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Muddy Waters emerged from the wetlands of the Mississippi Delta to bear a story of survival and determination. He became an electric-slide guitarist who would not go away without letting the world know that greatness could be found in the corners of Small-Town America.In the beginningMcKinley A. Morganfield was born on April 4, 1913, in the Mississippi sharecropping hamlet of Jug's Corner. That tiny sprout of a town is situated in Issaquena County, along the Mississippi River.McKinley's mother, Berta Jones, died when he was very young, which left his grandmother to look after him. The new sharecropping plantation became home for McKinley until he reached the age of 30.The swampy stretches of the Delta constituted a fantasy land for a boy growing up in the Mississippi "sticks." When he was a toddler, McKinley's grandmother gave him his nickname, "Muddy Waters."Young Muddy's passion for music soon became evident from the magical sounds of joy that frequently resounded from his grandmother's sharecropper shack. A hollow twang from a kerosene can, the clumsy patchwork of sounds emanating from a broken-down accordion, followed by his grandmother's encouragement of his squeaky harmonica playing, were the stepping stones for a five-year-old blues musician-in-the-making. In 1930, Muddy purchased his first acoustic guitar and easily found harmony through the tips of his fingers.Muddy was a strong singer, which landed him a vocalist gig with a local band called the Son Sims Four. The guys in the band helped Muddy play various guitar styles, including a signature bottleneck technique that he would employ until the end of his days.As any musician would agree, playing music is not the most lucrative vocation. Muddy did whatever it took to survive, including fur trapping, and running an automobile shuttle service when a horse would probably have been more reliable than his 1938 Ford.Muddy Waters is discoveredThe Sons Sims Four began to travel outside of the Stovall area, and gained popularity. John Work III, a musicologist from Nashville's Fisk University, and Alan Lomax, from the Library of Congress, found Waters' cabin, then quickly set up recording equipment. After recording "Can't Be Satisfied," and "Feel Like Going Home," Lomax returned to Washington, D.C., and entered those original songs into the Library of Congress as part of a folk music history collection.That Fisk-Library of Congress visit sparked an urge in Waters to become one of the godfathers of the new blues sound. After a racially intimidating trip to St. Louis, Waters returned home to find his old ways of small-town life comforting. However, Alan Lomax would not let things rest, and returned to Stovall in 1942 to record many other riffs — some just with Muddy and others accompanied by the Son Sims Four.Chicago pioneerThe summer of 1943 became the beginning of stardom for Waters, following an argument with the plantation boss. Fortunately, friends and family awaited Waters' arrival, and his second day in Chicago yielded a job in a factory. He held various jobs, none of them as stimulating as the night-club and house-party gigs that he relished.By 1944, Waters had discovered the electric guitar. The loud, rustic sound that boomed from his first hand-me-down electric guitar and raspy amp began to distinguish his Southern, bottleneck, slide style of the blues.It did not take long for Chicago-area record producers to catch wind of some of the grittiest and nastiest blues in the Windy City. Mayo Williams, an independent producer, recorded "Mean Red Spider" in 1946, which was released under another musician's name. Waters also recorded two other sides for Columbia and RCA that languished on a dusty shelf for decades.Aristocrat Records found him in 1947, and recorded songs supported by Waters' guitar and vocals, accompanied by a double bass. He eventually incorporated a rhythm line, and the sweet harmonica work of Little Walter, to establish his Chicago blues band.Over the next four years of enriching the blues, Waters added some great men of music to his increasingly popular style. Such artists as Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, and Junior Wells jammed on harmonica; Willie Dixon plucked the bass; Otis Spann, and Pinetop Perkins performed on piano; and Pat Hare, Jimmy Rogers, and many other great guitarists expressed their love for the blues.Big hits and the Rock 'n Roll influenceThe Fifties proved to be prosperous for the onetime Mississippi sharecropper. King, would later reveal that in the 1950s, Waters was the "Boss of Chicago." With many hits during this decade — such as "Got My Mojo