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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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.

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. 

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