23 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Blues Singers Of All Time

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Getting its start in the deep south after the end of the Civil War, blues music originated from African American work songs and spiritual hymns only to explode in popularity in the 1920s. 

There’s something about the blues that just connects with people, transcending all boundaries. Whether it’s the soulful sound of Muddy Waters or the gritty voice of BB King, there have been some incredible blues singers over the years.

In this post, we’re going to look at 23 of the greatest and most famous blues singers of all time.

1. B.B. King

Born Riley B. King, singer and guitarist B.B. King got his start in Mississippi on a plantation near Indianola. At twenty-two, King hitched a ride to Memphis to launch his musical career.

His career began to take off in 1948 after he adopted the name B.B. King as a catchy radio moniker.

By the mid-fifties, King was touring nationally. Over the next decade, his prestige would only continue to grow. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Rock and Roll Hall of fame three years later.

2. Muddy Waters

Singer and legendary blues guitarist McKinley Morganfield was born in 1915 in Issaquena, Mississippi. 

By the early 1940s, he was a semi-successful traveling musician. He made his way north to Chicago in 1943. That year he was gifted his first electric guitar.

In Chicago, Waters started recording music for record companies like Columbia and RCA.

He would continue to enjoy stardom and success for the rest of his life. In 1983, Muddy Waters tragically suffered a heart attack and died at sixty-eight

3. Billie Holiday

Born in Baltimore in 1915, Eleanora Fagan knew from an early age that she wanted to be a singer. By 1929, she was playing jazz clubs in New York, where she adopted the stage name Billie Holiday.

At eighteen, Holiday met a producer named John Hammond and after that, her career took off at lightning speed. 

She linked up with pianist Teddy Wilson and produced one hit after another. She signed a record deal with Columbia Records in 1958 but died a year later at the young age of only forty-four. 

She won four Grammy awards posthumously and is generally regarded as one of the greatest female jazz singers of all time.

4. Ray Charles

The legendary Ray Charles was born in Albany, Georgia in 1930. When he was only six years old, Charles was rendered blind due to glaucoma.

At fifteen, he left school and started playing for dance bands around Florida. He dropped his last name because he did not want to be confused with the famous boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

From there, Charles would enjoy one of the most successful musical careers of the 20th century and beyond.

Throughout his storied career, he won seventeen Grammys, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and the National Medal of the Arts.

5. Jimi Hendrix

Born 1942 in Seattle, he was first called Johnny Allen Hendrix and then James Marshall Hendrix.

Hendrix was drawn to music early on, teaching himself to play by ear. He bought his first guitar in 1958 and joined his first band soon after.

By 1967, he moved to London, changed his name to Jimi Hendrix, and formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Their debut album, Are You Experienced? was an instant hit and is still one of the biggest rock albums of all time.

But, sadly, in 1970 Hendrix died of asphyxiation due to a suspected drug over dose at the age of only twenty-seven.

6. Etta James

Jamesetta Hawkins was born in 1938 in Los Angeles, California. She started vocal lessons at the tender age of five and soon became the star of her church choir.

In 1954, the sixteen-year-old girl was discovered by the musician John Otis. She recorded her first single that same year.

She soon signed with Modern Records and began a string of hit records through the latter half of the 1950s. Her career success would continue until the 21st century with an album entitled Matriarch of the Blues.

James died in 2012 due to complications from leukemia at the age of seventy-three.

7. Otis Redding

Born in 1942 in Dawson, Georgia, Otis Ray Redding Jr. moved to Macon, Georgia as a young boy.

He traveled to LA in 1960 and began releasing hit singles. He released These Arms of Mine in 1963 and found fame as a blues musician. 

In 1965 he recorded the seminal album Otis Blue: Otis Redding Sings Soul in just one day. Over the next two years, he would release two more albums recording what might be his biggest hit, (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.

But, tragically, only four days after recording this record on December 10th, 1967, Redding died in a Wisconsin plane crash.

8. Nina Simone

Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. Little Eunice could play piano by ear at the early age of three, and her parents encouraged her talents.

Eunice began teaching music to young students to make ends meet, and in 1954 she auditioned to play at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City. She soon made a name for herself there and changed her name to Nina Simone.

