Friday, February 21, 2014

Mount Slidemore

Friday Blues Fix has explored the "Mount Rushmore" topic several times with various subjects over the past couple of years, including a Mount Rushmore of Chess Records, Swamp Blues, and one featuring the four greatest blues pioneers (in our opinion).  This week, we will look at the Mount Rushmore of blues slide guitarists....a daunting task to say the least, and one that will probably offer a few differing opinions among our visitors, which is cool because there is certainly a wide field of contenders for the top four spots.

Tampa Red
Tampa Red - Many fans that are new to the blues may be scratching their heads right now, but Hudson Whitaker (a.k.a. Tampa Red) influenced numerous blues guitarist with his unique "single-string" slide technique, including Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Nighthawk, Muddy Waters, and Elmore James.  He was one of the first, if not the first, black musician to play a National steel resonator guitar, in the late 20's, and this is where he picked up his bottleneck guitar style, which was later an influence not just in the blues, but also indirectly to rock guitarists.  He was also one of the first blues men to move to Chicago from the South and make it big.  Oh, yeah....and he played a mean kazoo, too.  

Red played on hundreds of recordings over his 30-year career, his own sessions and sessions with artists like Sonny Boy Williamson (Version 1, John Lee Williamson), Georgia Tom Dorsey, Big Maceo, Memphis Minnie, and many others, becoming one of the first Chicago blues guitar legends while excelling on acoustic and electric guitar.  Newer fans may not have heard Tampa Red, but they have heard many of his songs, including "Let Me Play With Your Poodle," "Black Angel Blues," "Love Her With A Feeling," and "It Hurts Me Too."  Billed as "The Guitar Wizard," Red combined the rural Delta sound with a more urban feel, helping to pave the way for the Chicago blues that we all know and love today.

Robert Nighthawk
Robert Nighthawk - Nighthawk learned to play slide guitar from listening to Tampa Red, and later returned the favor by influenced many other notable slide masters, starting with Earl Hooker and Muddy Waters.  We've discussed the guitar wizardry of Robert Nighthawk here previously.  He probably would have been better known if he had been prone to stay in one place for an extended period, making it hard to pin him down for recording sessions.  His wandering nature, generally shy nature, and seeming contentment just to play the juke joints and clubs from Chicago to Helena all contributed to his limited number of recordings, but man, what he did record was incredible.  He had the smoothest, cleanest sound and his warm, burnished vocal style was pretty distinctive, too.  Though his recording catalog is fairly slim, he was a huge influence on a lot of other great slide guitarists, one of whom took what he did and moved it to the next level.

Elmore James
Elmore James - Without a doubt, James' signature riff is the most duplicated slide lick in all of bluesdom.  No blues guitarist can play slide guitar without repeating that riff at least once in their repertoire.  James himself repeated it on numerous tracks of his own over the years, but it's most identified with his reworking of Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom."  Despite his distinctive style, James was influenced by Robert Johnson and Tampa Red, among others, and he recorded several of Red's songs during his career and made them his own.  We discussed Elmore James a while back at FBF....the number of blues guitarists that he's influenced (basically everybody) and the number of songs of his that are recognized as blues standards.  Though there could be some debate about who belongs on Mount Slidemore, there's not any way that Elmore James can be left off this list.

Earl Hooker
Earl Hooker - Though Robert Nighthawk taught and influenced him, Earl Hooker took slide guitar to previously unreached heights.  Like Tampa Red, Hooker played on numerous sessions besides his own, though he wasn't nearly as prolific with his own recordings as Red was.  He was so good that the consummate slide guitarist, Muddy Waters, enlisted him to play slide on Waters' "You Shook Me," one of Hooker's finest performances on wax.  As good as he was playing slide, he was equally impressive playing other styles, moving easily from the blues to R&B, jazz, and even country when the mood hit him, but it's his slide guitar playing that sets him far above the pack.  He bounced around from label to label, was somewhat limited vocally, and was as notorious a wandering musician as Nighthawk was, but the only way that it could be argued that Earl Hooker doesn't belong on Mount Slidemore is if the person arguing against it had never heard him play.  For more info on Hooker, go here.

That's it for this list.  I do realize that I left several of the greatest, and most influential slide guitarists off of Mount Slidemore.....Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson immediately spring to mind.  Waters has been on two of my previous three Mount Rushmores, so I decided to give somebody else a spot in his place.  Robert Johnson deserves a monument of his own.

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