Scholars have examined the impact of the blues on popular music in great detail. But apart from studies that place the music in a broader social context, not much attention has been paid to the development of the form itself. Enter Chicago Blues – A Living History, an ambitious attempt to illustrate how modern blues have evolved from 1940 to the ‘present’ (more on that later), while showing that even the music’s earlier incarnations remain viable and relevant.
Chicago blues itself is a pretty narrow stylistic palette, yet condensing it into a two-disc set is still a bit like an encyclopedia with a single entry for each letter. Nonetheless, producer Larry Skoller has done a fine job of selecting material that progresses from relatively simple piano-based arrangements with smaller combos through the sophisticated interweaving of guitar and harmonica that characterized the ‘golden age’ of the '50s, and on into a more modern era with heavier beats and greater emphasis on extended solos.
One can argue with the choices, but seminal figures are well represented, beginning with the original Sonny Boy Williamson’s "My Little Machine" (from 1940, and said to be the earliest known blues recording to feature drums). From there we get samples from the innovative likes of Tampa Red, Big Bill Broonzy, Muddy and Wolf, and Elmore James. Disc one wraps up with Little Walter’s “Hate To See You Go,” with the amplified harmonica front and centre. Also included is Lowell Fulson’s “Three O’Clock Blues,” a tune that helped turn B. B. King into a superstar. Though neither King nor Fulson have strong ties to Chicago, King’s influence is utterly incalculable, and including him on stylistic grounds makes perfect sense.
With the 12-bar template firmly established by the mid-'50s, disc two proves a little more adventurous. It opens in 1955 with “Sugar Sweet,” a tune made famous by Muddy Waters, but the otherwise excellent liner notes curiously fail to make mention of Jimmy Rogers, Muddy’s long-time partner whose intricate rhythm guitar work played an integral role in the music’s architecture. From there it’s tunes by Jimmy Reed, Billy Boy Arnold’s “I Wish You Would” (a song he’s recorded over and over – might be time for a moratorium on that one, Mr. Arnold!), Sonny Boy Williamson II, and a spooky ”My Love Will Never Die,” a minor-key masterpiece from Otis Rush. Things move rather rapidly after that, with representative tracks from Junior Wells and James Cotton showing the increasing influence of funk, tunes from Earl Hooker and Magic Sam spotlighting the rising prominence of the guitar, while final tracks from late-period John Lee Hooker (“The Healer”) and Buddy Guy (“Damn Right I Got The Blues”) illustrate how rock has influenced modern blues. One can argue that Guy’s track represents an early exit, given it was released in 1991 and the blues have continued evolving rather dramatically since. But again, the goal here isn’t to be comprehensive but representative, and the tracks that are here do a fine job of illuminating significant milestones and important innovators.
Ultimately, though, what matters most in the blues is feel, an intangible yet absolutely necessary quality that brings the best to life. And this is indeed a living history, one that breathes, flush with the pulse and passion that render the blues such a potent musical form. Participants are the cream of the crop – up front we get headliners Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch, and Lurrie Bell, all stalwarts of the Chicago scene, with a dream-team backing band that includes ace harmonicist Mathew Skoller (brilliant on the Cotton and Wells tracks) and guitarist Billy Flynn, the kind of player who can make anyone sound better. And to everyone’s credit they don’t simply copy the masters nor resort to mere imitation. Styles are reproduced faithfully, but in keeping with the concept of living history, participants manage to put their own stamp on the material, approaching every tune as though it were being played for the very first time.