“White folks hear the blues come out, but they don’t know how it got there.”
– Ma Rainey
- “Time Is on My Side” by Irma Thomas and the Rolling Stones
“Time Is on My Side” was written by Jerry Ragovoy for jazz trombonist Kai Winding in 1963. Winding’s version, essentially an instrumental, only included the lyrics “Time is on my side” and “You’ll come running back.” In 1964 songwriter Jimmy Norman fleshed out the lyrics for R&B singer Irma Thomas, who recorded the song as a B-side to “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand).”
Later in 1964, the Rolling Stones recorded the version that became their first U.S. hit. “I’d always listened to everything, and America opened it all out – we were hearing records there that were regional hits,” wrote Keith Richards in Life. “We’d get to know local labels and local acts, which is how we came across ‘Time Is on My Side,’ in L.A., sung by Irma Thomas. It was a B-side of a record on Imperial Records, a label we’d have been aware of because it was independent and successful and based on the Sunset Strip.”
The Stones’ hit “put a big dent in my pocket book,” Thomas told the Telegraph. Thomas refused to perform the song for “oh, maybe 15 to 20 years. Well, I got to the point where people said, ‘Do that Rolling Stones cover,’ and I didn’t want to explain that it was my song first every time. It was Bonnie Raitt who got me singing it again for a New Year’s Eve bash in 1996.”
“Time Is on My Side” by Irma Thomas
“Time Is on My Side” by the Rolling Stones
- “Black Betty” by Lead Belly and Ram Jam
The roots of “Black Betty” go back to the 18th century. In 1934, music historians John A. and Alan Lomax wrote in American Ballads and Folk Songs that Black Betty was not “a two-timing woman that a man can moan his blues about. She is the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons. A convict on the Darrington State Farm in Texas, where, by the way, whipping has been practically discontinued, laughed at Black Betty and mimicked her conversation in the following song.”
Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, who recorded the song in 1939, is often credited with writing “Black Betty.” The song became an improbable Top 20 hit for Ram Jam in 1977. Popdose explains that Ram Jam did not technically record “Black Betty.”
When the Lemon Pipers (“Green Tambourine”) broke up in 1969, guitarist Bill Bartlett formed Starstruck and recorded “Black Betty,” a regional hit around Ohio. Bartlett later joined Ram Jam, whose 1977 LP included an edited version of Starstruck’s “Black Betty.” It would be Ram Jam’s first and only hit.
“Black Betty” by Lead Belly
“Black Betty” by Ram Jam
- “I Can’t Quit You Baby” by Otis Rush and Led Zeppelin
Blues master Willie Dixon was a prolific songwriter and great performer in his own right. Dixon’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby” was Otis Rush’s first recording and became an R&B hit in 1956. Led Zeppelin chose the song as one of two blues covers, along with “You Shook Me,” for their 1969 debut LP Led Zeppelin.
Zep’s version features stunning guitar work by Jimmy Page, who told Guitar World, “When we first started rehearsing at my house, in 1968, we were working on a live set and the material that would become our first album. At that time, there were a lot of bands playing the blues. We also enjoyed playing blues, but we felt that our collective group character was so strong and original that, instead of blending in, it would have the opposite effect. Playing our version of the blues would show just how bold and different we were. We picked two songs that had dramatic elements that we could explore. The original Otis Rush version of ‘I Can’t Quit You’ has this section in the song where the chord moves up a half step, and we saw that we could turn it into a real moment. A big moment. Essentially, we put Rush’s song under a microscope and figured out how to give it a bit more dynamic suspense.”
“I Can’t Quit You Baby” by Otis Rush
“I Can’t Quit You Baby” by Led Zeppelin
- “On the Road Again” by Floyd Jones and Canned Heat
Like many old blues tunes, “On the Road Again” borrowed from older songs. Written by Floyd Jones, the song incorporated his own “Dark Road” and Tommy Johnson’s “Big Road Blues.” In 1968, Canned Heat exaggerated the hypnotic drone of Jones’ “On the Road Again.” Although Bob Hite performed most of the band’s vocals, it was Alan Wilson who sang lead and played the tambura, an Eastern string instrument. “On the Road Again” was Canned Heat’s first hit single.
“There is no way to pin down the success,” said bassist Larry “the Mole” Taylor in Pop Culture Addict. “The music that we chose to do was old country-blues, and there were songs that Alan Wilson picked to revive as straight blues, which [included] ‘On The Road Again,’ which was originally by Floyd Jones in the 1950s. Alan used the words, and we created one part of the track with the tambura and the harmonics of the guitar to make the intro so different, but it sort of fit into the times because the Indians used to get into that whole thing with Ravi Shankar. So it kind of all went together.”
“On the Road Again” by Floyd Jones
“On the Road Again” by Canned Heat
- “Back Door Man” by Howlin’ Wolf and the Doors
“Back Door Man” was written by Willie Dixon and recorded by Chicago blues great Howlin’ Wolf in 1960. Wolf’s longtime guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, told American Blues Scene, “Wolf loved that song ’cause he was one! Know what I’m talking about? Someone who’s with a married woman. The song consist of he got caught in these folks’ house, in this mad man’s house. Hey, the man was gone! And so he got caught and like he says in the song, ‘If you see me coming out the window, I ain’t got nothing to lose.'”
The Doors covered “Back Door Man” on their 1967 self-titled debut album. Guitarist Robbie Krieger brought the song to the band after hearing John Hammond Jr.’s 1965 version. Organist Ray Manzarek told TeamRock that Jim Morrison was eager to sing it. “Jim loved the blues – as we all did – and would have been happy to be a bar singer in a New Orleans crawfish, oyster and gumbo blues bar back in the mid-50s.”
“I like singing blues – those free long blues trips where there’s no specific beginning or end,” added Morrison. “It just gets into a groove and I can just keep making up things … Just starting on a blues trip and seeing where it takes us.”
“Back Door Man” by Howlin’ Wolf
“Back Door Man” by the Doors
- “Key to the Highway” by Big Bill Broonzy and Derek and the Dominos
The original version of “Key to the Highway” was written and recorded by pianist Charlie Segar in 1940 but bluesman Big Bill Broonzy followed with a more popular arrangement a year later. It’s a tale of hitting the road after a breakup. It was Broonzy’s take on the song that inspired Eric Clapton to record it with Derek and the Dominos.
“When I was about 14, I saw Big Bill Broonzy on TV and that was an incredible thing,” Clapton recalled in Guitarist Magazine. “Because maybe if I’d just heard it, it might not have had the same effect. But to see footage of Broonzy playing ‘Hey Hey,’ this was a real blues artist and I felt like I was looking into heaven. That was it for me and then, when I went to explore his music, the song that always came back to me was an incredible version of ‘Key To The Highway.’ That was the one that I thought somehow would, like ‘Crossroads,’ capture the whole journey of being a musician and a travelling journeyman.”
The liner notes of The Layla Sessions explain that the Dominos’ recording began as an impromptu jam. Clapton and guitarist Duane Allman had heard “Sam the Sham” Samudio playing the tune in another studio and launched into their version. Engineer Tom Dowd got the tape recorder running after they began, which explains the fade-in at the top of the song.
“Key to the Highway” by Big Bill Broonzy
“Key to the Highway” by Derek and the Dominos
- “Kansas City” by Little Willie Littlefield, Little Richard and the Beatles
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote “Kansas City” in 1952 and it was first recorded by Little Willie Littlefield. Wilbert Harrison made it a No. 1 hit in 1959. “‘Kansas City’ surprised me,” Leiber told Rolling Stone. “I had a big fight with Mike about ‘Kansas City.’ I originally sang a traditional blues turn on it, like Howlin’ Wolf might have sung it. Mike said, ‘I don’t want to write just another blues. There are a thousand numbers out there like it. I got a tune for it.’ I told him it sounded phony. I gave him all sorts of garbage. And he won out.
“When we did it with Little Willie Littlefield, I thought it was all right. It didn’t kill me. Then when Wilbert Harrison came out with it, then it sounded right. But it took all that time to convince me that he was right about that melody.”
Little Richard recorded a high-torque version in 1955 by adding the “Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey” refrain. The Beatles used Richard’s take as a guide for their 1964 version. “I didn’t like the Beatles’ record of it because they neglected to sing my melody, the way it was written,” Stoller told Blue Railroad. “The Beatles copied Little Richard’s record. The Beatles’ version is good, but it isn’t what I wrote. It doesn’t have the melody that I liked.”
“Kansas City” by Little Willie Littlefield
“Kansas City” by Little Richard
“Kansas City” by the Beatles
- “Baby, Please Don’t Go” by John Lee Hooker and Them (featuring Van Morrison)
“Baby, Please Don’t Go” is one of the most covered tunes in blues history. Its roots go back to the 19th century with well-known versions recorded by Big Joe Williams (1935) and Muddy Waters (1953). Perhaps best known is the 1964 version by Them, fronted by Van Morrison. Van the Man cites John Lee Hooker’s 1949 take on the tune as his inspiration, calling it “something really unique and different.”
