7 Greatest blues standards of all time

Eva Mackevic

Blues is the tonic for whatever ails you, they say, so pour yourself a bourbon, and let your worries go to the sound of these seven blues staples... 

“Hoochie Coochie Man”

As far as blues staples go, “Hoochie Coochie Man” has got to be one of the most instantly recognisable (and sexiest ones) ever. Originally written by blues musician Willie Dixon and first recorded by Muddy Waters in 1954, it’s a perfect example of the traditional stop-time arrangement (an accompaniment pattern which disrupts the normal time and instead uses accented attacks on the first beat of each measure, alternating with silence, for all you music geeks) which became one of the most characteristic trademarks of blues, jazz and R&B genres.

The sexually explicit lyrics are all about audacious machismo, virility and braggadocio, with the narrator boasting about his irresistibility to women, aided by a bit of “black magic” and “voodoo”, as the lyrics begin with:

“The gypsy woman told my mother, before I was born
I got a boy child's comin', gonna be a son of a gun
He gonna make pretty womens, jump an' shout
And then the world wanna know, what this all about”

“Hoochie Coochie Man” inspired a number of “answer” songs, including “I’m a Man” and “Mannish Boy” which became massive hits in their own right.

 

“Baby Please Don’t Go” 

This yearning, lovelorn classic told from a perspective of a prisoner worrying about his woman leaving before he returns home, dates back to the time of slavery in the US, and is a likely adaptation of an old folk theme called “Long John.” A classic example of Delta blues, the original version by Big Joe Williams was recorded all the way back in 1935.

Few blues songs have been arranged, re-arranged and covered by as many artists as “Baby Please Don’t Go” has. Van Morrison, AC/DC, Rolling Stones, Aerosmith have all had a go, not to mention such blues giants as Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker or B B King coming up with their own renditions too.

Our favourite’s got to be the rock-infused, semi-psychedelic version by Buddy Guy, though, which gives off a strong Jimi Hendrix vibe with Guy’s plucky vocals and fuzzy guitar taking centre stage. Smokey, energetic and full-blooded, it really captures the raw, passionate energy it was conceived with. 

 

“Boom Boom” 

One of the jumpier, bubblier numbers on our list, “Boom Boom” was John Lee Hooker’s smash hit from 1962 that made it into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame list of songs that helped shape rock ‘n’ roll even though it’s got to be one of the poppiest, most accessible blues numbers in music history. Perhaps that’s why The Animals chose to cover it on their debut album The Animals from 1964, which became a major hit for the band.

While most songs on our list stem from tales of broken hearts and hardship, the origin story behind “Boom Boom” is not exactly as complex…  As John Lee Hooker described it himself, “I would never be on time [for the gig]; I always would be late comin' in. And she [the bartender Willa] kept saying, "Boom boom – you late again". Every night: "Boom, boom – you late again". I said "Hmm, that's a song!" ... I got it together, the lyrics, rehearsed it, and I played it at the place, and the people went wild.”

Rock band ZZ Top later used the similar, recognisable lines for one of their most famous rock anthems, “La Grange.”

 

“I Can’t Quit You Baby” 

Another blues hit written by legend Willie Dixon (see also: “Hoochie Coochie Man”), which became Chicago blues artist Otis Rush’s first recording—and a major hit—in 1956. According to Dixon, the song was inspired by a difficult relationship that Rush was in at the time, which explains his undeniably passionate but anguished delivery on stage, that seizes our attention the second he hits that spine-tingling, nearly ten-second-long opening note. 

It’s one of the most instantly recognisable blues songs of all time and has inspired numerous rock bands such as Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones to produce their own versions. And when you listen to the Rush’s gutsy guitar solo (note how he holds the guitar upside down too), riveting trills and smooth riffs you can certainly see why blues played such a crucial role in shaping the sound of rock music.   

Though the song has been covered many times, our favourite version must be the iconic Led Zeppelin rendition which infuses the song with even more pronounced swagger and sexiness nailed to the manic desperation of Robert Plant’s howling vocals.

 

“Shave ‘Em Dry” 

This jaw-dropping doozy has got to be our personal favourite. If you’re easily offended by double entendres and savoury turns of phrase, you might want to cover your ears for this one.  

“Shave ‘Em Dry” is a feisty example of an entirely separate subgenre of blues, subtly called “dirty blues”. The songs dealt with risqué, socially taboo subjects, which is the reason they were banned from the radio and could only be found on jukeboxes. Developed before the Second World War, dirty blues had a massive revival again in the 1960s.


Lucille Bogan 

It’s hard to believe that this sexed up number was first recorded as early as 1924 by the “Mother of Blues”, Ma Rainey, though this 1935 version by Lucille Bogan is arguably the most famous one. The song would be performed in after-hours adult clubs, and according to music critic Keith Briggs, they were recorded either for the fun of the recording engineers, or for "clandestine distribution as a 'Party Record.’" Briggs notes that Bogan seems to be unfamiliar with the lyrics on the recording, reading them as she sings them, potentially surprised by them herself.

 

“See See Rider” 

“See See Rider” is a classic from the queen of blues, Ma Rainey who was one of the earliest African-American professional blues singers with a fascinating life marked by scandal and controversy.

“See See Rider” is a traditional 12 bar blues song about an unfaithful lover, also commonly referred to as an “easy rider”. “See see rider” has since become synonymous with the term and was frequently used to describe a woman of liberal sexual views, though in Ma Rainey’s case, the roles are reversed and the see see rider in question is male.

Film director Martin Scorsese himself is a big fan of the song and credits it with sparking his interest in music: “One day, around 1958, I remember hearing something that was unlike anything I'd ever heard before ... The music was demanding, "Listen to me!" ... The song was called "See See Rider," […] And I listened to it obsessively. Lead Belly's music opened something up for me. If I could have played guitar, really played it, I never would have become a filmmaker.”

Like every other song on this list, “See See Rider” has been covered by numerous artists, including Peggy Lee, Janis Joplin, Cher and even the King himself. 

 


“Cross Road Blues” 

We finish off with one of blues’ most iconic, mythical and mysterious figures, Robert Johnson, and his famous blues staple, “Crossroads”, also known as “Cross Road Blues”.

It’s a very stripped back, no-frills classic blues song that consists of just Johnson’s vocals and his haunting acoustic slide guitar which acts as the second voice in the song, answering to Johnson’s rugged main vocals.
 


Robert Johnson 


“Cross Road Blues” became a big part of the mythology surrounding Johnson selling his soul to the Devil in exchange for his musical gift; many thought that the cross road in question is where this supernatural transaction happened.

“Cross Road Blues” is renowned for its intricate Delta-blues style guitar technique, with Johnson’s playing termed as “blues harp style”: employing sharp percussive accents on the bass strings (an imitation of the sharp draw used by harmonica players) which allows Johnson to explore different chordings and fills. Rolling Stone chose it as Number Three on their list of “Greatest Guitar Songs of All Time”.

 

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