Rock music in Britain was in large part inspired in the 1960s by the recordings and tours of American blues artists, including Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson and others who were born in the state of Mississippi. In turn, the renditions of blues played by the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Animals and others generated interest in blues among a new young audience, back in America and worldwide. Britons also played a major role in documenting blues in print and on reissue albums.
Liverpool has thrived as a portal of cultural exchange between Britain and the United States through its prominence in transatlantic shipping and its proximity to Burtonwood Air Base, where thousands of Americans were stationed during and after World War II. U.S. servicemen, local record importers, and Liverpool sailors returning from the States brought in American music which revolutionized the sounds of British bands. Blues surfaced in the music of U.K. jazz and skiffle groups but hit a peak in the 1960s when rock bands covered countless blues songs, especially by artists born in rural Mississippi. Some, like Robert Johnson and Elmore James, were known only through their records, but Muddy Waters toured England beginning in 1958, followed by Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller), Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Otis Rush, Jimmy Reed, Albert King, B.B. King, Arthur Crudup, Fred McDowell, Son House, Sunnyland Slim, and many more. Records by Wolf, Hooker, Reed, Williamson, and Bo Diddley even hit the U.K. pop charts.
Meanwhile, the Beatles initiated the “British Invasion” of the States, followed by a wave of bands sporting a heavier blues influence, including the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, Manfred Mann, Them, Spencer Davis Group, Savoy Brown, Fleetwood Mac, Ten Years After, Cream, and Led Zeppelin. Beatles manager Brian Epstein had worked in a family business in Liverpool that imported blues records, and the band’s second LP featured a cover of “Money,” first recorded by Mississippi-born singer Barrett Strong. The Cavern, famed for its Beatles history, also booked many blues and R&B acts, including Hooker, Wolf, Williamson, and Rufus Thomas. Hooker, Williamson, Otis Spann, Eddie Boyd and others recorded with British bands, and in the early 1970s Muddy, Wolf, and B.B. King recorded London sessions with all-star lineups including Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Stevie Winwood, Peter Green and Rory Gallagher. In the years to follow, Clapton, the Stones and others joined their American heroes in various collaborations, as did John Mayall, who had been a pioneering figure in the British blues movement along with Alexis Korner. Jazz bandleader Chris Barber, another key early proponent of the blues in the U.K., backed Muddy, Williamson, Wolf, James Cotton and other bluesmen in the studio or on stage, including Big Bill Broonzy, who promoted himself as a Mississippian even though he was actually from Arkansas.
Concurrent with the rise of British blues was the growth of a dedicated core of enthusiasts, collectors, writers and discographers who instigated much of the most important research on American blues. The lives and music of many blues artists were often first documented by Paul Oliver in books, articles and liner notes, and by Mike Leadbitter, Simon Napier, John Broven, Mike Rowe, Neil Slaven, Bob Groom, Tony Russell, Max Jones, Mike Vernon, Derrick Stewart-Baxter, and many more in Jazz Journal, Melody Maker, Blues Unlimited, R&B Monthly and Blues World (and, later, Blues & Rhythm and Juke Blues). U.K. record labels such as Blue Horizon, Ace, Flyright, Red Lightnin’, Charly, JSP and Document have released a wealth of blues albums, both reissues of U.S. recordings and newly recorded material, often providing artists with opportunities not afforded them at home.
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