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.

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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.

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Photos from the 2023 Blues Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

May 10, 2023 at the Halloran Centre in Memphis, TN

The Blues Foundation’s 2023 Blues Hall of Fame Inductees

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


Esther Phillips, began her career as an astounding 13-year-old prodigy, singing very adult, saucy blues with the legendary Johnny Otis revue in Los Angeles. Hers was a life filled with both triumphs and tragedy, cut short by the effects of heroin addiction, but less than a year before her death famed critic Leonard Feather hailed her as “the indisputable queen of the blues” in a nightclub review. A superlative singer who could deliver blues, R&B, soul, jazz, pop, and even country songs with candor and conviction, Phillips was a devotee of an earlier blues queen, Dinah Washington and often sang in the same vein while developing her own personal approach. He could play many instruments and might take a turn at the piano onstage but on recordings she focused only on her vocals.

Esther Mae Jones was her legal name when she started singing, but her birth surname was Washington, as registered in Galveston, Texas, on December 23, 1935. In a restart in later years she chose Phillips, inspired by a Phillips 66 sign. But to the blues/R&B world she was simply Little Esther in her teenage era. Raised in Houston and Los Angeles, she sang in church but wrapped herself in the blues early on. Accounts vary as to how she and Johnny Otis met, but the key event was a talent contest at the Barrelhouse Club which Otis co-owned in Watts. Under his auspices she made her first record for the Modern label on August 31, 1949, and soon she was recording hits with Otis on the Savoy imprint, including three consecutive No 1 R&B hits in 1950: “Double Crossing Blues,” “Mistrustin’ Blues,” and “Cupid’s Boogie.” Subsequent sessions for Federal and other labels produced some top-notch singles but sales fell off. Little Esther traveled with Otis and band (and initially with her mother, sister and a tutor) and showed impressive poise at the start, according to Otis’ producer Ralph Bass. While life on the road was exciting, it also deprived her of a normal adolescence. She turned to drugs and would go through periods of recuperation, relapse, and rehabilitation for the rest of her life.

In 1962 Ray Charles’ monumental success with Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music motivated Lenox Records to employ Esther’s vocal expertise in a country setting. The result was one of her biggest hits, “Release Me.” The Lenox connection resulted in a contract with Atlantic Records and a few more hits including a Beatles cover, “And I Love Him,” which led to a BBC-TV appearance co-starring with the Fab Four. Jazz-inflected blues fueled the fine Atlantic albums Burnin’ and Confessin’ the Blues.

Extensive studio crews of top musicians in jazz, funk and soul backed Phillips during the ‘70s on albums for the Kudu label (seven of which made the soul charts in Billboard), followed by releases on Mercury. Her Kudu update of Dinah Washington’s What a Diff’rence a Day Makes was her last big hit, but more striking was her emotionally charged rendition of Gil Scott-Heron’s heroin addiction masterpiece “Home is Where the Hatred Is.” The Kudu LP From a Whisper to a Scream earned her a Grammy nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance of 1972. She lost, but the winner, Aretha Franklin, felt that Phillips deserved it and delivered the Grammy to her. Franklin said, “I gave her my Grammy because Esther was fighting personal demons, and I felt she could use encouragement. As a blues singer, she had her own thing; I wanted Esther to know that I – and the industry – supported her.”
Phillips’ final album for Muse Records was posthumously titled A Way to Say Goodbye. The toll of drug and alcohol use alcohol abuse on her body led to her demise at a hospital in Torrance, California, on August 7, 1984. She was married to agent-producer Clyde B. Atkins, former husband of another of Phillips’ idols, Sarah Vaughan, in 1979 but had filed for divorce. Johnny Otis, with whom she had periodically reunited for guest appearances, preached her funeral and helped raise funds for a headstone. The Los Angeles music community has held several celebrations in her memory.

John Primer, earned his pedigree in blues playing with Blues Hall of Famers Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Magic Slim. Still dedicated to the fundamentals he picked up as a sideman and apprentice, Primer now delivers consistently top-notch, no-nonsense blues on his steady slate of shows and recordings. He has been a perennial nominee and frequent victor in the Traditional Blues categories of the Blues Music Awards, Living Blues Awards and other honors programs.

