This is the third installment of the top blues rock guitarists of the decade series this time covering 1980s. Ronald Reagan was President and the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union were still under Communism. During the early 1980s, at the lowest point of East-West relations, rock music was able “to bridge political and ideological differences at official and unofficial levels.” In 1979, B.B. King became the first blues/rock artist to perform behind the “Iron Curtain” and in the USSR. That opened the floodgates and by the end of the 1980s, East Germany was singing “Born in the USA” and Communism collapsed.
This is a list of the top 10 blues rock guitarits of the 1980s that helped inspire a revolution that continues to transform world culture by communicating the yearning for the joy of “freedom.”
10. Lefty Dizz
Lefty Dizz was born Walter Williams in Osceola, Arkansas in 1937 and earned his nickname because of his musical oddities. First he played guitar left handed and second, in his early days, he imitated the style of Dizzy Gillespie on his guitar playing in an alley. He went into the Air Force as soon as he was old enough to enlist, where he learned to play guitar and settled in Chicago after his discharge in 1956. He played around Chicago with local blues artists including Muddy Waters until he joined Junior Wells’ band touring the world for the next seven years. When he returned to the “Windy City” he played the club circuit where he developed an act that would blow the audience away with its flamboyance by pulling out all the stops and using all the showmanship possible. He caught the attention of the Rolling Stones and was invited to jam with Muddy Waters and the Stones at the Checkerboard Lounge in 1981 where a video was made. During the ’80s he released a few albums with his band Shock Treatment but unfortunately after a bout with cancer, he died in 1993 at the age of only 56.
9. Anson Funderburgh
Anson Funderburgh was born in Plano, Texas in 1954. When he was nine he received a guitar as a surprise gift that included a box of 45 rpm record singles by blues artists like Albert Collins, Freddie King and Jimmy Reed. In 1969, he saw B.B. King perform live which blew his mind since it was a full band with horns in a small club. He began to play professionally soon afterwards at the age of 15 with local bands like the Bees’ Knees and the Sound Cloud Reunion. In 1978, he began working with harmonica player Darrell Nulisch who became the lead singer and front man for the Anson Funderburg and the Rockets when they recorded their early albums on Black Top Records in 1981 until 1986. Sam Myers replaced Nulisch as the front man and he recorded eight albums with Funderburgh beginning with Sins in 1987. The Rockets travelled around the world until Myer’s death in 2006. During that time period, they won ten Blues Music Awards from the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tennessee. His “extraordinarily concise lead guitar attack” has made him in demand blues guitarist who appears on the albums of other artists ranging from Delbert McClinton to Dweezil Zappa.
8. Tinsley Ellis
Tinsley Ellis was born in 1957 in Atlanta, Georgia although he grew up in southern Florida. Inspired by The Beatles at the age of seven he got his first guitar and was influenced by the early British blues bands like the Rolling Stones and Cream and later American ones like the Allman Brothers but the turning point was when he saw B.B. King. After developing as a proficient musician he moved to Atlanta, Georgia where he joined the Alley Cats. In 1981 he helped put together the “Heartfixers and recorded a few albums on the Landslide and Southland labels. In 1988, Alligator Records released Georgia Blue, Tinsley’s solo album that contained scorching Southern blues-rock that exploded from his axe like an erupting volcano of sound. He built a fan base one album at a time while at the same time touring over 150 days a year. When he wrote songs he developed lyrics that communicate a story interspersed with heavy doses of guitar virtuosity. Over the next three decades, he released a dozen and a half albums including 2020’s Ice Cream In Hell.
7. Duke Robillard
Michael John “Duke” Robillard was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island in 1948. He and his father built his first guitar modeled after James Burton’s Telecaster and he began listening to American rock and roll along with English blues groups. After he discovered American blues artists like Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf he formed his first band Roomful of Blues when he was 17. He mastered T-Bone Walker’s guitar style and even acquired a Gibson ES-5 like he used but Jimmie Vaughan later convinced him to switch to a Stratocaster. After 15 years he left the band and started the Pleasure Kings and played with them throughout the 1980s until 1990 when he replaced Jimmie Vaughan as the Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist for a few years. He was an amazingly energetic workaholic that has produced an amazingly voluminous catalogue of recorded albums. There are albums as a solo artist, a band leader and as a sideman for everyone from Bob Dylan to Pinetop Perkins. He’s been nominated for two Grammy Awards for both Best Contemporary and Best Traditional blues album along with winning the “W. C. Handy Award” for “Best Blues Guitarist” in 2000 and 2001.
6. Lonnie Brooks
Lonnie Brooks was born as Lee Baker Jr. in 1933 in Dubuisson, Louisiana where his grandfather taught him the blues while picking on his banjo. After he moved to Port Arthur, Texas in the early ’50s he began to consider a career in professional music. He played with Clifton Chenier under the name “Guitar Junior” and even did some recordings but by the 1960s went by Lonnie Brooks. He played with Sam Cooke and even lived with Cooke’s mother and brother in Chicago for a while. During the ’60s and ’70s he played in the tough gangster clubs of Chicago. He began releasing albums in 1969 but it wasn’t until 1978 when Alligator Records recorded four of his songs for its Living Chicago Blue Anthology that led to his recording Bayou Lightning the following year. This in turn led to an increased exposure to a new audience of blues enthusiasts made possible by artists like Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan. He was inducted into the “Blues Hall of Fame” in 2010 and on June 12, 2012, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared Lonnie Brooks Day in Chicago where he lived until he passed away in 2017.
