January 2, 2015

What’s in a Name? – #3

Bands with the Blues
It’s no mystery that much of what we hear today as rock ‘n’ roll has been mixed, beaten, and pureed in that big musical blender known as the blues. This influence has been translated to the guitar stylings, chord variations, and vocal inflections of practically every rock legend inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame. In honor of these often-unheralded guiding forebears, several rock bands have taken to naming themselves after legendary blues artists and their songs.

The most well-known band to name themselves with a blues moniker were The Rolling Stones. Long-time admirers of many blues artists, and having covered several popular blues songs over the years, Jagger and Richards decided to take the name of a Muddy Waters’ tune, “Rollin’ Stone,” as their namesake. Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, Mississippi and nicknamed by his grandmother for his penchant of getting himself dirty in a childhood creek, made this popular blues song his first single when he began recording for Chess Records in 1950.

Soon, other rock bands jumped on the blues bandwagon. In 1964, Los Angeles band The Stone Poneys played their folkie music in small venues with their lead singer Linda Ronstadt. “Different Drum,” a song written by The Monkees’ Michael Nesmith, would prove to be their only prominent hit in 1967. The group had derived their name from the blues song “Pony Blues” by Charley Patton. Patton, like his co-hort Mr. Waters, was another Mississippi native who had made this riff, about social mobility, his first issued recording when he was offered sessions in Richmond, Indiana.

In Cambridge, England, a man named Syd Barrett was enamored of the South Carolina bluesman Pink Anderson, who had traveled for 30 years playing in a medicine show, oftentimes with another obscure artist by the name of Floyd Council. Syd decided to name his new band, Pink Floyd Sound, in honor of the two men in 1965. Of course, the word Sound was dropped, and Syd’s band went all the way to The Dark Side Of The Moon.

Also in 1965, John Sebastian took a sabbatical from New York and traveled the South, listening to a variety of local artists. One of these artists, Mississippi John Hurt of Teoc, Mississippi, had worked as a farmhand most of his life but also found time to play his brand of blues in several coffeehouses. His song, “Coffee Blues,” had the line, “I love my baby by the lovin’ spoonful.” Sebastian conveyed the term to his partner Zal Yanovsky, and the Lovin’ Spoonful was given birth. The group scored a number 9 hit with “Do You Believe In Magic” in 1965, and a number one hit for three weeks in August 1966 with the seasonal favorite “Summer In The City.”

As a joke, a bluesman in the San Francisco Bay area related a fictitious story of a character named Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane to guitarist Jorma Kaukonen in 1965. The phony name was a spin-off of an actual musician in Couchman, Texas by the name of Blind Lemon Jefferson. Blind Lemon sang in a “country blues” style, spinning tales of early 1900 black culture in the South. Kaukonen made a point to bring up the name with his fellow bandmates Marty Balin and Paul Kantner, and soon after, the Jefferson Airplane took off.

In Terry, Mississippi, Tommy Johnson was perceived as a wild man. Womanizer and alcoholic, who oftentimes turned to Sterno or shoe polish to get his liquid fix, he would brag that he sold his soul to the Devil in order to acquire his astonishing musical talents. His songs were usually autobiographical in some respect, and one, in particular, highlighted his desperate, sobering struggle with the jinxing juice. It was called “Canned Heat Blues.” In 1966, a Los Angeles quintet of musicians settled on this name, and Canned Heat’s boogie blues rocked the Hollywood scene. Their cover of Henry Thomas’ 1928 blues song “Going Up The Country” went to number 11 on the U.S. charts in January 1969.

Even though many bands didn’t overtly choose to name themselves after their favorite blues gods, they found great satisfaction in translating bluesy standards for the benefit of their own output. From Led Zeppelin covering Willie Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby,” and “You Shook Me,” to The Allman Brothers covering Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” to Eric Clapton covering Freddie King’s “I’m Tore Down,” there are countless instances in which our legendary rock kings owe a great debt to the bold inventions of their blues forefathers.

© 2000 Ned Truslow

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