Primer’s life story reads like those of many blues greats who preceded him – born in Mississippi, raised in poverty, working the fields as a youngster, moving to Chicago for a factory job, cutting is teeth playing blues for tips at the Maxwell Steet outdoor market, making his way up through the club circuit, learning from the veterans, and maturing into an internationally heralded artist. The saga began in Camden, Mississippi, where Primer was born into a sharecropping family on March 5, 1945. Music provided a relief from daily hardships as he sang in church, played a homemade one-string guitar, and listened to his grandmother’s blues records. In 1963 he came to Chicago and was soon playing with local groups, eventually landing gigs in the house band at the fabled Theresa’s Lounge where he was mentored by guitar wizard Sammy Lawhorn while backing an all-star parade of guests, and at the Checkerboard, Buddy Guy’s home base.

In 1979 Willie Dixon invited Primer to join his Chicago Blues All Stars, which gave Prime his first opportunities to tour outside the U.S. When Muddy Waters needed a new band in 1980, Primer found himself playing with one of his lifelong idols until Muddy’s death I 1983. Then began a 13-year stint with Magic Slim & the Teardrops, marked by constant touring and frequent recording, live and in the studio, with Primer regularly featured on a few vocals. Primer left to focus on his own career and began compiling an impressive resume of tours and albums, beginning with the first of several CDs for an Austrian label, Wolf Records, and continuing with Earwig, Code Blue (Atlantic), Telarc and others, including the label he and his wife Lisa own, Blues House Productions. He has been even more prolific in the studio as a first-call sideman in Chicago, recording with James Cotton, Jimmy Rogers, John Brim, Eddie Shaw and many more, along with live recordings with Muddy, Big Mama Thornton and others.

His latest CD project, released in February 2023, is a tribute to Magic Slim. His aptly named Real Deal band features Steve Bell, son of Carey Bell, on harmonica.  John Primer remains committed to honoring past heroes while creating his own music and passing the blues torch on to younger generations.

Carey Bell, Harrington took his place in the lineage of Chicago blues harp masters in the 1970s, exuberantly following in the footsteps of his mentors Big Walter Horton and Little Walter Jacobs.  In addition to recording noteworthy albums of his own, he became Chicago’s go-to harmonica player for blues sessions, valued for his creative solo flights and the ease with which he adapted to any song put before him. Bell made is first studio recordings backing guitar virtuoso Earl Hooker in November 1968 and over the next three decades he played on more than 100 different sessions, either as the featured artist or backing Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Louisiana Red, Jimmy Rogers, Eddy Clearwater and many others. He duetted on some with Big Walter Horton and other harp masters and joined James Cotton, Junior Wells and Billy Branch for a historic Harp Attack! album on Alligator. His good-natured, often playful live performances could generate even more excitement when he had the chance to extend his melodic explorations on both on the 10-hole diatonic harmonica and the larger chromatic instrument.

Born Cary (sic) Harrington in Macon, Mississippi, on November 14, 1936, he began playing harmonica as a child and by the time he was in his teens he had come under the wing of veteran pianist Lovie Lee in the nearby city of Meridian. Lee took a young band including his “adopted stepson” Bell to Chicago in the mid-1950s and over the years they wove their talents into the Windy City blues fabric while holding down other jobs to make a living. Guitarist Honeyboy Edwards also guided the young Bell, playing with him and introducing him to both Little Walter and Big Walter. Edwards also showed Bell some runs on the bass, an instrument Bell learned to play with expertise. Bell also worked with Johnny Young, Eddie Taylor, ad others and was recorded in a street performance with Robert Nighthawk at the Maxwell Street market in 1964. Earl Hooker hired Bell for a tour to play bass, and then harmonica when he learned how well Bell could play. After his recording session with Hooker for Arhoolie, Bell played on a Sleepy John Estes session for Delmark and waxed his own Delmark debut LP, Carey Bell’s Blues Harp, in 1969.

His career immediately shifted into high gear with regular club gigs, festivals and tours, including several junkets to Europe. Muddy Waters brought Bell into his band, as did Howlin’ Wolf briefly, followed by a stint with Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars, in between his own gigs and sessions. Albums of his work, some co-billed with his son Lurrie Bell, a phenom himself, appeared on ABC BluesWay, Alligator, Blind Pig, Wolf, Rooster Blues, L+R, Blues South West, JSP and other labels in the U.S. and several other countries. His Alligator CD Good Luck Man won a W.C. Handy Award in 1998, the same year he was elected Traditional Male Blues Artist of the Year, following several previous nominations.

