‘Chicago/The Blues/Today!’: An Influential Blues Masterpiece

This 1966 blues compilation helped create new opportunities for its artists and influenced countless rock musicians along the way.

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Chicago - The Blues - Today cover
Cover courtesy of Vanguard Records

In the winter of 1965, producer, author, and scholar Samuel Charters arrived in Chicago. He wanted to do something simple: Record the best of the city’s vibrant blues scene. Charters and Vanguard Records hoped that the resulting album, 1966’s Chicago/The Blues/Today!, would introduce listeners to contemporary blues and its rising stars. They had no idea that the 3-LP set would reinvigorate the genre – creating new opportunities for its artists and influence countless rock musicians along the way.

Chicago blues evolved from the traditional music of the Delta bluesmen – many of whom relocated to the Midwest from the segregated South in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Among them were Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Big Bill Broonzy, who established themselves in Chicago’s South Side. There, in the aftermath of World War II, a new style of blues began to emerge. It was exciting – bolstered by the warmth (and occasional distortion) of electric guitars and amplified harmonicas, with accompaniment from high-energy rhythm sections. In addition to Waters, Wolf, and Broonzy, artists like Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, and Willie Dixon were foundational in creating the Chicago blues sound.

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Chicago / The Blues / Today! is available as a 3-LP set exclusively via select independent record stores as part of RSD Drops 2021 starting June 12th.

By the 60s, a new crop of innovative artists was breathing fresh life into the scene, including pianist Otis Spann, guitarist Buddy Guy, harmonica virtuoso Junior Wells, and singer/guitarist Otis Rush. Yet, with the rising popularity of soul, folk, and rock’n’roll, contemporary blues music was becoming increasingly overlooked by fans, record labels, and journalists.

Samuel Charters wanted to change all that. As a producer and A&R man, he travelled regularly to Chicago and was well acquainted with the local blues scene. But his repeated attempts to sign or record these musicians were thwarted by labels. That changed in 1965, with a chance encounter with Vanguard Records’ co-founder, Maynard Solomon. Charters sold Solomon on the idea of a compilation. Rather than recording standalone albums by individual acts, he would give listeners a broad overview of the scene by compiling short sets from a variety of artists. In an essay for the 1999 reissue of Chicago/Blues/Today!, Charters explained, “My dream was to show what was happening on the South Side. I wanted to document the raw strength of the blues tradition that was hanging on in the little clubs. I could only show the variety and the excitement of the music by recording several of the bands.”

Setting up shop in an old RCA studio, he recorded nine acts in total – many of whom played on each other’s sessions, performing both traditional and original material. In his notes, he recalled a great sense of camaraderie between the musicians.

Among the highlights is the jaunty “Spann’s Stomp” from the versatile pianist, Otis Spann, while future Blues Hall of Famer Otis Rush showcases his smooth, expressive vocals in covers of “It’s a Mean Old World” and “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” Harmonica player Big Walter Horton offers his talents throughout the album, both as a featured act and as a sideman. His work is particularly notable on The Johnny Shines Blues Band’s “Black Spider Blues,” as well as on Johnny Young’s South Side Blues Band’s “My Black Mare.”

The album also captures a variety of special guests, including blues icon Willie Dixon (who played bass on Homesick James’ set) and a rising young harmonica player named Charlie Musselwhite. Legendary guitarist Buddy Guy, meanwhile, accompanied his frequent collaborator Junior Wells on tracks like “All Night Long” and “Vietcong Blues.” While Charters had initially hoped to include some of the city’s more famous blues pioneers, like Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, the majority of these artists were unable to take part in the record, due to their existing recording contracts.

Nonetheless, Chicago/The Blues/Today! struck an instant chord with the public. Before long, music fans and journalists from around the world were flocking to clubs on the South Side of Chicago. Many of the artists suddenly found themselves with label deals, exponentially bigger record sales, and opportunities to play rock, blues, and folk festivals around the country. An older generation of bluesmen was able to benefit as well. Muddy Waters, for example, enjoyed a career resurgence and went back on tour, while Willie Dixon regained control of his songs – and his royalties.

Outside of America, the album became an essential addition to any blues enthusiasts’ collection – particularly those of young British rockers. Just a few years before, tours like the American Folk Blues Festival had popularized the genre in the UK and Europe. Rising artists like The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton became heavily influenced by the electrified sounds of Chicago blues. Songs by many of the bluesmen featured on Chicago/The Blues/Today!, meanwhile, would later appear on albums by Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Steppenwolf.

But while these rock artists reinterpreted the genre for a new generation and white audiences, Chicago/The Blues/Today! reminded listeners that the authentic art of the blues was still very much alive. In his 1999 liner notes, journalist Ed Ward perhaps put it best, writing: “at long last, [the album] established contemporary blues, not as some degenerate offshoot or sub-section of another music, but as a vital part of the American cultural landscape.”

Although Charters never set out to create a cultural revival with Chicago/The Blues/Today!, he certainly fulfilled his goal of promoting Chicago blues – and then some. “The sessions in the Chicago winter of 1965 were clearly something that framed a moment, but it wasn’t a moment that any of us could have planned or anticipated,” he wrote, more than three decades later. “The moment just came, and there was an audience ready for what we wanted to record.”

Chicago / The Blues / Today! is available as a 3-LP set exclusively via select independent record stores as part of RSD Drops 2021 starting June 12th.

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