Plug It In! Turn It Up! Electric Blues, 1939-2005

Title:  Plug It In! Turn It Up! Electric Blues, 1939-2005: The Definitive Collection

Artists:  Various

Label: Bear Family

Format:  CD box set (4 volumes, issued separately)

Release date: 2011 (2012 U.S.)

There are many, many blues compilations, but what sets this outstanding collection apart from the rest are the definitive liner notes that accompany Bear Family’s collection of electric blues.  Bill Dahl, the producer of the compilation, also wrote the notes for all four volumes and each of these well-illustrated booklets runs over 150 pages.  Each volume also includes 3 CDs, for a total of 12 CDs if you purchase the entire series.

Dahl aptly sums up the collection in the introduction to part one: “Before this series of three-CD sets concludes, the listener will be guided through all the permutations of electric blues: Swinging jump numbers, lowdown slow grinders, ‘50s rock ‘n’ rollers, the hard-charging British and American blues-rock of the ‘60s and beyond, soul-blues of the ‘70s, and right on up to the contemporary blues of today, where the electric guitar continues to reign as almighty king.”  He goes on to apologize, somewhat, for the selection process: “There’s no way to include every deserving landmark of the genre on this series―that would require a virtual mountain of discs and an accompanying avalanche of words―but by the time you listen to the dozen jam-packed CDs that comprise this series, you’ll have a pretty fair idea of how electric-blues progressed, and who the important players were (not to mention a raft of unsung heroes).”    So essentially, you’re getting a course on the history of electric blues, courtesy of “Professor”  Dahl. Can’t get any better than that!

Part one takes us from the beginnings in 1939 through 1954. The honor of the first example of electric blues guitar on record goes to Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy for “Floyd Guitar Blues,” recorded March 16, 1939 (Decca 2483). Close on their heels was T-Bone Walker, universally considered the “father” of electric blues, with his “Mean Old World” from July 1942. Over the course of this volume are more examples from Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers, Louis Jordan, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and many other luminaries, as well as regional phenoms such as Louisiana’s “Bon Ton” Clarence Garlow, and blues women including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, and Memphis Minnie.  For many blues enthusiasts, or those eager to learn about the roots of electric blues and rock, this volume will likely be a favorite.

Part two, featuring post-war recordings from 1954-1967, covers an era when blues had become “electric, loud, and in-your-face” while “lonesome southern bluesmen stroking acoustic axes” were a dying breed.  This era also saw the rise in manufacturing of electric guitars, the amplification of harmonicas, and of course the dominance of rock ‘n’ roll.  Dahl refers to this period as the “golden age,” with blues recordings emanating from all corners of the country.  Major figures included in this set are B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Sonny Boy Williamson, Jackie Brenston, Hank Ballard, Jimmy Reed, Little Milton, Earl Hooker, Memphis Slim, Ike Turner, Albert Collins, plus many more.

Part three covers 1960-1969, notable for the “concept of the blues guitar hero” and the emergence of a new generation of bluesmen and women, including British groups who pioneered a new form of blues-rock.  Dahl attempts to showcase “that tumultuous decade’s electric blues highlights” over the course of the next three CDs in the series. Featured musicians on the first two discs include Buddy Guy, Freddie King, Junior Wells, Elmore James, Aretha Franklin, Mable John, Etta James, Koko Taylor, Albert King and Taj Mahal, while disc three is devoted to blues-rock with Johnny Winter, The Animals, Fleetwood Mac, and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, among others.

Part four features recordings from 1970-2005. According to Dahl, blues music was at a crossroads by 1970, a victim of the natural ebb and flow of musical tastes.  Likewise, out of the four volumes, this one is the most likely to cause enthusiasts to quibble over the content.  The first two discs span the 1970s, beginning with Ted Taylor, Al Green, B.B. King, Otis Rush, and Hound Dog Taylor, and slowly branching out to explore various permutations of folk-blues, blues-rock, and R&B through artists such as Ann Peebles, Denise LaSalle, Syl Johnson, Betty Lavette, ZZ Top, and Bonnie Rait. The final disc covers the ‘80s and early ‘90s through performers such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lonnie Brooks, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy. The final track fast forwards to a 2005 recording by Nick Moss, who Dahl hails as “a savior of traditional Chicago blues,” fully conversant on guitar, harmonica and bass, and capable of changing up his sound at regular intervals to keep things interesting, and to keep the blues alive for another generation.

Regrettably, this magnum opus is an import and thus will set you back about $60 per volume.  However, there aren’t many really authoritative sets being manufactured these days, and an education does not come cheap.  Since the volumes are issued separately, you can take your pick if your budget is limited.  This set is highly recommended for college and conservatory libraries, and would serve as a fine resource for courses on the blues.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss