Blues music originated in the Deep South of the United States, toward the end of the Civil War. This genre was taken initially from African-American work songs as well as spiritual hymns and became extremely popular in the 1920s. There have been a ton of amazing blues singers over the years, and in this article, we take a look at the top 25 best blues singers of all time.
1. B.B. King
B.B. King is definitely one of the most famous blues singers in the world. Riley B. King got his start as a singer and guitarist on a plantation that was located close to Indianola, Mississippi. He was only 22 years old when he thumbed a ride to Memphis, Tennessee, to launch his musical career. It began to take off in 1948 after he took on his stage name of B.B. King since it was much more catchy than his formal name.
By the mid-1950s, he was touring all over the United States. Over the next 10 years, his fame would continue to grow, and he was even inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1994 as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
2. Billie Holiday
Born Eleanora Fagan in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1915, Billie Holiday knew since she was a very little girl that she wanted to be a singer. At the age of 14, she was already playing in jazz clubs in New York City, which was when she adopted her stage name. By the time she was 18, Billie had met a record producer named John Hammond, who propelled her career to the next level very quickly.
She partnered with pianist Teddy Wilson and began producing one hit right after another, signing a record deal with Columbia records in 1958. Unfortunately, Billie died a year after that, when she was only 44 years old. After her death, she earned four Grammy Awards posthumously. She will always be regarded as one of the greatest female jazz singers of our time.
3. Ray Charles
Born in 1930 in Albany, Georgia, legendary blues singer Ray Charles went blind when he was only six years old due to glaucoma. When he was 15 years old, he left school because of his love of music and began playing for dance bands throughout Florida. He had dropped his last name of Robinson so he wouldn’t be confused with the famous boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.
From there, Ray would have one of the most successful blues musical careers of the 20th century and is still legendary to this day. Throughout his career, he earned 17 Grammy Awards, a National Medal of the Arts Award, and even the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
4. Aretha Franklin
No list of the top blues singers would be complete without Aretha Franklin. She is a seasoned pianist as well as a famous singer and songwriter who has even been referred to as the “Queen of Soul.” She has sold more than 75 million records throughout the world, and she is still, to this day, one of the world’s best-selling artists of all time.
She started out singing gospel in her church in Detroit, Michigan, before signing as a recording artist for Columbia records when she was only 18 years old. She is well known for many hits, including “Respect,” “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman,” and “Chain of Fools.”
5. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix was born in 1942 in Seattle, Washington, and taught himself how to play guitar by ear at a very young age. He bought his first guitar when he was 16 years old and joined his first band not long afterward.
When he moved to London, England, he changed his name to Jimi Hendrix from Johnny Allen Hendrix and formed his own band. He began churning out hits every year after that. Tragedy struck when, in 1970, Jimi died from affixation due to a possible drug overdose when he was only 27.
6. Etta James
Etta James grew up in Los Angeles, California, and began singing at the tender age of five. She, soon after that, became the star of her church choir.
By the time she was 16 years old in 1954, she was discovered by musician John Otis. She was able to record her first single the same year. She eventually signed with Modern Records before churning out a line of hit records throughout the latter part of the 1950s. She died at the age of 73 in 2012 from leukemia.
7. Otis Redding
Born in 1942 in Dawson, Georgia, Otis Ray Redding Jr. moved to Macon, Georgia, and grew up there. He later made his way to Louisiana in 1960, when he began recording and releasing hit singles, such as “These Arms Of Mine” and became famous as a blues musician.
In 1965, he recorded the popular album Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul, in only one day. He released two more albums over the next two years, which included his biggest hit ever, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay.” Otis died in a plane crash in Wisconsin on December 10, 1967.
8. Muddy Waters
Born McKinley Morganfield in Issaquena, Mississippi, in 1915, Muddy Waters took the long way to become one of the most legendary blues singers and guitarists of all time. He was in his 30s when he became a semi-successful traveling musician until he made his way north to Chicago in 1943.
In the same year, someone gifted him an electric guitar, and it wasn’t long after that when he started recording music for large record companies, including RCA and Columbia records. He enjoyed his rise to stardom in the world of blues music but, unfortunately, lost his life to a heart attack in 1983 when he was 68 years old.
9. Nina Simone
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina, Nina Simone was able to master the piano by the age of three, so her parents encouraged her to pursue music. She eventually made a name for herself in Atlantic City.
She traveled all over the world while releasing more than 40 albums with some of the most popular blues songs to this day, including “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” “I Put a Spell on You,” and “Feeling Good.” She died as a blues music legend in 2003.
10. Janis Joplin
While many people may think of Janis Joplin as a major musician in the rock and roll world, she was actually considered a prolific blues singer and songwriter. She was born in Port Arthur, Texas, in 1943 but moved to San Francisco, California, in 1963, when she began her musical career as a folk singer.
It was her bluesy vocal ability that actually got her noticed when she joined a band called, Big Brother And The Holding Company. She went on to have several hits in a solo career before she lost her battle with drug and alcohol addiction in 1970 when she overdosed.
11. Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson grew up in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, but he eventually moved to the music capital city of the south, Memphis, Tennessee. It was there that he began making a living as a traveling musician.
In 1936, he caught the eye of a talent agent named H.C. Speir. He recorded several songs that became regional hits and sold thousands of copies. He began touring the United States in 1937 before he died from syphilis in 1938.
12. John Lee Hooker
Born in Mississippi in 1917, John Lee Hooker’s father passed down his love for music to him at a very young age. By his early 20s, John Lee was working and playing blues music in Detroit, Michigan, where he created a local fan base.
Eventually, he caught the attention of Bernard Besman, who was a producer for Sensation Records. It was from that experience that he became very well known in the blues music world and released the most successful album of his career when he was 72 years old. In 1997, he was even inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
13. Eric Clapton
Born in Surrey, England, Eric Clapton was raised by his grandparents and joined the band, The Yardbirds, in 1963. He took on the nickname of Slowhand while recording his first studio album and, in 1966, he joined the band, Cream. With that band, he recorded three albums and their fame seemed to skyrocket.
Eric would eventually become known as one of the most legendary artists of his generation, and he’s still producing albums today. He will go down in history as one of the most famous blues singers to ever pick up a microphone and guitar.
14. Buddy Guy
Buddy Guy was born in Louisiana in 1936 and had six siblings, so money was tight. When he was seven, he created a guitar using wood, two strings, and hairpins from his mother.
At the age of 21, Buddy took a real guitar to Chicago and linked up with some of the major players in the blues music world, such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. He has had a legendary career ever since then and, in 2012, he was even awarded the Kennedy Center Honor to celebrate his lifetime contribution to American culture with his music.
15. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Born in Dallas, Texas, in 1954, Stevie Ray Vaughan was playing the guitar by the time he was just seven years old. When he was 17, he quit school to focus on his musical career and formed his first blues band in 1970, named Blackbird.
By the 1980s, Stevie Ray had formed a band called Double Trouble, propelling it to the top band in Texas. Soon after that, he got a record deal with Epic Records, and the band released their debut album titled, Texas Flood. Unfortunately, Stevie Ray died in a tragic helicopter crash in 1990.
16. Big Mama Thornton
Born Willie Mae Thornton to a Baptist minister in a rural area of Alabama, Big Mama Thornton began her singing career at her dad’s church. She left home as a teenager to pursue a musical career.
In 1953, she had her first hit, “Hound Dog,” which topped the rhythm and blues charts for nearly two months. She sold more than two million copies of the record, which brought with it a new level of fame and recognition for her. She continued making albums into the 1970s until she became ill. She died at age 57 from a heart attack.
17. Memphis Slim
John Len Chatman was born in 1915 but is known to the world as Memphis Slim. He was introduced to blues music at a very young age and grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, which is home to some of the most legendary blues artists in the world.
In 1939, he moved to Chicago to pursue his dream of becoming a famous musician, which he achieved by 1940 when he released his first hit single, “Beer Drinkin’ Woman.” He ended up releasing over 500 recordings during his lengthy career and died in Paris in 1988.
18. Lightnin’ Hopkins
In 1912, Sam Hopkins was born to a sharecropping family in Centerville, Texas, back in 1912. He began playing in a blues band when he was only eight years old in the 1930s.
Eventually, he moved to Houston, Texas, to tour around the state as a traveling musician. He experienced a great rise in popularity in 1959 when folk music was all the rage in America. He performed and recorded many more singles and record albums over his lifetime until he died in 1982.
19. Howlin’ Wolf
Born in Mississippi as Chester Arthur Burnett in 1910, Howlin’ Wolf took his nickname from when he was a toddler due to his wild nature and large frame and made it his stage name. He began playing guitar at the age of 18, performing throughout Mississippi.
After a stint in the military, he formed his first band in 1948, and by the early 1970s, he had become a legendary figure in the world of blues music. He died in Illinois in 1976 after suffering complications from kidney disease.
20. Albert King
Albert Nelson, known to the blues music world as Albert King, was born in 1923 on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. He had eleven siblings, but by the 1950s, he had left them to move to Gary, Indiana, and began playing drums for Jimmy Reed, who was one of the most popular blues musicians of that time.
He then moved to Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1953, when he recorded for two different record labels and released hit songs, such as “Don’t Throw Your Love On Me So Strong” and “That’s What The Blues Is All About.” By the middle of the 1960s, he was wildly popular and held on to that fame throughout the rest of his life. He died in 1992 from a heart attack.
21. Paul Butterfield
Born in 1942 on Chicago’s south side, Paul Butterfield enjoyed listening to jazz and blues records with his father and older brother and began playing the blues himself when he became a teenager.
He was hired for a regular gig at a blues bar in Chicago and eventually formed his own band, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The band split up after performing at Woodstock in 1969, and he then became somewhat of a recluse. He died in 1987 in Los Angeles, California, from an intestinal illness.
22. Elmore James
Elmore Brooks was born in 1918 in Richland, Mississippi, and began playing blues music at a young age. By 1952, he was already recording songs in Jackson, Mississippi, under his stage name of Elmore James.
He had several hit singles, and one of them even reached no. 9 on the rhythm and blues chart in 1952. He died of a heart attack in 1963.
23. Freddie King
Freddie King was born in Gilmer, Texas, in 1934, and learned to play the guitar under the direction of his mom and uncle when he was still very young. When he was a teenager, he was heavily inspired by the Chicago Blues scene and joined it when he moved to Windy City in 1950.
By 1960, he had a record deal with Federal Records and eventually hit the big time with his hit single, “I Love the Woman.” He died at the age of 42 from heart failure.
24. Mamie Smith
It is believed that Mamie Smith was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, around 1883. She started out in show business as a vaudeville dancer and entertainer throughout her teenage years.
When she was 20, she settled in Harlem, and her career began to take off by the time she turned 25. She recorded a song titled “Crazy Blues,” and it is the first recorded blues song ever by an African American. She had a successful career until she died in 1946.
25. Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Kenny Wayne Shepherd is a more modern-day blues singer and has already had many top ten hits on the Billboard Blues Charts. His first hit was “Trouble Is,” and, in 1996, he started a longtime collaboration with vocalist Noah Hunt, who provides the lead vocals on Kenny’s signature hit song, “Blue on Black.”
Kenny has been nominated for five Grammy Awards and has garnered two Blues Music Awards as well as two Billboard Music Awards and two Orville H. Gibson Awards.
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