Muddy Waters is widely regarded as the most important blues artist of the second half of the 20th century. He was not only a prime exponent of the delta blues and the Father of electric and Chicago Blues, but he is also recognized as one of the founding fathers of rock and roll.
In an illustration of Waters’ enormous influence, The Rolling Stones named themselves after a song by him, as did Rolling Stone magazine, and Bob Dylan referenced him with his classic song “Like A Rolling Stone.”
Waters was an amazing vocalist, with a passionate, yet relaxed, behind-the-beat delivery, and also a marvelous guitarist. Waters was a great acoustic player, but his wailing, screeching approach to the electric blues guitar, particularly when using a bottleneck, was the most influential.
Born in the 1910s, Waters was a contemporary of blues guitarists and singers like Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, Lonnie Johnson, Willie Brown, Bessie Smith, who are all regarded as foundational to the genre. But unlike them, Waters was a late bloomer who came to prominence after the second world war, and lived long enough to enjoy house-hold name fame in the modern era.
So who was Muddy Waters, what made him so great, and why did it take so long for him to achieve mainstream success? To start with the beginning, Waters was born as McKinley Morganfield, on April 4th, 1913, in Jugs’ Corner in Issaquena County, close to Rolling Fork.
McKinley was mostly raised by his grandmother, Della Grant.
In 1920, Grant moved to the Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi. This location is noteworthy because Clarksdale calls itself the Birthplace of the Blues. Young McKinley’s grandmother gave her grandson the nickname Muddy, because he loved playing in a rather muddy nearby creek. It is unclear whether she also give him the name Waters, because there also are reports that Muddy was given the additional nickname much later when he began performing.
Despite objections from his grandmother, who considered blues ‘devil’s music,’ Muddy began playing harmonica soon after they arrived at the Stovall Plantation. After a few years he was good enough to perform in the streets to earn extra money.
When he was a teenager, Muddy saw Son House perform at a local juke joint, and later recalled that it was a life-changing moment. It resulted in him bought a Stella guitar for $2.50 dollars from Sears and Roebuck when he was 17. Practicing hard, Waters soon performed at juke joints around Clarksdale and at home. In addition to his plantation work he earned extra money with illegal activities like fur trapping and moonshining, ie distilling alcohol, in particular whiskey.
In August 1941, Alan Lomax turned up at Waters’ porch, saying that he wanted to record Waters. Lomax was an ethnomusicologist and musician, who later became legendary for the tens of thousands of field recordings of folk and blues music that he made over many decades, predominantly in America, but also in Europe.
In 1941, Lomax was working at the Library of Congress and together with Fisk University music professor John Work had gone to Clarksdale on a mission to find black musicians to record the original spirit of black music. Waters used a Martin guitar owned by Lomax for the recordings, and tuned it to open G, his preferred tuning at the time. When Lomax played him the results back, it was life-changing moment. Waters realized that he sounded just as good as the blues players he’d been listening to all his life.
Lomax returned to Clarksdale in July, 1942 for more recordings with Waters. The material from these three sessions was released much later, in 1966, on Testament Records, on the album Down On Stovall’s Plantation, and again in 1993 on Chess Records, with additional takes and added interviews with Waters, on The Complete Plantation Recordings. The recordings are very much in the acoustic delta blues style that was also pioneered by Robert Johnson,
Waters realized that making it as a musician required a move to a big city, and in 1943, he moved to Chicago, which had become the main urban center for blues in the US around that time. He arrived with a Silvertone acoustic guitar and a suitcase, and initially made ends meet as a truck driver and playing house parties and small clubs.
Waters had problems making himself heard, so soon after arriving he obtained an electric guitar. It allowed him to create a new approach to playing the guitar, in which he combined the influences from the founders of the blues with those of contemporary musicians. In so doing, Waters gave birth to the Chicago Blues sound, with the electric guitar center stage.
