5 Moments in the Blues that Altered the Course of Rock ‘n’ Roll

Muddy Waters (1966).Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer, Getty Images.

Music is evolutionary. Conventions and vocabulary emerge from the musical dialogue that came before them.

And when you listen to early rock ‘n’ roll - and even harder rock from the ‘70s - it’s clear where the conventions and vocabulary come from. Without the blues, there would be no rock ‘n’ roll.

The blues, however, didn’t transform into rock ‘n’ roll. Players started to splinter off, experiment and push, while the blues tradition progressed on its own path. It wasn't a linear development. There were inflection points where leaps toward rock occurred.

Where were the bends in the blues stream, so to speak, that directed the flow into the tributary of rock 'n' roll?

There are a hundred ways to make this argument, but I've pulled out five performances and recordings that I believe reframed how future rock 'n' roll guitarists would approach their craft.

1. “Baby Let’s Play House” by Arthur Gunter - 1954

Baby Let’s Play House” was first written and recorded in 1954 by Arthur Gunter, a bluesman hailing from Nashville with roots in gospel music.

His record features some killer lead guitar lines played acoustically, and the tight compression flatters the stop-time feel on the verses. This track was the first from Excello Records to become a national hit, peaking at number 12 on the US Billboard R&B chart.

Arthur Gunter - "Baby Let's Play House"

While the original tune is a stellar example of mid-’50s blues, the song gained real notoriety when Elvis Presley joined with Scotty Moore and covered it one year later.

Gunter famously remarked, “Elvis got that number and made it famous. But I didn’t get a chance to shake his hand.”

This was Elvis’s first record to break national charts, and it had a particularly big impact on a kid named Jimmy Page. Page cites this record as the one that first convinced him to learn to play the guitar.

Elvis Presley - "Baby, Let's Play House"

Scotty Moore’s solo on this track is a window into the world of Jimmy Page’s early lead guitar playing. Listening to some of Page’s lines in early Yardbirds tunes clearly pays homage to Elvis’s seminal cover.

As for Gunter’s lyrics, John Lennon lifted the line “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man” for the Beatles classic “Run For Your Life,” which appeared on their 1965 album, Rubber Soul.

2. “Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters - 1955

Muddy Waters’s tremendous blues legacy is unquestionable. He is often credited as the missing link between the Delta Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll. His use of amplification in the blues genre was unprecedented and directly inspired guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield, and Carlos Santana. The Rolling Stones paid their tribute to Muddy by naming themselves after his 1950 release, “Rollin’ Stone.”

Mannish Boy” was written and recorded in Chicago in 1955, and it functions as something of a rearranged answer to Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man.”

It’s an enduring blues classic that Muddy re-recorded for his psychedelic album Electric Mud, released in 1968. He also performed it live with The Band for inclusion in the concert documentary The Last Waltz.

Muddy Waters - "Mannish Boy"

The song has been covered by Hendrix, Clapton, Paul Butterfield, and even R&B songstress Erykah Badu. Muddy’s original version is a thick, swampy, one-chord vamp featuring some soulful shouting, Muddy’s electric lead guitar, and his infectious baritone.

It’s not hard to picture a young Jimi Hendrix listening to this record over and over again, soaking up every note and letting his imagination do the rest.

3. “Three Hours Past Midnight” by Johnny “Guitar” Watson - 1956

Johnny “Guitar” Watson was an influential figure in more genres than just the blues. He was an incredible showman, and reinvented himself as a funk pioneer in the ‘70s. Watson achieved commercial success with hits like “Superman Lover” and “Gangster of Love,” later covered by the Steve Miller Band.

Watson was renowned for his innovation on the guitar. Fellow blues vocalist Etta James said about Watson, “They call Elvis the King, but the sure-enough king was Johnny 'Guitar' Watson.”

Johnny "Guitar" Watson - "Three Hours Past Midnight"

Frank Zappa cites Watson’s Three Hours Past Midnight as his primary musical influence. He modeled his lead guitar style after Watson’s sharp and clear but rhythmically frantic guitar playing. Watson even contributed his unique style to four of Zappa’s records.

Solidifying his legacy as a devoted performer, Watson died on stage in Japan of a heart attack in 1996.

4. “Keep A Knockin” by Little Richard - 1958

Little Richard helped lay the groundwork for funk and soul music. His distinct musicality and flashy showmanship has been the inspiration for countless rock ‘n’ roll artists. And his vocal style was particularly influential for a legion of popular singers such as James Brown, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney.

Little Richard’s band was one of the first to depart from the boogie-woogie shuffle. They’re often credited with developing the rock ‘n’ roll beat that defined the 1960s. This track, recorded in 1958, is a poignant example of his energetic vocals and piano pounding. It features a rambunctiously wrought performance from his band, too.

Little Richard - "Keep A Knockin'"

Pay close attention, and you’ll notice that the introduction--played by drummer Charles Connor--was lifted by John Bonham for the intro to Led Zeppelin’s hit “Rock and Roll.”

5. “Live at the Regal” - B.B. King - 1964

Mention the blues and it’s only a short matter of time before B.B. King’s name is brought up. B.B. King was a true master of the blues. He developed a lead guitar style that was sophisticated and fluid. His minimalist approach to his playing and the gear he used was the perfect complement to his vocal style.

This live set from the Regal Theater in Chicago was recorded in 1964 and released the following year. It’s a flawless documentation of young B.B. King at the peak of his power. The band is sympathetic to his every nuance, his vocals and guitar playing are delivered with enthusiastic abandon, and the audience can be heard shouting for joy throughout.

B.B. King - "Woke Up This Mornin'", Live at the Regal

This album has been credited as inspiration for musicians such as Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, and John Mayer. For a prime slice of sweltering, muscular blues, look no further than this powerhouse set.

B.B. King remained an active figure in music until his death in 2015. As a musician who played an average of 200 shows a year well into his 70s and put out over 40 records during his career, his musical legacy was cemented decades ago.

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