Key to the Highway

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"Key to the Highway"
Single by Charlie Segar
B-side "Stop and Fix It Mama"
Released 1940 (1940)
Format 10" 78rpm record
Recorded Chicago, February 23, 1940
Genre Blues
Length 2:54
Label Vocalion (no. 5441)
Charlie Segar singles chronology
"Cow Cow Blues"/ "Boogie Woogie"
"Key to the Highway"
"Dissatisfied Blues"/ "Lonesome Graveyard Blues"

"Key to the Highway" is a blues standard[1] first recorded by blues pianist Charlie Segar in 1940. The song was also recorded by Jazz Gillum and Big Bill Broonzy in 1940–41, and it was later a R&B record chart success for Little Walter in 1958.[1] Since then, a variety of artists have interpreted it, including Eric Clapton, who has recorded several versions of the song.

Early versions[edit]

"Key to the Highway" is usually credited to Charles "Chas" Segar and William "Big Bill" Broonzy.[2] According to Broonzy, it is likely based on traditional songs: "Some of the verses he [Charlie Segar] was singing it in the South the same time as I sung it in the South. And practically all of blues is just a little change from the way that they was sung when I was a kid ... You take one song and make fifty out of it ... just change it a little bit."[3] Segar's lyrics are "similar or in some cases identical" to those recorded by Broonzy and Jazz Gillum.[4]

Musically, however, there are differences in the recorded versions. Charlie Segar's original "Key to the Highway" was performed as a mid-tempo twelve-bar blues.[4] When Jazz Gillum recorded it later that year with Broonzy on guitar, he used an eight-bar blues arrangement[2] (May 9, 1940 Bluebird B 8529). In two different interviews, Gillum gave conflicting stories about who wrote the song: in one, he claimed sole authorship, in another he "specified Broonzy as the real author".[4] The chord progression is as follows:


A year later, Broonzy recorded "Key to the Highway" with Gillum on harmonica, Horace Malcolm on piano, Washboard Sam on washboard, and an unknown bassist, also using an eight-bar arrangement (May 2, 1941 OKeh 6242). According to Broonzy, the melody that he recorded was his and was based on childhood songs.[4] These earliest recorded versions of "Key to the Highway" were released before record industry trade publications, such as Billboard magazine began tracking such releases. While it is difficult to gauge which version was the most popular, the eight-bar arrangement used by Gillum and Broonzy is the one found in subsequent recordings.

Little Walter version[edit]

"Key to the Highway"
Single by Little Walter and His Jukes
B-side "Rock Bottom"
Released 1958 (1958)
Format 7" 45 rpm & 10" 78 rpm records
Recorded Chicago, August 1958
Genre Blues
Length 2:48
Label Checker (no. 904)
Producer(s) Leonard Chess, Phil Chess, Willie Dixon
Little Walter and His Jukes singles chronology
"The Toddle"
"Key to the Highway"
"My Baby's Sweeter"

Shortly after his friend Broonzy's death in 1958, in an apparent tribute to him, Little Walter recorded "Key to the Highway" as a Chicago blues. The session took place sometime in August and backing Walter (vocals and harmonica) were Muddy Waters (slide guitar), Luther Tucker (guitar), Otis Spann (piano), Willie Dixon (bass), and George Hunter or Francis Clay (drums). The song was a hit, spending fourteen weeks in the Billboard R&B chart where it reached #6 in 1958.[5] After a six-year run of successful singles, Little Walter would only have one charting single after "Key to the Highway". The song is included on several Little Walter compilation albums, including His Best.

Eric Clapton versions[edit]

Eric Clapton recorded a version of the song for Derek and the Dominos' 1970 landmark album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. Lasting over nine minutes, this version was essentially an accidental, impromptu jam between Clapton and Duane Allman. They happened to have heard singer Sam Samudio ("Sam the Sham") doing the same song in a neighbouring studio and spontaneously started playing it. Their startled record producer, Tom Dowd, heard what was happening and quickly told the engineers to "hit the goddamn machine!" and start the tape recorder running. This explains why the track starts with a fade-in to playing clearly already underway.[6]

The song appears on the 1995 remastered edition of Eric Clapton's Rainbow Concert recordings from the 1973 concert. Clapton also played on Johnnie Johnson's 1991 Johnnie B. Bad version and revisited the song in his 2000 collaboration with Blues legend B.B. King, Riding with the King. A version is also included on Clapton's 2002 live album One More Car, One More Rider. During two Allman Brothers shows at the Beacon Theatre in New York City on March 19 and 20, 2009, Clapton joined the band onstage to perform the song.

Rolling Stones versions[edit]

In 1964, the Rolling Stones recorded a version of "Key to the Highway" at the Chess Studios in Chicago, which was not released. Over twenty years later, a 33-second instrumental snippet of "Key to the Highway" appeared at the end of the Stones' album Dirty Work. Originally hidden and uncredited, the track was included as a memorial to Stones founding member and part time pianist Ian Stewart, who performed it. Stewart died in 1985, just after the album's completion. A version in 1981 features Mick Taylor jamming with Keith Richards. Richards also provided the vocal for Johnnie Johnson's 1991 version on the Johnnie B. Bad album.

Recognition and influence[edit]

In 2010, Big Bill Broonzy's version of "Key to the Highway" was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in the "Classics of Blues Recordings" category;[7] in 2012, it received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award.[8]

"Key to the Highway" has been recorded by numerous blues and other artists. To show their variety, some include:[9] John Lee Hooker, Count Basie with Joe Williams, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, Mance Lipscomb, The Band, Steve Miller Band, Sam Samudio, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Witherspoon with Groove Holmes, Junior Wells, Luther Allison, Freddie King, Sonny Landreth, John Hammond, Snooky Pryor, Carey Bell & Lurrie Bell, Buddy Guy with Junior Wells, Jo-Ann Kelly, Detroit Junior, B.B. King, Derek Trucks Band, and Captain Beefheart.


  1. ^ a b Herzhaft, Gerard (1992). Key to the Highway. Encyclopedia of the Blues (University of Arkansas Press). p. 457. ISBN 1-55728-252-8. 
  2. ^ a b The Blues. Hal Leonard Corporation. 1995. pp. 120–21. ISBN 0-7935-5259-1. 
  3. ^ Preston, Cathy Lynn (1995). Folk, Literature, and Cultural Theory: Collected Essays. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-8240-7271-1. 
  4. ^ a b c d Riesman, Bob (2011). I Feel So Good: The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy. University Of Chicago Press. pp. 121–22. ISBN 978-0-226-71745-6. 
  5. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1988). Top R&B Singles 1942–1988. Record Research, Inc. ISBN 0-89820-068-7. 
  6. ^ The Layla Sessions liner notes, page 6.
  7. ^ "Classic of Blues Recording — Single or Album Tracks". Blues Hall of Fame — 2010 Inductees. The Blues Foundation. 2010. Retrieved April 30, 2010. 
  8. ^ "Grammy Hall of Fame Awards". The Recording Academy. 2012. Retrieved February 25, 2012. 
  9. ^ . "Key to the Highway — Search Results". AllMusic. Rovi Corp. Retrieved August 28, 2011. 

External links[edit]