Among his other accomplishments he sired a brood of blues-playing sons including Lurrie, Steve (now playing harp in classic Carey Bell style in John Primer’s band), Tyson and James. He had moved to North Carolina and lived with Willie Dixon’s daughter Patricia before entering a Chicago hospital where he died of pneumonia and renal failure on May 6, 2007. A diabetic, Bell had suffered a stroke in 2006 but the joy of making music never left him and he recorded tracks for his final CD onstage in a wheelchair.

Junior Kimbrough, after years of holding forth in the juke joints and house parties of the Mississippi hills, Junior Kimbrough became a nationally renowned blues icon known both for his unique idiosyncratic style and for his role as potentate at his own juke, Junior’s Place, where visitors from far and wide mingled with the party crowd of Marshall County. Kimbrough called his music cotton patch blues or cotton patch soul blues, a custom maintained by his family of musicians, and like other Hill Country blues variants, its foundation lay in a raw, insistent groove. The Kimbrough style—not as hotly energized as the rocking rhythms of his friend R.L. Burnside or an early influence, Mississippi Fred McDowell — employed a droning, hypnotic roll that won him followings among both blues fans and devotees of trance and alternative rock.

David Kimbrough Jr. was born in Hudsonville, Mississippi, on July 28, 1930, He grew up in a musical family which included his father (his most formative influence) and several siblings and sang in a gospel group before assembling his own blues band.

Rockabilly legend Charlie Feathers, a longtime friend from Hudsonville, helped Kimbrough secure his first record release, a single on the Philwood label in Memphis in 1966. Another Memphis session for Goldwax was shelved until the sides appeared on a First Recordings collection in 2009. Likewise, a 1969 recording with Feathers and 1980s album for the University of Memphis’ High Water imprint remained unissued until Kimbrough’s later fame prompted their release. High Water did issue a 1982 Kimbrough single which revealed the sound he had developed with his group, the Soul Blues Boys.

It was not until his performance of his signature tune “All Night Long” in the documentary Deep Blues and several albums for the Fat Possum label in the 1990s that his fame truly spread. He played festivals in America and Europe but did not tour frequently. Instead, his audience (including some famous rock stars) came to him, especially at his juke joint in Chulahoma where he also recorded some of his CDs. His bands typically included some of his sons and younger members of the Burnside family (who once lived next door). His music was perpetuated by his sons David Malone (1965-2019), Kinney Malone and Robert Kimbrough and grandson Cameron Kimbrough, and his songs have been covered by the Black Keys, Iggy Pop & the Stooges, Daft Punk, the North Mississippi Allstars and others. Kimbrough died of a heart attack in Holly Springs Memorial Hospital on January 17,1998. His legacy is celebrated annually in the area at the Kimbrough Cotton Patch Soul Blues Festival.

His headstone bears the memorable quote from Charlie Feathers, “Junior Kimbrough is the beginning and end of all music.”

Snooky Pryor, was one of the pioneers of the classic Chicago blues of the post-World War II era, a byproduct of the migratory wave of musicians from Mississippi and the Deep South who changed the sound of the city with their electrified update of Delta blues. After playing a bugle (and harmonica) through a P.A. system while serving in the war, Pryor bought a P.A. system with speakers in Chicago and became one of the first harp players to amplify his sound with electricity.

Pryor made some historic recordings for several Chicago labels, including Boogie (Snooky and Moody’s Boogie), a predecessor to Little Walter’s massive hit Juke, and Judgment Day (later revived by British rockers the Pretty Things and Eric Clapton), but none sold well enough to make the charts. He had some success in the city’s nightclubs but finally dropped off the scene in the 1960s, disillusioned with the music business. Rumors and questions about his whereabouts puzzled blues fans and researchers for years. Some thought he had turned to preaching or to Islam. Neither was true, although he was the son a preacher who forbade “devil music” (the blues) in the home, and he could quote the Bible at length.

