Originating in the Deep South after the US Civil War in the 19th century, blues music is famous for its melancholy subjects and sounds - and for producing some world-famous artists.


Here are our top 10 blues singers of all time

Best blues singers

John Lee Hooker

Known for his signature song Boom Boom’ John Lee Hooker enjoyed a career spanning more than half a century, from his 1949 R&B number one Boogie Chillen, through the blues revival of the 1960s, to his 70s rock collaboration with Canned Heat and his 1989 Grammy winning The Healer, alongside Bonnie Rait and Robert Cray. Hooker’s dark, smoky vocals are underpinned by his own stinging guitar riffs.

Ray Charles

Hailing from Albany, Georgia, Ray Charles was a genre hopping genius who mastered the blues, soul, gospel and country, and was as gifted on both saxophone and piano. But it was his wailing, soulful vocal delivery that really made him stand out, bringing gospel influences to great blues recordings like Hard Times (Nobody Knows Better Than I).

Bessie Smith

Listening to the Tennessean’s powerful delivery of Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out, it’s easy to see why so many have claimed the Empress of the Blues to be the greatest blues singer of all time.

An orphan from a young age, Smith sang on street corners for pennies, and rose from severe poverty to being one of the biggest stars of the 1920s and ’30s, before being tragically killed in a car crash in 1937. Her legacy remains strong a century on from her first recordings, with honours that include a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, induction into the US National Women’s Hall of Fame, and even featuring on a postage stamp.

We named Bessie Smith one of the greatest female jazz musicians ever and one of the best jazz singers of all time

Howlin’ Wolf

Chester Burnett learned from the masters – he’d met both Charley Patton and Tommy Johnson, and travelled with Robert Johnson and Sonny Boy Williamson II. At 6’3” and weighing close to 300lbs, he was an imposing figure, who earned the nickname Howlin’ Wolf due the vocal howling that became his signature.

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A massive influence on groups like The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds, his Chess recordings such as Killing Floor and Smokestack Lightning are among the finest blues recordings of all time.

We named 'Smokestack Lightning' one of the greatest blues song ever

Etta James

There can be few finer examples of singing the blues than Etta James’ 1967 I’d Rather Go Blind. A protégé of Johnny Otis, she first came to the world’s attention with The Wallflower, a R&B number one in 1954. Her ability to hop between styles allowed her to adapt to the changing times – her Tell Mama album, recorded in Muscle Shoals, remains one of the finest blues LPs ever made, and she continued to make Grammy winning records into the 1990s.


The legends about Huddie Ledbetter would fill a bookshelf, but his recorded legacy speaks volumes about his incredible and unique talent. Lead Belly, as he was known, was a storyteller who lived the blues.

His vocal range was impressive – from deep boom to falsetto, and from talking blues to yodelling. Whatever style he used, though, the hearer is utterly compelled to listen to one of the great voices of the 20th century.

We also named Leadbelly one of the best jazz guitarists ever

Muddy Waters

With a holler that could wake the dead, Muddy Waters moved from Clarksdale, Mississippi to Chicago, where his self-assured blues became a foundation stone for most of the biggest artists of the 1960s and beyond. Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want To Make Love To You and Got My Mojo Working showcase his suggestive style and vocal power.

BB King

Known as the King of the Blues, BB’s celebrated for his electrifying guitar playing, but it’s his powerful and emotional singing style that has seen him so often copied, and yet never bettered. In a career that began shortly after World War II and lasted until the year before his death in 2015, King played endless shows, exciting audiences generation after generation.

Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland

While many great blues singers have an earthiness that talks of the harshness of the Deep South from where the blues emerged, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland mellows his gospel-tinged hollering with a sultry smoothness. Stormy Monday Blues is the best example of this blues classic, while Farther On Up the Road evokes blues shouters like Big Joe Turner, but polished until the music shines like a new pin.

Janis Joplin

Texan Janis Joplin shot to fame as part of the West Coast psychedelic scene in the 1960s, where she wore the influences of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey proudly on her sleeve. She brought the blues bang up to date with an intensity and control that allowed her screaming style to overwhelm the listener, while never drifting out of control. In 1970, she died of a fatal drug overdose at just 27 years old, but left a catalogue that still sends shivers down the spine over 50 years later.


Main image: Ray Charles © Getty Images


Paul McGuinness is a journalist with over 25 years’ experience. He has written about music of all styles for a variety of publications and labels. He has interviewed legendary musicians from five continents, and travelled the world to experience the music he loves in its natural setting.