History of Rock: Early Influences, The Legends

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Welcome to part II of Early Influences, The Legends. The following are only a few of the many talented musicians who made rock what it is, but they are those who stand out the most.

Born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in 1911, Robert Johnson has been said to be one of the most influential blues artists of all time. It is easy to understand why, seeing as he was one of the first to create modern blues by linking the country blues of the fields to the city blues. Unable to work in the fields during the Depression, Johnson set out with his guitar to find his life as a musician. He started out performing in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas at small-time clubs, and then partnered up with Johnny Shines to perform in St. Louis, Detroit, and Chicago. These sessions were recorded in three days, spread out over November 1936 and two days in June 1937. He recorded only 29 songs in his career, but they are considered to be worth their weight in gold as far as influence is concerned. Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck all see him as one of the greatest performers of all time and started playing because of the type of music he created. He died, however, from a poisoning by a jealous husband, August 16, 1938. He was the first Early Influence to be inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame, in 1986.

Born in 1891, Jelly Roll Morton can be credited for weaving together blues, ragtime, stomp and european influences into the modern sound of jazz. As talented a compser and bandleader as he was a pianist, Morton spread his influence far and wide. His most prolific work was in the twenties, when he toured with Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. Like Johnson, he brought the life and energy of his New Orleans background, complete with its harmony-based music, and fused it with the virtuostic soloing that had taken Chicago by storm. He work is best reflected in a series of small-band recordings done by RCA Victor, where he worked with such legends as Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds and Baby Dodds. His festive stomps and blues were some of the arliest foundations of rock and roll. He was inducted in to the RHoF in 1998, but wasn’t around to see it, having died some 76 years ago.

Lead Belly, or Huddie Ledbetter, was another performer who never got to see his greatest dreams achieved, having died before a broder public knowledge of his work came into focus. His life was certainly not an easy one, as he went in and out of jail, only to find a poverty stricken existence waiting for him on the outside. He was born sometime around 1885 in Louisiana, and set of to find himself (with a guitar) at the age of sixteen. He studied under Blind Lemon Jefferson, and soon mastered the blues, country songs, spitruals, prison songs, and folk ballads, to name a few. He had a quick temper, though, and was charged with murder in 1917, and attempted murder in 1930. He was released because of his playing abilities, the second time largely due to John and Alan Lomax, who were recording southern musicians when they first heard him. He then moved to New York, where he took a shine to the folk songs from that area and period. He worked in the day as a chauffeur for Alan Lomax, and at night as a perfomer. Like his good friend Woody Guthrie, he took part in political rallies and performed for labour unions in his later years. He died in 1949, six months before a white group, the Weavers, covered one of his songs, “Goodnight, Irene” and made it a hit. He was inducted to the RHoF in 1988.

Author of over 500 songs, session bass player for Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and other, as well as being one of the preeminant founders of Chicago blues, Willie Dixon was a man of many hats. Born in 1915, in Vicksberg, Mississippi, Dixon was exposed to many types of music which served him well later as he mixed them all together, and brought it to the Windy City, playing with the Five Breezes, the Four Jumps of Jive and the Big Three Trio. He moved to Chicago in 1936 after his boxing career failed and he refused army service, being a conscientious objector. In 1951, he really found his home at historic Chess Records, where he was a session performer, in-house songwriter, recording artist and a staff musician. He became a preacher of the virtues of blues, being one of the first people to defend the copyrights of blues artist, establishing the Blues Heaven Foundation in his later years. He was inducted in ’94.

All right, who better to round up this group which, I know, I know, is surely missing some very important and talented artists – but before you go yelling down my throat about who I left out, consider that I have a life other than typing and there’s far, far too many people to be acknowledged here; for more information, check the Blues and Roots page – than the Beale Street Blues Boy himself, the King of Blues, BB King! Although the RHoF lists him as a perfomer, he was also a large early influence. He was born in Indianola, Mississppi in 1925, and is still going strong now. In his twenties, he was a deejay for WDIA, where he got his nickname and two initials. The Beale Street reffered to the clubs he performed in on Beale street in Memphis, Tennessee. He began recording in ’49 at RPM Records, and scored with “Three O’Clock Blues,” which gave him the front to perform nationally at such venues as the Appollo theatre in New York. He left RPM for ABC-Paramount Records, releasing countless live albums, recorded from his ceaseless tours. He brought the blues new places, and brought them into the pop mainstream. His latest big thing was his recording of “When Love Comes To Town” with U2 for their movie, Rattle and Hum. He’s still rockin’ today, having perform a week ago in my city, Toronto, Canada.

Okay, that’s it. Sorry for those I left out, like T-Bone Walker, Jimmie Rogers, Jimmy Yancey, Louis Jordan, Hank Williams, Professor Longhair, and a whole bunch of soul and gospel people. If you’ve got any comments, go ahead and shoot ’em at me, but don’t, please don’t, complain about who I left out. Until next time, rock on!