But on a phone call one night in 1971, guitarist Homesick James told Living Blues magazine that he had an old friend with him: “You know Snooky Pryor?” Pryor and his family had moved to Ullin in southern Illinois, where he was working as a carpenter. An article in the magazine led to a musical revival for Pryor, who resumed his recording career and went on to play concerts, clubs and festivals to an enthusiastic new generation of international blues aficionados. He picked up where he had left off, singing and playing the same spirited kind of blues he had perfected in the 1950s, eschewing the influences of subsequent soul, funk and rock music trends that changed the approach of many others in Chicago.

Born in rural Quitman County, Mississippi, near Lambert and Denton, on September 15, 1919 (not 1921 as he usually said), James Edward Pryor took up harmonica and the blues in spite of his father’s rules. A childhood friend was future Chicago legend Jimmy Rogers, who was then nicknamed Snooky. Bluesman Floyd Jones later dubbed Pryor as Snooky (pronounced to rhyme with “nuke” rather than “nook”) in Chicago. Pryor left home as a teenager and traveled through Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois, finally settling in Chicago, where his musical partners included Floyd and Moody Jones, Homesick James, Johnny Young and Eddie Taylor. His first Chicago recordings for Planet, J.O.B., Parrot and Vee-Jay have all been reissued on CD and LP.

After his 1960s hiatus he cut his first album on the Today label, followed by a slew of others in the U.S., Europe and Canada for Big Bear, Blind Pig, Antone’s, Wolf, Electro-Fi and other companies. Though he made occasional Chicago appearances and worked for a while with Willie Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars, he continued to reside in Ullin, where he trained his sons Earl and Richard (“Rip Lee”) to play. Rip Lee has continued to perform in the venerated style of his father, who died in a Cape Girardeau, Missouri, hospital, on October 18, 2006.

Fenton Robinson, practiced an erudite brand of blues hailed by musicians, critics and discerning audiences around the world, but rarely enjoyed the kind of wide public acclaim enjoyed by many high energy, hard-rocking blues performers. As Alligator Records’ Bruce Iglauer wrote, “In a world of barroom entertainers Fenton Robinson was a serious musician who is best appreciated with greater concentration than his audience usually gave him.”

Robinson relocated to different cities several times trying to find his niche and had his moments of success and satisfaction, as a performer, songwriter and teacher. His 1967 masterwork “Somebody Loan Me a Dime” failed the hit the national charts but scored in Chicago, enough so that Robinson was recruited to compete with B.B. and Albert King, Bobby Bland and other heavyweights in a “Battle for King of the Blues” show at the Regal Theater in 1968. A 1969 rendition by Boz Scaggs with Duane Allman on guitar was the first of many cover versions. Robinson did the first waxing of the often-recorded standard “As the Years Go Passing By,” which he said was written by Peppermint Harris. “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” an Alligator album track, also inspired covers.

Born in Leflore County in the Mississippi Delta on September 23, 1935 (or a little before, according to various documents), Robinson began performing as a teenager in Memphis, where he teamed with guitarist Charles McGowan. He and McGowan moved to Little Rock and briefly to St. Louis. Robinson made his first records for the Meteor label in Memphis and Duke Records in Houston, playing with a harder electric attack than on his later Chicago records when he had developed a nimble, fleet-fingered technique influenced by T-Bone Walker’s style and by formal music studies. In addition to “As the Years Go (Passing) By,” his 1950s records (all credited to Fention Robinson) included “Tennessee Woman,” “The Freeze (made famous by Albert Collins) and, on a session backing Little Rock cohort Larry Davis, “Texas Flood” (later popularized by Stevie Ray Vaughan).

Robinson moved to Chicago in 1961 and established himself on the club scene, backing Junior Wells, Sonny Boy Williamson No. 2, Otis Rush and others and working his own gigs on the strength of singles he recorded for USA, Giant and Palos that showcased both his progressive guitar work and sensitive, soulful vocals. HIs debut LP on Nashville’s Sound Stage 7 label captured his talent as a vocalist but allotted little room for his guitar. His upward trajectory was blunted after a 1969 auto accident which eventually landed him in prison, but a letter-writing campaign from blues fans helped him earn an early release. He was based in Chicago in the 1970s, aside from a stay in Santa Cruz, California, where he landed after partnering on tour with Charlie Musselwhite. He recorded two critically acclaimed albums for Alligator, including the Blues Hall of Fame LP I Hear Some Blues Downstairs.

But his career in Chicago stagnated and he decided to move back to Little Rock, where he had been well received on return visits. Springfield, Illinois, where he had earlier taught blues in the schools, was his next residence, followed by Rockford, Illinois. Although he toured across the country and overseas, made further high-quality recordings, and was widely admired, high-echelon blues stardom eluded him. A philosophical thinker, serious reader and progressive musician, Robinson embraced the Islamic faith in the 1970s and once went under the name Fenton Lee Shabazz. A Japanese reissue LP honored him with the title The Mellow Blues Genius, and a British album designated him Mellow Fellow. He passed away from cancer in Rockford on November 25, 1997.

Josh White, transitioned from a career as a traditional Piedmont blues artist to emerge as a unique and integral voice in the burgeoning folk music world of the 1940s, and in so doing played a seminal role in introducing new audiences to the blues. White was outspoken in his songs of protest against racism and injustice, a revolutionary tactic among blues singers of his era who had to couch such sentiments in code or hidden meanings in their lyrics. His induction into the Blues Hall of Fame and concurrent honors as Folk Alliance International’s 2023 Lifetime Achievement memorial award recipient are finally shining the spotlight on an icon whose many contributions have too often been forgotten or overlooked in the years since his death in 1969.

Born in Greenville, South Carolina, on February 11, 1914, White sang in church as a youngster and got an extended taste of the road by traveling as a guide (or “lead boy”) for blind street singers. John Henry “Big Man” Arnold, his main local employer, also hired him out to other blind men and White claimed to have led Blind Lemon Jefferson and dozens of others. He also told of suffering beatings and witnessing a lynching. In 1928 he was in Chicago playing guitar behind Blind Joe Taggart on a session for Paramount Records. After returning to Greenville, he headed to New York City and launched his own recording career in 1932, chosen as one of a select crew of blues artists who were able to record prolifically in the Depression years. His blues and gospel records for the A.R.C. label group, many of them solo, some with accompanists including Leroy Carr and Walter Roland, were variously credited to Joshua White, Pinewood Tom, and Joshua White (The Singing Christian).

An invitation to appear in a 1940 Broadway play, John Henry, in 1940, served as an entrée into a whole new realm of musical, theatrical, social, intellectual and political circles. White adroitly adapted his act to project folk authenticity with a sophisticated touch. His records, previously marketed to African Americans, changed accordingly to appeal to a predominantly white following. While he always drew on his blues and gospel repertoire, he also incorporated Tin Pan Alley hits, pop tunes, work songs, and folk ballads from various sources. His most popular number, “One Meat Ball,” recorded for Asch Records in 1944, was a bigger hit when covered by the Andrews Sisters, and many listeners heard “House of the Rising Sun” for the first time through White. More momentously, he began addressing segregation, workers’ rights, lynching and other controversial issues in songs such as “Defense Factory Blues,” “Uncle Sam Says,” and “Jim Crow Train” (written in collaboration with Harlem poet Waring Cuney), and “Strange Fruit,” the haunting vision of lynching first made famous by Billie Holiday, on Keynote and other labels. The resultant commotion drew the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who met with White and became the first of three chief executives (prior to Kennedy and Johnson) to invite White to appear at presidential functions. Eleanor Roosevelt also became one of White’s closest confidantes. His other compatriots included Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Alan Lomax, Burl Ives, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Celebrated for his suave stage presence, supple guitar work, engaging showmanship, proper diction and sexual magnetism (plus offstage escapades), he appeared at cabarets, folk gatherings, and political events, on radio and TV shows, and in plays and feature films. In 1950 he broke new ground taking the blues to England, France and Scandinavia, traveling on a goodwill tour with Eleanor Roosevelt.

However, his protest songs and leftist associations led to a blacklisting during the McCarthy anti-Communist era and he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950.  For a while work became harder to find in the U.S. but receptive audiences in England and other countries enabled him to keep performing and he toured and recorded prolifically.

