“Key to the Highway” is a blues standard that has been performed and recorded by several blues and other artists. Blues pianist Charlie Segar first recorded the song in 1940. When Little Walter updated the song in 1958 in an electric Chicago blues style, it became a success on the R&B record chart. A variety of artists have since interpreted the song, including Eric Clapton, who recorded several versions.
Charlie Segar – Key To The Highway:
Jazz Gillum and Big Bill Broonzy followed with recordings during 1940–41, using an arrangement that has become the standard.
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. When Jazz Gillum recorded it later that year with Broonzy on guitar, he used an eight-bar blues arrangement (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 identified Broonzy “the real author”.
Jazz Gillum (with Big Bill Broonzy on guitar) – Key To The Highway:
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, he used an original melody which was based on childhood songs. 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 has become the standard for subsequent recordings. This is my all-time favourite version of the song.
Big Bill Broonzy (with Jazz Gillum on harmonica) – Key To The Highway:
Shortly after Broonzy’s death in 1958, Little Walter recorded “Key to the Highway” as an apparent tribute to him. He adapted it as a Chicago blues with a full band. 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 number six in 1958. After a six-year run of successful singles, Little Walter only had one charting single after “Key to the Highway”. The song is included on several Little Walter compilation albums, including His Best.
Little Walter – Key To The Highway:
My favourite version from recent years is Phil and Dave Alvin’s wonderful homage to Mr. Broonzy:
and, of course, Bob Dylan’s great takes (from the concert for one person):
…and from Toad’s Place 1990: