35. Fred Below
Before Motown's Funk Brothers or Stax's M.G.'s, looser collections of label-assembled session musicians shaped the sound of R&B in the mid-20th century — including players like the Aces' Fred Below, whose tasteful, delicately forceful work for Chess Records in Chicago was pivotal in propelling the music of Little Walter, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Howlin' Wolf to new heights. Starting out as a jazz drummer, Below had to find his own way into blues. "What made blues fascinating with me was because it was a type of music that I wan’t familiar with — and they didn’t teach it in school!" he recalled. "So, I had to play it in a way that it would make sense to me." Listening to Muddy Waters' "I'm Ready" or Chuck Berry's "School Days," Below's range and virtuosic touch are crystal clear; without fuss or flourish, he fueled Chess' electric-blues engine.