The blues and rock & roll are often divided by the thinnest of the margins. Blues, more than any other musical style, influenced the birth of rock & roll, and the amplified electric blues of Chicago, Memphis, and other cities during the 1950s was separated from the new music only by its more traditional chord patterns, cruder production values, and narrower market. The term "blues-rock" came into being only around the mid-'60s, when white musicians infused electric blues with somewhat louder guitars and flashy images that helped the music make inroads into the white rock audience.
Many of the early blues rockers were British musicians who had been schooled by Alexis Korner. Helping to organize the first overseas tours by many major American bluesmen, Korner -- as well as his former boss Chris Barber, and his early collaborator Cyril Davies -- was more responsible than any other musician for introducing the blues to Britain. More important, he acted as a mentor to many younger musicians who would form the R&B-oriented wing of the British Invasion, including Jack Bruce, members of Manfred Mann, Eric Clapton and, most significantly, the Rolling Stones, whose lead vocalist, Mick Jagger sang with Korner before the Stones were firmly established.
The Rolling Stones featured a wealth of stone cold blues in their early repertoire. They and other British groups like the Yardbirds and Animals brought a faster and brasher flavor to traditional numbers. They would quickly branch out from 12-bar blues to R&B, soul, and finally, original material of a much more innovative and rock-oriented nature, without ever losing sight of their blues roots.
Several British acts, however, were more steadfast in their devotion to traditional blues, sacrificing commercial success for purism. These included the early Graham Bond Organisation (who featured future Cream members Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker) and, more significantly, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers. In early 1965, Mayall's group provided a refuge for Eric Clapton who left the Yardbirds on the eve of international success in protest to their forays into pop/rock. His sole album with Mayall Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton (1966), was an unexpected Top Ten hit in the U.K. Clapton's lightning-fast and fluid leads were vastly influential, both on fellow musicians and in introducing tough electric blues to a wide audience.
While Clapton would rapidly depart the Bluesbreakers to form Cream (who took blues-rock to more amplified and psychedelic levels), Mayall continued to be Britain's foremost exponent of blues-rock, as a bandleader of innumerable Bluesbreakers lineups. Many musicians of note were schooled by Mayall, the most prominent being Clapton's successors, Peter Green and future Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. Like Clapton, Green left Mayall after just one album, forming the first incarnation of Fleetwood Mac with a couple members of Mayall's rhythm section, John McVie and Mick Fleetwood. Under Green's helm, Fleetwood Mac were the finest British blues-rock act of the late '60s. They invested electric Chicago blues with zest and humor, but their own material -- featuring Green's icy guitar tone, rich vocals, and personal, often somber lyrics -- was more impressive, and extremely successful in Britain, where they racked up several hit albums and singles.
As a bandleader of rotating lineups featuring budding guitar geniuses, Chicago harmonica player Paul Butterfield was Mayall's American counterpart; the two even recorded a rare EP together in the late '60s. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band's first pair of albums featured the sterling guitar duo of Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop, as well as bona fide African-American Chicago bluesmen in the rhythm section. Willing to tackle soul, jazz, and even psychedelic jams in addition to Chicago blues, they were the first American blues-rock band, and perhaps the best.
While blues-rock was less of a commercial or artistic force in the U.S. than the U.K., several other American blues-rockers of note emerged in the '60s. Canned Heat were probably the most successful, reaching the Top 20 with "On the Road Again" and an electric update of an obscure rural blues number, "Going up the Country." Steve Miller played mostly blues, with Barry Goldberg and as the leader of his own band, in his early days before tuning into the psychedelic ethos of his adopted base of San Francisco. Captain Beefheart was briefly a White counterpart to Howlin' Wolf before heading off on a furious avant-garde tangent.
In New York, Bob Dylan used Mike Bloomfield on much of his Highway 61 Revisited album, and teamed with the Butterfield Band for his enormously controversial electric appearance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. John Hammond recorded blues-rock in the mid-'60s with future members of the Band and Dion cut some overlooked blues-rock sides after being exposed to classic blues by Hammond's father, the legendary Columbia A&R man John Hammond, Sr. The Blues Project led by Al Kooper often reworked blues songs with rock arrangements, although their vision was too eclectic to be pigeonholed as blues-rock, also encompassing folk-rock, pop/rock, and psychedelia.
The influence of the first generation of blues-rockers is evident in the early recordings of Jimi Hendrix, and indeed Jimi would always feature a strong element of the blues in his material.
Albert King and B.B. King couldn't exactly be called blues-rockers, but their late-'60s material betrays contemporary influences from the worlds of rock and soul that found them leaning more in that direction. Early hard rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Free and the Jeff Beck Group played a great deal of blues, though not enough for purists to consider them actual blues acts.
The blues-rock form became more pedestrian and boogie-oriented as the '60s came to a close. From Britain, Ten Years After, Savoy Brown, the Climax Blues Band, Rory Gallagher, Chicken Shack, Juicy Lucy and Foghat all achieved some success. In the U.S., blues-rock was the cornerstone of the Allman Brothers' innovative early-'70s recordings (which in turned spawned the blues-influenced school of Southern rock), and Johnny Winter had success with a much more traditional approach.
While blues-rock hasn't been a major commercial force since the late '60s, the style has spawned some hugely successful acts, like ZZ Top and Foghat as well as influencing all hard rock since the late '60s to some degree. The success of Stevie Ray Vaughan in the 1980s, and groups like Blues Traveler and Spin Doctors in the 1990s, shows that its audience is far from dead. And it is a cliche, but it is often true, that many white listeners would be unaware of black blues performers if they hadn't been led to them through the work of white blues-rock bands.
12 Essential Blues Rock Recordings:
John Mayall, Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton (PolyGram)
John Mayall, London Blues (1964-1969) (PolyGram)
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, East-West (Elektra)
Fleetwood Mac, Black Magic Woman (Epic)
Fleetwood Mac, Then Play On (Reprise)
Jimi Hendrix, Blues (MCA)
The Graham Bond Organisation, The Sound of '65 (Edsel)
Canned Heat, Best of Canned Heat (EMI)
Cream, Fresh Cream (Polydor)
John Hammond, Jr. , So Many Roads (Vanguard)
The Allman Brothers, At Fillmore East (Polydor)
Duffy Power, Little Boy Blue (Demon/Edsel)
Blues -- The British Connection, by Bob Brunning (1986, Blandford Press)
by Richie Unterberger