From 1970 to 1979, Rolling Stone reviewed thousands of albums, including hundreds of blues (and blues-rock) records, a few of which technically came out in the Sixties. Some of the best of them — from artists ranging from the traveling companion of Robert Johnson to a not-yet-famous Edgar Winter — vanished into obscurity. These are 10 blues albums we loved then that still sound great today, even though most people have never heard them; if these records never found the audiences they deserved, well, that just gave their creators one more reason to sing the blues.
Shines was a living link to Robert Johnson, touring around the country with him to play music in the 1930s. On this album, he drew from the same deep wellspring of the Mississippi blues, only with the advantage of a modern recording studio. With decades of life behind him, Shines made music not of "rebellion but acceptance": using the blues not to rage against the injustice of the world, but to have compassion for its unwilling citizens. This beautiful LP was the capstone of his career; two years later, Shines suffered from a stroke, dying in 1992.
What We Said Then: "On 'The Wind Is Blowin',' 'Moanin' the Blues' and — with grace not received from God but snatched from Him — 'You Better Turn Around,' Shines plays the most spare, softly echoing notes imaginable. The guitar seems to shrink from the singer's pronouncements (as it does on Robert Johnson's 'Come on in My Kitchen'), to retreat and then slip back, now threatening, now comforting. This blues creates a silence asking to be broken." — Greil Marcus, RS 264 (May 4th, 1978)
When he played live around London, the British Bennett was a one-man blues band, working guitar, bass drum, and harmonica simultaneously. But on his debut album, Bennett collaborated with the Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac for a fresh take on the country blues, not as heavy as the amped-up versions found with Cream and Led Zeppelin: musically proficient, but sad and heartfelt. Bennett died in a car crash in 1976.
What We Said Then: "Bennett is a tremendous harp player, and his style, his fast running and hectic blowing reminds me of Coltrane in a different medium, wonderfully contrasting with the band. The record is virtually definitive for British blues. British blues in general and Bennett in particular rarely approach the melodic/lyric intensity of original black blues, but they are more than successful with their hard, intense rhythms, which give the Englishmen their own distinctive style." — Frank Gruber, RS 59 (May 28th, 1970)
Bobby Rush was a journeyman blues singer, most famous for the novelty hit "Chicken Heads." On this album, however, he took his decades of his experience and his close study of Howlin' Wolf and made an urban blues album for his times, incorporating touches of Philadelphia soul, street-corner harmonies, and the rhythms of the pulpit. He tackled modern injustice ("Evil Is") alongside Seventies sexual mores ("I Can't Find My Keys"); Rush Hour was the first album in a sequence of ever-stranger "folk-funk" explorations.
What We Said Then: "Rush Hour is so weird that it's a wonder George Clinton didn't think of it first. . .What emerges is outrageous and stunning. . .In a time when most black pop music sounds machine crafted, this record is more than an anomaly. Rush Hour is a tribute to resilience–a sign that the lessons Howlin' Wolf and his peers learned and taught have been neither lost nor forgotten. You're going to need something like this to get you through the Eighties." — Dave Marsh, RS 305 (November 29th, 1979)
McDowell may not have played no rock & roll, but the Rolling Stones covered his "You Gotta Move" on Sticky Fingers anyway. The motor on this album is McDowell playing bottleneck slide on electric guitar: a relentless engine that powers him through hypnotic versions of "Baby Please Don't Go" and "Jesus Is on the Mainline" with bone-deep rhythm and the raw wounds of life. McDowell died of cancer in 1972, at age 68.
What We Said Then: "McDowell plays the blues, plays them wide-open and full-out, plays them because he has to. . .a priceless, once-every-twenty-years wonder of a musician who towers above the electric garbage that floods from the studios and the radio stations. . .The beat comes from somewhere deep inside, and it has an incredible power behind it–a power that comes close to tearing McDowell's songs to pieces." — Michael Goodwin, RS 61 (June 25th, 1970)
Larry Johnson, born the same year Robert Johnson died, represented a second generation of country bluesman. Working in a decades-old style made him something of an anachronism circa 1970, and he recorded irregularly over the following decades, but a "faultless album" like Fast and Funky swept away any criticism. Highlights: his versions of "Pick Poor Robin Clean" and an other-worldly "Two White Horses."
