|Single by Johnny Moore's Three Blazers|
|Format||Ten-inch 78 rpm record|
|Recorded||Los Angeles, September 14, 1945|
|Label||Philo (no. 112)|
"Driftin' Blues" or "Drifting Blues" is a blues standard that was recorded by Johnny Moore's Three Blazers in 1945. The song is a slow blues and features Charles Brown's smooth, soulful vocals and piano. It was one of the biggest blues hits of the 1940s and "helped define the burgeoning postwar West Coast blues style". "Driftin' Blues" has been interpreted and recorded by numerous artists in a variety of styles. The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have acknowledged the song's influence and lasting popularity.
In an interview, Brown described "Driftin' Blues" as "the first song that I wrote down and tried to sing". Music critic Dave Marsh adds that Brown wrote it while still in high school. Rhythm and blues singer Johnny Otis, who was in Bardu Ali's band with Brown in Los Angeles in the early 1940s, recalled that Brown was reluctant to record the song. Brown's inspiration for the tune was a gospel song his grandmother had taught him and he felt conflicted about mixing gospel and blues; Otis and others helped convince him to go ahead with it. Another earlier blues song, "Walking and Drifting Blues", recorded by Bumble Bee Slim in 1935, uses the line "Now I'm driftin', like a ship without a sail". Music writer Bryan Grove notes that Brown's original working title for the song was the same and although he was influenced by Slim's lyrics, the songs are otherwise dissimilar.
After his stint with Ali, Brown joined guitarist Johnny Moore and bassist Eddie Williams. As Johnny Moore's Three Blazers, they were modeled on the Nat King Cole Trio (Moore's brother, Oscar Moore, was Cole's guitarist). They became a popular attraction at Hollywood-area night clubs, leading their style to be called "club blues". In contrast to the jump blues popular in dance halls, the style was suited to a more intimate musical setting.
Recording and release
"Driftin' Blues" was a feature of Johnny Moore's Three Blazers' club repertoire. Their performances of the song were well received and led to a recording contract with Philo (soon to become Aladdin) Records. During their first recording session on September 14, 1945, they recorded four songs. To round out the trio's sound, Brown invited Otis to sit in on drums. Otis recalled for "Driftin' Blues", Brown used a different approach: "he poured his heart into the record—not in the Nat Cole manner—but in that deep and soulful style that soon had many young R&B singers trying to sound like him". Brown's vocal has also been described as "plaintive", "lush, mellifluous", and having a "laconic grace and soothing timbre".
The song follows a twelve-bar blues chord progression and is performed at a moderately slow tempo (72 beats per minute) in the key of E (notated in 12
8 time). The instrumentation, including Moore's electric guitar solo, is understated and reflects the influence of the post-World War II cool jazz movement. Brown described it as "a kind of melancholy type of blues, with feeling" that allowed him to tell more of a story than traditional blues. Although the lyrics deal with lost love, they also reflect the alienation felt by many southern African Americans in post-war American northern and western cities:
Well, I'm drifting and I'm drifting, like a ship out on the sea
Drifting and I'm drifting, like a ship out on the sea
Well, I ain't got nobody, in this world to care for me
The song is credited to Brown, Moore, and Williams, although several commentaries discuss it as Brown's composition. According to Brown, Moore's and Williams' names were added without his consent and being unfamiliar with copyright law, did not challenge it. He also claimed that the group signed away their financial interest in the song for $800 and a vague promise of a share in future revenues by Philo Records. Despite becoming one of the biggest R&B hits of the 1940s, the group never received any additional compensation. Brown called it "the biggest mistake we ever made in our lives".
"Driftin' Blues" became a hit, spending twenty-three weeks on the Billboard Most-Played Juke Box Race Records chart. The song reached number two and "emerged [as] one of the top selling black records in 1945 and 1946". The song appears on numerous Brown compilations, including the Philo/Aladdin years compilations The Complete Aladdin Recordings of Charles Brown and Driftin' Blues: The Best of Charles Brown. It is also included on many various artists blues collections, such as Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey and The Blues: A Smithsonian Collection of Classic Blues Singers box sets.
Recognition and legacy
"Driftin' Blues" was inducted into Blues Hall of Fame in 1989 in the "Classics of Blues Recording" category, which noted that it was "one of the records that helped define the burgeoning postwar West Coast style of smooth 'lounge blues'". In 1995, it was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame list of "500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll". During his career, Brown re-recorded the song and variations on it several times. In 1969, an updated version "came off as new, thanks to Earl Hooker's inspired slide work", according to biographer Sebastian Danchin. It appears on the Bluesway Records' album Legend!
The song became a blues standard and numerous renditions have been performed and recorded by a variety of artists. Some follow the original arrangement, while others interpreted it differently. As early as 1946, a young Ray Charles was one who played it regularly. He recalled, "Charles Brown was a powerful influence on me in the early part of my career, especially when I was struggling down in Florida. I made many a dollar doing my imitation of his 'Drifting Blues'. That was a hell of a number". In 1950, Lightnin' Hopkins recorded a different arrangement of the song, accompanied only by his amplified guitar (John Lee Hooker made a similar adaptation in 1961). Billy Eckstine recorded it in 1959 for the album Basie/Eckstine Incorporated and Chuck Berry recorded his interpretation for his 1960 album Rockin' at the Hops.
"Driftin' Blues" entered the charts again in 1968 when Bobby "Blue" Bland recorded it. His version reached number 23 during a stay of eleven weeks in the Billboard R&B chart. Bland's version also made an appearance in the Billboard Pop chart at number 96. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band recorded an extended version, titled "Driftin' and Driftin', with a horn section for their third album, The Resurrection of Pigboy Crabshaw, in 1967. They also performed it at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. A live version by Albert King, featuring an extended guitar solo, was recorded at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1968, which was released in 1990 on Thursday Night in San Francisco. Eric Clapton recorded several versions of the song, including a group arrangement for his live 1975 album E. C. Was Here and a solo acoustic piece (as "Driftin'") for his 1994 album From the Cradle. In 1997, American R&B and boogie-woogie pianist and singer Little Willie Littlefield recorded a version for his album The Red One.
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