It did not take long for Waters to become one of the most prominent musicians in Chicago, and in 1946, he recorded some tracks for a new label called Aristocrat Records. He again recorded for the label in 1948, and two tracks, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home,” became a hit, placing the by now 35-year old Waters on the map as an up-and-coming blues artist.
In 1950, the Aristocrats label transformed into Chess Records, and Waters first release on Chess, was a song that has since become iconic. He performed “Rollin’ Stone,” on his Gretsch Synchromatic, in the standard tuning that he was to use for the rest of his career.
Although “Rolling’ Stone” did not chart, it sold 70.000 copies, which was enough for Waters to quit his day job. Over time the song had enormous impact beyond the bluesman’s career, as it was the song that The Rolling Stones named themselves after, and it provided the inspiration for Jimi Hendrix’s “Catfish Blues,” which was his tribute to Waters. “Voodoo Chile” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” were further developments of the song.
In 1954 Chess Records released another of Waters’ signature songs, “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” a blues standard originally written by Willie Dixon. It was followed a year later by “Mannish Boy,” which was based on Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man.”
“Hoochie Coochie Man” has also been performed by Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, BB King, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and many others. Both “Hooochie Coochie Man and “Mannish Boy” were included in the list of 500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll, and in the Rolling Stone magazine list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
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As the fifties wore on, Waters switched to a 1952 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop with P-90 pickups as his main guitar. For his recording sessions he was also often accompanied by his live band, named The Headhunters, which has been called, “the prototypical rock band.” Many of its members went on to have stellar careers of their own.
By the end of the fifties, Waters toured England, together with pianist Otis Spann. He arrived armed with his 1957 red Fender Telecaster, while English blues audiences expected him to play traditional delta blues on an acoustic guitar. The opening night in Leeds was a disaster, with headlines like “Screaming Guitar and Howling Piano” and “coarse and repetitive.” Waters and Spann turned the volume down for the rest of the tour.
Waters nonetheless left a lasting impression that filtered through on many levels of the English music scene, including to teenage school boys with names like Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Eric Burdon, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Green and in Northern Ireland Van Morrison. They all spent a lot of their time listening to obscure blues records, with particularly The Best of Muddy Waters in high demand.
On his return to Chicago, Waters recorded his first proper studio album, Muddy Waters Sings “Big Bill,” in 1959. It was released in June 1960 as one of the first albums in stereo. A month later, on July 3rd, 1960, Waters and his band performed at the Newport Jazz Festival.
The live album, At Newport 1960, was very influential with budding blues and rock musicians at the time, particularly in the UK, and is regarded as one of the most indispensable blues records of all time. It has been listed among the “100 Essential albums of the 20th Century.”
For the remainder of the sixties, Waters was involved in a wide variety of projects, in different styles and with different musicians. First off was the album Folk Singer, released in 1964. In a nod to the folk music revival that reached its peak in the mid-1960s, it was entirely acoustic, with Waters playing a 1959 Martin 000-18E. It is regarded as one of Waters’ best.
Brass and the Blues, from 1966, was an attempt to go for a popular, modern sound, with the addition of brass and organ and a move away from blues. However, it was critically panned. In 1967, Waters cut an album with blues superstars like Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy, called Super Blues, and a year later the exercise was repeated with The Super Blues Band, featuring Howlin’ Wolf.
By this point Waters was also playing a Gibson SG Junior, and he was sometimes seen with a 1963 Guild Thunderbird S-200 and a 1966 S-200, which were the result of an endorsement deal he with Guild. However, his 1957 red Telecaster, which he nicknamed ‘The Hoss,’ remained his main guitar. He fitted it with Gibson medium gauge strings, 0.12-0.56.
Waters’ next solo album, Electric Mud, released in 1968, is his most controversial, as Chess Records supposedly tried to cash in on Waters’ stellar reputation among young rock musicians. Waters was 53 when the album was made, and the distorted, psychedelic vibe might have sounded OK to those steeped in the hippie culture of the day, but for everyone else it seemed the wrong fit. Waters himself later called it “dogshit.”