Working," "She's Nineteen Years Old," "Hoochie Coochie Man," and "Just Make Love To Me" — Muddy was unstoppable. Unstoppable until Rock 'n Roll burst onto the music scene in the mid Fifties.Chess Records, which spun off from Aristocrat Records, began to extend their contracts to such Rock 'n Roll greats as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Waters had always been able to improvise to make things work; the rock 'n roll phenom meant that his style would have to change as well.With the addition of drums and more electricity, Waters' altered style was eagerly accepted by many 1960s rock musicians. The gig included Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and other talented musicians — resulting in the album, Fathers and Sons. A year prior to the successful concert, Waters' manager, Ashwood Kavanna, persuaded the "Boss of Chicago" to release an assortment of his hits to form an album with a Seattle/Jimi-Hendrix guitar style. The new album became known as Electric Mudd.In the Seventies, Waters got involved in filming and recording his band's The Last Waltz. On February 6 and 7, 1975, the veteran made his famous appearance at Woodstock, New York, where he recorded with his band the Grammy-winning Woodstock Album.A year after performing in Woodstock, Waters left Chess Records, following the sudden death of Leonard Chess. Grammy-winning Hard Again, I'm Ready, and King Bee became a stimulating trio of albums by means of Winters' mostly live production style.Soon after the successful King Bee album was cut, Waters fired everyone in his band because of unresolved money matters. During those final days of glory, Muddy managed to land two more Grammy awards.A legendOn April 30, 1983, Muddy Waters passed away at his home in Westmont, Illinois, where his remains are buried at Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. His contribution to music's colorful culture gained him a 1987 induction into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, as well as being honored with the Record Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.Muddy's cabin was dismantled, taken on tour to various musical museums, then re-assembled for the final time in the Delta Blues Museum of Clarksdale, Mississippi. Both Chicago and Westmont have streets named after the blues legend, and every year in Westmont, the city puts on a Muddy Waters Blues Festival.
Muddy Waters: The Father Of Chicago Blues Who Named The Rolling Stones
With classics like "Mannish Boy, "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Rollin' Stone," and "Got My Mojo Working," Muddy Waters originated the Chicago blues sound, and influenced a generation of young artists who'd become rock and roll royalty. By electrifying the American blues, which was previously an acoustic sound, Waters laid the foundation for rock itself, inspiring the Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and many more blues-rockers. Though revered by these young, often British, mostly white musicians, Waters never showed interest in crossing over to their more mainstream (and more lucrative) genre. Though "the blues" is generally a melancholy genre, Waters' playing style and lyrics brought a more joyous and boastful aspect to it.
Historic venues: The Checkerboard Lounge
If blues is a people’s music, then the best blues clubs are often located in neighborhoods. The Checkerboard Lounge, originally located at 423 E. 43 rd St, definitely qualified on that count.
From 1972, when it was opened by Buddy Guy, until its closing in 2003, the Checkerboard maintained a welcoming vibe, with a host of regulars, performers, and larger-than-life characters. Anyone who had the good fortune to have set foot in the Checkerboard can marvel at to how many legendary musicians were jammed onto that tiny stage—as well as what the experience must have been for the audience.
Image via http://condor.depaul.edu/blackmet/
Part of what made the Checkerboard unique was its location in the heart of the Bronzeville, an African-American neighborhood steeped in rich cultural history. Many of the 500,000 blacks who came to Chicago as part of the Great Migration settled in Bronzeville, making 43 rd St. the center of a vibrant scene. Muddy Waters’ home on 4339 S. Lake Park Ave., where he lived from 1954 to 1974, was less than a mile from the Checkerboard Lounge.
The event that put the Checkerboard Lounge on the international map for the blues was a visit by the Rolling Stones in 1981 after a concert in Chicago. The evening, captured on “Live from the Checkerboard,” features Muddy Waters and his band running through a generous set list of hits with the help of his adoring Brit acolytes.
