The best books about Chicago blues

2 authors have picked their favorite books about the Chicago blues and why they recommend each book.

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Chicago Blues

By Mike Rowe,

Book cover of Chicago Blues: The City and the Music

This originally came out in 1973 as Chicago Breakdown, and has probably never been out of print. Rowe is an English blues historian and record collector, and his obsessive fascination with the musicians, labels, and clubs that created the blues in Chicago’s golden years drips off every page, from Lester Melrose’s Bluebird label through to the Chess Records giants – Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin Wolf and “the last of the great blues poets”, Sonny Boy Williamson.  Much of Rowe’s work has no doubt been superseded by the veritable industry of blues research that has sprung up in the years since publication, but Chicago Blues was a major milestone, and remains the indispensable key to an understanding of the city’s music scene.


Who am I?

Call me contrarian, but when most of my school friends were into Bowie, Zeppelin, and Genesis, I was saving up for Muddy Waters’ Greatest Hits and discovering how a single note from Albert King’s guitar could send chills down your spine. The music inspired me to spend a summer in Chicago in 1979, aged 20, and I went back in 1982. It took me 30-odd years to get round to writing it, but this book is the result of those adventures, when a guileless British youth found himself welcomed into the noisy, friendly, creative, chaotic, nurturing, and overwhelmingly black world of the Chicago blues, a long time ago.


I wrote...

Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads

By Alan Harper,

Book cover of Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads

What is my book about?

Waiting For Buddy Guy documents a period in Chicago’s blues history that has hitherto received scant attention - the late 70s and early 80s, when the city’s famous blues scene was coming to the end of one era, while arriving at the beginning of another. It was a transitional phase, when you could hear the deep-rooted blues of Mississippi-born musicians in one club, while across the street came the sounds of the up-tempo, whites-friendly blues-rock purveyed by younger bands. It was a thriving scene, and as a young blues nut I immersed myself in it, interviewing dozens of musicians, label bosses, club owners, and DJs. This lively memoir provides a vivid, unforgettable snapshot of a long-lost world.

Deep Blues

By Robert Palmer,

Book cover of Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta

This book has nothing to do with guitar playing or music in any technical sense, but it has everything to do with why we play and listen to blues. The cradle of blues was in the early 20th-century Mississippi Delta, where a collection of brilliant African-American musicians developed a distinctive style. They took it north, notably to Chicago, plugged in, and created the template for electric guitar-driven popular music that went on to sweep the world. 

Deep Blues is the story of how this transition took place. Palmer is a gifted writer who brings the personalities and the social environment to life with colorful anecdotes and observations. As you read, keep Youtube or the equivalent open on your browser and listen to the recordings as you go.


Who am I?

I am a professional guitarist and music teacher specializing in American roots music. For more than 35 years I taught, wrote curriculum, and oversaw programs at Los Angeles' Musicians Institute (formerly Guitar Institute of Technology) while creating and directing instructional videos, writing method books, and publishing magazine articles and columns. Since 1996 I have been recording and touring as the guitarist for American music icons the Blasters. In 2014, I developed the online School of Electric Blues Guitar at Artistworks, where I interact every day with students from around the world.


I wrote...

Blues Rhythm Guitar: Master Class Series [With CD]

By Keith Wyatt,

Book cover of Blues Rhythm Guitar: Master Class Series [With CD]

What is my book about?

Duke Ellington said it best: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Rhythm is the essence of blues and blues is the taproot of just about every other style of popular music, so if you want to become both a better blues guitarist and all-around musician, start here. 

This book is not just a bunch of licks - it’s a comprehensive, step-by-step method illustrated by loads of real-world examples backed up by full explanations and dozens of audio demonstrations covering all of the essential rhythmic styles of traditional blues. Whether you play on stage or just enjoy messing around with the guitar, becoming a great rhythm player is not only a foundation, but a fulfilling end in itself.

Urban Blues

By Charles Keil,

Book cover of Urban Blues

It began as a master’s thesis in the early Sixties, when the blues was still (just) alive and evolving, and still celebrated by its traditional black audiences. By the time the book was published in 1966, however, white fans had ‘discovered’ the music, and everything was changing. Pounding, repetitive tunes of the kind written by Willie Dixon at Chess and popularised by English R&B bands, became the canon. The blues, with a new rock audience unaware of its rich variety and deep hinterland, was reduced to a single rather tedious idea. It didn’t have to be like this. It’s not the fault of those white R&B bands, but if they had been less fixated on Chicago and opened themselves up to influences from Detroit, say, and Memphis, we might now be living in a different musical world. Keil provides a glimpse of it.


