The 100 Greatest Blues Singers

59) Otis Redding: A genius of soul…

Otis Redding was a driver for guitarist Johnny Jenkins when they pitched up at the Stax recording studio in 1962. The story goes that Jenkins’ session ended early, and not on a high note, and Redding asked for a chance to sing before they packed up. Next thing you know, he cut These Arms Of Mine and became a soul sensation. Nice story, but the truth is Otis’ big break was engineered by his friend and Jenkins’ manager Phil Walden.

No matter how it all went down, Otis teamed up with Booker T & The MGs guitarist Steve Cropper and they produced a run of beautifully-sung soul classics such as Respect, I Can’t Turn You Loose, Try A Little Tenderness and the horn-driven take on The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction that Keith Richards heard in his head when he wrote the song.

Otis died in a plane crash in 1967, leaving behind a faultless body of work. In fact, when we ran our Otis Redding buyer’s guide in issue 26 and tried to find a recording to avoid, we couldn’t finger anything by the man himself. Instead, we plumped for mullet-haired whiner Michael Bolton’s unnecessary 1987 cover of Otis’ (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay. EM

58) Jonny Lang: Fargo’s finest set of pipes.

Even as a bum-fluffed blues cub, Jonny Lang sounded older than his years, his larynx apparently transplanted from a grizzled Delta chain-smoker (“It’s funny,” he reflected, “because when I started singing in a band, I really didn’t expect that voice to come out”). He emerged from the drugs years with his abilities intact, and 2013’s Fight For My Soul was his best vocal showcase to date, with the gospel-inflected River sounding more convincing than a North Dakota white-boy has any right to, and We Are The Same spitting out wellchosen words like bullets. HY

57) Kim Wilson: This Thunderbird is always go.

Wilson originally honed his craft backing the likes of Muddy Waters as part of the house band at Antone’s in Austin. As the lead singer of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, he went on to drag the blues kicking and screaming into the 1980s, with such classics as Wrap It Up and Tuff Enuff, and is still going strong today. JHai

56) Billy Gibbons: The cat’s whiskers.

The image never changes, but it’s only when you thumb through ZZ Top’s catalogue that you appreciate the sheer range of Gibbons’ vocals. He can do the down-and-dirty stuff in his sleep, with the sandblasted grizzle of I Gotsta Get Paid and the seismic guest-spot on Nickelback’s Follow You Home both suggesting a man who exists on a diet of Marlboro, mezcal and thumb-tacks. But the bandleader can also clean up beautifully for melodic cuts such as Lovething and the soaring I Need You Tonight. Few modern vocalists can match Gibbons’ ability to shed his skin. HY

55) Johnny Winter: The best voice-box in Texas?

The young Johnny Winter might have been ejected from the Beaumont church choir for singing too loud (“I told them, ‘I’m not singing too loud, these other fuckers are singing too quiet!’”), but the Texan’s scabrous shriek was thrilling on tunes such as Be Careful With A Fool. In latter days, methadone and bad management sucked the joy from Winter’s voice – “He couldn’t even speak,” recalls one insider – so it was heartening to hear him cleaned-up and at full throttle shortly before his death, with the Roots and Step Back albums. HY

54) Bo Diddley: The wise-cracking originator who linked the blues and rock’n’roll.

Born Ellas Bates, Bo Diddley made a huge impact with his self-mythologising debut single Bo Diddley, with its “hambone” rhythm, in 1955, bridging the gap between blues and rock’n’roll. His vocals were an essential part of his appeal; usually good humoured, sometimes shouted, sometimes soulful but always unique. On Say Man (1959), he introduced “signifying” to the US charts with its street-corner wise-cracking, Diddley deadpan next to his goofing maracas man Jerome Green. On Who Do You Love? (1956), meanwhile, Diddley’s authoritative voice drives the hoodoo. JH

53) Mavis Staples: Changing the world through her songs.

Chosen by Billy Bragg: “Like Aretha, Mavis is the link between gospel and soul and blues and pop, but her role in the civil rights movement is crucial and stands her apart from everyone else. The Staple Singers were Martin Luther King’s house band if you like; whenever he spoke, he wanted them there, and their bringing together of the civil rights message and music gave a lot of soul and blues bands the impetus to start writing about serious subjects – and suddenly you had these pop soul guys like Edwin Starr singing War too.

“But Mavis’ voice is one of the great voices of all time. Church played a huge role in its development, but from day one Mavis had a depth that was rare. A lot of popular music relied on high voices – Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson – but the real powerful soul and blues voices are those that sit lower in the register like Otis Redding’s and Mavis’, which, uncommonly among female singers, has that lower register, so she was able to sing in a powerful way and put across those powerful ideas.

“I did some shows with her in the States. I was finishing my set with my track, I Keep Faith, and Mavis and her sister Cleotha were waiting in the wings to come on and I could just hear them singing along. Mavis also let me get up and sing a verse of The Weight in her show and that was a great honour.”

52) Frankie Miller: Scotland’s one man hit factory…

The Glaswegian singer-songwriter has seen his material interpreted by Johnny Cash, Rod Stewart and Etta James. His standout moments as a singer are numerous but I Can’t Change It from his 1973 album Once In A Blue Moon is particularly moving. It was covered by the great Ray Charles. EM

51) Luther Allison: The man with friends in high places…

Fate wanted Luther Allison to do well. Respected by no less than Howlin’ Wolf and Freddie King, who both encouraged the young singer/ guitarist, Allison would himself become a friend and mentor to the likes of Walter Trout, who released a critically acclaimed tribute album Luther’s Blues in 2013. EM

50) Peter Green: The leader of the Mac…

Peter Green is the best blues guitarist the British Isles ever produced. As BB King once said: “He has the sweetest tone I’ve ever heard…” But Greeny is a bloody good singer too. Like BB, the John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers alumnus and Fleetwood Mac frontman could belt out a lyric while understanding the power of restraint. Listen to the contrast between the shouty Oh Well and the masterclass of emotion and taste that is Need Your Love So Bad. The latter side is blessed with the sweetest vocal he ever recorded. EM

Peter Green

Peter Green

49) Big Mama Thornton: An imposing and inspiring figure in blues history…

A talented vocalist and harp player, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton will forever be remembered for her powerhouse 1952 performance of Leiber and Stoller’s Hound Dog. While the Elvis version overshadowed her original, The King removed the song’s sexually charged innuendo by literally singing about a dog. Thornton had no such qualms, belting out admonishments to a cheating lover. Another standout performance is Ball N’ Chain, later covered by her disciple Janis Joplin. EM

48) Hound Dog Taylor: Unorthodox vocalist who did it his way.

Born in Mississippi in 1915, Hound Dog Taylor’s creed was ‘let’s have some fun’, and his boogies, shuffles and slow blues are the very embodiment of that. His voice, like his guitar playing, mainlined straight into the human soul. Delmark employee Bruce Iglauer was so impressed he set up Alligator to issue his 1971 self-titled debut album, and it didn’t disappoint. A lesson in how to deliver rockin’ blues with feeling, it helped give rise to punk, punk-blues and alt-blues. AC

47) Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson: A founder member of the 27 Club…

Singer/guitarist and harp player Alan Wilson was the frontman of 60s American blues band Canned Heat. A noted expert on the history of blues, Wilson became obsessed with the recordings of Robert Johnson, Son House and Skip James. What set Wilson apart from his peers was his highpitched vocal style, a tribute to Delta blues artists like James and Johnson, most famously captured on Canned Heat’s On The Road Again (from 1968’s Boogie With Canned Heat) and follow-up single Going Up The Country (Living The Blues, also 1968). The former was inspired by John Lee Hooker’s 1949 cut Boogie Chillen; the latter by Texas bluesman Henry Thomas’ 1928 release, Bull Doze Blues.

