Singing the blues. It’s not something that just any singer can pull off. And while the genre is often thought of as songs about hard times, the fact is there are plenty of blues songs that celebrate the joyous things in life.
Here’s a list of 13 outstanding blues singers. Some of these folks are no longer with us, and some you’ve probably never heard of until now. But you’re sure to love the way they sing.
13. Trudy Lynn
Lynn has a big, gutsy vocal sound that’s informed by the greats that came before her, like Etta James and Big Maybelle, and she can sound sweet and sensual or a little bit menacing. On “That’s Alright,” a cut from her latest album Blues Keep Knockin’, she sings “Listen sugar, It’s tit for tit and tat for tat/You kill my dog, I’ll kill your cat.” And while she’s speaking metaphorically, you’ll believe every word.
12. Dave Keller
Keller caught a big break half a dozen or so years ago when the revered guitarist Ronnie Earl had the singer guest on his Living in the Light album, which brought Keller’s soulful blues voice to a whole new audience. Keller, who is also a stellar guitarist, sometimes brings to mind another singer on our list, Jimmy Hall. Hear for yourself on Keller’s latest album Every Soul’s a Star.
11. Kim Wilson
Ain’t that tough enough? Yes it is, Mr. Wilson. Kim’s voice powered blues rockers the Fabulous Thunderbirds with hits like “Tuff Enough,” “Powerful Stuff” and “Wrap it Up” back in the late ’80s, but those moments on the rock charts actually represent just a small amount of Wilson’s work. The singer and blues harp player has recently released a solo album called Blues and Boogie Vol. 1 and a tribute album to blues great Muddy Waters.
10. Sue Foley
This Canadian singer and guitar player is known as the Ice Queen, and that’s also the name of her latest album, which is nominated in six categories of the soon-to-be-awarded Maple Blues Awards. She’s definitely cool, but her voice is full of fire at times too. Fans across the country are enjoying Foley’s live show right now as she’s in the middle of a tour that includes an Austin, TX appearance with Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top on Dec. 28.
9. Jimmy Hall
Hall was nominated for a GRAMMY Award for his vocal work on Jeff Beck’s Flash album and he’s also released a string of solo records, but he remains best known for his work with the band Wet Willie where he put in an incredible vocal turn on “Keep on Smilin’,” a Top 10 hit in 1974. Hall hasn’t lost his edge over all the years and he still plays out regularly; catch one of his shows and you’ll see why he’s on this list.
8. Johnny Rawls
This native of Mississippi was named Most Outstanding Blues Singer in the Living Blues Awards Critic’s Poll in 2013, the same year he won Best Blues Album for Red Cadillac. Drawing inspiration from ’60s artists like ZZ Hill, O.V. Wright and Joe Tex, Rawls is still racking up accolades; his recent release Waiting for the Train was nominated for Soul Blues Album of the Year this year.
7. Joanne Shaw Taylor
This British singer and guitarist has gone wild! Well, Wild is the name of her 2016 album that has just been picked up for re-release on Silvertone/Sony Records, the imprint that’ll also handle her upcoming 2019 release. Musically Taylor, who co-writes most of her songs, has a sound deeply rooted in traditional blues and her emotive vocals make it sound like she’s lived them too.
6. Eric Bibb
To look at Eric Bibb you wouldn’t think he’s had a career that stretches over 50-years, but the singer and guitarist started out in the folk world, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. More recently Bibb has worked with lots of African musicians to create music that transcends the blues. When you talk about Bibb’s voice you are talking about far more than notes and tone; you’re talking about the wisdom of many generations of mankind that he imparts in song.
5. Bonnie Raitt
Also a master of the slide guitar, blues singer Raitt has been one of the genre’s major crossover artists who has landed on the rock charts with hits like “Thing Called Love,” “Something to Talk About” and the sublime “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Today Raitt’s voice remains strong and rich with a gravitas that only comes with considerable experience.
4. Little Milton
This late great blues man left us in 2005, but he left behind a substantial body of work, substantial in both volume and significance. With a hefty voice that sometimes recalls fellow guitarist BB King, Milton had big records with “Grits Ain’t Groceries,” the swinging “That’s What Love Will Make You Do” and a blues version of the country classic “Behind Closed Doors.” Little Milton recorded for the vaunted Stax label as well as Chess Records and others and, for the uninitiated, any title will serve as a good introduction.
3. Gregg Allman
Allman, who passed in 2017, had one of the most recognizable voices in popular music, and his whiskey-soaked Southern drawl powered many blues-centric Allman Brothers Band songs like the Muddy Waters staple “Trouble No More,” the self-penned “Whipping Post” and “Statesboro Blues,” a cut written by fellow Georgian Blind Willie McTell. Allman also recorded an album called Low Country Blues in 2011 where he paid homage to blues greats Skip James, Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, “Sleepy” John Estes and others.
2. Bobby “Blue” Bland
Another American treasure that has passed away, Bland was sometimes referred to as The Lion of the Blues and The Sinatra of Blues, two titles that give an example of how revered he was. A staple on Memphis’ Beale Street where he hung out with fellow players like BB King and Junior Parker, Bland would have his first chart success with the now oft-covered “Farther Up the Road.” The Grateful Dead famously covered Bland’s “Turn on Your Lovelight” and Jay-Z sampled Bland’s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City” on his The Blueprint album.
1. Howlin’ Wolf
Born Chester Burnett, Howlin’ Wolf had the coolest stage name ever and a feral voice to match. One of the undisputed old masters of the blues, Wolf died more than 40-years ago but he continues to influence young singers and his songs “Smokestack Lightning” and “Killing Floor” are among the most-covered blues songs of all time. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and countless other rock bands have pointed to Howlin’ Wolf’s gritty vocals as an influence.