What We Said Then: "Johnson has the advantage of his youth, his fine multicolored voice, and his amazing punctuation-like guitar work. Fluency and finesse are perhaps the best two adjectives to describe his work on this album. . .Johnson expounds with a free-wheeling funkiness that is captivatingly forthright. Larry Johnson has embarked upon a one-man campaign to revitalize and supercharge the country blues style and, on the strength of this overwhelming album, has taken a gigantic first step in that direction." — Gary Von Tersch, RS 69 (October 29th, 1970)
We named the Allstars (from Charlottesville, Virginia) as one of three white blues bands in the country worth listening to: Delbert McClinton went on to greater fame, as did the Thunderbirds (later the Fabulous Thunderbirds) — but by 1981, the Allstars had broken up. This band (five men, one woman) was hampered by uneven production on their debut (and only) album, but they nevertheless covered everything from Koko Taylor's "Voodoo Woman" to Bruce Springsteen's "The Fever" with creativity and vigor. (And they even did a reunion gig in 2008.)
What We Said Then: "[This] crew is just about the best blues band in the Southeast. Their material shows a knowledge and understanding of the blues canon uncommon among musicians of recent years. Muddy Waters' 'Forty Days and Forty Nights' is treated not as a classic from 1956, but as an expression of desolation imbued with Biblical wrath." — Nick Tosches, RS 277 (November 2nd, 1978)
You might know singer and harmonica player Junior Wells from his collaborations with Rock Hall of Fame guitarist Buddy Guy — their career on vinyl was frustratingly uneven, but this was their recorded debut and "some of the best blues Chicago has to offer." The highlights were two seemingly improvised autobiographical songs, "I Could Have Had Religion" and "Blues for Mayor Daley." Also appearing here is the great pianist Otis Spann, in his last sessions before dying of liver cancer; Wells died from a heart attack in 1998; Buddy Guy still lives and plays.
What We Said Then: "Wells. . .screams in frustration and bewilderment that he has to fight to make sleep come sometimes: he doesn't want to have to fight for love or because he's black and you're white. He trails off singing 'A little bit of love. That's all I want. That's all I need.' The band soon comes to a clumsy halt. This is music of incredible honesty and emotion; rarely are such moments captured on tape." — Michael Cuscuna, RS 68 (October 15th, 1970)
Before "Frankenstein" and "Free Ride," albino multi-instrumentalist Edgar Winter led a seven-piece band with covocalist Jerry LaCroix, giving the blues a Stax-style twist. Their second album, produced by Rick Derringer, had hair-on-fire intensity, not to mention a horn section and a rhythm section totally locked in together on a "revealing and exciting album."
What We Said Then: "The first time I heard this album I wasn't sure whether Edgar Winter was a gospel singer gone mod or a fire eater escaped from Ringling Bros. & Co. The second time I was sure he is both. A master of both, no less. . .he conveys as great a sense of personal style as any white bluesman on the scene today. . .At the peak of their frenzy, both Winter and LaCroix cross over the gospel line into pure shrieking and screaming. In the controlled doses they administer here, it is very powerful stuff." — Jon Landau, RS 83 (May 27th, 1971)
Master harmonica player Musselwhite, between contracts, knocked out a quick album for the tiny record label Arhoolie that turned out to be one of the best things he ever did: He blew his way through songs like "Finger Lickin' Good" and "Highway Blues" until the whole world seemed to center on that harmonica. Musselwhite went on to many other records (and contracts): this year he won a Grammy for Get Up!, his collaboration with Ben Harper.
What We Said Then: "For not since the early days of Butterfield, the Stones or Mayall have the blues and R&B echoes been so pungent, exhilarating or forthright as on this release. . .Everything comes together on the title track, a ten-minute opus entitled 'Takin' My Time,' that opens with an extended harp solo and evolves into a series of bluesy solos on guitar and piano. It should be released as a two-part single from this fine, fine album." — Gary Von Tersch, RS 87 (July 22nd, 1971)
Barrelhouse piano player Memphis Slim devoted the first side of this LP to an epic autobiography, set to music: a magnum opus of the blues that takes him from Memphis, Tennessee (his birthplace) to Paris, France (where he permanently relocated in 1962). Moving to Europe invigorated Slim's music: with an appreciative audience, he made some of his best records since his breakthrough jump singles in the Forties. Slim died in Paris in 1988.
What We Said Then: "Throughout, the sound is perfect, Slim's piano and voice are as crisp as the message his music carries, the use of horns is well conceived and Green and Bennett, in particular, add a lot of the blues-alert and self-revelatory matrices of this excellent album. I only hope that more gems like this are forthcoming from this man of conviction and vision, Memphis Slim." — Gary Von Tersch, RS 89 (August 19th, 1971)