In 1949 his Ballads and Blues on Decca was, according to some researchers, the first blues record to be released in a newly introduced format – the 33 rpm LP. His Strange Fruit LP on Mercury followed in 1950.  He also recorded for Columbia, ABC-Paramount, Blue Note, Elektra, Vanguard and labels in France, the U.K., Italy and Denmark. While in England, he came out with a book, The Josh White Guitar Method, followed in the U.S. by The Josh White Song Book. White remained a popular figure on the folk scene although his finances began to decline along with his health. Testimonies to his impact upon upcoming musicians, including the first wave off British blues rockers, are legion. He died during heart surgery in Manhasset, New York, on September 5, 1969.

Salutes to White’s legacy have included a children’s book, The Glory Road: The Story of Josh White in 1982, a U.S. postage stamp with his image in 1998, an incisive biography by Elijah Wald, Josh White: Society Blues, in 2000, a “Cultural Heroes” bust sculpted from clay shown in several museums, a three-panel statue in his hometown of Greenville unveiled in 2021, and this year’s Folk Alliance and Blues Hall of Fame honors. His music has lived on through his children, especially Josh White Jr., who has been a folk musician virtually all of his life ever since appearing onstage with White at Café Society as a four-year-old.

The belated recognition from the blues community has been attributed to the view that the polished act that served White so well in folk concerts and cabarets has not fit well with recent generations’ preferences in the blues. As Elijah Wald wrote in Living Blues back in 2001: “He did more than any artist until B.B. King to make the blues singer a recognized cultural icon, and his rediscovery as a seminal musical giant and a unique American voice is long overdue.”

Individuals – Business, Production, Media, & Academic

David Evans’ induction in a Blues Hall of Fame category covering “Business, Academic, Media & Production” achievements could not be more fitting, for he has covered multiple bases as an educator, field researcher, and producer with hundreds of media credits in print and in audio and video formats. While not a businessman in an occupational sense, Evans has had to handle plenty of business with blues artists, record companies, and at events around the world, including his own extensive travels as a performing musician. Evans is the author of four books on the blues, including Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues, which is in Blues Hall of Fame. He taught from 1978 to 2016 at the University of Memphis, where he was in charge of the university’s High Water record label as well as its ethnomusicology curriculum and other classes. He produced records by R.L. Burnside, Jessie Mae Hemphill and many other artists for High Water and for a variety of other labels and did groundbreaking research on blues legends Tommy Johnson and Charley Patton, as well as on the blues and fife and drum traditions of the Mississippi Hill Country and the community of Bentonia, home of Skip James and Jack Owens.

Born in Boston on January 22, 1944, Evans graduated from Harvard before earning degrees in folklore and mythology at UCLA and teaching at California State-Fullerton. His scholarly research and his fieldwork in Mississippi, Louisiana and other states formed the basis for a plethora of publications, recordings, liner notes and lectures. His writing has been informed by a multidisciplinary approach utilizing musicology, biography, history, discography, folklore studies and his experience as a musician. He has been the recipient of multiple research grants, academic honors and awards, including two Grammys for liner notes. Beyond the blues, he has also done research in Africa and Venezuela, and in America with gospel singers, the Hopi Indian nation and others.

At the University of Memphis his students included blues authors Kip Lornell and Steve Franz and many other writers, educators and producers. Evans’ film and video work includes a Mississippi fife and drum documentary and an instructional video on the guitar style of Tommy Johnson, while his radio resume is highlighted by two long-running shows he hosted in Memphis on WEVL. Evans has served as a series editor at the University Press of Mississippi since 1996. The series numbers over 100 books, including The Original Blues, this year’s Blues Hall of Fame honoree in the Classics of Blues Literature category, and his latest book, Going Up the Country: Adventures in Blues Fieldwork in the 1960s.

Classic of Blues Literature

The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville 1899-1926, by Lynn Abbott & Doug Seroff

The vaudeville theater was the major public venue for blues in its earliest years, before the advent of radio, blues records, and jukeboxes. Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff, whose previous books chronicled the minstrel and ragtime traditions that preceded the blues, compiled The Original Blues by scouring thousands of African-American newspaper accounts to produce a volume that is indispensable to understanding blues history. Such histories most often trace the music from its rural origins as country blues, but Original Blues makes the case that key developments in the blues came from the vaudeville stage and that the vaudeville repertoire in fact strongly impacted the country blues.

