A Forum To Celebrate The Blues And Its Descendants

Posted: February 25, 2010 in The Blues and its Descendents


Robert Johnson Publicity Shot


The Blue Boys (Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley & Bill Black)



“The place where the soul of man never dies” is how Sam Phillips, owner of the famous Sun Records label described the Blues. What did he mean? Timeless? Haunting? Original? Whatever he meant, we each have our list of recordings that, we believe, fall into that category. I have named two below and I invite you to do the same (preferably including a link to the recording on Amazon.com). TO POST YOUR ENTRY, SIMPLY SCROLL DOWN TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE AND CLICK ON “COMMENT”. Your entry can be two individual songs, two original albums or two compilation albums or box sets.  My ultimate goal being to turn this blog into a website with reviews, essays and live online music streaming (I have already posted in the Pages section -top right- essays, rare pictures, road trip pictures, stories and CD recommendations). 

When you post your entry, try to explain why you think the recordings you name belong to “The place where the soul of man never dies”. You do not have to be as wordy as me!




Robert Johnson remains a mystery to this day. The legend wants us to believe that as a young bluesman of limited talent, he went down to the crossroads at midnight in the Mississippi Delta and sold his soul to the devil to become the greatest bluesman that ever lived. Musicologists believe instead that, sick of being made fun of by his peers (including the great Son House), he disappeared for 6 months, took guitar lessons, practiced his guitar like a mad man and composed a wealth of songs that remain the blues standards to this day (“Sweet Home Chicago” “Dust My Broom”). Many of these songs cultivated the myth of a Faustian bargain with the devil (“Crossroads Blues”, “Me and the Devil”, “Hellhounds on my Trail”). Whether you believe the legend or the musicologists, what remains is a staggering collection of songs that define the blues and have been recorded by countless bluesmen and rock and roll singers. Listen to “(They’re) Red Hot” and you are listening not to blues but to rock and roll twenty years before Elvis.

Besides his songwriting genius, there are two other reasons why Johnson belongs to “The Place Where the Soul of Man Never Dies”:

First and foremost his incredible guitar technique. Blues musicians before him used their thumb to play a bass line and their other fingers to play a rhythm or picking or licks. Johnson upped the ante by playing the bass line with his thumb, rhythm with his middle fingers and solos with his pinky, melting all three into one big overall full sound. In other words, he was a one man band. No one has ever been able to replicate his guitar sound. The only one who comes close, in my opinion is the great John Hammond Jr. Eric Clapton has said he is both haunted and driven by the possibility of achieving that sound but has never been able to.

The second reason is Johnson’s fragile high pitched voice. Most blues singers have a gruff raspy and worn out voice. Johnson’s voice was incredibly fragile, much like Sinatra’s or the young Presley’s. Listen to his classic ballad “Love in vain” made famous by the Rolling Stones and you will truly feel why his love was in vain…



Contrary to Johnson, Elvis Presley and his recordings at Sun Records are an open book. I won’t rehash the story but focus instead on why these recordings are so unique, eerie, timeless and in the end so comparable to Johnson’s.

The official story is that Presley “invented” rock and roll by instinctively playing Blues and Rhythm and Blues in a fast Country style. The problem with this story is that Country music had used the Blues form long before Presley. Hank Williams masterpiece “Move it on over” (shamelessly plagiarized by the writers of Bill Haley’s “Rock around the clock”) is a Blues played in a fast Country style and as such it is pure Rock and roll.

Unlike Johnson, Presley was a primitive and purely instinctive musician. What made him a great musician was his insane sense of rhythm displayed in his guitar playing on these sessions as well as later on all of his 50’s recordings for RCA. Johnny Cash went as far as saying that he thought Elvis was the first great rock and roll rhythm guitarist, a statement that would make many musicians laugh.

Yet, ask those same musicians who plays drums on “Mystery Train” and they will, no doubt answer DJ Fontana. The problem is there are no drums on “Mystery Train”…

 “The Blue Boys” as they were known were thus the first Rock and roll band with the rhythm set by the furious acoustic guitar playing of Elvis, seconded by the great slap stand up bass of Bill Black and punctuated by the marvelous electric guitar licks of the great Scotty Moore producing music that was more than the sum of its parts. Whereas Hank Williams’ “Move it on over” is Blues played in a gentle Country style, “The Blue Boys” were not just Country, not just Blues but produced a perfect fusion of the genres that jumps at you as new and dangerous. Listen to the original version of “Baby let’s play house” by Arthur Gunther and then listen to Presley’s version on these Sun sessions. He takes a funny swinging tune and turns it into a rabble rousing dangerous punk song that will make you take your young daughter up to her room…

The voice, timing and phrasing of Presley capture the Blues in a way that no other white singer has been able to achieve and that often surpasses the originals, especially on “That’s all right Mama”, “Mystery Train”, “Baby Let’s Play House” and the great mystery song of these sessions “Milkcow Blues Boogie” which is based on an early version of the song by Kokomo Arnold “Milkcow Blues”.  Presley possessed a 78 RPM record of the Kokomo Arnold version but the song was also adapted by a country singer, Johnny Lee Willis whose version is much closer to Presley’s (although Presley starts out the song as a slow blues, like Kokomo Arnold before speeding it up like Johnny Lee Willis). Some songs on these recordings were obviously suggested by Sam Phillips who had recorded “Mystery Train” with Little Junior Parker but others like “That’s All right Mama” and “Milkcow Blues Boogie” came from Elvis himself. How a white 18 year-old truck driver could have known these songs remains a mystery.

Even more mysterious is Presley’s version of the ballad “Blue Moon” a standard of the time. The only instruments on his recording are Scotty Moore’s guitar and Presley’s acoustic guitar, playing discreetly in the background below his high pitched voice, delicate, fragile and wooing in the same eerie way as Robert Johnson did.  Was Presley familiar with Robert Johnson? It is doubtful but not impossible. Listen to “Blue Moon” and then to Johnson’s “Love in vain”. The similarities are striking. What is certain is that they both belong to “The Place Where the Soul of Man Never Dies”…


Now blog me!


Mike Rimbaud
“My Babe” by Little Walter and “Be-Bop-A-Lula” by Gene Vincent. Little Walter burns his harmonica and picks us all up as only the blues can do. With Be Bop, Gene Vincent creates an alien atmosphere with that up front acoustic guitar strumming, and his intense vocal, “Let’s rock again now!..” These songs belong to The Place Where the Soul of Man Never Dies. -Mike mikerimbaud@gmail.com
Mike Rimbaud



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