John Kessler

All Blues Host

John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KPLU since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KPLU “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.

His most memorable and satisfying KPLU radio moment was getting an email from Jimmy Lane, a bluesman and the son of blues legend Jimmy Rogers, who said something like “You’re playing the good stuff, keep it up!”

Ways To Connect

Gene Herrick / AP Photo

Since it’s Black History Month, we’re going to take a look at some of the music from the Civil Rights Movement from the mid-‘50s to the early 1970s.

Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s “We Shall Overcome” was the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

Charles Sykes / Invision/AP Photo

The Yardbirds released their first hit record, “For Your Love,” 50 years ago. It was 1965, the year British rock invaded American pop music culture. 

John Davisson / Invision/AP Photo

Here are our picks for the best blues albums of the year.

harmonytalk.com / Wikimedia Commons

Charley Patton’s music set the template for all the Delta blues players who would come after him. Take a listen to “High Water Everywhere,” which Patton recorded in 1929.

But Patton’s records weren’t made in the South; they were recorded in Grafton, Wisconsin by Paramount Records, a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair Company. Now it seems pretty unlikely, not to mention bizarre, that this seminal blues artist from Mississippi would be recorded in a freezing shack attached to a Wisconsin furniture company, but that’s what happened.

Ever since the 1960s, when she worked as a solo blues singer and member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Maria Muldaur has been dedicated to traditional American music, primarily blues and gospel. In 1973, she had her biggest hit record, Midnight At The Oasis.  Maria and her band stopped by the KPLU Performance Studio during a tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of the recording of that song.

Owen Sweeney / Invision/AP Photo

Today we’re going to talk about a genre of blues that’s so rare it barely has a name. And if you look up that name in Wikipedia, nothing comes up. We’re talking about “trance blues.”

We define trance blues as blues that has a strong electronic component, like samples, loops and drum machines. And woven into that is some element of traditional blues.

AP Photo

For many of us, Jimmy Cliff’s 1973 song “The Harder They Come” was the first reggae piece we’d heard.

Justin Steyer / KPLU

Jon Cleary has the rare ability to transcend his geographical background. As you will learn in his interview with All Blues host, John Kessler, Cleary grew up in England and was exposed to the New Orleans sound by his uncle at a young age. 

Cleary saved up enough money to visit New Orleans, planning to stay a few weeks, but 33 years later he is still there and has become one of the city's best known musicians. 

Allan Green / AP Photo

Take a listen to “Sex Machine” from 1970 by the architect of Funk, James Brown.

Brown is the focus of our discussion as we follow this music from its roots in R & B to full-blown, shake-your-booty Funk.

Rene Perez / AP Photo

You probably know “Birdland” by the group Weather Report well enough to sing along with the melody.

What you may not know is the melody is being played on an electric bass by Jaco Pastorius, the subject of today’s discussion.  

Bob Daugherty / AP Photo

Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s song “Ko-Ko” is perhaps one of the most important American recordings of all time. It’s widely considered to be the first be-bop song ever to be recorded. And even though it’s a 1945 recording, this is still the template for modern jazz.

AP Photo

When Jimi Hendrix released the song “Foxy Lady” as part of the “Are You Experienced” album in 1967, it was like this whole package of psychedelia had dropped from the sky.

Wikimedia Commons

The song “Juke” by Little Walter Jacobs might not sound revolutionary to modern ears, but when it first came out in 1951, nobody had ever had heard harmonica played like this — ever. It really has an aggressive, in-your-face sound.

Stevesworldofphotos / Flickr

What was the first recorded rock and roll song?

Before we can answer that question, we have to go back and figure out the ingredients of rock and roll. We can identify three most important ingredients: gospel, jump and blues. 

Muddy Waters was born in rural Mississippi, and learned his blues at the feet of Son House and Robert Johnson.

By the 1940’s he took that delta blues to Chicago and led the gradual transition to electrified urban blues. He then recorded “Honey Bee” in 1951 with just bass and guitar accompaniment. The sound was closer to the delta, but you can hear the beginnings of the more aggressive modern sound starting to happen.

Earl King is one of the great songwriters and performers to come out of New Orleans, and his legacy continues to live on. Many of his compositions, including “Big Chief," “Trick Bag” and “These Lonely, Lonely Nights” have become an important part of the New Orleans “songbook."

His 1960 recording of “Come On Pts. 1 & 2” is punctuated with many starts and stops, featuring his expressive voice and aggressive and precise guitar work. If you look through Jimi Hendrix’s early releases, there are only a handful of songs among the dozens that he did not write. Earl King’s “Come On” is one of those.

The urban blues of places like Detroit and Chicago came from country blues. Little Son Joe and his better known partner Memphis Minnie were among the players who brought the blues to the cities, paving the way for Muddy Waters and others who would follow.

Memphis Minnie is known as one of the best guitarists and singers in the blues, and had a prolific career lasting 40 years. She married Little Son Joe (Ernest Lawlars) in the late 1930’s and they recorded “Black Rat Swing” in 1941 with Joe on vocals.

