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!”

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Charley Patton was one of the first to play what we might recognize as Delta blues, putting blues into a strong and syncopated rhythm. A powerful singer with an aggressive guitar style, he was also a masterful entertainer, and one of the best-known traveling performers of his time.

Eric Clapton called Robert Johnson "the most important blues singer who ever lived."

Saying that Johnson 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. 

Justin Steyer / KPLU

Pianist/singer Marcia Ball is one of the best-known  players of Louisiana blues, swamp blues and boogie-woogie. While in town for a show at Jazz Alley, we were lucky enough to have Marcia stop by for a solo performance and interview hosted by All Blues' John Kessler. 

Jimmy Reed is one of the most influential bluesmen in history and his songs will always be part of the blues repertoire. "Baby, What You Want Me to Do," "Bright Lights, Big City," “ You Don't Have to Go”, are just some of the songs Reed made popular.

His style was easy-going and non-threatening, which made it accessible to white audiences of the 50’s and 60’s. Perhaps because of that, Reed sold more records than other blues stars like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.

Sleepy John Estes was a Tennessee-based blues singer of the 1920’s and 30’s. Though not a flashy guitarist, his voice was packed with power, and the songs he wrote have lasted through the years to be sung by Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan.

This deceptively simple blues song is a masterpiece of restraint and execution. Recorded first in 1964, it features the voice of Muddy Waters and the piano of Otis Spann in call-and-response. Buoyed by composer Willie Dixon’s bass, Waters slide guitar speaks only twice in the entire song, with bone-chilling results.

Big Joe Williams was part of the first generation of blues players, and lived to help spark the blues revival of the 1960’s. An active performing and recording musician, he traveled the country starting in the 1920’s, and by the 1970’s, had become very popular on the folk circuit as well. He is best known for the songs “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Crawling King Snake” which he recorded in 1941.

“Summertime” is considered one of George Gershwin’s finest songs. Collaborating with his brother Ira and lyricist DuBose Heyward, Gershwin composed the piece for his 1935 “folk-opera” Porgy and Bess.

A new CD is being released Tuesday by hometown kid Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. The CD features his songwriting and collaborations with Joe Walsh, Chrissie Hynde, and Heart.

Elmore James is a giant of the blues. His work as a songwriter, singer and guitarist put him near the top of the short list of greats. The songs he wrote and revived—  “Dust My Broom”, “Cry For Me Baby” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” —are revered as blues standards.

In the span of Howlin’ Wolf’s life and career he saw virtually the entire progression of blues from a rural, acoustic music through the birth of modern rock music. As a young man, he learned guitar from Delta master Charley Patton, and as an elder statesman performed with Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones. In between he sang some of the most compelling and memorable songs in all of American music, including “Back Door Man”, “Killing Floor” and “Spoonful”.

It’s one of the most widely played songs in the blues, but not much is known about Robert Petway, the man who recorded the definitive early version of “Catfish Blues”. The scant information that exists tells a familiar story of a Delta musician who headed to Chicago to make records. But after recording a mere 16 songs in 1941 and 1942, Petway seems to have disappeared from view.

Skip James was one of the first influential blues players. Although he came from the same Mississippi culture that produced Delta blues, James had a unique sound, built around unusual guitar tunings and his eerie falsetto. Robert Johnson based his song “32-20 Blues” around James’ lesser known “22-20 Blues”, and Cream famously covered his song “I’m So Glad” on their 1966 debut Fresh Cream. (a future BTM episode)

Blind Lemon Jefferson was one of the defining guitarists of Texas Blues of the 1920’s. Influenced by the country and gospel music of Texas, he also heard Mexican music played by farm workers. His unique guitar style and high, eerie voice were memorable; he recorded over 100 songs and was one of the best known bluesmen of his day. Some of his other well-known songs are “Black Snake Moan” and “Matchbox Blues”. He recorded “Broke and Hungry “ in 1926.

Chances are you know the song “My Babe”, made popular by Little Walter in 1955. Except for the lyrics, “My Babe” is nearly identical to the gospel song “This Train is Bound For Glory”, a song that reaches back to the 1920’s.

Tampa Red was a slide guitar pioneer who helped create the template for modern blues. His distinctive use of single-string slide melodies in the 1920’s would go on to influence virtually every slide player who followed him, including Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters.

In the days before amplification, he played a steel-bodied resonator guitar, the loudest and showiest guitar available. And he was one of the early adopters of the electric guitar, making the switch in the 1940’s.