However, Electric Mud sold well, and it was Waters’ first to end up in the mainstream charts. Over time its reputation has grown. Jimi Hendrix reportedly played one of the tracks before going on stage, as a source of inspiration, John Paul Jones has said that the album inspired the riff for Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” and rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy is a huge fan, saying that it had a major impact on early hip-hop.
Waters himself almost certainly initially had positive feelings about Electric Mud, because he went into the studio again a year later with largely the same musicians and producers to record After The Rain. Released in 1969, it is less distorted and psychedelic, and far less controversial.
Chess continued trying to connect Waters with a younger audience for his next album, also released in 1969, Father and Sons, which contained both live and studio material. Featuring ace guitarist Michael Bloomfield, top harmonica player Paul Butterfield, bass legend Donald Dunn, it is a return to a more traditional blues approach, and became Waters’ best-selling album, reaching to number 70 on the Billboard charts.
Waters’ first release in the 1970s was a compilation album, They Call Me Muddy Waters, for which he received his first Grammy, in the Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording category. All his six Grammy Awards were in this category. 1971 saw the release of a well-received live album with Waters’ live band, Live at Mr Kelly’s.
At the end of the year, Waters travelled to England to record an album with several famous musicians, among them guitarist Rory Gallagher, keyboardists George Fame and Steve Winwood, and Jimi Hendrix’ former drummer Mitch Mitchell. The result, The London Muddy Water Sessions, has been called “tepid” but the album nevertheless won him his second Grammy Award.
Waters recorded three more studio albums for Chess, Can’t Get No Grindin’ (1973), Unk in Funk (1974), and The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album. The latter featured keyboardist Garth Hudson and drummer Levon Helm from The Band, as well as Paul Butterfield, and members of Waters own band. Released in 1975, it earned Waters his third Grammy. A year later Waters appeared on stage with The Band at their famous The Last Waltz concert, which was immortalized by Martin Scorsese in the feature film of the same name.
Waters’ last three solo albums and a live album appeared on the Blue Sky label, and were all produced by star guitarist Johnny Winter. The first album, Hard Again, is widely regarded as a triumph, and an essential recording. Released in 1977, it earned him his fourth Grammy. Waters and Winter redid the entire exercise on I’m Ready, which was released in 1978, again well-received and also earned a Grammy.
A recording of the live tour promoting Hard Again called Muddy “Mississippi” Waters – Live, was released in 1979 and resulted in Waters’ sixth Grammy. The third studio album Waters recorded with Winters, King Bee, was released in 1980, and less successful, as Waters’ health had begun to deteriorate.
Waters was inducted in the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980 and in 1981 performed at the Checkerboard Lounge blues club in Chicago, with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. Waters had already been on tour with Eric Clapton in 1979, and the blues man’s last public performance took place on June 30th, 1982, when he sat in with Eric Clapton’s band during a concert in Florida.
Muddy Waters died from cancer-related heart-failure on April 30th, 1983, at his home in Westmont, Illinois. He was 70 years old. He was buried in Restvale Cemetery, Alsip, Illinois on May 4th.
While Waters voice and guitar fell silent, his legacy and influence continues to this day. He has been name-checked and his songs covered by countless musicians, including Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Paul Rodgers, Gary Moore, Bonnie Raitt, Brain May, Supertramp, Chuck Berry, Queen, Steppenwolf, AC/DC, Billy Gibbons, BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and many others.
Waters was indicted in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987, and there was a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992. The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame included four of his songs in its list of 500 Songs That Shaped Rock ‘n Roll. And Rolling Stone magazine placed him at number 17 in their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
The young boy who liked mud and water, changed the history of music, not only by revolutionizing the blues, but also by laying the foundations of rock ‘n roll. In this context, one could argue that rather than at number 17, his rightful place is somewhere near the top of the list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
2022 © Paul Tingen.
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