Although Buddy Guy sold his interest in the club in 1985, the Checkerboard continued to host a steady slate of blues stalwarts such as Lefty Dizz. Leading blues musicians, including Buddy’s late brother Phil Guy, would regularly sit in, treating the assembled crowd to an endless string of blues standards. In the 1990s, Vance Kelly held down the regular Thursday night slot, and in any given week, the room would be packed with an audience that mixed neighborhood regulars, University of Chicago students who benefited from the liberal entry policy, and blues enthusiasts from across the city. Frequently, the front door would swing open to reveal a group of tourists from Europe or Asia who had made the pilgrimage to witness the world-famous Checkerboard for themselves.
More important, the Checkerboard functioned as a proving ground for young musicians intent on breaking into the blues scene. There they could see masters up close and, on a good night, have a chance to sit in for a few tunes. Far beyond the Stones’ visit, that is the legacy of the Checkerboard Lounge: a launching pad for a new generation of blues musicians who are currently carrying the banner and torching Chicago blues clubs on a nightly basis.
The Checkerboard would reopen in Hyde Park in 2005, but it couldn’t recreate the same vibe in a more upscale neighborhood and closed for good in September 2015. The club was one of a kind and is sorely missed.
This historical Chicago landmark belonged to McKinley Morganfield, known professionally as Muddy Waters &ndash the father of modern Chicago blues. It was the first house he had ever purchased. When the blues legend moved to Chicago from the South, it became a home away from home. It soon turned into a gathering place for Muddy, other blues musicians, and entertainers. They would host jam sessions in the basement, creating music that we all enjoy to this day.
The True Story of Cadillac Records (Part One): The Birth of Chess Records and the Chicago Blues
Leonard Chess’ motivation for buying the property on South Cottage Grove in Chicago that would become the Macomba Lounge was clear: he thought it would make money.
When his brother Phil got out of the Army in 1946, he went straight to work with his brother at the club. It was located in a rough black neighborhood known for prostitution and drugs, but within four years it was a prime haunt for both musicians and patrons.
The Macomba Lounge burnt to the ground in 1950, but the Chess brothers’ back-up plan was well underway. Shortly after buying the Macomba, the brothers established Aristocrat Records as a way to record the musicians who played the lounge. Instead of having the bands show up on Cottage Grove to play, they would show up at the Aristocrat offices several blocks down the street and record.
It was a far cry from the world the Polish immigrants born Lejzor and Fiszel Czyz left. Their father was a shoemaker and the family of five lived in one large cement-floored room with no electricity, running water or heat. In the winter, the family brought their cow inside for warmth.
The timing for Aristocrat Records’ foray into “race” music couldn’t have been better. Five million African-Americans fled north to escape Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan in the second Great Migration. One of the emigrants was a Mississippi sharecropper who had been recorded in 1941 by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.
McKinely Morganfield was a hot commodity at the juke joints and house parties around Stovall plantation, but he thirsted for bigger success and escape from the cotton fields. In 1943, he moved to Chicago, but his acoustic guitar and “country” style didn’t play as well. After a couple years driving trucks during the day and playing clubs by night, he was given an electric guitar. Bolstered by his new, amplified instrument, Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters, married his native Delta blues style with the hard, electric soul of his new hometown.
In 1948, Waters cut two songs for Aristocrat that launched his career and established the Chess brothers as players in the music business. “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home” convinced Leonard and Phil the blues were the way to go, and they gradually started letting Waters bring his sidemen and other musicians in to cut sides. By the time the name of the label was changed to Chess Records in 1950, the label’s stable included harmonica king Little Walter, guitarists Robert Nighthawk and Jimmy Rodgers and bass maestro Willie Dixon.
