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John Hammond (1910-1987) was arguably one of the most important figures in American popular music in the twentieth century and was certainly among the most important early white fans of the blues.
He looms particularly large in the story of Robert Johnson, whose posthumous fame he did much to promote. After hearing Johnson's music in the mid-1930s, Hammond went on to champion Johnson's work at a New York concert in 1938, and then pushed to have Johnson's songs collected on an LP when the folk and blues revival hit in the late 1950s and '60s.
Hammond was a hugely successful record producer and talent scout, but perhaps more importantly for this story is that he was in some ways a precursor of the young, white, intellectually engaged fans that would "rediscover" blues in the 1960s.
Robert Johnson (1911-1938) is the legendary Delta bluesman who was rumored to have sold his soul to the Devil to become a great guitarist.
Although he was indeed a remarkably sophisticated guitarist and an expressive singer, Johnson remained little known outside of the Mississippi Delta during his own life. Since his death, however, Johnson's legend has grown to the point that he has become probably the most influential of all blues musicians and has emerged as a favorite among fans, scholars, and a long line of blues rock guitarists.
Jimmy Page (1944- ) is the guitarist for the seminal British heavy blues rock band Led Zeppelin. While the folk revival of the late 1950s and '60s was busy celebrating the "rediscovered" bluesmen of the '30s and '40s, a generation of young musicians in Britain was poring over the unearthed records of the Delta guitar heroes.
Jimmy Page was one of the greatest of those musicians and his group Led Zeppelin, which emerged on the tail end of the British Invasion, was perhaps the greatest and most influential of the blues rock bands that drew inspiration from the old Delta sound.
Charley Patton (1887-1934) is the closest recorded link to the source of the country folk blues in the Mississippi Delta. Well before his debut on record in 1929, Patton had established himself as a touring performer and was renowned for his ability as a flashy guitarist and consummate entertainer, anchoring all of his songs with a steady beat and his raucous, gravelly voice.
A mentor to many of the Delta bluesmen, Patton was influential as a teacher and a regional icon, living the Delta version of music celebrity in boozy excess and constant female company. He was the original King of the Delta Blues.
Elvis Presley (1935-1977) was such a pivotal figure in the history of popular music that, in retrospect, he seems to have been almost destined to emerge when he did.
Sun Records honcho Sam Phillips anticipated his coming anyway. In one of the most oft-repeated stories in American musical history, Phillips is reported to have said that he could make a fortune if he could find a white singer who could master the Black vocal style.
Elvis was that singer, and the early sides he cut for Sun in 1954 function as a kind of Rosetta Stone for mid-century pop music. He was the point at which Black and white, urban and rural styles converged. He debuted with a rockabilly reworking of "That's All Right," a blues song by Big Bill Broonzy that had drawn on Blind Lemon Jefferson's "That Black Snake Moan."
Ma Rainey (1886-1939) was born Gertrude Rainey. She performed on the vaudeville and minstrel circuit in the early days of the blues. She was probably the first popular stage entertainer to incorporate the authentic blues into her show and had a wide and devoted following well before her recorded debut in 1923.
Although Rainey recorded in the classic blues style (which had strong ties to jazz and cabaret), she had one foot firmly planted in the folk tradition, had a tremendous rural following, and along with Mamie Smith, whose "Crazy Blues" sparked the initial "race records" craze, is probably one of the figures most responsible for opening the door for rural music performers.
Rivaled only by her contemporary, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey was the premier blues vocalist of the 1920s and, in her rumored bi-sexuality and penchant for proto-bling finery, one of the genre's earliest and most colorful stars.
Bessie Smith (1894-1937) was known as the "Empress of the Blues," a title appropriate in light of both her talent and demeanor. Smith got her professional start in 1912, when she sang in the same show as Ma Rainey, and recorded a string of hits from 1923 to 1928.
Where Rainey exhibited a strong folk influence, Bessie Smith seemed to exist between blues and jazz and, arguably, brought the emotional intensity of blues singing to jazz arrangements. Bessie Smith also had a larger national following and brought the classic blues to an urban, white audience.
Muddy Waters (1913-1983) was born McKinley Morganfield and grew up to be one of the most important figures in the evolution of the blues.
Muddy absorbed the Delta blues tradition as a young man and was working on the Stovall plantation in Mississippi when Alan Lomax came looking to record Robert Johnson for the Library of Congress in 1941. Johnson was dead by then, but Lomax was lucky to get Muddy Waters instead (on a tip from the great bluesman Son House, in fact).
Upon hearing his own recorded voice, Muddy determined to become a working musician, and after moving to Chicago in 1943, he far exceeded his own goal, coming to dominate the Chicago scene and the blues at large in the 1950s. Muddy reestablished the Delta influence in the Chicago sound and became the architect of the Chicago Delta style of electric blues. Additionally, Muddy Waters had a large role in popularizing the blues with white revival audiences in the 1960s.