I had mixed emotions when I read that Congress declared 2003 The Year of the Blues. My first reaction was, "Can any of these politicians tell me the difference between Sonny Boy Williamson I and Sonny Boy Williamson II? How Muddy Waters differs from Howlin' Wolf? How many blues albums do these politicians own?"
It's like the half-empty reaction to Black History Month. The blues get one year and that's it? Even with their congressional declaration, how many blues artists did you see perform at this year's Grammy Awards? Were the blues Grammys a part of the broadcast? This could be the biggest slap in the face since the Academy Awards declared a particular year The Year of the Actress.
But let's try being optimistic, Martin Scorsese made a multipart documentary series about the history of the blues, which will be aired this year. Between the declaration and documentary, more people may be made aware of this musical form. With luck we'll see more independent (and independent local) blues folk selling albums off the bandstand.
As for major-label artists, here are some big names who could help The Year of the Blues by releasing a blues album.
AEROSMITH: When did Aerosmith jump the shark? The Super Bowl with Britney Spears? Steven Tyler at the 500? The band covered the Rufus Thomas classic "Walkin" the Dog" on its 1973 debut. Joe Perry's been known to sing "Red House" in concert. Then there are the songs "Big Ten Inch Record" and "Hangman Jury." But, Steven, if you record a blues album, please don't put your daughter in the video bumping and grinding at a Delta juke joint.
ERIC CLAPTON: Wait a minute, you say, what about Unplugged? What about From the Cradle? What about that album he did with B.B. King, Riding with the King? Granted, I'll give you those mighty fine albums. But he used drum loops that Fat Possum fans would say were too slick on his album Pilgrim and he covered "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on his last live album. Some cleansing needs to be done. I recommend a solo acoustic blues album. Just him, an acoustic guitar and a National Steel and the tunes of Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Charley Patton and some EC originals.
LYNYRD SKYNYRD: Hey, Skynyrd, how about putting away the Rebel flag, which many see as a symbol of Old South racism, and embrace the music that helped create your sound? Playing the blues while sporting the Rebel flag is like being pro-life and pro-death penalty.
STEVE MILLER: He used to play with John Lee Hooker in the early '70s. Name
any Steve Miller album or song after Abracadabra? We"re waiting Ö JOE
COCKER: He's always had that cool raspy voice, but can you think of anything he's done since "You Can Leave Your Hat On"? (Hands down, diehard Cocker fans). A full-blown blues album plus that voice could add up to a tremendous success.
BONNIE RAITT: Yes, like Clapton, she hasn't completely lost her grip on the blues on her albums or in her concerts. Like Clapton, she could do a From the Cradle-type album or follow the Clapton advice previously stated. This could help remove some of the VH-1 stigma.
ROLLING STONES: Instead of another Greatest Hits, Live or Greatest Hits Live
collection, how about a return to their singles of the early '60s when people thought they were feuding with the Beatles.
SANTANA: Did you hear him on his last album, Shaman? Me neither. What makes Santana great is his mix of blues, jazz, Latin and rock. The man thanked John Coltrane and John Lee Hooker at the Grammy Awards; how cool is that? This could be a great eclectic mix of blues and, please, no guest stars. Let the man play for himself.
ZZ TOP: They were dirty blues rockers in the '70s, cleaned up their sound and put bimbos in videos in the '80s and since then have been playing somewhere in between these eras. How about a stripped-back, acoustic blues sound? Billy Gibbons is still a fine guitarist and the results could be something special.
All of the above players have something in common. They're world-famous, they make plenty of money and they have absolutely nothing to lose. They are now at the age the "old" school blues players were when they were kids. Here's hoping everyone has a fruitful Year of the Blues. Hopefully, the big corporate labels won't go overboard and try to record Michael Bolton Sings the Songs of Willie Dixon or Mariah Carey Sings Koko Taylor.