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Electric blues is a type of blues music distinguished by the amplification of the guitar, bass guitar, drums, and often the harmonica. Pioneered in the 1930s, it emerged as a genre in Chicago in the 1940s. It was taken up in many areas of America leading to the development of regional subgenres such as electric Memphis blues and Texas blues. It was adopted in the British blues boom of the 1960s, leading to the development of blues-rock. It was a foundation of rock music. It continues to be a major style of blues music and has enjoyed a revival in popularity since the 1990s.

Origins

The blues, like jazz, probably began to be amplified in the late 1930s. The first star of the electric blues is generally recognized as being T-Bone Walker; born in Texas but moving to Los Angeles to record in the early 1940s, he combined blues with elements of R&B and jazz in a long and prolific career. After World War II, amplified blues music became popular in American cities that had seen widespread African American migration, such as Chicago, Memphis, Detroit and St. Louis. The initial impulse was to be heard above the noise of lively rent parties. Playing in small venues, electric blues bands tended to remain modest in size compared with larger jazz bands, providing the template for blues and later rock groups. In its early stages electric blues typically used amplified electric guitars, double bass (which was progressively replaced by bass guitar), drums, and harmonica played through a microphone and a PA system or a guitar amplifier.

By the late 1940s several Chicago-based blues artists had begun to use amplification, including John Lee Williamson and Johnny Shines. Early recordings in the new style were made in 1947 and 1948 by musicians such as Johnny Young, Floyd Jones, and Snooky Pryor. The format was perfected by Muddy Waters, who utilized various small groups that provided a strong rhythm section and powerful harmonica. His "I Can't Be Satisfied" (1948) was followed by a series of ground-breaking recordings. Chicago blues is influenced to a large extent by the Mississippi blues style, because many performers had migrated from the Mississippi region. Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Jimmy Reed were all born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. In addition to electric guitar, harmonica, and a rhythm section of bass and drums, some performers such as J. T. Brown who played in Elmore James's bands, or J. B. Lenoir's also used saxophones, largely as a supporting instrument. Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) and Big Walter Horton were among the best known harmonica (called "harp" by blues musicians) players of the early Chicago blues scene and the sound of electric instruments and harmonica is often seen as characteristic of electric Chicago blues. Muddy Waters and Elmore James were known for their innovative use of slide electric guitar. Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters were for their deep, "gravelly" voices. Bassist and composer Willie Dixon played a major role on the Chicago blues scene. He composed and wrote many standard blues songs of the period, such as "Hoochie Coochie Man", "I Just Want to Make Love to You" (both penned for Muddy Waters) and, "Wang Dang Doodle" and "Back Door Man" for Howlin' Wolf. Most artists of the Chicago blues style recorded for the Chicago-based Chess Records and Checker Records labels, there were also smaller blues labels in this era including Vee-Jay Records and J.O.B. Records.

In the late 1950s, the West Side style blues emerged in Chicago with major figures including Magic Sam, Magic Slim and Otis Rush. West side clubs were more accessible to white audiences, but performers were mainly black, or part of mixed combos. West side blues incorporated elements of blues-rock but with a greater emphasis on standards and traditional blues song forms. Albert King, Buddy Guy, and Luther Allison had a West Side style that was dominated by amplified electric lead guitar.

John Lee Hooker created his own blues style and renewed it several times during his long career. Memphis, with its flourishing acoustic blues scene based in Beale Street, also developed an electric blues sound during the early 1950s. Sam Phillips' Sun Records company recorded musicians such as Howlin' Wolf (before he moved to Chicago), Willie Nix, Ike Turner, and B.B.King. These players had a strong influence on later musicians in these styles, notably the early rock & rollers and rockabillies, many of whom also recorded for Sun Records. After Phillips discovered Elvis Presley in 1954, the Sun label turned to the rapidly expanding white audience and started recording mostly rock 'n' roll.

Detroit-based John Lee Hooker pursued a unique brand of electric blues based on his deep rough voice accompanied by a single electric guitar. Though not directly influenced by boogie woogie, his "groovy" style is sometimes called "guitar boogie". His first hit, "Boogie Chillen", reached #1 on the R&B charts in 1949. He continued to play and record until his death in 2001.

