Greatest Blues Songs

By: Billy Vera
What constitutes a “great” blues song? Since the melodies can vary depending on the singer’s personal choices, blues songwriting is primarily about the lyrics.

Most knowledgeable fans would agree that, among blues songwriters, there are two who tower above all others: Willie Dixon and Percy Mayfield, each of whom worked in a different arena, Dixon in the lexicon of the displaced 20th Century Southern Negro, recently up from the country, finding his way in the big city, and Mayfield, the more urbane hipster, his couplets filled with metaphors that reflect a more savvy, streetwise author.

Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters – Hoochie Coochie Man

In one of his greatest tunes, Dixon delves into the dark world of voodoo with lines such as:
I got a black cat bone, I got a mojo too
I got the John the Conqueror root, I’m gonna mess with you
I’m gonna make you girls lead me by my hand
Then the world will know, I’m the Hoochie Coochie Man

As sung by Muddy Waters, the song is a recitation of the weapons the singer has in his arsenal that will make himself irresistible to any and all of the women for whom he has eyes.

The audience for this song is not a second generation urban dweller in a city such as Chicago, the place where Willie and Muddy plied their craft. To fully understand the song’s meaning, one would have to have come from an environment where one might seek the help and advice of a “gypsy woman” of the kind mentioned in the song’s first verse.

The gypsy woman told my mother, before I was born
You got a boy child coming, he’s gonna be a son of a gun
He’s gonna make pretty women, jump and shout
Then the world wanna know, what this all about

Wllie Dixon/ Koko Taylor & Howlin’ Wolf – Wang Dang Doodle

Dixon’s greatest blues could fill a book of their own. One tune that celebrates the joys of partying on the weekend is “Wang Dang Doodle,” as recorded by Koko Taylor and Howlin’ Wolf.

Tell Automatic Slim, tell razor-totin’ Jim
Tell butcher knife totin’ Annie, tell fast talkin’ Fannie
We gonna pitch a ball, down at the union hall
We gonna romp and stomp at midnight
We gonna fuss and fight till daylight
We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long

Percy Mayfield/Ray Charles – Two Years Of Torture

Percy Mayfield, on the other hand, has more musical variety in his work. Indeed, his best-known songs, “Please Send Me Someone To Love” and “Hit The Road, Jack,” stray from the usual blues form, the former written in the blues ballad idiom while the latter is a novelty he wrote for a planned stage musical that never came to pass.

He did, however, come up with at least two of the great straight blues of all time. 

In “Two Years Of Torture,” he writes:
I had a real fine woman, fine as she could be
But the syndicators and back-biters
Stole that little girl away from me


Two years of being without her
Seven hundred and thirty days
But I still remember her little brown body
And sweet little baby ways
Two years of torture and my heart’s in misery
But I’m doomed as a lover until she comes back to me

As a staff songwriter for Ray Charles, he said that he had to write with Ray’s real life in mind, “…’cause, you see, Ray had a habit at the time,” he said, referring to the star’s well-known heroin addiction. One example, in “But On The Other Hand, Baby.”

You know I’m hooked for you mama
That’s why you sling your weight around

Joe Turner/Billie Holiday – Fine and Mellow

Sometimes, it only takes one single line to make a blues song great. Joe Turner once told me he wrote the song, “Fine and Mellow” as a gift for his friend Billie Holiday. The tune’s moment of greatness comes in verse two:
He wears high-drape pants, stripes are really yellow
But when he starts in to love me
He’s so fine and mellow

Contemporaneous colloquialisms can make a blues song stick in the mind. A line like the above grabbed many a 1939 juke box listener where he or she lived.

It was said that Big Joe could sing one song for an hour straight, never repeating verse after verse from his vast memory bank of lines from the blues canon, but does that constitute writing a blues song? I think not.

Joe Turner – Roll ‘Em Pete

Although, two of these in particular, “Roll ‘Em Pete” and “Cherry Red,” became standards over the years. Whether the words came from Turner’s mind or from his memory bank is immaterial. They exist, now and forever, in the way he put them together, whether sung by himself, or Joe Williams or whomever.

