From The Blues To Infinity

One of the most fascinating aspects of popular music is the interrelationship of different genres and the evolution/mixture of older genres into newer ones. This is a dense sentence which could earn me a professorship somewhere, but the gist of it is simply: music evolves. Rock and roll didn’t just happen one day. Early rock came out of blues, country, R&B (not the same thing as what we call R&B these days), Western swing, boogie woogie and honky tonk to name just a few genres. Certain songs have been around for a looooooong time and have evolved through a variety of styles.

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Submitted for your approval today is Baby Please Don’t Go, a tune that most likely originated as a slave song in the distant mists of time. Its first popular recording came in 1935 from Big Joe Williams, performed in an old-timey blues style. I’m going to venture a guess that many people think of Stevie Ray Vaughan or Cream when they hear the term “blues”, and while these are in fact blues performers, 1935 blues sound quite unlike their modern cousin. Instruments were often primitive, cigar box guitars and washtub basses for example. Recording technology was not so advanced. And many of the surviving recordings from the time period are not in great shape, so there’s a lot of hissing and popping that I associate with the genre.

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Williams’ song became quite popular (today being perhaps the most-recorded song in history) and was recorded by a variety of blues legends including Lightnin’ Hopkins (1947), John Lee Hooker (1949), Big Bill Broonzy (1952) and most famously by Muddy Waters in 1953. Waters’ version, known as Turn Your Light Down Low, is a nod to the future, a more urban (and electric) blues, and a jumping off point for rock bands in the 60s.

Amongst all these blues, The Orioles recorded a doo wop version of Baby Please Don’t Go in 1952 that was a hit. Their interpretation combines early R&B accompaniment with doo wop vocals, creating a much different feel than the earlier blues versions. Ray Charles also performed an amazing R&B take on the song featuring female backup singers, and, well, Ray.

As the blues became electric, rock and roll began to emerge as a distinct genre. Billy Lee Riley, a member of Sun Records rockabilly stable, recorded a version in 1957 that maintained some of the blues elements, but that featured a distinctly upbeat feel. But the real rock explosion came in 1964 when Van Morrison’s band Them recorded a hit which remains the version people are probably most familiar with today.

Other rock bands followed with the own versions: Paul Revere and The Raiders (1966), The Ballroom (1967), Ted Nugent’s psychedelic group The Amboy Dukes (1968), AC/DC (1975) as a single that reached #10 in Australia, and the Rolling Stones with Muddy Waters in 1981. Each group brought their own interpretation to this now-classic song. And the recordings continue with Cowboy Junkies, Aerosmith and Tom Petty in more recent years. The song provides a veritable geological strata of popular American musical styles. Pretty cool.

So check out these artists, if not to listen to Baby Please Don’t Go, then to hear a wide variety of styles and perhaps to detect common elements that lead from one style to another. It’s a great big beautiful world of music out there (to badly misquote Louis Armstrong and Devo), so take a chance on something new. Or something blues. You choose.

Later, gotta snooze.

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