Slave traders encourage slaves to bring their instruments on board the ships transporting them to the Americas. Plantation owners often encourage work songs to enhance productivity. African rhythms and work songs will become distant progenitors of the Blues.
Slave Songs of the United States is published. All are spirituals, but it’s the first published collection of African American music.
Huddie Ledbetter aka Lead Belly born in Mooringsport, Louisiana. Imprisoned in 1915, 1918, and 1930, he hears work songs and other pre-Blues styles.
The poorly documented birth of the Blues. In the Mississippi Delta and elsewhere in the South, field chants, work songs, spirituals, folk ballads, and minstrel era popular songs combine at a time when very few believe that the music of sharecroppers or former slaves is worth documenting. Before the age of recording, Blues and Pre-Blues could be any length and not necessarily in the now-familiar twelve bar pattern. Recordings by artists like Lead Belly and Henry Thomas (born to former slaves in 1874), give a sense of how the Blues might have sounded before it becomes the 12-bar A-A-B pattern. (Rock group Canned Heat later adapt one of Thomas’s songs, “Bull Doze Blues” into “Goin’ up the Country”).
Sears-Roebuck begins offering guitars for sale by mail order. Another catalog house, Montgomery Ward, begins offering guitars around the same time. The cheapest models are around $4.50. (In 1943, Muddy Waters leaves Clarksdale, Mississippi by train with a suitcase and his $11.00 Sears guitar).
Bessie Smith born in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Charley Patton, whose birth date is unknown, moves to the Dockery Plantation. Patton—later dubbed the Father of the Delta Blues–is tutored by Henry Sloan, an unrecorded musician now regarded as one of the first to play what is now called Delta Blues. Even without knowing precisely what Patton drew upon, he transforms pre-Blues into strikingly original music. He’s also a showman, playing the guitar behind his head and between his legs.
Archaeologist Charles Peabody hears the Blues. On a dig to investigate Indian burial mounds in Clarksdale, Mississippi, Peabody hires a crew of African Americans who sing while working. Their music, writes Peabody, is “quite impossible to copy, weird in interval and strange in rhythm; peculiarly beautiful” He notes the three chords played on guitars as well as lyrics still used by Delta bluesmen today.
Pioneering Jazz man Jelly Roll Morton remembers hearing the Blues in New Orleans. Vaudeville blues singer Ma Rainey says she remembers first hearing the Blues around the same time further up the Mississippi in St. Louis.
W. C. Handy’s epiphany. A schooled African American musician from Florence, Alabama, Handy had traveled throughout the United States and Cuba with a minstrel troupe. He hears a solo blues singer on a train platform in Tutwiler, Mississippi. “A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags, his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly. ‘Goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog.’ The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I’d ever heard.” If Handy had published this story in 1903, it would have been the first in-depth documentation of rural blues. Instead, it’s published in 1941 in his autobiography, Father of the Blues. In his book, Handy also remembers witnessing a crowd in Cleveland, Mississippi, shower a ragtag blues band with tip money in 1904. Handy senses a commercial opportunity, although, as he writes later, “I hasten to confess that I took up with low folk forms hesitantly.”
Frankie and Johnny. White composer Hughie Canon (“Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey”) copyrights an African American folk song, “Frankie and Johnny,” as “He Done Me Wrong.” It had existed as a pre-Blues folk song since Frankie Baker shot Allen Britt in St. Louis in 1899.
White folklorist Howard Odum chronicles the folk songs of Lafayette Co., Mississippi and Newton Co., Georgia. Reputedly, he makes some recordings of early Blues, now lost. Writing in 1926, Odum says that many of the Blues lines he hears were lines he’d heard in 1905-1908, “from the camp and road in Mississippi before the technique of modern Blues had ever been evolved.”
First “Blues” published. White New Orleans classical composer Antonio Maggio hears an itinerant musician on a levee playing three notes. “He kept repeating the notes for a long time,” says Maggio in 1955. “I didn’t think anything with only three notes could have a title so to satisfy my curiosity I asked what was the name of the piece. He replied, ‘I got the blues.’” Maggio publishes “I’ve Got the Blues,” but returns to classical music.