5. Frank Son Seals
Frank Son Seals was born in 1942 in Osceola, Arkansas, and died in Chicago, Illinois in 2004. He was exposed to the blues throughout his childhood since his father was a musician and converted their living room into a juke joint where some of the best blues artists of the day would play. He would convince guest musicians like Albert King to give him guitar lessons and formed a band as a teenager. He was multi-talented and played drums for Albert King for a period before he moved to Chicago and played guitar with Hound Dog Taylor. By 1971 he was discovered by Bruce Iglauer from Alligator Records and began recording solo albums. By 1985, Alligator released Bad Axe which won a “W. C. Handy Award” for “Best Contemporary Blues Album” and he had finally arrived at the point of recognition as the “genuine blues artist” that he was. The 1990s reversed his fortune as his wife shot him in the face while he slept. After months of reconstructive surgery, he got back on the road and was diagnosed a diabetic and had his left leg amputated below the knee in 1999. Then his prized guitars were stolen and his motor home burned in a fire as he continued to tour until his death on December 20, 2004, from complications of diabetes.
4. Billy Gibbons
According to Billy Gibbons’ official website he was “born on either March 4 or December 16, 1950” and was raised in Houston, Texas. After he saw Elvis Presley perform he discovered other early rock and roll and blues artists from Little Richard to Jimmy Reed. Gibbons started to play guitar at the age of 13 and formed his first band, the Saints when he was 14. During the 1960s he was in a few different bands and even opened for Jimi Hendrix. By 1970, Billy hooked up with bassist Dusty Hill and drummer Frank Beard to form ZZ Top. They recorded their self-titled debut album that was released in January 1971. During the rest of the 1970s, they released a total of six studio albums which produced tracks like “La Grange” and “Tush.” “ZZ Top” established itself as one of America’s top blues rock bands fronted by Gibbons playing his potently fat guitar tones using John Lee Hooker style boogie blues rock. After they took a three year break, Gibbons and ZZ Top came back mesmerized the new MTV audience in the 1980s with video clips featuring hits from their new albums like “Give Me All Your Loving,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs.” This exposure catapulted them to international superstar fame as they toured the world. Over the decades, Gibbons has shared the stage with every great guitar player from B.B. King and Buddy Guy to Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. ZZ Top was inducted into the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” in 2004. La Futura, their last album was released in 2012 and they were still touring until COVID stopped them.
3. Albert Collins
Albert Collins was born in Leona, Texas in 1932 and constructed his first guitar and used open tunings of minor chords that his cousin taught him. He absorbed the sounds that he heard from all the blues that emanated from Texas, Mississippi, and Chicago and developed a style of picking with his fingers that helped him became “The Master of the Telecaster.” The artists that influenced him were Gatemouth Brown, John Lee Hooker, and T-Bone Walker. After putting together a band in 1952 he began playing in Houston clubs to packed houses. He played with a variety of different artists and was in groups through the 1950s and recorded some singles on the Kangaroo label in the late ’50s and by 1965 released an album of singles, The Cool Sound of Albert Collins. He replaced Jimi Hendrix in Little Richards touring band but in 1968 when members of Canned Heat produced three albums for him and he began playing to the hippie psychedelic crowd. In 1978, with the Alligator release Ice Pickin’ he won a Grammy nomination and it brought him to a larger international audience than he previously had. He became a formidable force for a renewed interest in the blues during the 1980s along with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Robert Cray. He died in 1993 at the age of 61 and was listed by Rolling Stone magazine as number #56 on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists.
2. Robert Cray
Robert Cray was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1953 and his father was in the military. When his father was transferred to various military posts around the country and even in Germany, Robert was able to experience a variety of American cities and different cultures. His parents eventually settled in Tacoma, Washington in the Pacific Northwest where he learned piano and guitar. He started out playing rock and then he discovered the blues and by 1974 he was leading the Robert Cray Band playing R&B and blues. By the late 1970s, he was in Eugene, Oregon at the time of the filming of the National Lampoon comedy film Animal House. They used Cray as a member of Otis Day and the Knights, an R&B band from the film. He released a half dozen albums in the 1980s with 1986’s Strong Persuader providing his mainstream breakthrough. The album produced two charting singles, “Smoking Gun” and “Right Next Door (Because of Me). He became one of the most important blues artists of the 1980s along with Albert Collins and Stevie Ray Vaughan for creating a blues revival. Over the decades, Cray has won five Grammys and been nominated for 16 along with receiving every blues award including the W. C. Handy and being the youngest member at the time to be inducted into the “Blues Hall of Fame.”
1. Stevie Ray Vaughan
Stevie Ray Vaughan was born in Dallas, Texas in 1954 and began to play the guitar at the age of 7. He was inspired after listening to his older brother Jimmie’s record collection of artists ranging from B.B. and Albert King to Albert Collins and Wes Montgomery. Around 1966 he was in garage bands for a couple of years until he dropped out of high school and began playing full time in a variety of bands until he formed Blackbird in the early 1970s and eventually Triple Threat that evolved into Double Trouble by 1979. In 1981, Double Trouble was a power trio comprised of Chris Layton on drums, Tommy Shannon on bass, and Vaughan on vocals and guitar. Their first album on Epic was Texas Flood and was released just after David Bowie’s then best-selling album Let’s Dance came out that featured Stevie Ray playing lead guitar on three quarters of the album. After that, his career sky rocketed to the top and he became a kind of second coming of Jimi Hendrix to some and wrestled the mantle away from the British guitar gods like Beck, Clapton, and Page. After a few rocky years due to substance abuse Vaughan cleaned up and was back at the top of his game when he was killed in August 1990 after his helicopter crashed following a concert in Wisconsin where he appeared with Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Buddy Guy.