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Top 10 Chicago Blues Artists

Just a few of the greats, whose influence spans continents, genres, and generations.

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Chicago blues artist Howlin' Wolf
Photo: Sandy Guy Schoenfeld/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Based around the early and captivating sounds of an amped-up electric guitar and wailing harmonica, the Chicago blues sound as we now know it was heavily influenced by early Delta bluesmen who migrated north in the 40s. By the middle of the century, this exciting new style of music could be heard nightly in clubs throughout Chicago’s South Side.

While all forms of the blues were instrumental in the development of popular music, Chicago blues in particular directly influenced early R&B stars, rock’n’roll pioneers, and seminal acts in the UK. Muddy Waters, for instance, influenced Chuck Berry, who would transition his electrified blues to rock’n’roll in the 50s. Across the Atlantic, rising artists like Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, and the Animals took a stylistic cue from Chicago blues – and often reinterpreted blues standards for their own albums. Even later, American bands like The Allman Brothers spun their own, Southern-steeped version of Chicago blues.

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Below, uDiscover counts down ten of the top Chicago blues artists, whose influence spans continents, genres, and generations.

Big Bill Broonzy

Famous for oft-covered standards like “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “The Midnight Special,” Big Bill Broonzy (1903 – 1958) was a vital figure in the development of blues music and helped to popularize the genre across America. One of the most versatile artists of his day, Broonzy (born Lee Conley Bradley) played a hybrid of styles, incorporating elements of folk music, spirituals, ragtime, and country blues, as well as both acoustic and electric instrumentation. Broonzy helped usher in the post-war Chicago blues sound, passing the torch to artists like Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon and influencing everyone from Tom Jones and Jerry Garcia to Eric Clapton and The Kinks’ Ray Davies.

Junior Wells

Best known for his signature song, “Messin’ With The Kid,” and the much-acclaimed 1965 album, Hoodoo Man Blues, Junior Wells (1934 – 1998) had a big hand in pioneering the hard-driving, amplified blues harmonica style that became synonymous with Chicago blues. Wells frequently collaborated with guitar virtuoso Buddy Guy, as well as with the likes of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Earl Hooker. Later, he would find crossover success in the rock world, touring with The Rolling Stones.

Sonny Boy Williamson

Dubbed the “Father of Modern Blues Harp,” Sonny Boy Williamson (1914 – 1948) was a true visionary, as one of the few artists to incorporate the harmonica as an expressive, lead instrument. During his brief, yet highly prolific career (cut short when he was killed in a robbery), Williamson played on hundreds of recordings and served as a mentor to many of the great post-war Chicago blues artists, including Junior Wells, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Rogers. Among his hits were popular standards like “Stop Breaking Down,” “Good Morning, School Girl,” and “Shake the Boogie.”

Otis Rush

Known for his sizzling, long bent notes, guitarist (and famous lefty) Otis Rush (1934 – 2018) established the “West Side” Chicago blues sound – characterized by smoother, jazz-influenced styles and a robust horn section. Inspired by fellow bluesman Muddy Waters, Rush began his recording career in the mid-50s, scoring a hit with his first single, “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” followed by the regularly-covered “Double Trouble.” Thanks to an appearance on the highly influential Chicago/The Blues/Today! series, as well as regular appearances at festivals across the US and Europe, Rush became a favorite of emerging rockers like Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield, and Fleetwood Mac founder Peter Green.

Little Walter

Often compared to the likes of Jimi Hendrix or Charlie Parker, harmonica virtuoso Little Walter (1930 – 1968) remains the only artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame specifically for his harmonica skills. In a moment of brilliance, Walter was the first artist to attach a microphone to the harmonica, allowing him to stand out alongside electric guitars. Then he took it a step further: using the microphone to create revolutionary new sounds, thanks to distortion. It was a radical approach that would reverberate throughout rock music for decades to come. As a solo artist, Little Walter scored 14 Top Ten R&B hits, including “You’re So Fine” (1954) and the chart-topping “Juke” (1952) – the only instrumental harmonica single to ever hit No.1.

Bo Diddley

The inventor of the instantly-recognizable five-accent rhythm (“The Bo Diddley Beat”), singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer Bo Diddley (1928 – 2008) was pivotal in the development of rock’n’roll. The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee also pioneered a variety of guitar techniques – all of which can be heard in hits like “Who Do You Love?” and “Pretty Thing.” Diddley’s influence, meanwhile, is audible in hundreds of songs by other artists, including those by The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Buddy Holly, and The Clash.

Willie Dixon

As the writer of such omnipresent standards as “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Little Red Rooster” and “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover,” Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Willie Dixon (1915 – 1992) is synonymous with Chicago blues – and rightly so. In addition to his prolific work as a songwriter and performer, Dixon also worked behind the scenes – scouting, writing, and producing acts for Chess Records and Cobra Records. In later years, he established his own imprint and remained an advocate for the blues and blues artists throughout his life.

Howlin’ Wolf

A powerful and magnetic performer, Howlin’ Wolf (1910 – 1976) and his booming voice were a looming presence in the Chicago blues scene. Born in Mississippi, Wolf was a protege of Delta blues legend Charley Patton and established his career in the South before relocating to Chicago. There, he recorded such enduring hits as “Smokestack Lightnin,” “Killing Floor,” and “Spoonful.” In the 60s and 70s, Wolf expanded his palette, collaborating with up-and-coming rock, psychedelic, and free jazz musicians, including Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Louis Satterfield, Phil Upchurch, and Bill Wyman.

Buddy Guy

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Kennedy Center honoree, and multiple Grammy winner Buddy Guy (b. 1936) is one of the most influential guitar players in history. Guy began his career as a session musician, accompanying the likes of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Koko Taylor. He also formed a fruitful partnership with harmonica player Junior Wells, resulting in a handful of key blues albums. But it was over the next decades that Guy would emerge as a prolific solo artist and electrifying performer, who was once declared to be “the best guitar player alive” by Eric Clapton. Today, he remains an active artist and plays more than 100 shows every year.

Muddy Waters

Dubbed the “Father of Modern Chicago Blues,” Muddy Waters (1915 – 1983) brought his Delta blues to the North, where he became one of the most important figures in the post-war scene. A six-time Grammy winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Waters rose to success in the 50s, recording such blues standards as “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I’m Ready.” Over the next two decades, however, he would enjoy massive crossover success with a new generation of folk and rock fans. Waters’ influence is immeasurable. The Rolling Stones, for example, named themselves for one of his songs, while he has been cited by the likes of AC/DC, Jimi Hendrix, ZZ Top, Paul Rogers, and Eric Clapton, among dozens of others. His oft-covered songs, meanwhile, continue to live on.

Who are your Chicago blues favorites? Let us know below!

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41 Comments

41 Comments

  1. Jacques Cloutier

    May 26, 2017 at 8:36 pm

    Third Degree from Willie Dixon!

  2. Jacques Cloutier

    May 26, 2017 at 8:36 pm

    Third Degree – Willie Dixon

  3. stew Kupperman

    May 26, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    for me, i’ve listened to them all. but, the best is that i got to meet a pretty good amount of these people.
    muddy waters….hung out in his dressing room between shows.
    otis rush….saw him in nyc with my friend, ronnie earl, playing with him.
    willie dixon, buddy guy, jr. wells….met them all at a blues show in providence, rhode island.
    i’ve also met james cotton. and, koko taylor used to stay at our house in boston when she would appear in that area.
    sometimes i have to pinch myself when i think of meeting these great musicians!!

  4. Georgia Sam

    May 26, 2017 at 11:20 pm

    Muddy Waters: Long Distance Call
    James Cotton (who plays harmonica on this video): Rocket 88
    JB Hutto: Too Much Alcohol
    Johnny Shines: Dynaflo Blues

  5. Jon Ferguson

    September 28, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    Magic Sam

  6. Christer Svensson

    October 3, 2017 at 5:09 pm

    I think you forgot “Hound Dog Taylor.

    • Joyce Marie Morrin

      January 10, 2018 at 12:39 am

      Absolutely!

    • jonas

      March 6, 2018 at 12:24 am

      Exactly. What a legend.

  7. Tom

    November 4, 2017 at 5:07 pm

    Wille, and the Wolf

  8. Michael Mireles

    November 4, 2017 at 5:35 pm

    No Jimmy Reed? I can’t believe he is not on this list!

    • Tom Leverton

      December 28, 2017 at 11:54 am

      I can’t believe Paul Butterfield’s not there

  9. Marie

    November 4, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    No Magic Sam?????? WTF?

    • stew Kupperman

      December 7, 2017 at 6:44 pm

      exactly!!! he certainly belongs!!!

  10. Naftali H.

    November 4, 2017 at 7:04 pm

    Muddy Waters

  11. Joel

    November 4, 2017 at 8:46 pm

    Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers! Little Walter a close,and I mean close,second.

  12. peter crivea

    November 4, 2017 at 9:18 pm

    lighting hopkins

    • Ed

      January 9, 2018 at 6:41 pm

      Texas not Chicago

  13. Baron Gattoni

    November 4, 2017 at 11:34 pm

    1. Muddy Waters
    2. Howlin’ Wolf
    3. Mudbone Steven Clark
    4. J.B.Hutto
    5. Hubert Sumlin
    6. Willie Dixon
    7. Hound Dog Taylor
    8. Magic Sam
    9. Memphis Slim
    10. Sonny Boy Williamson

    • gregory mccurry

      February 15, 2019 at 5:05 pm

      no John lee Hooker?

  14. keith

    November 5, 2017 at 8:05 pm

    paul butterfield

  15. Olaf Janssens

    December 2, 2017 at 4:12 am

    Muddy Waters – Sugar Sweet
    Little Walter – Whatever he did on harmonica and My babe.
    Jimmy Rogers – Chicago Bound
    Songs could be many others but these do stand out throughout the entire genre. Can you tell I love the woman in my life? 😉

  16. Cyndi Crawford

    December 3, 2017 at 7:31 pm

    Howlin Wolf is my favorite

  17. Andrew prentice

    December 4, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    What about the mighty Elmore James ?

    • Michael C

      December 9, 2017 at 12:52 pm

      James emerged from Mississippi in 1952 with “Dust My Broom.” He definitely had an influence on the Chicago sound in the mid to late 1950s and beyond, but he was already well established by the time he arrived on the scene in Chicago.

  18. Erichsen

    December 4, 2017 at 7:05 pm

    T-Bone Walker? T-BONE WALKER??

    • Michael C

      February 7, 2018 at 6:09 pm

      T-Bone did not come out of Chicago. This list is of *Blues artists who emerged from the Chicago Blues scene*.

      • Michael C

        February 7, 2018 at 6:12 pm

        T-Bone had already enjoyed quite a bit of success in Dallas and Los angeles before his stint performing and recording in Chicago in the early 1940s. After the war his recording was once again centered in Los Angeles.

  19. Joe

    December 5, 2017 at 12:55 am

    Lefty Diz live at Kingston Mines!

  20. Boris

    December 5, 2017 at 4:15 am

    Elmore James with his Broomdusters, the rockin’-est Chicago blues band ever!!

    • Michael C

      December 9, 2017 at 12:53 pm

      James emerged from Mississippi in 1952 with “Dust My Broom.” He definitely had an influence on the Chicago sound in the mid to late 1950s and beyond, but he was already well established by the time he arrived on the scene in Chicago.

  21. Alan McDonald

    January 9, 2018 at 7:02 pm

    My 10 includes
    Sonny Boys Williamson II, Magic Sam,, Magic Slim, Hound Dog Taylor, Kokor Taylor
    and Jimmy Reed

  22. Joyce Marie Morrin

    January 10, 2018 at 12:36 am

    Eddie Shaw!!!!! The Master Blaster!

  23. Joyce Marie Morrin

    January 10, 2018 at 12:37 am

    Eddie Shaw!!! The Master Blaster!

  24. Gary White

    January 10, 2018 at 1:41 am

    I believe Etta James belongs on this list, also.

    • Michael C

      February 7, 2018 at 6:19 pm

      Again, this is a lost of artists who were a part of the Chicago blues scene when they became established. Etta came out of California (both LA and the Bay area) and had already recorded in Memphis at Sun Records, dated B.B. King, and met a promising young singer from Tupelo, MS named Elvis before signing with Chess subsidiary Argo (later renamed Cadet).

  25. matt

    January 11, 2018 at 12:53 am

    I agree Hound Dog Taylor and Magic Sam need to be added. And Luther Allison takes a back seat to no one on this list.

  26. Elwin Scholte

    January 26, 2018 at 7:18 pm

    And what about R.L. Burnside?

    • Michael C

      February 7, 2018 at 6:29 pm

      R.L. Burnside was from North Mississippi and developed his early musical style there. The short time he lived in Chicago in the 1940s he worked in factories and was not a well known performing musician. After about three years when several other family members had been murdered he returned to the north Mississippi/Memphis area. He was “discovered” there, did most of his recording there, and was based out of North Mississippi when he finally gained widespread recognition. So not really a *Chicago* blues artist.

  27. 12-Bar

    January 27, 2018 at 4:34 am

    Magic Sam, Jimmy Rogers, Junior Wells, Otis Rush

  28. Sammy

    January 27, 2018 at 4:47 am

    I’d say Magic Sam is definitely in the top 10. Elmore James was hugely influential and so was J. B. Lenoir.

  29. santa claus

    March 5, 2018 at 7:42 pm

    don;t know why everyone thinks Bo Diddeley is so great.not from chicago i guess,but my fav is albert king.

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