Otis Rush brought such passion and emotion to his singing and guitar playing that his music has been called “frighteningly intense”. Rush never achieved the commercial success that he might have, but along with Buddy Guy and Magic Sam, he is acknowledged to be one of the architects of the Chicago blues sound of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Ken Thomas

The Legend of John Henry is an iconic myth of American railroad history, a battle between man and steam drill. One of the intriguing things about the legend is that no one knows for sure if John Henry existed. At least part of the myth is based  on historical events from the mid-1800’s; some say the source lies in Alabama, others point to West Virginia, both places where significant railroad tunnels were dug.

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.

He was a major radio star in the 1940’s on King Biscuit Time, America’s first live blues radio show. He wrote dozens of songs that became blues standards, notably “Help Me” and “Eyesight to the Blind." He recorded “Bring It On Home” in 1963, but didn’t release it until 1966.

Charley Patton

Charley Patton is considered by many to be the father of Delta Blues. What does that actually mean? A combination of location, timing and talent, put him at the leading edge of the new musical direction of the 1920s. He was one of, if not the first, to play what we might recognize as blues.

In 1942, Alan Lomax discovered a community of musicians in North Mississippi, who played their own hybrid music that was unmistakably African-sounding. Called “Fife & Drum” music because of its military background, it hearkens back to post Civil War days, when this special and local tradition originated.

Although drumming is a central element of African music, drumming was generally banned during the slavery era. With restrictions easing after the War, and the availability of one-time military drums, Fife and Drum music became a key part of North Mississippi culture.

Justin Steyer / KPLU

Want a good recipe for soul music?

Here’s what you do: Start with vocalist, Joan Osborne, who has had pop music hits, performed on The Grand Old Oprey, toured with members of The Grateful Dead and yet never strayed from her roots in rhythm ‘n blues music.

"You Don’t Love Me" is a classic blues song that has roots in the 50's and is still being recorded and re-invented. Willie Cobbs, an Arkansas rice farmer, made his way to Chicago in the late 1940's, playing his blues on Maxwell Street, eventually releasing "You Don't Love Me" in 1961.

Bo Diddley may not have had the commercial success of some other performers, but his contributions to American musical culture are huge.

Besides his trademark "Bo Diddley beat," he had a brash sense of style, dressing in outlandish outfits, playing custom-made square guitars and generally having a lot of fun on stage. In fact, he was a key player in the transition from blues to rock and roll, using a hard-edged guitar sound that would influence Buddy Holly, The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix.

Bo Diddley recorded "Before You Accuse Me" in 1957.

Repression of African Americans didn’t stop at the end of the Civil War, and prisons and chain gangs were full of black people arrested for minor violations. This song, “Another Man Done Gone”, tells of the death of a man on one of those chain gangs.

Folklorist Alan Lomax recorded Vera Hall singing “Another Man Done Gone” in 1940, and praised her as having the "loveliest untrained voice [he] had ever recorded."

Lonnie Johnson was one of the first American guitar masters, with a style that bridged jazz and blues, as well as country styles. Though often labeled as a “blues” player, he was versatile and accomplished enough to be a guest artist with Louis Armstong’s Hot Five in 1927, and with Duke Ellington in 1928.

Among his many contributions, he is considered the first to play single-string guitar solos and was a major influence on jazz guitar pioneers Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. He recorded “Somebody’s Got To Go” in 1941.

Willie Dixon didn’t make his career writing songs about people who behaved themselves, and “Back Door Man” is no exception — it’s about a guy who cheats and then brags about it.

Songs like this were well suited to the larger-than-life Howlin’ Wolf, who was already a well-established, middle-aged bluesman when he recorded it in 1961.

Sleepy John Estes was a master of country blues with a “down-home” feeling. A little rough around the edges, but loaded with emotion. Though his music wasn’t complex, his songs have lasted through the years, and have been sung by Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan.

In his 1935 recording of “Someday Baby Blues”, the guitar is barely heard, the mix dominated by Hammie Nixon’s harmonica and Estes’ plaintive voice.

It’s one of the defining songs of the Blues, written by one of its formative figures, Son House. The opening lyric “Woke up this morning…” would be considered trite today, but its 1930 recording date makes it more iconic than anything.

With its simple but insistent guitar rhythm and mournful lyrics, “Walkin’ Blues” is a virtual blueprint for Delta Blues, and a powerful influence on the development of modern blues.

Louis Jordan is one of the pioneers of American music, and an important force in the transition from the Jazz Era to Rock and Roll. He was one of the first to down-size the big band format to a combo of five or six players, pounding out high energy jump, swing and rhythm and blues for dance audiences.

One of the early bands to use electric guitar, he established a musical style that rock originators like Bill Haley followed closely. Louis Jordan’s 1947 recording of “Early in the Morning” is an example of the influence of Afro Cuban rhythms on American music.

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