Whilst many younger fans of today might think blues rock bands are something their dad might listen to, the rock music of today simply could not exist without the contribution the genre has made to music. The early generation’s exploration of amplified, electric guitar music shaped the future of music forever.
The Origins of Blues Rock
Blues rock began simultaneously in the UK and the United States in the 1960s. The genre was essentially a fusion between blues and rock – as the name suggests. Inspired by American blues artists, like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Jimmy Reed, musicians took traditional blues songs, particularly those from the Chicago blues scene, and played them at faster tempos with a harder, more aggressive sound. The impact of fusing the two genres was nothing short of a musical revolution.
The combination of blues and rock came naturally. The two genres were always interlinked to some degree. Rock elements, such as electric guitars, distortion, the use of power chords on the guitar, had been used by blues musicians throughout the 1950s. And US guitarist, Lonnie Mack was playing blues rock style guitar several years before the genre became properly recognised.
In the UK, the rise of blues rock is intimately linked with the British blues scene and began to take shape in the late 1950s before finding exceptional success in the mid to late 1960s. Blues found popularity in the UK in the 30s, having been brought over by American soldiers and seamen. Folk blues and R&B were initially the most popular sub-genres, but all this changed when Muddy Waters toured the UK in 1958 playing his unique style of electrified and amplified blues.
In 1961, Alexis Korner formed the band Blues Incorporated. The band played blues at jazz clubs around London and were the first amplified, electric R&B band in the country. They played regularly at hot venues, including the Ealing Jazz Club and the Marquee Club. In attendance at these gigs were musicians who would go on to form the first blues rock bands, among them, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, John Mayall, and Keith Richards.
John Mayall became a leading figure over the next few years after he created his band John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. After gaining credibility on the London jazz and R&B gigging circuit, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers released their debut album, John Mayall Plays John Mayall, in 1965. The album was still very much British blues but pointed to a shift in direction.
The real change came a year later when the band recorded with Eric Clapton. The album featured a Gibson Les Paul guitar running through a Marshall amplifier, a combination that would become iconic in the blues rock scene. The album marks the true beginning of the blues rock revolution and has been ranked among the greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.
In the same year, Clapton formed the now legendary band Cream, undoubtedly one of the most influential blues rock bands. The groups first album, Fresh Cream, was released in 1966 and went to number 6 in the UK and number 39 in the US. As if in recognition of its status as one earliest blues rock albums ever recorded, the album was half comprised of songs written by the band and half by blues covers. With the formation of Cream, the genre of blues rock was born and it wasn’t long before a host of bands began playing it.
Blues Rock in the Mainstream
In 1967, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers made another incredible contribution to the history of blues rock when Mick Fleetwood and Peter Green, who had replaced Clapton on guitar, left the band to form Fleetwood Mac. The newly formed band released their debut album, Blue Horizon, in 1968. The album reached number 4 on the Uk charts and contained to of the bands now classic songs, Black Magic Woman and Need Your Love So Bad. In the same year the band released the song Albatross as a single; the song made it to number 1 on the UK singles chart.
Meanwhile, Cream were busy breaking into America. In 1967, the band released their second studio album, Disraeli Gears. The album performed well in the UK reaching number 5 on the album charts. In the US the album slowly gained popularity and by 1968 had reached number 4 on the Billboard 200 album chart. The album includes the song, Sunshine of Your Love, which became their most known song.
The success of the album prompted Cream to tour the United States. They became known for performing long jams live on stage, with Clapton letting loose on the guitar. Lengthy guitar solos, and musical virtuosity generally, were always an important aspect of blues rock and during the golden era of the late 60s, every show contained long instrumental sections.
And long, indulgent jams did nothing to dent the band’s popularity; in 1968, Cream released the album Wheels of Fire. The album reached number 3 in the UK and number 1 in the United States. It became the first platinum selling double album ever made.
While Cream and Fleetwood Mac are perhaps the quintessential blues rock bands, no history would be complete without mentioning The Rolling Stones. Like Clapton and Mayall, the band started out playing at the Marquee Club in London. Their first single, released in 1963, was a cover of American R&B artist Chuck Berry called Come On. The song reached number 21 in the UK singles charts and The Rolling Stones only went up from there. More pop oriented than Cream, The Rolling Stones moved away from blues rock at the height of their fame between 1965-67, only to return to blues with the album Beggars Banquet in 1968. The album reached number 3 in the UK and number 5 in the US.
Jimi Hendrix also had a profound impact on the genre and gained critical and commercial acclaim for his virtuoso guitar playing. After appearing on Top of the Pops, Jimmy Hendrix achieved chart success with the songs Hey Joe, and Purple Haze, both of which entered the top 10. His heavier, more distorted sound gave him an edge over the smoother style exhibited by Eric Clapton and he opened the door for the heavy metals solos of the next decade.
And commercial success for blues rock bands was not only confined to the UK. In the United States, ZZ Top were to achieve huge commercial success in the 70s and 80s with their harder blues rock style. Their 1983 album, Eliminator, went on to sell more than 10 million in the US alone. However, the period of true blues rock lasted only a few years in the late 60s. After that point, most bands moved on to psychedelic rock, hard rock, progressive rock, and other related genre.
Contemporary Blues Rock
Blues Rock enjoyed something of a revival in the 2000s, with bands like the White Stripes, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and the Black Keys.
The White Stripes broke into the mainstream with the release of their album Elephant in 2003. Prior to its release the bands fame had focused on the UK, but the album turned them into a global phenomena. They successfully blended punk with blues rock, creating a startlingly unique sound.
Inspired by traditional blues artists like Howlin’ Wolf, The Black Keys found commercial success in 2010 with their album Brothers. The record reached number 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart demonstrating the readiness of audiences to listen to a truly blues rock sound once again.
And with every rock genre built on the foundations created by blues and rock, it is unlikely that the fusion of these two incredible genres will ever fall completely out of fashion. Many of the original blues rock bands remain among the highest selling bands of all time, continually loved and revered by their original fans and new fans alike.
Key Moments in the History of Blues Rock
- 1961 – Proto-blues rock band Blues Incorporated formed in London.
- 1965 – John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers released their debut album, John Mayall Plays John Mayall.
- 1966 – Eric Clapton forms Cream with Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce
- 1967 – Jimmy Hendrix released Are You Experienced. The album reached number 2 in the UK and number 5 in the USA.
- 1968 – Fleetwood Mac released their self-titled debut album. The album reached number 4 on the UK albums chart, though hardly registered in the USA.
- 1968 – Cream released Wheels of Fire.
- 2003 – White Stripes become an international phenomenon with their album, Elephant.
- 2010 – Black Keys album, Brothers, reached number 3 on the Billboard 200 album chart.