texas, where her father and brothers had a string band. Two of her sisters, Addie (“Sweet Peas”) and Elton (“The Za Zu Girl”) became blues recording artists, but Victoria’s talent stood out, and the family sent her to St. Louis to pursue a singing career like her lifelong friend from Houston, Sippie Wallace. Spivey hit it big with her first record, the risqué “Black Snake Blues,” in 1926 and wrote many more songs for herself and other artists. “Blues Is My Business” would become her motto, and she started taking care of matters early on by suing her publisher for royalties in 1928. 

“T.B. Blues,” another popular record, was one of her many stark, moaning blues on OKeh, Victor, Vocalion and Decca to employ grim, somber, or deathly themes. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lead Belly, John Lee Hooker and many others recorded her songs. “You Done Lost Your Good Thing Now,” written with her husband, trumpeter Rubin Floyd, was a duet with Lonnie Johnson, later covered by B.B. King. Spivey’s sessions included stellar accompanists Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Tampa Red and many others. She earned lasting fame playing “Missy” in the historic all-black 1929 film Hallelujah! She also led an orchestra and became wife and manager to famous tap dancer Billy Adams. Like her idol Ida Cox, she continued to work theaters and nightclubs during and after the Great Depression, which put many other blues women out of business. 

After living in Moberly, Missouri with her sister Addie and their mother, she moved to Chicago and then New York, buying a home in Brooklyn. In the 1950s she sang at jazz clubs and played in church, but only embarked on a career comeback in the 1960s with the support of jazz and blues buff Len Kunstadt, who became her companion and manager of the label they launched, Spivey Records. In 1961 Spivey also recorded for Prestige Bluesville. With her regal reputation and friendships in the blues world, “Queen Vee” was able to entice many legendary blues figures to record for her label, at the same time nurturing up-and-coming talent, including Bob Dylan, who recorded with her and Big Joe Williams on March 2, 1962. Dylan made no secret of his affection for Spivey, and a photo of the pair adorns the back cover of his New Morning album. The Spivey Records catalog includes music by the Muddy Waters band, Willie Dixon, Otis Spann, Lonnie Johnson, Roosevelt Sykes, Sonny Boy Williamson and many more.  

Spivey remained a coy, charismatic performer, touring Europe with the 1963 American Folk Blues Festival, playing the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival, the Philadelphia Folk Festival and others, gracing various documentaries, and continuing to appear in New York until shortly before her death from a hemorrhage on October 3, 1976. As befitting her professional endeavors, collections of her business and personal papers and memorabilia are archived at Emory University and the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies. 

INDIVIDUALS

BUSINESS, PRODUCTION, MEDIA, or ACADEMIC

Ralph Peer was the foremost champion of roots music in the early days of the American recording industry. In his vision, there were untapped markets beyond the record companies’ targeted audience for classical music and the mainstream popular repertoires of standards, vaudeville, Broadway, and Tin Pan Alley. He recorded music from the plantations, farms, mountains, swamps, backwoods, and city streets, and generated a treasure trove of recordings of blues, country, and other genres from the many American folk traditions. 

Peer has been most widely saluted for his role in country music, when it was known as hillbilly, being the first to record Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Fiddlin’ John Carson, and many more. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1984. But he was recording blues prior to (and during) his ventures into country, and in fact had a hand in the Mamie Smith “Crazy Blues” session of 1920 that is acknowledged as the catalyst for record companies to launch “race music” catalogs of African-American blues, jazz, and gospel music. He is even one of the men credited with introducing the term “race music”—later criticized, but originally symbolizing pride in the black race, according to Peer, who said he took his cue from African-American newspapers that took pride in accomplishments of “the race.” 

With OKeh Records or later with Victor, Peer recorded the Memphis Jug Band, Tommy Johnson, Frank Stokes, Blind Willie McTell, Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, Jim Jackson, Gus Cannon, Memphis Minnie, Alberta Hunter, Sippie Wallace, Victoria Spivey, Sara Martin, blues guitar pioneer Sylvester Weaver and many others, including jazz, gospel, Cajun, and Latin artists. A businessman, not a folklorist, Peer was intent on producing records that would sell, by publishing the songs for profit through his Southern Music firm and, later, Peer International. But in the process of doing so, he created a historical, artistic, and cultural legacy of incalculable importance. 

Peer was instrumental in formulating the various series of blues, hillbilly, and other genres, but he knew the greater monetary potential for pop music, and as time passed he focused more on publishing songs by the likes of Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael, even getting into the rock ‘n’ roll market in the 1950s. His interests also included horticulture, a passion he shared with another Blues Hall of Fame record maker, H.C. Speir. Peer, who was born on May 22, 1892 in Kansas City, Missouri (not Independence as has also been reported), died in Hollywood on January 19, 1960. His career is illuminated in Barry Mazor’s book Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music. 

CLASSIC OF BLUES LITERATURE

French writer, producer, and translator Sebastian Danchin, who played guitar with blues bands in Chicago in the 1970s, was a few years too late to spend time with Earl Hooker, who had died of tuberculosis in 1970. But Danchin was living in musicians’ homes on the South Side, gleaning invaluable insights through the friendships he made. Musicians who knew the colorful Hooker always had stories to tell, whether about his awesome guitar skills, his incessant traveling, or his penchant for pilfering equipment. They provided plenty of material in Danchin’s quest to document the story of a Mississippi-born virtuoso not widely known to the public but hailed as the best by countless fellow musicians, including B.B. King. Earl, a cousin of the more famous John Lee Hooker, was, Danchin writes, the “epitome of the modern itinerant bluesman.” His biography is incisive, first-rate, and to the point, just as Earl Hooker’s artistry was. 

CLASSIC OF BLUES RECORDING – ALBUM

MCA released several outstanding compilations of classic blues and R&B sides from the Chess Records catalog in The Chess Box series. The Howlin’ Wolf box (Chess CH5-9332) is the second in the series to win Blues Hall of Fame recognition, following the selection of the Muddy Waters set. It is also the sixth Hall of Fame compilation by Wolf (Chester Burnett) and in fact is loaded with songs also issued on the previous five, along with some previously unreleased gems. It kicks off with the seminal 1951 recording of “Moanin’ at Midnight” and proceeds chronologically through 1973, with the performances time and again bristling with the raw power and primal force that only Wolf possessed. Released on a five-LP vinyl set or as three cassettes or CDs, the 71 tracks in the box include some insightful and entertaining spoken snippets from Wolf, recalling, among his stories, how angry he once was that he could not escape the nickname Howlin’ Wolf. 

CLASSICS OF BLUES RECORDING: SINGLE

“3 O’Clock Blues” (RPM 339) was B.B. King’s breakthrough record, becoming a No. 1 R&B hit in 1952 after none of his first seven records ever hit the national charts. It was the first record to amply capture the emerging brilliance of both his singing and guitar playing talents, which audiences across the country soon discovered as he embarked on a nonstop touring career. King had been recording for the Bihari brothers’ RPM label at Sam Phillips’ studio in Memphis, but after the Biharis fell out with Phillips, they had to find a new place to record. They set up their portable equipment at the black YMCA in Memphis, and with the valued support of Ike Turner on piano, King turned in a classic reworking of the mournful blues that had already been a hit for Lowell Fulson in 1948.

Willie Brown may be best known in blues lore as a sidekick to the legends of Delta blues — Charley Patton, Son House, and Robert Johnson — but he was regarded as a top-notch guitarist, and could have achieved more fame had he been offered more opportunities to record on his own. “Future Blues,” one of the handful of sides he made as a singer, was recorded at Paramount’s Grafton, Wisconsin studio in the summer of 1930, when Brown traveled to Grafton with Patton and House and accompanied them on a few songs as well. An exemplary Delta blues with some now-familiar verses, “Future Blues” might be called Pattonesque in its rhythm and rough vocal timbre. And just as Patton reworked blues from Ma Rainey and other singers, so did Brown: “Future Blues” opens with verses from Rainey’s “Last Minute Blues,” composed by Thomas A. Dorsey. While not a big seller, the record (originally Paramount 13090) had an extended life when it was re-released on the Champion label, and Paramount also slotted it on its Broadway subsidiary under the pseudonym Billy Harper. 

The best-selling R&B record of 1953, “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (Atlantic 986) racked up over 400,000 sales, according to Billboard magazine. The third of five Ruth Brown No. 1 R&B hits, “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” was the first to cross over into the pop charts. The writers credited for the song, Johnny Wallace and Herb Lance, reportedly told Atlantic producer Herb Abramson that the idea came from a street singer in Atlanta (possibly Blind Willie McTell, who recorded a Blind Lemon Jefferson song, “One Dime Blues,” with the line “Mama, don’t treat your daughter mean”). On December 9, 1952, Abramson tried the song at different tempos to finally arrive at the hit, highlighted by Brown’s squeals amidst her spirited vocal delivery (despite her initial objections to the song) and the insistent rhythm of Mickey Baker’s guitar riffing and Connie Kay’s drumbeat. 

– Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup (RCA Victor, 1946) ” open=”no” class=”” id=””]

– Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (RCA Victor, 1946) ” open=”no” class=”” id=””]

Big Boy Crudup’s “That’s All Right,” an infectious down-home jump often called “That’s All Right Mama,” was a historic record not only for Crudup but for Elvis Presley. Recorded on September 6, 1946 in Chicago and released as a 78 rpm single in 1947 (RCA Victor 20-2205), the track became one of the first blues 7-inch singles when RCA Victor introduced the 45rpm record in 1949 (release number 50-0000). Elvis then covered it on his first record for Sun in 1954. Not so coincidentally, the executive who soon signed Elvis to RCA, Steve Sholes, had also produced Crudup’s Chicago session. 

The oft-recorded Richard M. Jones composition “Trouble In Mind” was first waxed in 1924 by Thelma La Vizzo, but it was Bertha “Chippie” Hill who made the classic version in Chicago on February 23, 1926 (OKeh 8312) that paved the way for many to follow with their own renditions. Accompanied by Jones on piano and Louis Armstrong, who plays the introductory stanza on cornet, Hill sings three verses of misery and despair. But the first verse, repeated again at the end, is one of the enduring anthems of the blues as hope for the future even in the darkest of times: “Trouble in mind, I’m blue, but I won’t be always, the sun gonna shine in my back door some day.”

We invite you to listen to The Blues Foundation Podcast!

Season 1: Blues Hall of Fame centers on a different Blues Hall of Famer, and explores a specific moment in their life.

Produced by Beale Street Caravan. Written by Preston Lauterbach. Voiced by Guy Davis.

LISTEN NOW

Blues Hall of Famers Speak the Blues

Bobby Rush

Elvin Bishop

Become a Member

Becoming a member of The Blues Foundation gives you an opportunity to be personally connected to a blues community where you will experience a vast amount of resources, information, news, views, insight, and activities not available anywhere else. You will become part of this fantastic Blues family which shares your love of the Blues, past, present and future.

LEARN MORE ABOUT MEMBER BENEFITS

Photos by Roger Stephenson

Our Sponsors and Partnerships