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Images of the Blues by Lee Tanner and Lee Hildebrand

Lee Tanner’s b&w cover photo of vintage B.B. King-eyes closed, lost in sweet reverie as he squeezes another gloriously blue note out of Lucille-sets the tone for this compelling visual journey. A companion piece to his Images of Jazz, this photo gallery benefits greatly from the firsthand observations, evaluations and insights of Lee Hildebrand, the respected Bay Area-based scribe who has written about blues, soul, jazz and gospel since 1968. Together the two Lees concocted an evocative portrait of this rich and mysterious music that was once described by one of its finest practitioners, Charles Brown, this way: “It’s hard to put into words. It’s just a certain kind of picture some people can paint.”

In an overview entitled “The Blues Century,” Hildebrand lays out a brisk yet credible primer for the novice, tracing the music from Southern field hollers and work songs to the classic blues singers and ragtime guitar pickers of the ’20s,following its evolution to boogie woogie pianists and big band blues shouters of the ’30s, the emergence of Chicago’s electrified blues scene in the late ’40s, and the development of gospel blues, soul blues and rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s and ’60s. Though they make token stabs at continuing the lineage through the ’70s and ’80s to the present with selected photos andcutlines of contemporary players, the bulk of this book is devoted to the pioneers of the genre, those heroic bluesmen and women whom the two Lees grew up idolizing.

Images of the Blues is neatly categorized into sections covering jazz, folk blues, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, soul blues. The sprawling subject is further broken down by instrument with separate sections on guitarists, harmonica players, saxophonists and pianists. Individual portraits of iconic figures such as T-Bone Walker, B.B. and Albert King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Joe Turner and Bobby Bland help lend a more personal touch to this documentary work. And along the way, Hildebrand reveals some arcane bits of trivia and truth that even hardcore blues fans may not have been privvy to. For instance, I never knew that Lightnin’ Hopkins wrote and recorded “Happy Blues For John Glenn” in 1962 after watching the astronaut orbit the earth on his landlady’s television. Nor did I know that John Lee Hooker had filed suit against Tower Records for aiding and abetting a copyright infringement, eventually settling out-of-court with the national chain. When Hildebrand reports that a drunken Little Walter, in the last dark years of his brilliant career, would wave a loaded pistol on stage, you get the sense that Lee was there in the audience, ducking for cover. These kind of tidbits and insights add spice to the project.

But we come away from this book with Tanner’s images-and those he gathered from several colleagues-burned into our brains. Those faces of rapture and transcendant joy, whether it’s Big Joe Turner or Jimmy Rushing dealing at the mic, Albert Collins walking through the crowd with ax in hand, Howlin’ Wolf growling, B.B. King grimacing, Willie Dixon grinning, Aretha Franklin wailing, are what make this book soar and sing.

Originally Published