1. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith
January 19th, 1936: Electric Blues vocalist, harmonica player and award winning drummer, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith was born in Helena, Arkansas. His early influences included Sonny Boy Williamson and Henry Strong and he began playing harmonica at age 17 after moving to Chicago, Illinois. He recorded with Arthur “Big Boy” Spires and Bo Diddley and played in his own trio. By the early 60s, drummers were more in demand than harmonica players, so he learned the drums and joined the Muddy Waters band in 1961. He left the band for a time to be a cab driver, but returned in the late 60s and stayed with Waters until 1980. During that time he contributed 84 tracks in 12 sessions, many of which were on Waters’ 6 Grammy winning albums. In 1980 he was a founding member of the Legendary Blues Band who toured with Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. He released several solo albums beginning in 1995, with the last one, Joined at the Hip with Pinetop Perkins, winning a Grammy Award in February 2011. Smith died from a stroke on September 16th of that year but, along with his Grammy, had amassed 13 Blues Music Awards with 12 of them being for drummer of the year.
2. Janis Joplin
January 19th, 1943: Janis Lyn Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas. An unpopular high school student, Joplin rebelled against the style and popular music of the late 1950s, instead finding inspiration in the music of Lead Belly, Ma Rainey, Odetta and Bessie Smith. She tried twice on the west coast and once in New York to get her music career launched, but finally hit when she auditioned for and was immediately hired by the band Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966. At the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, she won the band a recording contract with her cover of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball N Chain” and the album Cheap Thrills was a huge hit in 1968. By the end of the year she had left the band and after her performance at Woodstock in 1969, released her first solo album, I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! with the Kozmic Blues Band. From there she formed the Full Tilt Boogie band and was in the process of recording what would become her best selling album, Pearl, when she died of a heroin overdose on October 4th, 1970 at the age of 27. Joplin charted 3 singles with Big Brother, “Down On Me”, “Coo Coo” and “Piece of My Heart” and 5 singles as a solo artist including her cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”.
3. Lead Belly
January 20th, 1888: Lead Belly was born Huddie William Ledbetter on the Jeter Plantation near Mooringsport, Louisiana. By 1903 he was already performing in the red light district of Shreveport, singing and playing guitar. That area of Fannin Street in Shreveport is now known as Ledbetter Heights. Besides the 12-string guitar, Lead Belly also played piano, mandolin, violin, harmonica and accordion. He wrote the song, “The Titanic” shortly after the sinking of the RMS Titanic and performed it with Blind Lemon Jefferson in and around Dallas, Texas. Ledbetter was continually in trouble with the law, beginning in 1915 when he was convicted of carrying a pistol. He escaped and was convicted again 3 years later after killing one of his own relatives in a fight over a woman. He served time in Texas and at the Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana which is where John and Alan Lomax discovered him. They recorded him for the Library of Congress, and the senior Lomax became his benefactor, garnering him early releases from prison and taking him to New York where he began recording for the ARC label. After another jail stint, it was Alan Lomax who helped him out and set him up in the Harlem scene with artists such as Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Pete Seeger. Ledbetter died on December 6th, 1949 in New York from ALS. Ledbetter was a huge influence on many Blues and Folk artists and his songs have been covered by a wide variety of performers including CCR, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Ry Cooder and even Harry Belafonte and Frank Sinatra. He was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1986.
4. Etta James
January 20th, 2012: Blues, R&B, Rock, Gospel and Jazz vocalist, Etta James, died of leukemia in Riverside, California just 5 days before her 74th birthday. A native of Los Angeles, Jamesetta Hawkins began her vocal training with the Echoes of Eden church choir at age 5. At age 14, she met Johnny Otis who took her under his wing and reversed her given name into the stage name, Etta James which she would use through her entire career. Her first recording, “Dance With Me Henry” reached number 1 on the charts. Her debut album, At Last!, was released in late 1960 and contained the tracks, “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, “A Sunday Kind of Love” and, of course, the title track which would become James’ signature song. During her long career, James was nominated for 18 Grammy Awards of which she won 6. She won 17 Blues Music Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, The Blues Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Grammy Hall of Fame twice; in 1999 and 2008. One of her most famous songs was “I’d Rather Go Blind” for which she wrote the lyrics.
5. All Along the Watchtower
January 21st, 1968: Jimi Hendrix began recording his version of the Bob Dylan song, “All Along the Watchtower” at Olympic Studios in London, England. Dylan had released the song on the album, John Wesley Harding, some months earlier. The sessions included the other members of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, as well as Dave Mason and the Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones. Although the song was mixed down by Eddie Kramer and Chas Chandler 5 days later, Hendrix went over and over the song, adding and remixing until August and the song finally was released on the album, Electric Ladyland in September. It reached number 5 on the British charts and became Hendrix’ only Top 20 Billboard hit.
6. The B. B. King Collection
January 21st, 1982: Blues great, B. B. King donated his entire record collection of over 20,000 discs to the Center For the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. The collection included over 7,000 rare Blues recordings. This collection is now housed at the Barnard Observatory in the blues archive.
7. Sam Cooke
January 22nd, 1931: The “King of Soul”, Samuel Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The son of a Baptist Minister, Cooke began singing in Gospel groups in Chicago at age 9. Ten years later he was the lead singer of the Soul Stirrers and recording on Specialty Records. He released his first pop single in 1956 and in 1957 signed with Keen Records releasing the song, “You Send Me” which went to #1 on the Billboard R&B Charts for 6 weeks and the Pop Charts for 3 weeks. Between then and 1964 he had 30 Top 40 hits to his credit. Songs like “A Change is Gonna Come”, “Cupid” and “Chain Gang” solidified his standing in modern music. He was shot and killed by the manager of the Hacienda Motel on December 11th, 1964 and even then, three more of his songs posthumously topped the charts. Cooke was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, The Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2013. He is recognized as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time.
8. 10 Days Out
January 23rd, 2007: Reprise Records released the album 10 Days Out: Blues From the Backroads by Kenny Wayne Shepherd. It was released as a CD/DVD combo with the video focusing on a 10 day venture by Shepherd to meet, play with and record blues pioneers that were still living. These artists included Etta Baker, Cootie Stark, Neal Pattman, B.B. King, Henry Townsend, Hubert Sumlin, Lazy Lester, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, Pinetop Perkins, Jerry “Boogie” McCain and surviving members of both Muddy Waters’ and Howlin’ Wolf’s bands. The CD went to #1 on the Blues Album charts three different times spending a combined 14 weeks at the top.
9. Joliet Jake Blues
January 24th, 1949: Comedian, actor and singer, best known for his role as Joliet Jake in The Blues Brothers band, John Adam Belushi was born in Chicago, Illinois. After starting his own comedy trio, in 1971 he was asked to join the comedy troupe of Second City. After stints there and with National Lampoon in New York, he met Dan Aykroyd in Toronto and became one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live. The origins of the Blues Brothers begin on January 17th, 1976, when Belushi and Aykroyd as Howard Shore and His All Bee Band performed Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee” in bee costumes. On April 22nd, 1978, The Blues Brothers performed on SNL for the first time and their debut album, Briefcase Full of Blues was released on November 28th of the same year recorded live at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles as they opened for Steve Martin. Taking their look from a combination of Sam & Dave and John Lee Hooker, and their back story of learning the blues from an old janitor named Curtis (a nod to Curtis Salgado who educated Belushi on the blues) they assembled one of the greatest blues show bands in history, releasing 4 albums, charting 4 singles and 1 movie all before Belushi’s death on March 5th, 1982.
10. Sleepy John Estes
January 25th, 1899: John Adam “Sleepy John” Estes was born in Ripley, Tennessee. He learned guitar from his father, a sharecropper, who moved the family to Brownsville, Tennessee in 1915. Shortly thereafter, he was accidentally blinded in the right eye by a friend who threw a rock at him. At age 19 he began performing locally with Hammie Nixon and Yank Rachell and made his debut as a recording artist in Memphis in 1929. He recorded sporadically throughout the 30s and up to 1941. He recorded in Memphis once again in 1952 but had all but fallen out of the public eye for nearly 2 decades. In 1962, Bob Koester and Samuel Charters tracked him down, living in poverty and now completely blind. He once again began recording and playing with Nixon taking part in European tours and releasing works on the Delmark label. Estes died of a stroke on June 5th, 1977 at his home in Brownsville, and was posthumously inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1991.