TOBA Launched. In Memphis, Anselmo Barasso starts an organization of theaters that cater to urban African American audiences. Officially called the Theater Owners Booking Association, it was known by the performers as Tough on Black Asses. Many vaudeville Blues singers who perform with bands, including Bessie Smith, start on the TOBA circuit. Conversely, itinerant Delta Blues singers work in juke joints and bars.
Howlin’ Wolf born Chester Burnett in White Station, Mississippi.
Pioneering electric Blues guitarist Aaron “T-Bone” Walker born in Linden, Texas.
Robert Johnson born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi.
The earliest 12-bar blues by African American composers are published. Among the first is W.C. Handy’s “Memphis Blues.” Two years later, Handy publishes his best-known work, “St. Louis Blues.”
Alec Rice Miller aka Sonny Boy Williamson II born in Glendora, Mississippi. He adopts the name of John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson.
Muddy Waters born, Issaquena Co., Mississippi. His birthdate is open to question, and although he always claimed Rolling Fork, Mississippi as his birth town, he was probably born in Jug’s Corner, Issaquena Co., Mississippi.
John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson I born, Jackson, Tennessee. The “original” Sonny Boy of the blues.
The Great Migration: In 1900, just 740,000 African Americans (or roughly eight percent of the black population) live outside the South. Between 1916 and 1970, the Great Migration sees more than six million African Americans from the Triangle leave for northern cities, primarily Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. Among them are Big Bill Broonzy, who leaves Arkansas for Chicago around 1920; Louis Armstrong, who leaves New Orleans for Chicago in 1922; Nat King Cole, whose family leaves Montgomery, Alabama in 1923 for Chicago; Sam Cooke, whose family leaves Clarksdale for Chicago in 1933; Sonny Boy Williamson I who leaves Jackson, Tennessee for Chicago in 1934; Bo Diddley, whose family leaves McComb, Mississippi for Chicago in 1934; Pops Staples, who leaves Winona, Mississippi for Chicago around 1940; John Lee Hooker who moves from Clarksdale to Memphis and then Detroit in the mid-1940s; Muddy Waters, who leaves Clarksdale for Chicago in 1943; Aretha Franklin, whose family leaves Memphis in 1944 first for Buffalo, New York and then Detroit; and Al Green, whose family leaves Forrest City, Arkansas for Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1955.
1917 or 1918
Paramount Records founded: A subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company, Paramount would later record such blues greats as Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, Charley Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Henry Townsend and others. Paramount closed its doors in 1932.
Record companies begin recording Blues and Country. Radio has made inroads into the sales of Pop records, but African Americans and white rural residents generally don’t have electricity and can only attach radios to car batteries, but they can play wind-up gramophones.
First recorded blues. African American vaudeville singer Mamie Smith records “Crazy Blues” for OKeh; it reportedly sells over a quarter-million copies. Smith is from Cincinnati and records in New York, but “Crazy Blues” owes more to Pop than the Delta.
Bessie Smith begins recording. Crowned the Empress of the Blues, she popularizes the A-A-B 12-bar format, and her early records sell very well.
First guitar-only Blues record: Sylvester Weaver’s “Guitar Rag,” later adapted into the Western Swing classic “Steel Guitar Rag.”
First vocal-guitar Blues record: Papa Jackson from New Orleans records “Papa’s Lawdy, Lawdy Blues.” That same year, he records “Salty Dog Blues,” later to become a Country standard, recorded by Flatt & Scruggs, Johnny Cash, and others.
B.B. King born Itta Bena, Mississippi.
Jimmy Reed born Washington Co., Mississippi.
Blind Lemon Jefferson. The success of the Texas Bluesman’s “That Black Snake Moan” prompts record companies to finance field recording trips. At the same time, a store owner in Jackson, Mississippi, H.C. Speir, begins scouting talent. Speir uses a metal disc-cutter to make demo’s that he sends to record companies. Among the artists he discovers are Delta bluesmen Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Skip James, Son House, and the Mississippi Sheiks.