In the 1950s, blues had a huge influence on mainstream American popular music. While popular musicians like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, both recording for Chess, were influenced by the Chicago blues, their enthusiastic playing styles departed from the melancholy aspects of blues and played a major role in the development of rock and roll. Chicago blues also influenced Louisiana's zydeco music, with Clifton Chenier using blues accents. Zydeco musicians used electric solo guitar and cajun arrangements of blues standards.

Blues-rock

The distinction between electric blues and blues-rock is a very difficult one and many artists have been classified in both camps. With some notable exceptions, blues-rock has largely been played by white musicians, bringing a rock sensitivity to blues standards and forms and it played a major role in widening the appeal of the blues to white American audiences.

In 1963 American guitarist Lonnie Mack had developed the guitar style which prefigured with blues-rock, releasing several full-length rock guitar instrumentals strongly grounded in the blues, the best-known of which are the hit singles "Memphis" (Billboard #5) and "Wham!" (Billboard #24). However, blues-rock was not considered a distinct movement within rock until the advent of such British bands as Fleetwood Mac, Free, Savoy Brown and the groups formed around the three major guitarists that emerged from the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.

Eric Clapton had a lasting influence on the genre; after leaving the Yardbirds and his work John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, he formed supergroups Cream, Blind Faith and Derek and the Dominos, followed by an extensive solo career that has been seminal in bringing blues-rock into the mainstream. In the late '60s Jeff Beck revolutionized blues rock into a form of heavy rock with his band, The Jeff Beck Group. Jimmy Page went on to form The New Yardbirds which would soon become Led Zeppelin. Many of the song on their first three albums and occasionally later in their careers, were expansions on traditional blues songs.

The British and blues musicians of the early 1960s inspired a number of American blues-rock fusion performers, including Paul Butterfield, Canned Heat, the early Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, The J. Geils Band and Ry Cooder. The revolutionary electric guitar playing of Jimi Hendrix (a veteran of many American rhythm & blues and soul groups from the early-mid 1960s) and his power trios, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Band of Gypsys, had broad and lasting influence on the development of blues-rock, especially for guitarists. Blues-rock bands like Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and eventually ZZ Top from the southern states, incorporated country elements into their style to produce Southern rock.

Early blues-rock bands often emulated jazz, playing long, involved improvisations and by about 1967 bands like Cream and The The Jimi Hendrix Experience Experience had begun to move into psychedelia. By the 1970s blues-rock had become heavier and more riff-based, exemplified by the work of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, and the lines between blues-rock and hard rock "were barely visible", as bands began recording rock-style albums. The genre was continued in the 1970s by figures such as George Thorogood and Pat Travers, but, particularly on the British scene, except perhaps for the advent of groups such as Status Quo and Foghat who moved towards a form of high energy and repetitive boogie rock, bands became focused on heavy metal innovation, and blues-rock began to slip out of the mainstream.

Contemporary electric blues

Since the end of the 1960s electric blues has declined in mainstream popularity, but retained a strong following in the US, Britain and elsewhere, with many musicians that began their careers as early as the 1950s continuing to record and perform, occasionally producing breakthrough stars. In the 1970s and 80s it absorbed a number of different influences, including particularly rock and soul music. Stevie Ray Vaughan was the biggest star influenced by blues-rock and opened the way for guitarists like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang. Practitioners of soul-influenced electric blues in the 1970s and 80s included Joe Louis Walker and most successfully Robert Cray, whose Strong Persuader album (1986), with its fluid guitar sound and a intimate vocal style, produced a major crossover hit.

Since her breakthrough commercial success Nick of Time in 1989 Bonnie Raitt has been one of the leading artists in acoustic and electric blues, doing much to promote the profile of older blues artists. After the renewed success of John Lee Hooker with his collaborative album The Healer (1989), in the early 1990s a number of significant artists began to return to electric blues, including Gary Moore, beginning with Still Got the Blues (1990) and Eric Clapton with From the Cradle (1994). There were also many new acts who played a version of blues-rock, including Clarence Spady,, who has been credited with taking the music in new and exciting directions, The White Stripes, The Black Crowes, The Black Keys, Jeff Healey, Clutch, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and Joe Bonamassa. This renewed interest in blues in general and electric blues in particular has led to talk of another blues revival or resurgence.