Both Santana and Fleetwood Mac started out as blues bands, imitating their idols as they developed their own sound. Albert King once joked around about how Jimi Hendrix "used to take pictures of my fingers and try and see what I was doing." In the HBO Documentary, Under The Influence, Keith Richards recalls bonding with Mick Jaggar over two Chess Records albums, Chuck Berry's "Rockin' at the Hops' and The Best of Muddy Waters, which contained the track "Rolling Stone" (it is no secret what happened next). In his book, Life, Keith Richards states, "If you don't know the blues... there's no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music". Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck all came out of The Yardbirds playing their fierce version of the genre that became known as "Blue Eyed Blues". As Blues icon Muddy Waters famously said, "The Blues had a baby and they called it Rock and Roll".
While they all flirted with stardom, playing radio-friendly renditions of The Blues, many of their Blues heroes continued to perform twice nightly shows across grueling circuits of smokey dive bars across the country. It seems to be an irony in the music business - that a wave of musicians, all trying to sound like another wave altogether, can grow famous while their idols remain relatively unknown. It seems that the closer to the root of the music we get, the less known the musician is. We can trace that lineage backwards even further, from John Mayer discovering the Blues through the likes of Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, who discovered the Blues through Buddy Guy, Albert King, B.B. King and Howlin' Wolf, who all saw Muddy Waters as their leader, while Muddy himself came straight from the Delta and grew up listening to a stripped down version of what eventually gave birth to Chicago Blues. Maybe that lineage is hard to trace or maybe it is the very essence of Blues itself. As B.B. King once sang, "Everybody wants to sing the blues. I've been around a long time, I've really paid my dues."
Compare the original version of Crossroads by Robert Johnson to Cream's famous rendition, once leading Clapton aficionados to claim "Clapton is God".
It is easy to appreciate both forms for their unique qualities but what is it that ultimately allowed Cream to be a world famous name while the original artist remained something similar to an urban legend? The answer may have little to do with talent and more to do with the effects of racism in a commercial market. The Blues started as a black art form and while Keith Richards and Eric Clapton famously idolized these black bluesmen, fell in love with their music and proved that it had universal appeal, the black bluesmen never had a large enough platform for financial success until Clapton said "I just wanted to sound like them." The record companies responded by expanding that platform to reach audiences who could buy the music and support its production. Ultimately, this helped bring recognition to the blues and give credit to the original artists of the genre, but it took rock stars to share their spotlight with the idols that weren't produced to reach mainstream audiences.
Blues music went on to become the root of which all American music grew out of - from Rock and Roll to Hip-Hop to Funk and Soul and R&B. What started out as a black art form became yet another precious black gift offered to the rest of the world - even if those who gave this gift remained relatively under-appreciated. What is the appeal of The Blues? Maybe it is that everyone gets them, rich or poor, white, black, yellow or red, as Buddy Guy once said, "If you don't think you've got the blues, just keep living." Or as John Stewart once joked, "We've come from the same history - 2000 years of persecution - we've just expressed our sufferings differently. Blacks developed the blues. Jews complained, we just never thought of putting it to music.”
Interested in learning more about The Blues? Check out the playlist below, "A History of the Blues" which traces the art form back to the Delta, through Chicago and all the way over to the UK.