Over the next half a century, Simone traveled the world, released over 40 albums with some hugely popular songs, even to this day. Her big hits include My Baby Just Cares For Me, ‘I Put a Spell on You’ and ‘Feeling Good‘.

Simone died a legend and passed peacefully in her sleep in 2003.

9. Janis Joplin

Singer songwriter Janis Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas in 1943. But, she left Texas for San Francisco in 1963 where she made a living as a folk singer.

Around this time, she developed an unhealthy relationship with drinking and illicit drugs. She returned to Port Arthur to recuperate from her vices, but Joplin was back in San Francisco by 1966. 

This time, her bluesy vocal ability got her noticed. She joined a band called Big Brother and the Holding Company.

In 1970, Joplin lost her battle with addiction and died of a drug overdose in early October.

10. Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson grew up with his mother in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, but eventually, he moved to Memphis to live with his father.

He made a living as a traveling musician, and by 1936 Johnson caught the eye of a talent scout named H.C. Speir. 

He recorded a handful of his songs from the road there. These recordings became a regional hit, selling thousands of copies.

Johnson started touring in 1937 and enjoyed a steady income for the first time in his young life. Sadly he died a year later. Though legends remain, the official cause of death was syphilis.

11. John Lee Hooker

Born in Mississippi in 1917, John Lee Hooker learned his love of music at his stepfather’s knee as a boy.

In his early 20s, he moved north to Detroit and worked two jobs during the day. At night he played blues for local house parties and small dive bars.

These performances netted him some local fans and caught the attention of Bernard Besman, a producer for Sensation Records. From then on, Hooker would enjoy a long, illustrious career as a successful blues musician.

At seventy-two, Hooker released the most successful album of his career. In 1997, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

12. Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton was born in March of 1945 in Surrey England. As his mother was an unwed teen when he was conceived, Clapton was raised by his grandparents and grew up believing his mother was his sister.

He joined a band called The Yardbirds in 1963 and earned the nickname Slowhand while recording his first studio albums.

By 1966 he joined a band called Cream, and together they would record three albums and watch as their fame and popularity skyrocketed. Over time, Clapton would come to be known as one of the most legendary artists of his generation.

He’s is still producing albums today and will go down in history as one of the most famous blues singers to ever pick up a guitar and a microphone.

13. Buddy Guy

Buddy Guy was born in Louisiana in 1936, one of six siblings born to a sharecropping family out of Lettsworth. At seven, Guy crafted a makeshift guitar out of wood, two strings, and his mother’s hairpins.

By the time he was twenty-one, he took a real guitar to Chicago and joined up with other heavy hitters like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.

He has maintained a legendary career ever since. In 2012, he was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor to celebrate his lifetime contribution to American culture. He also published a memoir that same year that became a bestseller.

14. Stevie Ray Vaughn

Stevie Ray Vaughn was born in Dallas Texas in 1954, and by 1961 he was already playing guitar.

By seventeen, Vaughn ditched school to focus on making music. He formed his first blues band in 1970 and named it Blackbird.

The early 80s saw Vaughn and a new band called Double Trouble gigging around the Texas club scene. They soon became one of the most popular bands in the state.

Soon after, the band got a record deal with Epic Records and they recorded a debut album, Texas Flood. It proved wildly popular, as did their second album, Can’t Stand the Weather.

Tragically, Vaughn died in a deadly helicopter crash in 1990.

15. Big Mama Thornton

Born Willie Mae Thornton to a Baptist Minister in rural Alabama, Big Mama Thornton started life as a singer in her father’s congregation.

Her mother died when Thornton was only fourteen and she left home soon after to pursue a career in music.

In 1953, her first single Hound Dog was released and topped the R&B charts for nearly two months. It sold two million copies across the US and brought her a new level of fame and recognition.

Thornton continued making albums into the 70s, but her health began to wane by 1979. In 1984, she died at the age of fifty-seven due to complications from a heart attack.

16. Memphis Slim

John Peter Chatman was born in 1915 and was introduced to blues at a young age. His family came from Memphis, and some of them were the earliest blues musicians in the south.  

Chatman moved to Chicago in 1939 to pursue his dream career as a musician and quickly found himself shoulder to shoulder with some of the world’s most respected blues musicians.

He adopted the stage name Memphis Slim in 1940 and released his first hit single, Beer Drinkin’ Woman, soon after. Slim would go on to release over five hundred recordings during his career.