A former boxer, Dixon was another Mississippi transplant and the architect of not only the Chess sound, but the post-World War II blues scene that continues to thrive today. Dixon was the Chess brothers’ right-hand man. While the brothers hovered around the blues scene they could only get so close. Dixon was in the scene, connected to all the major players and all the hot trends. Dixon had an ear to the track, but he forged his own path as well, writing the lion’s share of the genre’s biggest numbers: “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “My Babe,” “Little Red Rooster,” and “Spoonful.” Rare was the Chess release that didn’t feature Dixon’s bass playing, songwriting or production skills – most had all three. When the blues caught on in England in the 1960s, Dixon arranged several annual American Folk Blues Festival tours of Europe that featured many of the day’s biggest stars (many of whom, coincidentally, also recorded for Chess). Dixon once said “I am the blues.” He was not bragging.
While Phil was in Chicago recording Dixon’s songs, Leonard was on the road promoting, meeting with distributors, disc jockeys and learning the business. On one trip to Memphis, Leonard made a contact who put him in touch with Sam Phillips. Phillips hadn’t established Sun Studios yet, but his legendary ear was already glued to the ground. Phillips sent Chess his recording of Ike Turner’s song “Rocket 88” recorded by Turner with singer Jackie Brenston and some songs by Chester Burnett.
Muddy Waters [aka McKinley Morganfield] (1913-1983)
Blues singer, songwriter and musician Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield on April 4, 1913 in Issaquena County, Mississippi. Waters acquired his nickname (and later stage name) because as a young child he liked to play in the mud. When he began his musical career he adopted Muddy Waters as his legal name.
Waters, influenced by Mississippi Delta musicians Robert Johnson and Son House, first started his career as a blues singer and musician on the harmonica and then switched to the guitar. In his late teens he played at parties in small towns in the Delta region of Mississippi. By the early 1940s Waters had earned enough as a performer to open a small club, where he expressed his musical talent in daily performances. Word of his music got out and in 1941 the famous folk musicologist Alan Lomax came to Mississippi to record Waters for the Library of Congress. The attention garnered Waters his first recording contract with Testament Records. The encounter also persuaded Waters that he could become a full-time musician. Waters moved to Chicago to promote his career.
Working in a Chicago factory by day and playing in blues clubs at night, Waters soon became a fixture on the city’s south side during and immediately after World War II. Waters’s big chance came when Big Bill Broonzy, the leading blues performer in Chicago at the time, allowed him to be the opening act of his shows. In 1948, Waters signed with Chess Records and recorded his first hits, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home.” His next hit, “Rollin’ Stone” in 1950 made him a national star and provided the inspiration for the name of the British group, The Rolling Stones in the early 1960s.
By the early 1950s Waters was king of the Chicago blues scene. He also found success on the R&B charts. His single, “Hoochie Coochie Man” reached number eight and “I Just Want to Make Love to You” reached number four. Waters reached the peak of his of his career in the mid 1950s. By the late 1950s, rock and roll and rhythm and blues supplanted blues as the major musical genres for his mostly African American audiences. Waters left for England in 1958 where he became a musical inspiration for many British artists in the 1960s.
Waters had brief success in the mid-1970s as a “comeback” artist signed to the Columbia Records label. In 1976 he performed a farewell tour that introduced him and blues to a new generation. Waters released his last album, “Muddy Waters Live,” in 1979.
By the time of his death in Chicago on April 30, 1983, Muddy Waters had brought blues to mainstream audiences. Often overlooked during his lifetime, Rolling Stone in 2004 ranked him seventeenth on its list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” Waters also received seven Grammies including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award given posthumously in 1992.
Who's the king of all post-war blues harpists, Chicago division or otherwise? Why, the virtuosic Little Walter, without a solitary doubt. The fiery harmonica wizard took the humble mouth organ in dazzling amplified directions that were unimaginable prior to his ascendancy. His daring instrumental innovations were so fresh, startling, and ahead of their time that they sometimes sported a jazz sensibility, soaring and swooping in front of snarling guitars and swinging rhythms perfectly suited to Walter's pioneering flights of fancy.
Marion Walter Jacobs was by most accounts an unruly but vastly talented youth who abandoned his rural Louisiana home for the bright lights of New Orleans at age 12. Walter gradually journeyed north from there, pausing in Helena (where he hung out with the wizened Sonny Boy Williamson), Memphis, and St. Louis before arriving in Chicago in 1946.
The thriving Maxwell Street strip offered a spot for the still-teenaged phenom to hawk his wares. He fell in with local royalty -- Tampa Red and Big Bill Broonzy -- and debuted on wax that same year for the tiny Ora-Nelle logo ("I Just Keep Loving Her") in the company of Jimmy Rogers and guitarist Othum Brown. Walter joined forces with Muddy Waters in 1948 the resulting stylistic tremors of that coupling are still being felt today. Along with Rogers and Baby Face Leroy Foster, this super-confident young aggregation became informally known as the Headhunters. They would saunter into Southside clubs, mount the stage, and proceed to calmly "cut the heads" of whomever was booked there that evening.
By 1950, Walter was firmly entrenched as Waters' studio harpist at Chess as well (long after Walter had split the Muddy Waters band, Leonard Chess insisted on his participation on waxings -- why split up an unbeatable combination?). That's how Walter came to record his breakthrough 1952 R&B chart-topper "Juke" -- the romping instrumental was laid down at the tail-end of a Waters session. Suddenly, Walter was a star on his own, combining his stunning talents with those of the Aces (guitarists Louis and David Myers and drummer Fred Below) and advancing the concept of blues harmonica another few light years with every session he made for Checker Records.
Walter utilized the chromatic harp in ways never before envisioned (check out his 1956 free-form instrumental "Teenage Beat," with Robert Jr. Lockwood and Luther Tucker manning the guitars, for proof positive). 1959's determined "Everything Gonna Be Alright" was Walter's last trip to the hit lists Chicago blues had faded to a commercial non-entity by then unless your name was Jimmy Reed.
Tragically, the '60s saw the harp genius slide steadily into an alcohol-hastened state of unreliability, his once-handsome face becoming a road map of scars. In 1964, he toured Great Britain with the Rolling Stones, who clearly had their priorities in order, but his once-prodigious skills were faltering badly. That sad fact was never more obvious than on 1967's disastrous summit meeting of Waters, Bo Diddley, and Walter for Chess as the Super Blues Band there was nothing super whatsoever about Walter's lame remakes of "My Babe" and "You Don't Love Me."
Walter's eternally vicious temper led to his violent undoing in 1968. He was involved in a street fight (apparently on the losing end, judging from the outcome) and died from the incident's after-effects at age 37. His influence remains inescapable to this day -- it's unlikely that a blues harpist exists on the face of this earth who doesn't worship Little Walter.
Photos Of Muddy Waters’ Cabin Prior To Being Moved To The Blues Museum
One of our readers, Larry Amato, recently sent us this query through Comments box on the MississippiBluesTravellers.com page on Muddy Waters House:
“Where is the remnants of the house now? I was in Clarksdale back in the 90’s the day they were dis-assembling it and supposedly bringing to a museum.[ Note: It is now in the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale].
There was a film crew there who filmed me playing some blues before they took the house down. I was the last person to play live music at the house..
any info would be appreciated..
We asked Larry Amato if he had any photos from that day and he sent us these photos of Muddy Waters House being disassembled at Stovall Farms, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, on 6 May 1996, prior to being moved to the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale.
Sign outside the Muddy Waters cabin, Stovall Farms, Clarksdale, Mississippi, 6 May 1996 (photo: Larry Amato) Muddy Waters cabin being disassembled at Stovall Farms for its move to the Delta Blues Museum, , Clarksdale, Mississippi, 6 May 1996 (photo: Larry Amato) Muddy Waters cabin being disassembled at Stovall Farms for its move to the Delta Blues Museum, , Clarksdale, Mississippi, 6 May 1996 (photo: Larry Amato) Larry Amato at the Muddy Waters cabin as it was being disassembled at Stovall Farms for its move to the Delta Blues Museum, , Clarksdale, Mississippi, 6 May 1996 (photo: Larry Amato) Larry Amato in the Stovall Farms cotton fields near the site of Muddy Waters cabin, Clarksdale, Mississippi, circa 1998 (photo: John Sheehan)
Here is the Mississippi Blues Trail marker which now stands at the site of the Muddy Waters House, Stovall Farms, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi.
The Mississippi Blues Trail marker at the Muddy Waters House site, Stovall Farms, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi.
Another reader, Rick Hagedorn, wrote the following comment in the Dialog Box on our Muddy Waters’ House web page:
“When Muddy Waters cabin was moved from the Stovall Farms to the Blues museum, there was a crew from New Orleans that filmed the taking down of the cabin. Was this film ever released anywhere? Do you know the name of the film or the film crew? Thanks in advance.”
Both Larry Amato and Rick Hagedorn wrote about a film crew, possibly based in New Orleans, having filmed the dismantling of Muddy Waters’ house at Stovall Farms on May 6 1996.
Does anyone anything about this film and/or the film crew? We haven’t seen this film and we weren’t aware of it until Larry Amato and Rick Hagedorn mentioned it in comments on the website.
If you know anything about it please let us know by leaving a comment in the Dialog Box below.
Would you like to leave a comment or question about anything on this post?
Post 3: Historical Blues- Muddy Waters
McKinley Morganfield, commonly known as “Muddy Waters,” played a significant role in the progression of the blues. He was born on April 4, 1913 in Rolling Fork, Mississippi in the Mississippi Delta. Waters was born into a very poor family that worked on a plantation. It is believed that his grandmother gave him the nickname “Muddy” and his classmates added on the “Waters” portion. He too grew up to become a sharecropper on a plantation, but he ultimately followed his own path to become a musician. Waters knew he had what it would take to be successful as a blues singer after he heard his first recording on shellac.
Waters eventually moved to Chicago to further his musical career. Muddy first began playing his acoustic guitar at night, which actually conjured a large African-American audience. He decided to step it up a notch and began playing the electric guitar, which changed his career forever. He added a new flair to the Delta blues. Waters continued on to produce music, but the accompaniment of other musicians like Otis Spann and Jimmy Rogers really made his career take off. As Waters progressed, so did the blues era and what would ultimately become Rock and Roll. Muddy’s brilliant use of the electric guitar aided him in inspiring other musicians to do what they never thought was possible. He started out as a child on a plantation, but defied the odds to become one of the most influential blues singers of all time. Waters passed away in 1983 due to a heart attack. Without Muddy Waters, the blues would have never evolved into Rock and Roll and we may not have had the music that we are familiar with today.
“I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” (1954)
“I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” was released in 1954. The piece sounds like a normal blues song until the electric guitar enters. The electric guitar adds the extra flair that was needed to show how powerful the man in the song was going to be/was. The lyrics describe that from birth, the speaker was destined for greatness. He already knew that he would attract all of the women and become very successful due to the amount of luck he had acquired from being born “On the seventh hour, On the seventh day, On the seventh month.” Although the drums aid in portraying the music as upbeat, the high pitch of the electric guitar really reveals how upbeat the song is meant to be. The electric guitar’s chords portray confidence within the speaker because he knows exactly who he is and what he is going to be able to accomplish in his life. Waters does not shy away from the character he is portraying- he uses his powerful voice to convince the audience he really is the character. “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” has a strophic musical form because the title of the song is repeated throughout the song. The song maintains a constant beat that is easy to tap along to. The melody was nice and simple and never drifted too far off from the theme.