First recordings of Piedmont Blues. Based on Ragtime, Piedmont Blues has a lighter touch than Delta Blues, and taps into a vein of syncopated rural African American music. The guitar is usually finger-picked. Piedmont Blues can be heard from Jacksonville, Florida north to Richmond, Virginia, and into east Tennessee. Blind Blake, whose records influences John Fahey and Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen, is among the first to record in this style. In 1928, Blind Willie McTell records one of the first Piedmont Blues classics, “Statesboro Blues,” later reconfigured by the Allman Brothers.
The Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon begin recording. Jug bands (often comprising a jug played with pursed lips for a bass effect, washboard, washtub bass, spoons, kazoo, and banjo) usually play party music. Early Jug Band recordings include “Walk Right In,” “Minglewood Blues,” “In the Jailhouse Now,” and many other songs revived by the Grateful Dead, Rooftop Singers, Lovin’ Spoonful, the Youngbloods, Country Joe and the Fish, and other rock era artists.
Charley Patton’s recording debut. In Richmond, Indiana, Patton records for Paramount. He influences Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and many others. After his death, his records become highly sought-after as he becomes recognized as the Father of the Delta Blues.
Record sales bottom out. The Depression, “talkie” movies, and radio bring the record industry to the brink of collapse. In 1927, Columbia pressed 11,000 copies of every new Blues release; by 1930, they manufactured just 1000. Some Blues records sell as few as three hundred copies. Victor, by now owned by RCA, tries to boost sales of Country, Jazz, and Blues artists by placing them on a budget subsidiary, Bluebird, at 35, instead of 75, cents.
Bessie Smith makes her last records. In 1937, she dies at G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi, from injuries sustained in a traffic accident. Since 1944, the former hospital has been home to the Riverside Hotel, a favorite of blues performers during segregation.
John Lomax begins his first field trip with a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies. At the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Lomax and his son, Alan, discover Huddie Ledbetter aka Lead Belly, who is a reliquary of pre-Blues and minstrel era songs, including “Cotton Fields,” “Rock Island Line,” “Midnight Special,” and “Goodnight Irene.” The following year, John Lomax is named Honorary Consultant and Curator to the Library of Congress’s Archive of American Folk Song. Alan Lomax becomes the country’s preeminent folklorist.
Lester Melrose becomes a producer for RCA Victor/Bluebird and Columbia/OKeh. Based in Chicago, white music publisher Melrose taps into the burgeoning Blues scene, producing many artists, most of whom have recently arrived from the South. These include Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Memphis Minnie, Roosevelt Sykes, Washboard Sam, Arthur Crudup, Tampa Red, and many others. Melrose reckoned that he produced ninety percent of the Blues records made in Chicago during the 1930s. Favoring acoustic over electric instruments, he uses a core of backup musicians, leading to a samey sound. His artists are encouraged to record prolifically and to write original songs that he can publish, among them “That’s Alright Mama,” later to become Elvis Presley’s first record. Similar or not, Melrose’s productions appeal to the increasingly sophisticated urban record-buying audience.
Charley Patton dies.
The life and death of Robert Johnson., After recording in Dallas in 1936, he records again the following year, and is killed in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1938 at age 27. Not particularly popular during his lifetime, Johnson’s legend grows through time — especially the story of his alleged “deal with the devil at the crossroads.” (Today, three separate headstones stand at three separate cemeteries near Greenwood, and a ceremonial “crossroads” marker towers above the former crossing of Highways 61 & 49 in Clarksdale, attesting to Johnson’s current popularity.)
First electric blues guitar solo: Floyd Smith records “Floyd’s Guitar Blues” with Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy.
Alan Lomax hosts American Folk Songs and Wellsprings of Music on CBS radio. Designed to air in classrooms, Lomax introduces a generation to American folk music, and his shows include Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, the Golden Gate Quartet, among others. Lomax follows it with a series on CBS, Back Where I Come From, featuring folk tales and music from a racially integrated cast that includes Josh White, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee.
From Spirituals to Swing. Impresario John Hammond stages a concert at Carnegie Hall. He wants Robert Johnson, who has just died, and recruits Big Bill Broonzy in his place, alongside Kansas City blues shouter Joe Turner, and Piedmont harmonica player Sonny Terry. Jazz and gospel musicians round out the bill.
Census data reveal that the African American population is thirteen million. Ten million remain in the South, but half the African American population lives in towns and cities, a dramatic rise from earlier surveys.
First concept albums featuring Blues. Josh White releases Chain Gang on Columbia, and Alan Lomax persuades RCA to issue Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs, by Lead Belly. In 1939, Lomax had written about a projected album with Robert Johnson, but of course Johnson had already been killed. In all cases, an “album” comprises three 78s in an album. Most blues records are issued on budget subsidiaries, but these full-price albums are aimed at the white market.
Muddy Waters discovered. Alan Lomax records McKinley Morganfield, later known as Muddy Waters, at Stovall Plantation, near Clarksdale, Mississippi. Two years later, Waters leaves Clarksdale for Chicago. Lomax also records Eddie “Son” House, who’d recorded for Paramount before the Depression, and the following year, he records Honeyboy Edwards, who, at the time of his death at 96 in 2011, was the last surviving Delta Bluesman of his generation.
King Biscuit Time radio show debuts on KFFA in Helena, AR. The lunchtime blues radio show popularizes Sonny Boy Williamson II and Robert Lockwood Jr. throughout Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta. Current King Biscuit deejay, Sunshine Sonny Payne, has been with the station since the show’s inception. The “King Biscuit” name inspires a later, national radio show broadcasting live rock music: the King Biscuit Flower Hour.
Billboard magazine begins tabulating the top-selling Blues and Jazz records in its Harlem Hit Parade.
Wartime shellac rationing. Shellac is the major ingredient in record manufacture, prompting the record companies to cut back their rosters. Many Blues artists are dropped.
Cotton picking machine introduced. Clarksdale’s Hopson Planting Company produces the first cotton crop entirely planted, harvested and baled by machine. The need for manual labor in the Mississippi Delta is dramatically reduced, hastening the migration north.
Clarksdale, Mississippi’s first radio station, WROX goes on the air. Legendary African American disc jockey Early “Soul Man” Wright gains a popularity that keeps him on the air for 50 years. Notable blues artists who hosted programs or performed on air include Ike Turner, Robert Nighthawk, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Doctor Ross. Elvis Presley also appears on air.
The record business booms. According to the New York Herald Tribune, the state of the business “is so fabulous the industry is barely able to keep pace with it. Records tumble from the presses in ever increasing millions, and the public seems eager to buy them, good bad or indifferent. Production and sales are running twice what they were in 1942, and producers are looking forward to 1947 and ’48 to double this year’s expected output of 300 million discs.” Many of the new independent labels focus on Blues and R&B because the major labels more or less abandoned music targeted at African Americans during the War.
Chess Records. Two Polish-Jewish immigrants, Lejzor and Fiszel Czys aka Leonard and Phil Chess, buy a stake in Chicago’s Aristocrat Records and sign Muddy Waters. In 1950, they launch Chess Records, bringing Waters with them. Ultimately, Chess signs nearly every significant Blues artist in Chicago, including Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Lowell Fulson, Big Bill Broonzy, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson II, John Lee Hooker, Memphis Slim, Buddy Guy, and Albert King. They also sign Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Etta James, Doo-Wop and Soul groups, and Gospel artists, including Aretha Franklin.
T-Bone Walker releases “Call It Stormy Monday.” His jazz-inflected playing and studiedly cool singing creates a new style, Cocktail Blues. Walker targets upscale urban Blues lounges and nightclubs. Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers and Moore alumnus Charles Brown play to the same audience.
Boogie Chillen. John Lee Hooker, from Clarksdale, Mississippi records “Boogie Chillen” in Detroit. A hit at the time, it shows that rural Blues still sells, and it becomes a seminal performance, influencing generations of musicians who adapt Hooker’s signature riff. Led Zeppelin, Canned Heat, The White Stripes and George Thorogood are among those who adapt it or revive “Boogie Chillen.”
Sonny Boy Williamson I murdered in Chicago. Williamson was a hugely influential band leader and harmonica player, recording for RCA’s Bluebird Records since 1937. His “Good Morning Schoolgirl” features one of the archetypal blues riffs. He also recorded “Bluebird Blues,” “Sugar Mama Blues,” among many others led to him being called the Father of Blues Harmonica. Another musician, Aleck Rice Miller, had already assumed his name.
Billboard magazine coins a neologism “Rhythm & Blues.”It replaces previous industry labels, such as Race Music and Sepia Music, and acknowledges that R&B is distinct from Blues. Louis Jordan, originally from Brinkley, Arkansas, becomes the first R&B star. His music bridges jazz, blues, and pop, and influences Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bill Haley, among others.
Beginning of Black Radio. In Memphis, a country and pop station, WDIA, becomes the first station to exclusively program African American music and talk shows. Programming for African American audiences begins in October with talk shows and soon expands to music. B.B. King signs on as an on-air musician and dee-jay and makes his first records in the WDIA studio. In response to WDIA’s immediate success, WHBQ programs Dewey Phillips’ Red Hot and Blue show in the evening after WDIA goes off the air. Phillips becomes a pioneering disc jockey, playing Elvis Presley’s first record repeatedly.
Lead Belly tours Europe. He is the first Blues artist to do so, but he dies in December 1949.
Muddy Waters records “Rolling Stone”—the song that named the band and the magazine. Based on Robert Petway’s 1941 recording of “Catfish Blues,” it was probably a song that Petway adapted from a riff or song he’d heard in the Delta. “Catfish Blues” continues to be popular with blues bands throughout the Mississippi Delta.
Memphis Recording Service opens. Studio owner Sam Phillips initially supplies Country and Blues masters to other labels—principally Chess and RPM-Modern—before starting Sun. During Phillips’ early years in the record business, he focuses upon Blues. Most of the artists he records, including Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, are Mississippians leaving Mississippi for whom Memphis is the first stop. Claims that Mississippi blues bands become electrified after reaching Chicago are overstated; the bands of Howlin’ Wolf and others are already plugging in when they record for Sam Phillips.
Trumpet Records becomes the first-ever record company in Jackson, Mississippi. Lillian McMurry starts the label. A white woman, she focuses almost exclusively on Blues and Gospel, making the first records by Sonny Boy Williamson II and Elmore James , who scores a hit with a revival of Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom.” Bigger R&B labels quickly poach McMurry’s discoveries.
Acoustic Blues gives way to amplified Blues, and loses ground to R&B. Very few acoustic or small group Blues records show up on Billboard’s R&B chart. Chicago is now the epicenter of the Blues.
B.B. King’s first hit, “Three O’Clock Blues.” King records with jazzy horn arrangements and learns musical theory. He also studies Jazz guitarists such as Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, making him the downhome sophisticate of the Blues.
Jimmy Reed begins recording. His hits for Vee-Jay Records in Chicago influence a generation of white performers, and his songs, including “Big Boss Man,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Ain’t that Lovin’ You Baby,” “Baby, What You Want Me to Do,” “Shame, Shame, Shame,” and others were widely covered by artists including the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Van Morrison, the Steve Miller Band, the Grateful Dead, and many others.
Greenwood, Mississippi’s Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones‘ “The Things That I Used to Do”, produced by a young Ray Charles, shoots to #1 on the R&B charts, making it a hit for New Orleans’ Specialty Records. The song becomes a blues standard, and Guitar Slim becomes an influence on Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others.
Elvis Presley‘s recording career begins with a cover of bluesman Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right“. Growing up in Tupelo and Memphis, it’s no surprise that he also records other blues songs like “Baby Let’s Play House,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “Mystery Train” and “Milk Cow Blues.”
