Whilst The Blues is often cited as one of the key styles which led to the emergence of Jazz, R&B and Soul, its impact on the world of music doesn’t stop there, as you’ll see in this article.
Since its beginnings in the late 19th (!) century, it has gone on to produce some of the most passionate and personal performers of all time.
And whilst the blues-drenched guitar of players like BB King and T-Bone Walker often makes the headlines, we thought we’d get back to the original basics for this list of the best blues singers of all time!
So stay tuned for our countdown to some of the most famous Blues singers in the last 100 years, covering the full spectrum of blues styles out there…
10. Robert Johnson (1911)
As one of the pioneers of recorded blues, and more specifically the delta blues genre, Robert Johnson was essential in the popularity of blues despite the remarkable fact that the only recordings which exist of him are from a period in 1936 and 1937.
He is known primarily for as a classic blues singer accompanied by erratic blues guitar, with hit blues songs such as “Cross Road Blues” and “Sweet Home Chicago”, which have almost become synonymous with the genre.
Born in 1911, Robert Johnson found little success during his lifetime, and his life was in fact cut short in 1938, aged just 27, under mysterious circumstances.
The back of his death certificate mentions ‘complications with syphilis’ but his contemporary David Honeyboy Edwards (who is believed to have performed with Johnson days before his death) insisted that Johnson was poisoned.
Johnson’s songs have managed to stand the test of time with various modern covers over the years; “From Four Until Late” was performed by Cream on their debut album, and “They’re Red Hot” was done by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers on their album “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” (albeit, hardly recognisable).
Although he is primarily famous as a master of blues guitar, it would be amiss to leave Johnson out of this list, considering his status as a blues pioneer, and the sheer fact that he had a great voice.
It’s hard to underestimate his influence on the history of Blues music; his international appeal with artists like Eric Clapton on the other side of the Atlantic played a pivotal role in the 1960s British blues movement.
9. Howlin’ Wolf (1910)
Born as Chester Arthur Burnett in 1910, Howlin’ Wolf came from the Mississippi Delta before moving to Chicago in his adulthood to become a highly successful blues musician.
As with many blues singers, Burnett didn’t just sing: he played guitar too. But although he is known for his proficiency on guitar, he is perhaps even more famous for his dominant, booming voice.
During his career, Burnett shared a healthy, professional rivalry with fellow blues guitarist and singer Muddy Waters.
This was primarily due to the fact that the two shared a songwriter in Willie Dixon – a constant source of ribbing that he was favouring the other with better songs!
Setting him aside from many of his contemporaries, Howlin’ Wolf was surprisingly business savvy; he was known for his disciplined approach to finances, and even attended business classes to help manage his growing career.
Whilst this may seem irrelevant, his financial etiquette kept him financially successful, meaning he could pay band members not only good money, but offer them health insurance as well. This made him an extremely valuable employer, and enabled him to build a strong band, with his pick of the performers.
Burnett’s health declined in the late 60s, dying in 1976 due to surgery complications but leaving behind a discography of Blues songs including “Spoonful”, “Smokestack Lightning”, and “Killing Floor”.
8. Muddy Waters
Born in 1913, McKinley Morganfield become known professionally as Muddy Water and was an essential and influential figure in the Chicago blues scene.
Like many at the time, Waters got his introduction to music through the church, which was likely encouraged by his Grandmother.
This lady – who raised Waters after his mother died shortly after childbirth – also gave him his nickname, for his love of playing in the dirty water at a nearby creek.
Waters played both the guitar and the harmonica, as well as having a deep and dominant voice, as is synonymous with the blues.
Waters’ style is similar to that of many blues artists, singing in sporadic bursts with repetitive lyrical ideas, often telling a simple story in short phrases, with a relatively talkative style.
Waters died in his sleep in 1983, due to cancer-related heart failure, and was buried next to his wife, Geneva. In 2008 a Mississippi Blues Trail marker was placed in Clarksdale, Mississippi, by the Mississippi Blues Commission, marking the site of Waters’ childhood home.
