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Louisiana Blues: The Best, Playin’ and Simple
We realize any attempt to give the blues its due in our limited space would be futile at best. So, we decided to concentrate on a colorful recap of the birth, growth and heroes of Louisiana blues.
As far back as the 17th century, the term The Blue Devils was used to describe hallucinations associated with alcohol withdrawal. Over time, the affliction was shortened to “the blues,” and came to mean being upset or depressed. Considering the postbellum era that led into the late 1800s, the blues seemed an apt name for this new form of music inspired by African American spirituals, work songs and field chants.
The simple chord progressions, hypnotic rhythms and raw emotional narratives of lost love and social oppression struck a chord with many throughout the Deep South. And while Mississippi is often credited as the birthplace of the blues, when New Orleans musician Antonio Maggio published sheet music of his song I Got the Blues in 1908, it became the first credited and documented link to the blues genre.
After World War II, unique hybrids of the blues began to emerge from Louisiana.
From New Orleans came blues heavily influenced by the city’s brass jazz bands.
From Baton Rouge, a slower gumbo of country, Cajun and Zydeco influences known as swamp blues.
Over the next decade, as the distinct sounds of these two styles echoed through back roads and airwaves, a handful of artists emerged as the embodiment of each.
New Orleans Blues:
Guitar Slim: Despite a career that was tragically cut short, the impact of Eddie Lee “Guitar Slim” Jones made him one of the coolest—and most copied—of cats.
Best known for his unhinged live concerts, the “most performingest man you’ve ever seen” was never duplicated but often imitated—from his limber, rubbery leg dance moves (Elvis) to his stage antics which included being escorted onstage on the shoulders of his personal valet (James Brown) to playing his guitar behind his back and with his teeth (Jimi Hendrix).
His experimentation with electric guitar pushed the blues envelope. Opting to plug in through a venue’s PA system rather than an amplifier allowed him to play at deafening volumes and coaxed a distorted, fuzz-filled wailing never heard before.
His The Things That I Used to Do became one of the biggest R&B hits of the 1950s—and THE biggest hit of 1954.
However, the prominent blues star preferred to party like a rock star. And the excesses of the road contributed to his untimely death of pneumonia at the age of thirty-two.
Professor Longhair:In terms of New Orleans-style blues, what Guitar Slim did with his axe, Professor Longhair did with his ivories.
Born Henry Byrd in Bogalusa, Louisiana in 1918, “Fess” made his mark in the heyday of rhythm & blues and led the wave of blues resurgence in the 1970s.
Learning to play on a piano missing several keys, Byrd developed a lively rhumba-boogie style —that borrowed heavily from jazz and brass bands who marched in and around the Quarter—and influenced major stars like Fats Domino and Huey “Piano” Smith.
While never reaching national recognition, his signature song Go to the Mardi Gras became the city’s official party anthem and solidified his status as the Piano King of Crescent City.
Slim Harpo: Lobdell native James Isaac Moore was known as an accomplished blues guitarist, but it was his mastery of the harmonica (or blues harp) that earned him the stage name of Slim Harpo.
He is credited as one of the earliest pioneers of rock and roll, as well as a primary catalyst of the British invasion.
His swamp-boogie licks of Shake Your Hips are mimicked in ZZ Top’s LaGrange, while his tunes like I’m A King Bee and Got Love if you Want It became breakthrough hits for The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Pretty Things.
Lightnin’ Slim: Born in Good Pine, Louisiana, Otis Hicks was the undisputed headmaster of the School of Blues. Known for his primitive accompaniments, pulsating beats and world-weary vocals, his swampy style is still considered by fans and critics to represent the very best of Louisiana blues.
Henry Gray: With a career spanning more than 70 years and 58 albums, this pianist and Blues Hall of Famer was part of the Howlin’ Wolf’s band before becoming a session musician for Chess Records, recording with artists including Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Reed and Koko Taylor. At the age of 88 (ironic for a pianist don’t you think?) he was featured in Martin Scorsese’s seven-part documentary series The Blues, and today at the young age of 93, continues to tour with Henry Gray and the Cats.
Louisiana has produced its share of standout artists in rock (Jerry Lee Lewis), alt rock (Better Than Ezra), pop (Britney Spears), gospel (Mahalia Jackson), jazz (Louis Armstrong) and rap (Master P). But in our tribute to Louisiana blues, there are a few other honorable mentions worth mentioning:
Lead Belly: North Louisiana native Huddle Ledbetter was a virtuoso on the 12-string guitar, and his hits such as Where Did You Sleep Last Night were covered by Nirvana and British blues legend Long John Baldry.
Tab Benoit: A Delta blues guitarist from Houma, this Louisiana Music Hall of Famer is also founder of Voice of the Wetlands, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the state’s coastal wetlands.
Marcia Ball: Raised in Vinton, this accomplished pianist and storyteller’s career has spanned over 40 years, blending Texas stomp-rock with Louisiana swamp blues.
Tabby Thomas: One of the best-known bluesmen to come out of Red Stick, his live performances, radio show “Tabby’s Blues Box” and club of the same name made him a local and global favorite.
Clarence Edwards: Born in Lindsay and raised in Baton Rouge, Edwards didn’t gain the recognition he deserved until well into his fifties. His electric swamp style and growling vocals made him an oft-requested performer at blues festivals throughout the 1980s.
Irma Thomas: Known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, this Louisiana Hall of Fame inductee and Grammy winner has been a Louisiana treasure for over half a century.