Swamp Blues. Jay Miller, who’d been producing Cajun records in Crowley, Louisiana (and had written the 1952 Country smash “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”) begins recording Blues, and leases the records to Excello Records. His artists include Lightnin’ Slim, Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown and others, all of them named by Miller.
Muddy Waters tours England. This is Europe’s first exposure to amplified Chicago Blues.
Alan Lomax returns South. After spending most of the 1950s in self-imposed exile in England to avoid the anti-Communist witch-hunts, Alan Lomax returns to the United States in 1958. Bankrolled by Atlantic Records, he embarks on a journey through the Southern states to record Blues, Gospel, and Country in the field, this time in stereo. Among others, he discovers Mississippi Fred McDowell, near Como, Mississippi.
Samuel Charters’ “The Country Blues” published. A groundbreaking work, it is the first in-depth study of rural Blues, and entices many younger listeners, the majority of them white, to explore the music and rediscover artists who hadn’t recorded since the Depression. In a companion move, Charters finds post-War blues star Lightnin’ Hopkins living in obscurity in Houston and records him for Folkways Records. The following year, British researcher Paul Oliver publishes Blues Fell this Morning, signaling that the overseas interest in Blues is already growing; Oliver also tours the South that year, recording music and stories that would comprise his 1965 book, Conversation with the Blues.
Origin Jazz Library created. A reissue label, OJL reissues many out-of-print pre-War Blues records, making them available to a new generation of fans. The first release is The Immortal Charley Patton.
Muddy Waters stars at the Newport Jazz Festival. Playing for a predominantly white, northern audience, his set is recorded for a Chess LP. His performance is considered a major “crossover” to white music fans in the US. The same year, the Chess Records brothers initiate Waters’ only acoustic studio session, Folk Singer, in an attempt to tap into the white folk music boom.
Robert Johnson’s “King of the Delta Blues Singers” LP is released. Aside from one or two poorly distributed bootlegs, none of Johnson’s recordings has been available since World War II. John Hammond at Columbia Records prepares King of the Delta Blues Singers for release in October 1961. Very little is known about Johnson and no photograph is known to exist for the cover. Songs from the album and its 1970 follow-up are revived consistently; these include “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” “Cross Road Blues,” “Love in Vain,” and “Sweet Home Chicago.”
Freddy King scores a Pop and R&B hit with “Hide Away.” A seminal Blues instrumental, it leads a generation of young Rock guitarists to base their styles on King’s technique and attack. Both Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan record it. King records and tours with many Rock musicians before his death in 1976, aged 42.
First American Folk Blues Festival tours Europe. Blues artists, finding fewer bookings at home, welcome the overseas work. Among those performing on the revues, which run annually until 1970 and then intermittently until 1985, are John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II , Memphis Slim, Otis Rush, and many others. Some, including Memphis Slim and New Orleans bluesman Champion Jack Dupree, take up permanent residence in Europe. Among those attending the 1962 revue are Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones , Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Eric Burdon, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, who make Blues the cornerstone of 1960s Rock.
Upon arrival at airport for first US tour, the Beatles refer to bluesman Muddy Waters. Asked what the band wants to see in the US, Paul McCartney replies, “Muddy Waters.” The reporter says, “Where’s that?” The Beatle replies, “You don’t know who your own famous people are in this country?”
Delta bluesmen Son House and Skip James perform at the Newport Folk Festival.
B.B. King’s “Live at the Regal” LP. Recorded before a predominantly African American audience in Chicago, it captures the Blues as music for, by, and about African Americans, just as the Blues’ original audience is declining significantly.
Sonny Boy Williamson II dies in Helena, Arkansas.
Charles Keil’s Urban Blues is the first in-depth study of African Americans—musicians and non-musicians, who have relocated from the South to Chicago and Detroit.
The first Memphis Blues Festival. The event brings back many traditional Blues artists from the 1920s and ‘30s, including Bukka White, Mississippi John Hurt, Furry Lewis, and Robert Wilkins. The audience is overwhelmingly white.