He moved to Paris in 1963 and settled there permanently. He stayed in the City of Lights until he died in 1988.

17. Lightnin’ Hopkins

Sam Hopkins was born to a sharecropping family out of Centerville, Texas in 1912. He started playing in a blues band at the ripe old age of eight, an honest-to-goodness child prodigy.

He played at parties and gatherings around Texas until the early 30s when he settled in Houston, though he still toured the state as a traveling musician.

Hopkins eventually returned to Houston for good, where he would stay all through the 1940s and 50s. He experienced a resurgence of popularity in 1959 caused by a rising folk music scene in America.

Hopkins went on to perform and record for the rest of his life, all the way up to his death in 1982.

18. Howlin’ Wolf

Chester Arthur Burnett was born in Mississippi in 1910. He earned his nickname Howlin’ Wolf as a toddler due to his wild nature and his large frame.

His parents divorced when he was young, and Burnett ended up being raised by his alcoholic uncle.

He started playing guitar at eighteen and began out performing at nightclubs and house parties in Ruleville, Mississippi. In 1948, he returned from a stint in the military to start his first band.

By the early 1970s, Wolf was dealing with a myriad of health problems. He died in Illinois in 1976 from complications due to kidney surgery.

19. Albert King

Albert Nelson was born in 1923 on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. He was one of twelve siblings born to amateur guitarist Will Nelson.

By the early 1950s, he’d uprooted to Gary, Indiana where he played drums for Jimmy Reed, one of the most popular blues musicians of the era.

He moved to St. Louis Missouri in 1953 and started recording for two different record labels where he churned out a handful of hit songs siuch as ‘Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong‘ and ‘That’s What the Blues Is All About.’

By the mid-60s, Albert was wildly popular and would hold onto that popularity for the rest of his life. He died in 1992 after suffering a heart attack.

20. Paul Butterfield

Born in 1942 on Chicago’s south side, Paul Butterfield spent his early years listening to jazz and blues records that belonged to his father and older brother.

He soon began playing the blues himself and eventually dropped out of college to pursue his musical dreams. He got a regular gig at Big John’s Chicago blues bar and the Butterfield Blues Band was born.

The band released their first studio album in 1965 called The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. But, after performing at Woodstock in 1969, the band split up and Butterfield became a bit of a recluse in the music world.

He died in May of 1987 in Los Angeles due to intestinal illness.

21. Elmore James

Elmore Brooks was born in 1918 in Richland Mississippi. He started playing blues early on in his life and began playing professionally under stage names like Joe Willie James and Cleanhead.

By 1952, he was recording songs in nearby Jackson, Mississippi under the name Elmore James.

His first popular single reached number nine on the R&B charts that same year. He continued to make more hit records over the next seven years, traveling between Chicago and Mississippi.

James was diagnosed with heart disease in 1957 and took a more stationary job as a DJ in Mississippi. He continued recording until 1962 when he had to temporarily retire.

He planned on making a comeback but died of a heart attack in May of 1963.

22. Freddie King

Freddie King was born in Gilmer Texas in 1934. He learned to play guitar under the tutelage of his uncle and his mother at a very young age.

As a teenager, he was heavily inspired by the sounds coming from the Chicago blues scene. In 1950, his family moved to the Windy City where he started regularly attending local blues clubs.

By 1960, he signed with Federal Records and found minor success. He continued to record songs, and by 1961, Freddie hit pay dirt with I Love the Woman.

King continued his successful career path until the mid-1970s, when he died due to heart failure at forty-two years old.

23. Mamie Smith

Though the exact birthdate is a mystery, many historians believe that Mamie Robinson was born in Cincinnati, Ohio between 1883 and 1885. 

She got her showbiz start early as a vaudeville dancer and continued touring well into her teens.

At twenty years old, she had settled in Harlem, and by twenty-five, her career was beginning to take off. She recorded a song called Crazy Blues which is widely considered to be the first-ever recorded blues song.

Mamie was successful for the rest of her days. She performed in shows and movies up until she died in 1946.

Summing Up Our List Of Great Blues Singers

With that, our list of the best blues singers comes to a close. 

Each one of these twenty-three superstars did their part to shape and define blues music as we know it today.

Every single one is a treasure for blues fans everywhere!

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.