She got eyes like diamonds, teeth shine like Klondike gold
Every time she kiss me, she sends my mellow soul
You so beautiful but you got to die one day
All I want’s a little lovin’ before you pass away


I never loved a woman, and I hope I never will
‘Cause a lovin’ proposition might get somebody killed
Now you can take me baby, put me in your big brass bed
I want you to rock me baby till my face turns cherry red

One of Joe’s biggest hit records was one that Jesse Stone compiled in just such a manner, “Shake, Rattle And Roll,”

Well you wear those dresses, sun comes shinin’ through
I can’t believe my eyes all that mess belongs to you


I’m like a one-eyed cat, peepin’ in a seafood store
Well I can look at you and tell you ain’t no child no more

T-Bone Walker

Let’s take a look at T-Bone Walker’s much-covered classic, “Call It Stormy Monday.” In his song, he cleverly takes the days of the week, describing each one’s singular properties. When he reaches the end of the work week, he is compelled to shout when he delivers the line, 

The eagle flies on Friday and Saturday I go out to play
Sunday I go to church and I kneel down and pray
Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy on me

If a song’s greatness can be measured by its ubiquity, then “Stormy Monday” is indeed great. 

Lieber & Stoller/Wilbert Harrison – Kansas City

Judged by the same measure, “Kansas City,” composed by a pair of Jewish teenagers from Los Angeles would qualify as well. The boys were Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who would soon become rich and famous for songs like “Charlie Brown,” “Yakety Yak,” “Is That All There Is,” “Jailhouse Rock” and 25 other tunes recorded by Elvis Presley.

In their early career, the duo wrote countless blues, blues by the pound, usually at the behest of record producer Ralph Bass or bandleader Johnny Otis. The most famous version of their song was by one Wilbert Harrison, who worked as a one-man band, sitting behind his drums and playing any number of instruments at the same time.

The song’s most memorable line:
They got some crazy little women there
And I’m gonna get me one

Lieber & Stoller/Big Mama Thorton – Hound Dog

Leiber and Stoller’s other major contribution to the blues canon is a song commissioned by Johnny Otis for Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. They named it “Hound Dog.” Again, Leiber’s earthy lyrics:
You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Been snoopin’ ‘round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain’t gonna feed you no more

It becomes, thanks to a misunderstanding by a Las Vegas lounge act named Freddie Bell & the Bellboys and later copied by Elvis, 

You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Just cryin’ all the time
You ain’t never caught a rabbit
And you ain’t no friend of mine

Justly proud of the way he envisioned his words, Leiber was infuriated by the change in his masterpiece, but his fury didn’t stop him from cashing the check.

Roy Alfred /Ray Charles – I’ve Got News For You

Another great blues song was written by Roy Alfred, a lyricist best known for novelties like “The Hucklebuck” and “Rock And Roll Waltz,” as well as the lovely doo-wop ballad, “Wisdom Of A Fool.”  His contribution to the blues was one he wrote for Woody Herman in 1947, “I’ve Got News For You,” and revived in 1961 by Ray Charles. 

The song became a genre standard with great lines like:
You said before we met
That your life was awful tame
When I took you to a night club 
The whole band knew your name
Somehow your story don’t ring true little girl
I got news for you

Memphis Slim/B.B. King – Everyday I Have The Blues

John “Peter” Chatman aka Memphis Slim had a knack for writing great blues tunes. He first recorded in 1940 for OKeh, then for Bluebird under the aegis of music publisher Lester Melrose, who gave him his stage name. His best songs include “Messin’ Around,” “Mother Earth,” “The Comeback” and his most famous of all, “Everyday I Have The Blues,” first recorded by himself in 1947 under the title “Nobody Loves Me.”

The song became a hit several times, first by Lowell Fulson in 1950, then Joe Williams in 1952, B.B. King in 1955 and, one year later, again by Williams, this time with Count Basie. The latter version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1992.

Mercy Dee Walton /Buddy Guy – One Room Country Shack

Mercy Dee Walton seems to have had an interest in architecture, as revealed in his two songs of note, “Lonesome Cabin Blues” and “One Room Country Shack.” Here is the song as performed by Buddy Guy with Otis Spann.

Sitting here a thousand miles from nowhere
In this one room country little shack
My only worldly possession
Is a raggedy old little eleven foot cotton sack


I’m gonna leave here in the mornin’
I’m about to go out of my mind
I’m gonna find me some kind of a companion
Even if she’s dumb, deaf, crippled and blind

If Percy deals in the coin of urban ghetto poetry, then Mercy Dee’s poetry is that of the rural field hand, the cotton sack he sings of is the one he must fill with cotton balls in the hot, blinding sun.

Charlie Singleton/Teddy McRae/Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson – Person To Person

Big Joe Turner’s “Cherry Red,” referenced above, is an eight-bar blues, as opposed to the more common I-IV-V twelve bar variety. Along those same lines is “Person To Person,” composed by Charlie Singleton and saxophonist Teddy McRae and first recorded by Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and later revived by Little Willie John, Lou Rawls and others.