“Mannish Boy” (1955)
In the very beginning of “Mannish Boy,” it is easy to pick up on the early pieces of what would become Rock and Roll. The first thing I noticed was the beginning of the song sounded very similar to ZZ Top’s “Bad to the Bone.” ZZ Top’s song includes much more erotic lyrics, but the instrumentation is almost identical. Again, Waters is confident in who he is in this song. He sings as if he knows how fascinating he is to everyone and his lyrics tell everyone exactly what he believes about himself. The lyrics depict him as a ladies man who can get exactly what he wants. The addition of the electric guitar allows Waters to get his point across by adding in extra “noise” to catch women’s attention. The piece maintains a constant beat throughout the entire song- it does not slow or stop at any point. The song has a relatively slow tempo and does not sound as upbeat as “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” but the lyrics do sound as equally confident. The melody is conjunct, making the piece nice and easy to follow. The lyrics match the tempo of the instrumentation almost seamlessly. The song also has a strophic musical form due to the repetition of “I’m a man, I’m a full grown man…” several times throughout the piece.
Muddy Waters was a very confident man who had a significant impact on the evolution of the blues. Waters’ original recordings continue to serve as inspiration for musicians today. Previously, Water’s recordings had been used as inspiration by The Beatles, Eric Clapton, AC/DC, and many more. Some of Waters’ greatest accomplishments are listed below:
Muddy Waters: a guide to his best albums
Chicago in the 1950s was not a circuit for the faint-hearted. To venture into the blues dives that dotted the city’s South Side was to enter a hard, violent, visceral subculture, epitomised by the episode in Buddy Guy’s memoirs where a murderous barfly arrived at a club holding his wife’s severed head. If the punters weren’t intimidating enough, the competition was.
On any given night, at any given bar, you’d have found a jobbing legend, from Otis Rush and Magic Sam to white-boy interlopers like Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield. Always on the prowl, meanwhile, was the big, bad Howlin’ Wolf.
Yet Muddy Waters was the kingpin. Born in Mississippi as McKinley Morganfield, the young bluesman was recorded for the first time during a 1941 visit by field archivist Alan Lomax, and rode the confidence from that first pressing into amove north to Chicago.
Brought aboard the nascent label of Leonard and Phil Chess &ndash and backed by a band that included harpist Little Walter and piano man Otis Spann &ndash the early-50s saw Muddy fire off the songs that remain standards. Mannish Boy, Hoochie Coochie Man, Got My Mojo Workin’, I Just Wanna Make Love To You: all were delivered with afruity baritone, lashings of revolutionary electric slide and asoupçonof justified arrogance.
Even so, Muddy’s imperious run was starting to falter before he was championed by the fanboys on the far side of the Atlantic. In 1958, he was brought over by jazz man Chris Barber, and the amplified thump of those performances proved the starting-pistol for the British boom, galvanising Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies to start London’s R&B scene, and mobilising upstarts from Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones (even their band name was lifted from Waters’ 1950 single).
Muddy didn’t always excel (witness the honking psych-rock of 1968’s Electric Mud), but he always endured. After the fall of Chess, the patronage of those younger rockers kept him afloat, with 1977’s Johnny Winter-produced Hard Again proving one of his very best. Even today, decades after his 1983 death from a heart attack, those formidable ripples continue to spread. &ldquoAt the end of the day,&rdquo notes Joe Bonamassa, &ldquothere’s only one Muddy Waters.&rdquo
He’d always been the king of Chicago, but July 3, 1960, marked the moment when Muddy ram-raided the mainstream, bursting off the sweatbox circuit to play aSunday afternoon festival set for a pack of white hipsters.
Released the same year, this live album caught the lightning in the bottle. Backed by an all-star band (James Cotton, Otis Spann et al), Muddy embraces the frontman role, ditching his guitar and setting to work on the crowd with that industrial-strength croon and charisma. Chess-era belters like I Got My Brand On You, Hoochie Coochie Man and Got My Mojo Workin’ (played twice, for good measure) had never sounded so neck-tingling.View Deal
Prescribing a compilation might seem like a cop-out, but assuming you don’t want to spend the next decade hunting down vintage 45s, this three-hour, 75-song set is the best way to own the Mud’s vital Chess sides.
