Samuel Charters, who died Wednesday at age 85, was hardly a household name despite exerting a huge influence on American culture. Here is an excerpt from his New York Times obit.
When Mr. Charters’s first book, “The Country Blues,” was published at the tail end of the 1950s, the rural Southern blues of the pre-World War II period was a largely ignored genre. His book immediately caused a sensation among college students and aspiring folk performers, like Bob Dylan, who would later become pop stars – a small but ultimately influential group. The book, which remains in print to this day, created a tradition of blues scholarship to which Mr. Charters would continue to contribute with books like “The Roots of the Blues” and “The Legacy of the Blues.”
“In retrospect, we can mark the publication of ‘The Country Blues’ in the fall of 1959 as a signal event in the history of the music,” the music historian Ted Gioia wrote in his book “The Delta Blues” (2008). As “the first extended history of traditional blues music,” Mr. Gioia said, it was “a moment of recognition and legitimation, but even more of proselytization, introducing a whole generation to the neglected riches of an art form.” Within a decade … songs by the singers and guitarists Mr. Charters had highlighted were staples in the repertoires of blues and rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Canned Heat, Cream and the Rolling Stones.
Charters also wrote two important jazz books, “Jazz New Orleans” and, with Leonard Kunstadt, “Jazz: A History of the New York Scene.” To me, however, Charters will always be associated with producing albums and in particular the seminal three-disc set “Chicago/The Blues/Today!” released on Vanguard in 1966. Here’s how AllMusic.com sums up the collection.
In early 1966, blues history was made with the issuance of a three-volume set of new recordings produced by blues historian Samuel Charters. This series was known as “Chicago/The Blues/Today!” and the release sent shock waves through the world of rock ‘n’ roll. Every artist on the three volumes had recorded before (some, like Otis Rush and Junior Wells, had actually seen small hits on the R&B charts), but these recordings were largely their introduction to a newer – and predominately white – album-oriented audience.
The “Today!” part of the title was no bit of hyperbole, either. This series accurately portrayed a vast cross section of the Chicago blues scene as one could hear it on any given night in the mid-’60s. Rather than record full albums (which Charters had neither the budget nor the legal resources to pull off), each artist simply came in for a union-approved session of four to six songs, with each volume featuring three different groupings.
With these recordings, blues suddenly gained respectability as something much more vital and vibrant than just a poor cousin of jazz. A new market for this music began, one that exists today in full blossom. Their effect on musicians was enormous. It’s fair to assume that most blues-influenced artists had all three volumes in their respective collections, and the songs on them ended up in the repertoires of everyone from Jimi Hendrix (Junior Wells’ “Rock Me”) to Led Zeppelin (a note-for-note copy of Otis Rush’s “I Can’t Quit You Baby”) to Steppenwolf (Junior Wells’ “Messin’ with the Kid”) and beyond.
One of my brothers borrowed the albums from the local library during our teen years … and never returned them, as best I can tell. And this, along with B.B. King “Live at the Regal” and WXRT’s “Blues Deluxe” are where my blues education started 35 years ago. “Chicago/The Blues/Today!” is essential listening for any fan of the Windy City’s blues traditions.
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