Hugely talented, Wilson was also a troubled soul. His last album was Hooker N’ Heat a collaboration between Canned Heat and John Lee Hooker that was released in 1971. Wilson was already dead. On September 3, 1970, his body was discovered on a hill behind Canned Heat bandmate Bob Hite’s home in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles. Cause of death was recorded as accidental acute barbiturate intoxication. Aged just 27, Wilson’s death occurred two weeks before the death of Jimi Hendrix and four weeks before the death of Janis Joplin. EM

46) JB Hutto: A criminally underrated master…

JB Hutto was heavily influenced by Elmore James. While his most visual claim to fame is his red, Montgomery Ward Res-O-Glass Airline guitar, his voice was outstanding. Take in the live clip of Hutto performing Thank You For Your Kindness on YouTube and fall in love. EM

45) Albert Collins: The “Iceman” cometh.

Famed for his “icy hot” style on his beloved Fender Telecaster, Collins also had a commanding voice, which could make you laugh (I Ain’t Drunk) and make you cry (Cold, Cold Feeling). The bluesman was also a big influence on protégés like Gary Moore, Robert Cray and Coco Montoya. JHai

44) Lightnin’ Hopkins: A back porch raconteur of country blues life.

A lifelong friend of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Hopkins helped define country blues with his distinctive vocal phrasing and finger-picking style. A natural storyteller, Hopkins had the perfect dust bowl voice for hard luck tales about love, loss and life in the southern states of America, such as Mojo Hand and Trouble In Mind.

Hopkins enjoyed a second lease of life in the blues and folk revival of the 1960s. It seems no matter where he went, he could hold audiences spellbound with a few chords and the sound of his voice. JHai

43) Keith Relf: The singer behind The Yardbirds and all their hits.

Yardbirds lead singer Relf was the glue that held the band together, singing hits like For Your Love and Heart Full Of Soul. Relf was also the voice and harmonica on The Yardbirds’ incendiary cover of Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning, which propelled the band to stardom and gave their live shows such passion and energy. Sadly, The Yardbirds called it a day in 1968 and Relf went in a folk-rock direction with Renaissance. His death in 1976 aged 33 robbed us of one of rock’s great voices. JH

42) Stevie Ray Vaughan: Much more than just a guitar god.

Given his truly extraordinary talent on the guitar, it’s easy to forget that Stevie Ray Vaughan was a damn good singer too. He named his band Double Trouble after the track by Otis Rush, but while he was fully conversant in the classics, Vaughan’s greatest contribution to the blues was to bring the form up to date in the 1980s. 1983’s Texas Flood is compulsory listening, particularly his vocal performance on the title track, and 1989’s In Step sees Vaughan rise to the challenge of tackling Buddy Guy’s Leave My Girl Alone. Oh, what might have been had he lived. DW

Stevie Ray Vaughan

Stevie Ray Vaughan

41) Elmore James: The slide guitar master with a voice drenched in soulful emotion.

Influenced by Robert Johnson and known as the “king of the slide guitar”, Elmore James also had an enormously emotive voice that, like Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, could convey a greater meaning and mood through tone, not necessarily present in the lyrics of a song. Unlike Waters or Wolf, James’ key recordings are spread across various independent labels including Chief, Fire and Meteor, and included rocking blues such as Shake Your Moneymaker (1962), where James’ confident delivery provides perfect accompaniment to his infectious dancing slide guitar work, slow blues such as The Sky Is Crying (1960) and his definitive version of Tampa Red’s It Hurts Me Too (1957), where his seared, passionate vocals and guitar playing combine to accentuate the sorrow. James adapted Johnson’s I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom into his most famous song, Dust My Broom, originally recorded for the Mississippi-based Trumpet label (1951), and he would revisit it and its guitar lick on several occasions, the stinging slide and raw vocals creating his signature sound. James never quite achieved the success of Waters or BB King, perhaps because despite recording in Chicago and New York he retained a rural element to his blues, and even his singing seemed to originate in the southern churches of his childhood. JH

40) Blind Lemon Jefferson: Lone Star State’s blues squeeze.

The father of Texas blues cut spiritual sides early on, but it’s his haunting high-pitched vocals on secular material like Black Snake Moan and See That My Grave Is Kept Clean that made him a legend. And yes, Lemon was his real name. EM