Waters is best known for his tunes “Mannish Boy”, “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”, and “Got My Mojo Working”.
He left a legacy bigger than his career, influencing a plethora of blues and rock musicians to a great degree, including Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, who are believed to have named their band after Waters’ song, “Rollin’ Stone”.
7. Ma Rainey (1886)
Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, born in 1886, was an influential early-blues performer and recording artist, often referred to as the “Mother of the Blues”.
As a singer who is primarily known for bridging the gap between earlier vaudeville styles and the more authentic expression of the blues, she can legitimately be accredited with influencing many of the early blues singers.
Rainey got her nickname from marrying her partner, Will “Pa” Rainey in 1904.
She got her start as a teenager, touring with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels (a minstrel and variety troupe) with Pa Rainey, before forming their own group called the Assassinators of the Blues.
From her first in 1923, Rainey went on to make over 100 recordings within five years, including “Bo-Weevil Blues”, “Moonshine Blues”, “See See Rider Blues” and “Soon This Morning”.
She was known for her powerful and energetic vocals, as well as her skilful phrasing and moan-like style of singing.
Rainey toured until 1935, when she retired from performing. However, she continued involving herself in the music scene, primarily as a theatre impresario in her hometown, Georgia. She died four years later in 1939, at the age of 53.
6. Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915)
American singer, songwriter, and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born in 1915, hitting the height of her fame in the 1930s and 1940s as a gospel singer.
Heavily steeped in Blue, her spiritual lyrics and electric guitar playing proved highly influential on early rock and roll music.
Tharpe was primarily famous for her guitar skills and, considering the era in which she played, was given the ‘high praise’ of being able to play “like a man”.
Alongside this instrumental talent, she had a fascinating whimsical voice and an innate talent for songwriting.
She was among the first to cross gospel into the world of rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll, and influenced the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who died of a stroke in 1973 aged 58 is probably best remembered for her songs “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, “My Journey To The Sky” and “Jericho”.
5. Mamie Smith (1891)
Mamie Smith was born 1891 (first believed to be 1883, before her birth certificate was discovered), and was an American vaudeville singer, pianist, dancer, and even actress.
She got her start as a child, touring with the Four Dancing Mitchells, and then as a teenager, dancing with Salem Tutt Whitney’s Smart Set.
In 1913 she left to sing in the clubs in Harlem, where she met William “Smitty” Smith, a singer, whom she married.
Smith performed in multiple styles, crossing between jazz and blues and, in 1920, became the first African American artist to make a vocal blues recording.
Her biggest hit was a selection of songs written by Perry Bradford and released through Okeh Records, including two of her biggest hits “Crazy Blues”, and “It’s Right Here For You”.
Whilst it is hard to find a recording of Smith that isn’t as old as time, there is charm and wonder to be found in her historical and influential recordings. Her voice is warm, whimsical, and pleasant, and is definitely worth experiencing.
It’s a great shame that in 1946 Mamie Smith reportedly died penniless in New York, at the age of 55. Regardless of the success (or lack of it) in her lifetime, she should be remembered as paving the way for many of the African American blues singers to come.
4. Ray Charles
Although not known exclusively as a traditional blues singer, Ray Charles combined this musical influence with jazz, rhythm-and-blues, and gospel to create his own unique style, which became wildly popular.
Born in 1930 and blinded as a child, the singer and pianist would go on to be a seemingly unstoppable musical force, known to his friends and bandmates as “Brother Ray”, as well as often being referred to as “the Genius”.
The best example of Charles singing the blues would be the aptly named “The Genius Sings The Blues”, which was released in 1961. It features several examples of Charles’ whimsical, playful voice managing to still convey the blues perfectly. These examples include “Early in the Morning”, “Ray’s Blues”, and “I’m Movin’ On”.
Ray Charles was an inspiration to many, and enjoyed a hugely successful career, as well as a long lasting legacy.
Unfortunately, like many of his contemporaries, Charles shared the drug problems that came with the show-business lifestyle, and was allegedly addicted to heroin for the best part of two decades. However, through determination and some therapy (that sparked his love of chess), he did manage to quit.
Ray Charles died of complications involving liver disease at the age of 73.
3. Eric Clapton (1945)
Whilst the beginnings of the Blues can be traced back to the Southern States of America in the 19th Century, it has continued to evolve and reach a mainstream audience for more than a Century.
A more modern example of this Eric Clapton, the British singer and guitarist best known for his work with Cream (of “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” fame), Derek and the Dominos (“Layla”), and his prolific solo career.
During his work with both Cream and his solo career, Clapton displays a heavy influence of the blues – a result of his beginnings as a musician during London’s blues revival era.
Clapton was one of the pioneers of the new blues movement, playing alongside contemporaries such as Jeff Beck, the Rolling Stones, and later Led Zeppelin.
Clapton is perhaps most popular amongst dans for his virtuosic guitar playing, but his nuanced and distinctive voice certainly deserves a spot on this list.
Whilst his band work mostly covers blues-rock and psych-rock, Cream‘s debut album “Fresh Cream” was comprised mostly of blues songs and covers of blues standards like “Four Until Late” and “Spoonful”.
Clapton’s solo career has been more reminiscent of earlier blues, with a lot of acoustic, finger-style playing being incorporated into his work.
Clapton has sold more than 280 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling musicians of all time, regardless of genre – and highlighting the popular appeal that the Blues continues to have.
2. B.B. King (1925)
The King of Blues, born in 1925 and rising to fame as a guitarist of extreme restraint and sophistication, BB King did not only have killer guitar skills, his blues vocals and, perhaps more impressively, his performance skills as a frontman, are something to behold.
Born as Riley B. King, but sporting the much catchier nickname B.B, King was born on a cotton plantation in Mississippi, later working at a cotton gin.
As many of his blues contemporaries, he became attracted to music through church, and got his start playing at local joints and on local radio.
BB King’s career really began after he moved to Chicago and, as his fame grew, he began to tour extensively. In fact, King is famous for playing relentlessly, once rumoured to have played 342 shows in 1956 alone.
King died at the ripe old age of 89 in Las Vegas in 2015, after a long and successful career as a prominent and influential blues artist.
Find out which of his albums made the #1 spot on our list of most famous blues albums here.
Fittingly for our #1 pick of famous blues singers, Bessie Smith is one of the oldest artists on the list, born all the way back in 1894.
Nicknamed the “Empress of the Blues”, she reached the peak of her success during the Jazz Age of the 1920s and 30s as one of the era’s most popular female blues singers.
She has long since been an influence on fellow jazz and blues singers around the world.
Smith had a rough childhood; with her parents dying before she could remember them, she was raised by her elder sister in a life of poverty, during which she performed on street corners with her brother Clarence, who eventually left town (without telling her) to join a travelling troupe.
He would later and get Smith an audition, where she was accepted as a dancer, with Blues singing legend and “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey up front.
Bessie Smith formed her own act around 1913 at the 81 Theatre and first recorded in 1923 after garnering a strong reputation in the South.
Much to the surprise of the record labels who had rejected her due to her “rough” demeanour, Smith found massive success, with her stage presence and ability to enrapture her audience compared to that of a preacher.
Smith died in 1937 after a horrific car crash that almost severed her arm (which was later amputated), and a delayed transport to the nearest hospital.
She is best known for her contralto voice (the lowest female vocal range), with the most famous Bessie Smith songs being “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, “Devil’s Gonna Git You”, and “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do”.
Thanks for reading!
That’s our pick of 10 of the most famous blues singers of all time. Of course, there were many others we could have added, so feel free to share your own in the comments section below.
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