Malaco Records opens recording studio to record blues, R&B and soul in Jackson, Mississippi. Malaco records blues, soul, and gospel, tailored more to the African American population of the South than white blues audiences.
American Rock musicians adapt Blues. Taking their cue from British bands, American artists and groups such as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Johnny Winter, Canned Heat, Janis Joplin, Ry Cooder, and many more successfully integrate Blues into Rock. Only one African American musician, Henry Fredericks aka Taj Mahal, joins their number.
Census data reveal that half of the African American population lives in the North, and eighty percent live in cities.
Living Blues magazine founded. Originally published in Chicago, it was acquired in 1983 by the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture.
Alligator Records launched in Chicago. The label records and documents contemporary Chicago Blues.
Chess Records folds. Its assets are sold to a rap label, All Platinum Records, and then to MCA-Universal.
Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival begins in Greenville, Mississippi.
Blues Foundation launched in Memphis. Affiliated with over 175 blues organizations worldwide, it organizes the International Blues Challenge, Keeping the Blues Alive Awards and Blues Music Awards annually.
Beale Street revival begins. Largely derelict and abandoned after the 1968 riots, the City of Memphis grants $14.2 million to begin a Beale Street revitalization project. The revival gains momentum after B.B. King’s Blues Club opens in 1991.
Robert Cray’s “Bad Influence” LP issued, and reaches No.143 on Billboard’s Top 200 albums. Three years later, Strong Persuader becomes a Top 20 LP. Cray is the first significant new African American Blues artist in a generation.
First of two Robert Johnson photos appears in Rolling Stone magazine. With little fanfare, the “photo booth” dime store photo discovered in 1973 is published. The “studio” photo with Johnson in a pinstripe suit will have to wait till 1990.
Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival founded in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
John Lee Hooker “The Healer.” Hooker’s LP of collaborations with Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, and others peaks at No.62 on Billboard’s Hot 200 albums. It sparks a late career resurgence for Hooker, who dies in 1997.
“Robert Johnson—The Complete Recordings” issued. It goes gold, selling 400,000 copies in six months, and sales eventually top one million.
Robert Mugge’s landmark modern Mississippi blues documentary film “Deep Blues.” It includes blues scenes in North Mississippi Hill Country and the Mississippi Delta.
Fat Possum Records launched in Oxford, Mississippi. The label begins by documenting neglected North Mississippi Blues artists such as R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. It also organizes a series of Juke Joint Caravan tours, introducing Mississippi blues to younger generations, worldwide.
Bob Dylan records “High Water (For Charley Patton).” It appears on his Love and Theft album.
Clarksdale, Mississippi’s blues revival starts. New blues business openings — including Ground Zero Blues Club and Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art — fuel a blues renaissance and attract other entrepreneurs to the scene.
Congress declares 2003 the “Year of the Blues.” In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of W.C. Handy’s encounter with an unknown Bluesman at a train station in Mississippi.
Martin Scorsese’s “The Blues.” A multi-part series for PBS features individual films directed by Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders, and others.
Mississippi Blues Commission is established. The commission later establishes the Mississippi Blues Trail — a series of over 170 blues trail markers throughout the state.
Charley Patton “Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues” box set wins three Grammy Awards.
Juke Joint Festival founded in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Current edition includes a dozen daytime stages and twenty nighttime venues, featuring over one hundred blues acts.
“M for Mississippi: A Road Trip through the Birthplace of the Blues” DVD is released. Features a dozen of the state’s surviving bluesmen.
BB King Museum opens in Indianola, Mississippi. BB King performs and continues to play yearly homecoming shows till 2014.
“We Juke Up in Here: Mississippi’s Juke Joint Culture at the Crossroads” DVD is released. It profiles the region’s fading juke joint blues club scene.
B.B. King dies.
Tributes flood in from public officials and from across the music world. “He was without a doubt the most important artist the blues has ever produced,” said Eric Clapton, “and the most humble and genuine man you would ever wish to meet.”