‘If it wasn’t for bad luck
I wouldn’t have no luck at all.’
These immortal words were penned by William Bell and sung by Booker T Jones, but made famous by Albert King and covered by countless other artists. These lines, more than any other, in my opinion, exemplify the Blues.
If you don’t understand the Blues, start listening to some of the more contemporary artists, like Robben Ford, or wade in and try the master himself, BB King, who came up with such classic lines as this:
"I bought you a 40 dollar dinner and you said 'thanks for the snack'!
I gave you 20 children and now you wanna give them back!'
From - How Blue Can You Get by B.B. King
‘Nobody Loves Me But My Mother, and she could be jiving too,’ by B.B. King.
Joe Satriani, great guitarist that he is, tried his hand at the blues, and failed. Gary Moore, on the other hand, didn’t. Gary Moore is Irish and went through quite a bit of what was called ‘the troubles’. Joe Satriani was a middle-class kid with a huge talent. And therein lies the difference.
I used to play guitar to a fairly high standard, playing mainly rock and jazz and later classical, but blues? I could play the notes! I just couldn’t play the blues. Middle-class kid from middle-class South Africa; I hadn’t paid my dues.
There are exceptions to every rule, of course, and one of them is our very own Dan Patlansky. I don’t know his life story, but he sings and plays like he’s lived it.
Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton all paid their dues, coming up the hard way, and it shows in their music. They feel the Blues when they play: not the notes, the feeling that produces those notes.
‘Layla’ could never have come about without Eric Clapton having suffered the hardships he did on his way to the top. Ritchie Blackmore once said, at the height of Deep Purple’s fame, that he couldn’t afford to buy new jeans, due to the exorbitant cost of touring. He is, to me, one of the great Blues guitarists. He paid his dues.
‘I can't quit you babe, but I got to put you down for a while.’
Led Zeppelin I can’t Quit You
‘Stairway to Heaven’ is undoubtedly one of the greatest Rock songs ever written, but without its underlying core of Blues, could never work. Try and imagine Yes playing it. It needs all the elements of Blues, from the opening sequence,
‘There’s a lady who knows all that glitters is gold’
to the soaring crescendo arising from the interplay between Jimmy Page’s guitar solos and Robert Plant’s Blue’s soaked voice ending on,
‘And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.’
If you can’t feel the blues, you can’t play or sing it. It has to be wrenched from deep down within your soul, and find its tortured way out, either through your lips or fingers or both. But it cannot be an easy transition, or it’s not Blues.
And from an anonymous source: Blues ain’t nothin’ but a good man feelin’ bad.
From the immortal BB King: I've said that playing the blues is like having to be black twice. Stevie Ray Vaughan missed on both counts, but I never noticed.
Blues is not jazz, though it’s an offshoot of jazz. It comes from the slaves and emanates from early Gospel and, being Negro Spiritual music, has a plaintiveness borne of despair, and despair has wrought some of the most beautiful art and music ever experienced. Listen to Ray Charles sing Drown in My Own Tears.
Or read John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath . It’s not just about despair, it’s about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, which is why Blues very often has a humorous element to it.
And something about the blues has to do with the despair all of us feel at times. Blues has the ability to recreate that feeling without the attendant despair and, because Rock ’n’ Roll is based on Rhythm and Blues (NOT R&B!), you cannot have rock without the blues.
So the next time you wonder why that particular Led Zep song touches something deep within you, something inexplicable, you’ll know why. They’ve paid their dues, and it shows in their music.
And to finish, another classic blues line: He sure got a way with women.....He got away with mine. Michael Burks