In his new book of portraits, artist William Stout renders the blues in just about every color. Lucille Bogan smiles amid bubble-gummy swirls of pink. Willie Dixon radiates amber rays. A rosy-cheeked B.B. King sits framed by a fog of red that approximates the hue of molten maraschino cherries.
And those are just three of the ink-and-watercolor illustrations that fill Stout’s “Legends of the Blues,” a colorful little tome that piggybacks on “Heroes of the Blues,” a catalogue of American musical greats illustrated by underground comics legend R. Crumb. Before they were bound in book form, Crumb’s illustrations were issued as a series of trading cards in 1980. Two decades later, Shout! Factory records began licensing some of those cards to adorn various album covers. Crumb, however, hadn’t sketched every last American who ever sang a sad song. And when Crumb declined the label’s request to draw more, Stout was enlisted to execute a few illustrations in a similar style. Ten years and 100 portraits later, Stout has now published this handsome and handy crash course in American blues music.
Many of Stout’s illustrations are as evocative as they are attractive. Washboard Sam poses in front of a clothesline of drying laundry. The outline of Arthur “Montana” Taylor’s home state floats behind his cowboy hat. Chuck Berry — who helped mint rock-and-roll with “Roll Over Beethoven” and other tunes — flashes a grin in the foreground while an upside-down sketch of Ludwig van B. lurks behind him. In the case of Clarence “Pine Top” Smith, Stout is resourceful — the Chicago piano man was never photographed, so Stout has drawn a man in a charcoal suit, plopped behind the ivories, his face obscured by shadows and cigarette smoke.
Opposite each portrait is a short biography, which also lists notable songs and assorted trivia nuggets. Did you know boxer Sonny Liston was B.B. King’s uncle? Did you know the Rolling Stones bought Mississippi Fred McDowell the silver lamésuit he was eventually buried in? Did you know “Georgia Tom” Dorsey was once so tightly associated with the creation of gospel music that gospel songs were known to some as “dorseys”?
If Stout’s illustrations don’t do the trick, the enthusiasm of his text should make you wonder: What did all of these people’s music sound like? Good news. There’s a 14-track CD tucked in the book’s back cover.
Richards is The Washington Post’s pop music critic.