Back in the 50s, these songs were literally electrifying, dragging the country porch blues of yore in an edgy, amplified, big-city direction, and while Willie Dixon’s pen was behind many of the best (Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Wanna Make Love To You, etc), it was Waters’ musical charisma that sold them. Today, in an era of fluff and bubblegum, there’s a musical substance and emotional heft here that still has the power to pull you up short.View Deal
If you only know Mud as the megawatt electric warrior, these raw acoustic field recordings &ndash taken by blues folklorist Alan Lomax in 1941 &ndash reveal another fascinating side to the coin. The best moments find Muddy on his lonesome, stripped to the bones of his talent, positively oozing future greatness in the rattled attack of his slide work, the emerging voicebox and the proto versions of future Chess hits like I Can’t Be Satisfied.
That Lomax’s recordings ended up in the Library Of Congress says it all: they’re a perfect snapshot of American music.View Deal
The reissues market is flooded with &lsquotwofers’, but this is the set you need, splicing two classic albums from 1960 and 1964. Big Bill finds the Mud on reverential but raucous form, covering the catalogue of Big Bill Broonzy and knocking cuts like Mopper’s Blues out of the park.
On the surface, the all-acoustic Folk Singer is less exciting, until you hear the mournful scuttle of My Home Is In The Delta (with a guesting Buddy Guy) and the belief-beggering solo spot Feel Like Going Home &ndash all captured with a crystalline production that prioritises the big man’s mahogany voicebox.View Deal
Mike Bloomfield set the ball rolling &ndash telling Marshall Chess he &ldquowanted to do a thing with Muddy&rdquo &ndash and this all-star project took flight from there.
In April 1969, heavy-hitters including Paul Butterfield, his drummer Sam Lay and Booker T bassist Donald &lsquoDuck’ Dunn convened in Chicago for a three-night recording session, at which Muddy quaffed champagne and sang himself &ldquostone hoarse&rdquo on a selection of lesser-known gems.
The studio cuts are matched by the live material &ndash recorded in the same period &ndash which finds a crack band taking Muddy’s catalogue to the masses.View Deal
By the mid-70s, Muddy was a relic on the ropes, watching the once-proud Chess Records absorbed into a reissues label, then leaving the roster to kick his heels. Redemption came in the form of producer Johnny Winter, who marshalled the troops (James Cotton, pianist Pinetop Perkins and drummer Willie &lsquoBig Eyes’ Smith were all onboard) and coaxed out the kind of performances the bluesman hadn’t given in years.
Both the pace and standard were set by the opening &lsquowhoa yeah!’ of Mannish Boy, and Hard Again kept it up, giving us languid gems like Bus Driver and the rollicking I Can’t Be Satisfied.View Deal
Deep into his 60s, Muddy could still hit a stage like a wrecking ball. This live collection isn’t quite up to the lofty standards of Newport, but the old warhorse hollers up a storm on She’s Nineteen Years Old and Nine Below Zero, while his slide work has rarely been caught on fierier form.
Suffice to say that though Johnny Winter pops up on guitar, he never wrestles the spotlight from a vintage performer patently relishing his late-bloom. The rubber-stamp on his comeback came the following year, when the album scored a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording.View Deal
Decamping to the British capital to record with his acolytes had done good business for Howlin’ Wolf in 1970, so why shouldn’t it work for another Chicago star? Mysteriously, Muddy doesn’t seem to have the Wolf’s pulling-power: instead of the Stones and Clapton, he gets Steve Winwood, Rick Grech and Mitch Mitchell.
And yet, for blues-rock connoisseurs, the London Sessions has to be heard, if only for the blow-the-doors-off guitar work of Rory Gallagher: the one band member who seems to grasp the brief, lock horns with the Delta don and blow these sessions skywards.View Deal
With Johnny Winter updating his sound, Muddy’s hot streak continued with 1978’s I’m Ready, but it was pipped by this 1981 swansong. By now, the bandleader was in physical decline, probably explaining why the sessions were fast and fractious (recording would be derailed by a salary dispute).