BLUES music has been important in America for most of the 20th century, but it seems to have only lately become big business. Last year, "From the Cradle," Eric Clapton's tribute to the music of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and others, was the first blues album to debut at No.1 on the Billboard charts. Granted, it was a release by a major rock artist, but its success reawakened record labels to the commercial possibilities of blues. No longer will this music be relegated to a far-off corner of the record store.
Two of the major labels, in fact, have set up divisions to release blues-oriented music: Sony has revived their Okeh label, and Virgin has Pointblank. Popa Chubby, whose debut release, "Booty and the Beast," is on Okeh, is typical of the nontraditional blues artist on whom the record labels have pinned their hopes.
Born as Ted Horowitz, Chubby is a rambunctious, comical, blues rocker who blends Texas roadhouse blues with funk, rock, and rap in a combination that is pure fun. His single "Sweet Goddess of Blues and Beer" was a veritable teenage anthem this summer.
Pointblank features more traditional artists such as John Lee Hooker, one of the greatest blues singers, guitarists, and songwriters ever. Hooker, who took traditional music from the Mississippi Delta and brought it to the world of rock-and-roll (he was inducted in 1991 into the Rock Hall of Fame), reworks some of his classics and introduces several new songs on his latest release, "Chill Out." Among the musicians showing up to lend a hand are Van Morrison, Carlos Santana, and Charles Brown.
Prior to Clapton's release, the biggest-selling blues album in the modern era was guitarist Robert Cray's classic "Strong Persuader." Cray, who blends Memphis blues and R&B with a smooth vocal style, has released five albums since then, and although none has hit the same heights artistically or commercially, each features strong songwriting and even better playing. His latest, "Some Rainy Morning" (Mercury), is a tasty collection of ballads and shuffles that finds him working in a more sophisticated mode without his usual horn section.
The major labels have also gotten into blues reissues in a big way: "Danceland Years" (Virgin/Pointblank) features music originally released by the small Detroit-based label Danceland Records, including early recordings by John Lee Hooker (available for the first time in 45 years) and such neglected artists as Tony "Blues" Lewis and Candy Johnson. "Heart and Soul" (Pointblank) is a collection of quiet ballads sung by B.B. King, recorded during his tenure at Modern Records from the early 1950s to early '60s. "The Testament Records Collection" (Hightone) features the best from a small label that released music by the likes of Johnny Shines, Walter Horton, "Mississippi" Fred McDowell, and Big Joe Williams.
Most ambitious is Capitol, which is digging into its catalog for what will eventually be a 20-title "Capitol Blues Collection. …