Blind Blake: his whole life is a mystery There have been more scholars dedicated to tracking the life of Blind Blake (believed to have been born in Florida in 1890, and to have died in Milwaukee in 1933) than to determining if human life is possible on Mars. Mysterious and influential in equal parts, the greatest certainty of this man is that his guitar technique is still studied in music schools. Blind Blake specialised in that devilishly complicated technique of fingerpicking: playing at the same time and with different fingers the rhythm and the melody. His almost 100 compositions are used train musicians from all over the world. Beyond that, everything is speculation: was he really called Blind Blake? Was he blind? And what about his death? It is known that it was premature, with some saying that he was killed by a traffic accident and others by a lung disease.
Bessie Smith: the first great blues star and an avoidable death? “I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich, but I prefer the latter,” she once said. Indeed, the life of Bessie Smith (Tennessee, 1894 – Mississippi, 1937) was a continuous slide that ended in the depths. Smith was the first great blues star. Her talent, her unparalleled voice and her impetus led her to sell thousands of albums in the 1920s. She toured constantly, and commanded a high fee. Smith was responsible for up to 40 people who worked for her. She travelled in her own train car, with comfortable beds and alcohol always available. It was the equivalent of a rock star lifestyle. A lover of vices and voracious in her bisexuality, Smith lived in excess. But wth the Great Depression came decline, and the 1930s were very different for her. There was not so much money and her numerous love disappointments were dragging her down. Smith ended her days in a car accident in 1937 that is still the subject of speculation. Some say that she died bleeding because several hospitals refused to attend to a black woman; others point out that she went to a black hospital (that’s how things were at the time), but her injuries were irreversible. Be that as it may, Bessie Smith has influenced rock (Janis Joplin idolised her) and blues forever.
Blind Lemon Jefferson: his death was an enigma. One of the great mysteries of the blues is this: how did pioneer bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson (Texas, 1893 – Illinois, 1929) die? Scholars throw up several theories: he was poisoned by a jealous husband who discovered that Jefferson had a relationship with his wife; he died after being bitten by a rabid dog; he was killed by a heart attack. The theory with the strongest foundation is the one that is most tragic. On a frigid December night in 1929, he was on his way to give a concert but became lost and died frozen on the streets of Michigan. He was 36 years old and blind. Jefferson’s robust singing and poetic lyrics greatly influenced the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who adapted some of his compositions. The photo shows Jefferson in 1928.
Bukka White: rescued from the darkness by enthusiastic music lovers. Twice, delta blues musician Bukka White (Mississippi, 1906 –Tennessee, 1977) was in a dark hole very far from his music. Both times, he was rescued by enthusiastic musical archaeologists. On the first occasion, White (condemned for shooting someone) was in Parchman Farm, a brutal Mississippi prison. He was a black prisoner in the United States during the racist 1940s. The prisoners worked under unbearable conditions, from sunrise until nightfall. During that time, the musicologist Alan Lomax arrived to record some songs. When White was released from prison, he recorded a collection of shocking songs about his incarceration. But then he disappeared again. White was called up to participate in World War II. When he returned to Memphis, he ended up working at a junkyard. His songs had been claimed by figures such as Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Two folk fans found him and told him about the passion he inspired among white musicians. They convinced him to sing again. White toured for a few years with some success and even helped his cousin, blues great BB King. He died in 1977, aged 71, a victim of cancer. The photo shows White at the Folk Blues Festival in 1967.
Charley Patton: the life of an unbridled genius. This is the only surviving photo of Charley Patton (Mississippi, 1891 – Mississippi, 1934). There are even doubts about his race: a mixture of black, Indian and white. What nobody doubts is that he is, along with Robert Johnson, was the most influential blues musician. Bob Dylan composed High Water (for Charley Patton). Jack White has said: “If a musician listens to Patton and does not feel anything I would not say he is a musician.” Patton married eight times, drank from morning to night, consumed cocaine, and got into fights… in short, he lived hard, and this provided him with excellent stories for his lyrics. He sang harshly and with rage. And he performed spectacular feats, such as playing the guitar with his teeth or throwing it into the air and picking it up – and still hitting the right note. Jimi Hendrix would polish these tricks. Patton died of a heart attack at age 43. Although he lived for too few years, his biographers say that he took advantage of them very well.
Jimmy Reed: a talent ruined by alcohol. If his life had not been an absolute disaster, Jimmy Reed (Mississippi, 1925 – California, 1976) could have become as transcendental as, for example, Chuck Berry. But his dysfunctional nature left him in a ditch. It was all within reach: Reed was one of the few blues musicians who had songs at the top of the hit list. His dragged sound and “boogie” caught youngsters such as the Rolling Stones and Neil Young. But Reed’s rampant alcoholism ruined him. Some remember his last European tours, where a passionate audience came to see him and found a man, consumed by drink, who did not remember his lyrics. He died at age 51 due to respiratory failure.
Little Walter: They called him the Bad Boy of Blues. Violent, alcoholic, badass, inveterate gambler. And a great harmonica player. Surely, the best blues harmonica player of all time. Little Walter (Louisiana, 1930 – Chicago, 1968) was the first musician to triumph with that small wind instrument as his main resource. It all began in the 1950s, when he was part of the Muddy Waters band. Then Leonard Chess, the head of Chicago Chess Records, discovered Little Walter’s talent and launched him as a solo act. The songs were incredible, some of them were hip hop long before hip hop was born, said Chuck D of Public Enemy. But Little Walter’s alcoholism resulted in a bad character. He was always at the centre of a fight. The black blues fell out of favour in the 1960s, when the Beatles and the Rolling Stones dominated popular music. Little Walter behaved like a cowboy out of control, according to Mike Rowe in his book Chicago Blues. Little Walter died in bed, in the house he shared with his girlfriend, after a night of fighting. His death was due to injuries and alcohol. He was 37 years old, but looked 60. In the photo, Little Walter poses with his harmonica in 1955.
Mamie Smith: the star who ended up alone and ruined. Along with Bessie Smith (they were not related, despite sharing a last name), Mamie Smith (Cincinnati, 1883 – New York, 1946) was one of the great ladies of the first years of the blues. In fact, Smith is credited with the first great blues success. That song, Crazy Blues, was released in 1920 and sold by the thousands on slate discs, one of the first sound formats. This success opened the record market for the blues. Smith starred in movies. She had a hectic love life, which was detailed in what were then called “society chronicles”. She ended up in a maelstrom of drugs and alcohol that led to her death at the age of 63, between economic hardships. The photo shows Smith and her group, the Jazz Hounds, in 1922.
Robert Johnson: the most influential bluesman, died without a dime. When he died flat broke at age 27, Robert Johnson (Mississippi, 1911 – Mississippi, 1938) was in complete ignorance of his profound influence. An angry legion of jealous husbands rejoiced at his death. One of three alternative theories about the cause of his death is that he was poisoned by a man who learned that Johnson had slept with his wife. The other two hypotheses are syphilis and pneumonia. Johnson recorded only 29 songs, mostly his own compositions, which today comprise the bible of modern blues. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Led Zeppelin and, more recently, Jack White and the Black Keys have idolised him. His personal way of playing the guitar and his amazingly literary lyrics are studied in music schools. Then there is, of course, that absurd story that he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in order to become the best guitarist in the world. No, Johnson’s life is already juicy enough based on the facts. The photo is one of the few extant images of Johnson.
Son House: the permanent fight with their demons. For Son House (Mississippi, 1902 – Michigan, 1988), a man in perpetual struggle with his demons, there was no intermediate zone. Either he gave his life to the Lord inside the church, or he fell into the arms of the devil and spent a wild life with alcohol. House’s music transmits that internal chill. He murdered a man in a bar, it is said in self-defense. When he was released from prison, he took refuge in physical work but always clung to a bottle. House married five times and preached the word of the Lord. He sang delta blues like no others, influencing musicians of all generations – including Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and the White Stripes. And House was rewarded with a second life. While he was in one of his long retreats, young musicians sought him out and persuaded him to sing again. He did so, in the 1960s, reaping great successes at Newport (Rhode Island) and the Montreux Festival (Switzerland). A prisoner again of his contradictions, he retired in the mid-1970s. House died at age 86, having lived his life to the limit. The photo shows him in 1969.