Who am I?

Call me contrarian, but when most of my school friends were into Bowie, Zeppelin, and Genesis, I was saving up for Muddy Waters’ Greatest Hits and discovering how a single note from Albert King’s guitar could send chills down your spine. The music inspired me to spend a summer in Chicago in 1979, aged 20, and I went back in 1982. It took me 30-odd years to get round to writing it, but this book is the result of those adventures, when a guileless British youth found himself welcomed into the noisy, friendly, creative, chaotic, nurturing, and overwhelmingly black world of the Chicago blues, a long time ago.


I wrote...

Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads

By Alan Harper,

Book cover of Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads

What is my book about?

Waiting For Buddy Guy documents a period in Chicago’s blues history that has hitherto received scant attention - the late 70s and early 80s, when the city’s famous blues scene was coming to the end of one era, while arriving at the beginning of another. It was a transitional phase, when you could hear the deep-rooted blues of Mississippi-born musicians in one club, while across the street came the sounds of the up-tempo, whites-friendly blues-rock purveyed by younger bands. It was a thriving scene, and as a young blues nut I immersed myself in it, interviewing dozens of musicians, label bosses, club owners, and DJs. This lively memoir provides a vivid, unforgettable snapshot of a long-lost world.

Feel Like Going Home

By Peter Guralnick,

Book cover of Feel Like Going Home

A series of profiles of the author’s musical heroes, along with erudite essays on blues, rock’n’roll, and Chess Records, this is an essential primer. You cannot understand the place of the blues in modern culture without also understanding Little Richard, Elvis Presley, the relationships between white label bosses and their black artists, and the ever-present, inescapable fact of musical cross-pollenation. Chess had Muddy Waters on its roster, and Howlin Wolf, but also Chuck Berry, Ramsey Lewis, and The Moonglows. Guralnick’s writing is elegant, informed, and self-aware, and from Skip James to Jerry Lee Lewis, in the 50 years since its publication, the reputations of his book’s iconic subjects have rocketed in value.


Who am I?

Call me contrarian, but when most of my school friends were into Bowie, Zeppelin, and Genesis, I was saving up for Muddy Waters’ Greatest Hits and discovering how a single note from Albert King’s guitar could send chills down your spine. The music inspired me to spend a summer in Chicago in 1979, aged 20, and I went back in 1982. It took me 30-odd years to get round to writing it, but this book is the result of those adventures, when a guileless British youth found himself welcomed into the noisy, friendly, creative, chaotic, nurturing, and overwhelmingly black world of the Chicago blues, a long time ago.


I wrote...

Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads

By Alan Harper,

Book cover of Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads

What is my book about?

Waiting For Buddy Guy documents a period in Chicago’s blues history that has hitherto received scant attention - the late 70s and early 80s, when the city’s famous blues scene was coming to the end of one era, while arriving at the beginning of another. It was a transitional phase, when you could hear the deep-rooted blues of Mississippi-born musicians in one club, while across the street came the sounds of the up-tempo, whites-friendly blues-rock purveyed by younger bands. It was a thriving scene, and as a young blues nut I immersed myself in it, interviewing dozens of musicians, label bosses, club owners, and DJs. This lively memoir provides a vivid, unforgettable snapshot of a long-lost world.

Boss

By Mike Royko,

Book cover of Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago

Chicago is where I grew up watching the fascinating interplay between the so-called forces of law and order battle the criminal element. It wasn’t much of a battle unless the law-and-order guys and the crooks found themselves reaching for the same loot. Mike Royko’s book describes very well the interplay. On a personal note, I once worked for one of the Illinois governors who ran as a reform candidate. He ended up going to jail on a fraud scheme.


Who am I?

I’ve worked both in politics and as an investigative reporter in print and broadcasting in Chicago, Miami, Key West, San Francisco, and Honolulu. I’ve had an up-close look at how the system doesn’t work and how the wise guys get their share. I find it easy to use fiction to get to the truth.


I wrote...

Disappearing Act: A Las Vegas Love Story, Sort of...

By Ray Pace,

Book cover of Disappearing Act: A Las Vegas Love Story, Sort of...

What is my book about?

A Las Vegas magician disappears, two million bucks are missing, Chicago wants its money. What does any of this have to do with Area 51? Or Roswell? Can two wise guys, a hooker and a lesbian softball team save the day?

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