Person To Person contains some of Singleton’s finest lyrics:
Ain’t no use to telephone me, I can’t hug no telephone
All the time you telephonin’, you could be comin’ home

Ain’t no use to send no letter, I can’t hug no paper tight
Ain’t no use to send no message, it can’t talk to me at night

Ain’t no use to send your brother, I won’t talk to no one else
Ain’t no use to send your mother, you just got to come yourself

Little girl I have suffered each day since you’ve been gone
I need you person to person
Bring your big fine foxy self on home

Classic Blues Songs
Recording & Lyrics

Robert Johnson
Love In Vain

And I followed her to the station
With a suitcase in my hand
And I followed her to the station
With a suitcase in my hand
Well, it’s hard to tell, it’s hard to tell
When all your love’s in vain
All my love’s in vain

When the train rolled up to the station
I looked her in the eye
When the train rolled up to the station
And I looked her in the eye
Well, I was lonesome, I felt so lonesome
And I could not help but cry
All my love’s in vain

Bessie Smith
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out

Once I lived the life of a millionaire
Spent all my money, I just did not care
Took all my friends out for a good time
Bought bootleg whiskey, champagne and wine

Then I began to fall so low
Lost all my good friends, I did not have nowhere to go
If I get my hands on a dollar again
I’m gonna hang on to it till that eagle grins, yeah

‘Cause no, no, nobody knows you when you’re down and out
In your pocket, not one penny and as for friends, you don’t have any

When you finally get back up on your feet again
Everybody wants to be your old long-lost friend
Said it’s mighty strange, without a doubt
Nobody knows you when you’re down and out, yeah

But when you finally get back up on your feet again
Everybody wants to be your good old long-lost friend…

Son House
Death Letter Blues

I got a letter this morning, how do you reckon it read?
Well I got a letter this morning, how do you reckon it read?
It say, “Hurry, hurry! For the girl you love is dead.”

Well I packed up my suitcase, and took off down the road
When I got there, she was on the cooling board
I got a letter this morning, how do you reckon it read?
Well it say, “Hurry, hurry! For the girl you love is dead.”
Well well well well…

Well I walked ’round her close, looked straight down in her face
Said good girl, you got to lay there till your Judgment Day
I will… right up, looked down in her face
Said you got to lay there till your Judgment Day
‘Cause I got a letter this morning, how the hell do you reckon it read?

Elmore James
Done Somebody Wrong

The bell just toned, my baby done caught that train and gone
Yes, the bell just toned, my baby done caught that train and gone
It’s all my fault, I must have done somebody wrong, oh yeah

Everything that happened, you know I am to blame
Everything that’s happened, you know I am to blame
I’m gonna find me a doctor, maybe my luck will change, oh yeah

My mother told me these days would surely come,
But I, wouldn’t listen to her, said, I gotta have some fun
Aah, I must-a did somebody wrong,
Uuh, it’s all my fault, I must-a did somebody wrong

John Lee Hooker
Boogie Chillen’

Well, my mama ‘low me just to stay out all night long
Oh, Lord
Well, my mama ‘low me just to stay out all night long
I didn’t care she ‘low, I would boogie anyhow

When I first came to town, people, I was walkin’ down Hastings Street
Everybody was talkin’ about the Henry Swing Club
I decided I drop in there that night
When I got there, I say, “Yes, people”
They was really havin’ a ball
Yes, I know

One night I was layin’ down
I heard mama and papa talkin’
I heard papa tell mama let that boy boogie-woogie
It’s in him and it got to come out
And I felt so good
Went on boogin’ just the same

John Lee Hooker
Serves Me Right To Suffer

Every time I see a woman
And folks she make me think of mine
And that’s why, that’s why
And folks I just can’t keep from cryin’

It serves me right to suffer
It serves me right to be alone
Now I’m living in the memory
Of a woman that has passed and gone

My doctor put me on
Milk, cream and alcohol
Said, “Johnny your nerves is so bad, so bad, Johnny
Until you just can’t sleep at night”

It serves me right to suffer
It serves me right to be alone

Albert King
Born Under A Bad Sign

Born under a bad sign, been down since I begin to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck, you know I wouldn’t have no luck at all

Hard luck and trouble been my only friend
I been on my own ever since I was ten

Born under a bad sign, been down since I begin to crawl
If it wasn’t for bad luck, you know I wouldn’t have no luck at all

I can’t read, I didn’t learn how to write
My whole life has been one big fight

Born under a bad sign…

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