Arts & Life
2:21 pm
Thu November 29, 2012

Turning Up The Volume On The Electric Blues

Originally published on Fri November 30, 2012 6:12 am

Blues is so much a part of the fabric of American music and American culture — not only as a defined musical form, but also as a springboard for all kinds of creativity — that it seems crazy to try to encapsulate it in any way. Bear Family Records, though, has just released a 12-disc survey of electric blues called Plug It In! Turn It Up! that does a great job of illuminating one particular aspect of the blues.

That said, if you want to hear the first blues solo recorded on an electric guitar — "Floyd's Guitar Blues," the first track on the first disc — it's not very good. Floyd Smith was a member of the Kansas City band Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy, and cut "Floyd's Guitar Blues" on March 16, 1939, using techniques that Hawaiian guitarists had made famous, although he seems to be playing a standard guitar. The record was a sensation, and many years later, Chuck Berry cut a version of it called "Blues for Hawaiians."

But the first electric-blues guitar star was, no question, T-Bone Walker. Aaron Thibeaux Walker was from Dallas, and by 1950, when he made "Strollin' With Bones," he'd been a star for eight years. He'd influenced just about any young kid who could afford an amplifier and wanted to go out on the theater circuit, fronting a band with horns. But that wasn't the only place the electric guitar was showing up.

Country guitarist Ernest Tubb always said that the reason his band started using electric instruments was to be heard over the noise in the bars it played, and that's probably why Muddy Waters plugged in after moving from Mississippi to Chicago. His 1948 record "I Can't Be Satisfied" is clearly a tune he'd played on an acoustic at one point, and it shows the beginnings of the tone that would make him famous. The discovery that an amplifier could distort an instrument's tone in a good way was made in Chicago's bars, and turned the harmonica into the poor man's saxophone in the hands of a master like Little Walter.

The tune "Juke" — on the second disc — was a smash in 1952, and was as much an inspiration to young harmonica players as any of T-Bone Walker's records had been for guitarists. But Chicago wasn't the only place electric blues was taking over. T-Bone Walker's disciples were all over Texas, too, as evidenced on an album by Fenton Robinson, laying down the licks in Larry Davis' classic "Texas Flood."

Memphis, too, was a hotbed of electric blues. Pat Hare was only one of the several great guitarists Bobby "Blue" Bland got to work with over the years, and he's in fine style on the 1957 hit "Further On Up the Road." And a Memphis friend of Bland's who didn't record with him until much later deserves mention, too: B.B. King, who, with his electric guitar, went on to tour the world, playing some of the finest blues ever.

Electric blues' heyday was probably between 1957 and 1965, by which time its audience was aging and younger people were turning to soul music. It's become a cliché to say that the Rolling Stones and other British bands showed us our own heritage by playing their version of the blues, but the fact is that white people had been playing blues for years — some of them very well indeed.

Harmonica player and vocalist Paul Butterfield, guitarists Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop and the other members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band were playing the same bars as their blues idols in 1965 when their record came out, and also backed Bob Dylan during his infamous electric appearance at Newport. The times were a-changin', and the blues were, too.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Blues is so much a part of the fabric of American music and American culture, that it might seem crazy to try to encapsulate it in any way. Bear Family Records takes on one aspect, electric blues, in a 12-disc survey called "Plug it In, Turn it Up." Rock historian Ed Ward has a review.

ED WARD, BYLINE: Want to hear the first blues solo recorded on electric guitar? It's not very good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLOYD'S GUITAR BLUES")

WARD: Floyd Smith was a member of the Kansas City band Andy Kirk and His 12 Clouds of Joy, and cut "Floyd's Guitar Blues" on March 16th, 1939 using techniques that Hawaiian guitarists had made famous, although he seems to be playing a standard guitar. The record was a sensation, and many years later, Chuck Berry cut a version of it called "Blues for Hawaiians."

But the first electric blues guitar star was, no question, T-Bone Walker.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STROLLING WITH BONES")

WARD: Aaron T-Bone Walker was from Dallas, and by 1950, when he made this record, "Strollin' with Bones," he'd been a star for eight years, influencing just about any young kid who could afford an amplifier and wanted to go out on the theater circuit fronting a band with horns. But that wasn't the only place that the electric guitar was showing up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I CAN'T SATISFIED")

MUDDY WATERS: (Singing) Well, I'm going away to leave, won't be back no more, going back down south. Child, don't you want to go? Woman, I'm troubled. I be all worried in mind. Well, babe, I just can't be satisfied, and I just can't keep from cryin'.

WARD: Country guitarist Ernest Tubb always said that the reason his band started using electric instruments was to be heard over the noise in the bars they played. And that's probably why Muddy Waters plugged in after moving from Mississippi to Chicago. His 1948 record "I Can't Be Satisfied" is clearly a tune he'd played on acoustic at one point, and shows the beginnings of the tone that would make him famous.

The discovery that an amplifier could distort an instrument's tone in a good way was made in Chicago's bars, and turned the harmonica into the poor man's saxophone in the hands of a master like Little Walter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUKE")

WARD: "Juke" was a smash in 1952, and was as much an inspiration to young harmonica players as any of T-Bone Walker's records had been for guitarists. But Chicago wasn't the only place electric blues was taking over.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEXAS FLOOD")

LARRY DAVIS: (Singing) Well, there's flooding down in Texas. All the telephone lines are down. Well, there's flooding down in Texas, and all the telephone lines are down. Well, I've been trying to call my baby, but I can't get a single sound.

WARD: T-Bone Walker's disciples were all over Texas, too, in this case, Fenton Robinson, laying down the licks on Larry Davis' classic "Texas Flood." Memphis, too, was a hotbed of electric blues.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUES SONG, "FURTHER UP THE ROAD")

PAT HARE: (Singing) Further on up the road, someone's gonna hurt you like you hurt me. Further on up the road, someone's gonna hurt you like you hurt me. Further on up the road, baby, you just wait and see. You got to reap just what you sow...

WARD: Pat Hare was only one of the several great guitarists Bobby "Blue" Bland got to work with over the years, and he's in fine style on this 1957 hit. And a Memphis friend of Bland's who didn't record with him until much later deserves mention, too - B. B. King - who, with his electric guitar, went on to tour the world, playing some of the finest blues ever.

Electric blues' heyday was probably between 1957 and 1965, by which time its audience was aging and younger people were turning to soul music. It's become a cliche to say that the Rolling Stones and other British bands showed us our own heritage by playing their version of the blues, but the fact is that white people have been playing blues for years - some of them very well, indeed.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN IN CHICAGO")

PAUL BUTTERFIELD: (Singing) I was born in Chicago in 19 and 41. I was born in Chicago in 19 and 41. Well, my father told me, son, you had better get a gun. Well, my first...

WARD: Harmonica player, vocalist Paul Butterfield, guitarist Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop and other members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band were playing the same bars as their blues idols in 1965 when their record came out, and also backed Bob Dylan during his infamous electric appearance at Newport. The times were a'changing, and blues were, too.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in France. He reviewed "Plug it In, Turn it Up," a survey of electric blues from Bear Family Records. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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