As far as music goes, 1960 fell in the midst of transition: the first euphoric shots of rock and roll had given way to something of a lull. Elvis was in the army, Little Richard had rejected rock and roll for the holy scripture, and Buddy Holly and other promising artists had died a year earlier. The music on the charts was tepid: on July 2, 1960, the Billboard Hot 100 was led by Connie Francis and her song “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool.”
The blues were also in transition: artists such as B.B. King had appeared regularly on rhythm and blues charts in the early to mid 1950s, but by 1960 they had been replaced by smoother soul and R&B acts. Leading blues artists were still burning up the clubs every night, but the hit-making years seemed in the past. Dinah Washington’s “Rocking Good Way” topped the Billboard R&B charts in July 1960.
And so it may have continued for the blues if it weren’t for George Wein, the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival. The annual event, held in a wealthy enclave in Rhode Island, might seem like a strange place for the blues. Since 1954, the festival had been a prime destination for tastemakers, jazz aficionados, and college students seeking to soak up the sounds of top jazz musicians. It would also serve as the template for festivals that would follow: use the headliners to sell tickets while introducing the assembled crowd to up-and-coming artists or those outside the mainstream. (Bill Graham, who ran the Fillmore and Fillmore East, was especially adept at assembling such lineups.)
In 1960, Wein decided to take the lineup in a different direction, a move that would effectively bring blues into the mainstream. Among the likes of Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie, Wein threw in a few curveballs. Ray Charles, in support of Horace Silver on July 3, injected a little extra grit and grease into the proceedings. And on the Fourth of July, the Jazz Messengers with Art Blakey were supported by the blues. But not just any blues; it was the deep blues, up from the Delta by way of Chicago, courtesy of Muddy Waters, with a little help from John Lee Hooker.
Waters’ set has become the stuff of legend. The band, featuring Otis Spann on piano and James Cotton on harp, was in top form. For an audience that was used to jazz musicians playing evocatively, Muddy Waters and his band raised the energy to an unprecedented level, gobsmacking an audience of (mostly white) East Coast music intelligentsia that didn’t quite know what was coming. To end the set, Waters played two versions of “Got My Mojo Working,” all while using his inimitable showmanship to engage the assembled crowd in ways jazz players wouldn’t or couldn’t.
After John Lee Hooker played his set, Langston Hughes came onstage to debut a poem he’d written about the day, “Goodbye Newport Blues.” Otis Spann sang the lyrics in an impromptu performance. In all, the show ended up serving as a coronation, bringing the Chicago blues to a whole new audience for the first time.
A recording of the set, Muddy Waters at Newport 1960, released by Chess, was important for a couple of reasons: it was the first live blues album to gain wide release. And it traveled well, reaching across the Atlantic to England, where the next wave of rock and roll bands were in their formative stages, still assimilating American music and distilling it into another form. American blues would soon replace the skiffle craze in England as the new touchstone, inspiring bands like the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck, and the Rolling Stones, among others. Their subsequent recordings would usher in a second golden age of the blues.
By the time Muddy Waters made his triumphant return to Newport in 1965, the Stones were mainstays on the charts, and the world was in the process of learning about the power of Chicago blues.
So this Thanksgiving, when you’re listening to Howlin’ Wolf or Elmore James, give thanks to George Wein for his part in championing the blues.