Controversy has swirled around who played the snarling lead guitar on Them’s version. Jimmy Page, then a popular session musician in the U.K., has taken credit for it. Them lead guitarist Billy Harrison says Page wasn’t needed. “There were two session guys on that one,” Harrison claimed in Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart. “Bobby Graham on drums and Jimmy Page on guitar. That riff on ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ was my riff. I created it. We’d been playing the song like that all over Northern Ireland for a year and a half before it went on record. People will believe whatever they want to believe, but those session guys weren’t needed.
“We knew the music – what we didn’t have yet was the studio technique. In those days if you made a mistake you started all over again. So session men were often used simply to save money, to get it right first time. But in our case they just weren’t necessary.”
“Baby, Please Don’t Go” by John Lee Hooker
“Baby, Please Don’t Go” by Them (featuring Van Morrison)
“Baby, Please Don’t Go” by John Lee Hooker (accompanied by Van Morrison)
- “Statesboro Blues” by Blind Willie McTell, Taj Mahal and the Allman Brothers
Taj Mahal’s version of Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” was the impetus for Duane Allman to learn bottleneck guitar. Taj’s energetic take on McTell’s 1928 tune appeared on his self-titled 1968 debut album.
“‘Statesboro Blues’ completely launched the whole southern rock and roll thing,” Taj told Bluesblast. “It launched Duane Allman and the Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Band … you name it. There were quite a few others that tried to jump in with that sound at that time. But Duane got that sound directly from Jesse Davis’ playing on that first album.”
Guitarist Pete Carr, who performed with Gregg and Duane Allman in the pre-Allmans group Hour Glass, told Jas Obrecht how Duane learned bottleneck. “We were in L.A. and Taj Mahal was playing in a club. Jesse Davis was playing with him there, and they did a thing called ‘Statesboro Blues.’ It was on one of their albums also, and Jesse Davis played slide guitar on it. It really turned Duane on. The band, we started doing ‘Statesboro Blues.’ So Duane started bottlenecking. He started practicing that, and he started playing bottleneck about as much as anything.”
“Statesboro Blues” by Blind Willie McTell
“Statesboro Blues” by Taj Mahal and Gregg Allman
“Statesboro Blues” by the Allman Brothers
- “I’m a Man” by Bo Diddley and the Yardbirds
“I’m a Man” was a No. 1 R&B hit in 1955 for Bo Diddley. Bluesman Taj Mahal explained its appeal in Elwood’s Blues: Interviews with the Blues Legends and Stars. “My personal vision is that it combines the male topic that everybody worries about – ‘Well, am I or am I not?’ It says okay, here’s how to chant it. It’s also a very strong mating call, because it’s got the burlesque beat – there’s no mistake about what you want, what you think, what you want to do. And don’t think women don’t pick up on stuff like that.”
Diddley told Rolling Stone that the song’s signature spelling out of “man” took almost thirty takes. “Because they wanted me to spell man. We’d get to that spot in the song, and they’d say, ‘Okay, now spell it – m-a-n.’ Real quick, like that – you know how some white guys is out of time? They couldn’t tell me exactly what the hell they were talkin’ about. So I said it the way they had: ‘M-a-n.’ They said, ‘Goddamn, just spell it.’ This went on all night. Finally, I was getting tired, and I said it real slow: “M … a … n.’ And they said, “That’s what we’re talkin’ about!” I said, “Why in the hell didn’t you tell me that the first time?”
The Yardbirds’ recorded a live version of “I’m a Man” with Eric Clapton in 1964 and a studio version with Jeff Beck in 1965. Released as a single, the Beck rave-up version reached No. 17.
“I’m a Man” by Bo Diddley
“I’m a Man” by the Yardbirds
- “Ball and Chain” by Big Mama Thornton and Big Brother & the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin)
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton is known as the first to record Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Hound Dog,” but the blues and R&B great also wrote and recorded “Ball and Chain,” which would become a signature song of Janis Joplin. As lead singer of Big Brother & the Holding Company, Joplin burst on the music scene when she performed “Ball and Chain” at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.
In Big Mama Thornton: The Life and Music, Joplin’s friend Tony Burkhart recalled that Joplin called Thornton her mentor and said, “She sings the blues with such heart and soul. I have learned so much from her and only wish I could sing as well as Willie Mae.”
Joplin, who died in 1971, and Thornton often appeared together on stage. “I gave her the right and the permission to make ‘Ball and Chain,'” Thornton said in 1972. “And she always was my idol before she passed away … and I thank her for helping me. I’ll always go along the line with that.”
“Ball and Chain” by Big Mama Thornton
“Ball and Chain” by Big Brother & the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin