These are the 10 crucial artists who helped define the genre of the blues. Each one contributed greatly to the music, whether through their instrumental skills — usually on the guitar — or vocal talents, and their early recordings and performances influenced the cultural impact of the blues and the generations of artists that followed. Whether youre a fan of the blues or a newcomer to the music, this is the place to start.
Known as The Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith was both the best and the most famous of the female singers of the 1920s. A strong, independent woman and a powerful vocalist who could sing in both jazz and blues styles, Smith was also the most commercially successful of the eras singers. Her records sold tens, if not hundreds of thousands of copies—an unheard of level of sales for those days. Sadly, the publics interest in blues and jazz singers waned during the early 1930s and Smith was dropped by her label.
Perhaps more than any other artist, Big Bill Broonzy brought the blues to Chicago and helped define the citys sound. Literally born on the banks of the Mississippi River, Broonzy moved with his parents to Chicago in 1920, picked up the guitar and learned to play from older bluesmen. Broonzy began recording in the mid-1920s, and by the early 1930s he was a commanding figure on the Chicago blues scene, performing alongside talents like Tampa Red and John Lee Sonny Boy Williamson.
Capable of playing in both the older vaudeville style (ragtime and hokum) and the newly developing Chicago style, Broonzy was a smooth vocalist, accomplished guitarist and prolific songwriter. The best of Broonzys early work can be found on The Young Big Bill Broonzy CD (Shanachie Records), but you cant go wrong with just about any collection of Broonzys music.
Arguably the founding father of Texas blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the most commercially successful artists of the 1920s and a major influence on younger players like Lightnin Hopkins and T-Bone Walker. Born