(University Press of Mississippi, 2017) 

Classic of Blues Recording – Album

Little Walter: The Complete Chess Masters (1950-1967)

Little Walter Jacobs was the best blues harmonica player ever, in the opinion of many fans and musicians, and certainly the most influential, so Hip-O’s 5-CD, 126-track compilation of his work was a true blues bonanza. The set includes all the material issued on Chess Records’ Checker subsidiary including such classics as “Juke,” “My Babe,” and “Blues With a Feeling,” along with unissued tracks. The variety in sounds, styles and accompaniments enhances the collection, which features stellar sidemen like Muddy Waters, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Buddy Guy, Fred Below, Willie Dixon and many more. Scott Dirks, Tony Glover ad Ward Gaines, co-authors of Walter’s biography, contributed the liner notes. According to a recent communique from Dirks, “The Hip-O box includes every completed take of every title in Little Walter’s Chess discography except for one minor leftover,” an instrumental version of “One of These Mornings” that is shorter than the take chosen for the box by compiler Andy McKaie.

(Hip-O Select, 2009)

Classics of Blues Recording – Singles

Black Nights- Lowell Fulson

Lowell Fulson (or Fulsom, as Kent Records spelled it) excelled as a songwriter, singer and guitarist, and “Black Nights” is one of his finest works and biggest hits, charting for 12 weeks in 1965-66 in Billboard magazine. Fulson’s poignant lament of faded love and lonely black nights was recorded during one of his most productive periods in 1965 on the Bihari brothers’ Kent label with stalwart arranger Maxwell Davis on piano.

(Kent, 1965)

I’m Tore Down -Freddy King,

“I’m Tore Down,” a tale of despondency set to a shuffle rhythm, was written by producer-pianist Sonny Thompson and sung with appropriate verve by Freddy (aka Freddie) King, who also contributed some of his signature piercing guitar licks. Recorded January 18, 1961, with Thompson and a studio band in Cincinnati, it became the fifth of King’s six entries on Billboard’s R&B charts that year and is the second of them (after the instrumental “Hide Away”) to enter the Blues Hall of Fame.

(Federal, 1961)

My Black Mama — Son House

“My Black Mama” may not be a title familiar to the many admirers of Son House’s work during his revived 1960s career, but while the title was never used for any the songs he recorded then, the original 1930 version is loaded with couplets recognizable in many other songs by House and by blues singers before and after him, from Ida Cox to Robert Johnson. While the record is nominally about a black woman who’ll “make a mule kick his stable down,” House floated in a variety of verses including several from “Death Letter Blues.” House’s bold vocal delivery and concise guitar accompaniment make this a prime example of his deep Delta blues in his prime, recorded at Paramount’s studio in Grafton, Wisconsin, in 1930.

(Paramount, 1930)

Mojo Hand — Lightnin’ Hopkins

Lightnin’ Hopkins, who never had a problem with coming up with songs for cash on the spot, recorded more than 40 songs in the month of November 1960 for three different companies in New York and New Jersey. As usual, there were gems in the cache, and “Mojo Hand,” a rolling boogie waxed for Harlem record man Bobby Robinson, became Hopkins’ most recognizable standard. Hopkins’ goal in the song was to buy a “mojo hand”—a small cloth bag filled with secret spell-casting ingredients—to “fix my woman so she can’t have no other man.”

(Fire, 1960)

The Red Rooster (Little Red Rooster) — Howlin’ Wolf

“The Red Rooster,” better known as “Little Red Rooster,” is widely acknowledged as one of Howlin’ Wolf’s classics, but oddly enough it was not a major hit when Chess Records released it as a 45 rpm single in 1961. It didn’t chart for Chess, but it did much better for Sam Cooke in 1963 in the U.S. and for the Rolling Stones, whose version hit No. 1 in the U.K. in 1964. Wolf’s original featured not only his incomparable vocals but also his rarely featured slide guitar. Willie Dixon drew on an old theme recorded by Memphis Minnie as “If You See My Rooster” to compose his own version of the song.

(Chess, 1961)

2020/2021 Blues Hall of Fame Inductees


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. 



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. 


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. 


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. 


“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.”

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