10 Artists You Should Have Known In 2013

Dec 26, 2013
Courtesy of the artist

It's usually easy to keep up with your favorite artists. You can follow them on Twitter, like them on Facebook and check them out when they come to your town.

Falling in love with unfamiliar bands? That's not quite as simple. There are so many aspiring musicians out there, you can't possibly listen to all of them.

But a few lucky people get to listen to random new artists for a living, including public radio hosts. So we asked NPR stations around the country to highlight their favorite musical discoveries of the year. The results ranged from a Pulitzer Prize winner to stars of the Kansas City BBQ circuit.

Read on for more about the 10 artists you should have known in 2013.

Joe Goblin / Associated Press

Boz Scaggs: Memphis (429 Records)

A tribute to the Memphis soul-blues tradition, made with some of the city’s best players. His unique rasp has only improved with age, and perfectly complements the laid-back groove that permeates the release. Not all the material is “soul” music, some of the best tracks are the bluesy “Cadillac Walk” and “Dry Spell”. Boz is a master of the simmering blues vibe, slightly restrained, but overflowing with mojo.

James Cotton: Cotton Mouth Man (Alligator Records)

Scott Newton

Stevie Ray Vaughan almost single-handedly brought blues to the mainstream in the 1980’s and 90’s with over a dozen Billboard singles and four Grammy awards. He’ll always be considered one of the most original guitar players of all time.

Though musically untrained, he was an astute student of the blues, and much of what he popularized is built on the work of his fellow Texas bluesmen.

Chances are you’ve heard Peggy Lee’s iconic version of “Fever”– it’s one of the steamiest love songs ever written. But the original recording was released two years earlier by Little Willie John in 1956.

“Sweet Home Chicago” is one of the best known blues songs ever written. But historians seem to agree that when Robert Johnson recorded the song in 1936, he borrowed heavily to make his masterpiece.

“Kokomo Blues” is clearly one of the building blocks of that better known blues song. Scrapper Blackwell came out with it in 1928.

Here’s a perfect example of a song that changed with the times, and was at the cutting edge of those changes.

Drummer and singer Rabon Tarrant recorded “Blues With a Feeling” in 1947, a time when big band swing music was in transition to rock and roll. This version straddles both genres with the beat of rock and roll, but the more jazzy instrumentation of piano, sax and trumpet.

Hooks Brothers

If I had to pick one person to represent Delta blues at the peak of its expression, it would be Robert Johnson.

Saying that he was a superlative guitar player, impassioned singer and masterful lyricist seems barely adequate to convey the importance of the work he accomplished in his 27 years. Many of his songs became not only blues standards but would be a huge influence on rock music.

Sonny Boy Williamson was a blues originator who helped shape the sound of modern blues. In his life, he knew the first generation of Delta bluesmen, and would go on to see the birth of modern rock music. He played with Robert Johnson in the 1930’s, and with Eric Clapton in the 1960’s. His ability to span eras is a testament to the timelessness of his voice and harmonica.

Robert Johnson has become a mythical figure of the blues, who acquired his prodigious skills in a deal with the devil at the crossroads. The truth is he was a man who worked very hard to turn himself into a musician. His early attempts at music – sitting in with legends Charley Patton and Son House—were not successful, and he didn’t appear to have much in the way of musical talent.

But then Johnson found a teacher in Ike Zinneman, an unrecorded Mississippi blues player, spending a year developing his musicianship.

It’s hard to trace the exact source of “Crow Jane”, but it’s a song that has outlasted many others from the early days of the blues. Its roots lay in the Piedmont region of Virginia and North and South Carolina. Rev. Gary Davis was known to perform it during the 1920’s, and the first recording was made in 1927 by guitarist Julius Daniels. Daniels is important partly because he was one of the first Black guitarists to record in the Southeast, inspiring others to follow.

The Mississippi Sheiks were a popular string band of the 1920’s and 30’s, with a sound that was a crossover between country music and blues. Though Mississippi-based, their music differed from delta blues in some important ways.

This iconic hard-luck song was a hit when Bessie Smith recorded it in 1929, and with its timeless message and memorable melody, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” has been a favorite for singers in almost every genre including jazz, blues, folk and rock. Bessie Smith was the most popular female jazz and blues singer of the 1920’s, and the highest paid black entertainer of the day. Known as “The Empress of the Blues”, she often worked with the top tier players in the business, including Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and James P. Johnson.

Cars make great musical metaphors, and they’ve inspired some famous blues songs like “Cadillac Boogie”, “Maybelline” and “Mustang Sally”. K.C. Douglas came out with “Mercury Boogie” in 1949, a song that would go on to be a widely covered blues standard, known as “Mercury Blues”. Ford purchased the rights to the song for advertising (“Crazy ‘Bout a Ford Truck”), and it was a #2 hit for country singer Alan Jackson in 1993.

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