Muddy Waters - Biography



 

 

Electric Chicago blues began with Muddy Waters. The singer and slide guitarist revolutionized the sound of the music with his plugged-in style, which was basically an amped-up adaptation of the music he learned to play on a Mississippi plantation. Waters’ Chicago band – which spawned a host of instrumental virtuosi and bandleaders in their own right, including harmonica aces Little Walter Jacobs, Junior Wells, and James Cotton, guitarist Jimmy Rogers, and pianist Otis Spann – defined the group sound that would be adapted by every important Windy City bluesman of the ‘50s.

 

His influence would extend far beyond the borders of his genre: Such young white practitioners as The Rolling Stones – whose name, like that of Rolling Stone magazine, was inspired by the title of one of his songs -- would pick up Muddy’s sound and repertoire and employ it as the bedrock of their own rock ‘n’ roll. Among the bluesmen of his era, no one’s impact was as far-reaching or as enduring as Muddy Waters’.

           

            His beginnings were humble. He was born out of wedlock to Ollie Morganfield and Berta Grant in Rolling Fork, Miss., on April 4, 1913, and named McKinley Morganfield after his guitar-playing father. His mother died at the age of three, and his grandmother Della took him with her when she moved to Colonel Howard Stovall III’s plantation in Coahoma County, Miss., six miles outside of Clarksdale. As a youth working on the plantation, he acquired his nickname – originally “Muddy Water,” with the “s” appended later in his career – and a taste for music. He learned the harmonica and, from his friend James Smith, the rudiments of bottleneck guitar.

           

At 14, he encountered Son House, the powerful singer and slide guitarist who recorded several electrifying sides in 1930 for the Paramount label; a cohort of the Delta legend Charley Patton, House was the most lionized of local bluesmen. Muddy would say later, “When I heard Son House, I should have broke my bottleneck because this other cat hadn’t learned me nothing…I watched that man’s fingers and look like to me he was so good he was unlimited.” At 17, he bought his first guitar for $2.50 from the Sears catalog, and started playing in the manner of House and Patton; later, he would be influenced by the records of the haunting Mississippi singer-guitarist Robert Johnson.

           

On Stovall’s plantation, Muddy worked the cotton fields; his sidelines included trapping and (profitably) bootlegging. But he was determined to succeed as a musician, and played parties and juke joints, developing a local reputation; he also hooked up with the string band of fiddler Son Sims. In 1940, he traveled to St. Louis  -- home to such stars as Lonnie Johnson and Peetie Wheatstraw -- to attempt a full-time musical career, but the trip proved fruitless and he returned to Mississippi to drive a tractor.

           

In August 1941, fate stepped in and wrenched the man who called himself “Stovall’s famous guitar picker” from obscurity. Folklorists Alan Lomax and John Wesley Work III, scouring Coahoma County on a joint field recording project for the Library of Congress and Fisk University, arrived at the Stovall farm and sought out Muddy, who first believed that the men were revenue agents out to bust him for his bootlegging activities. On Aug. 31, they recorded an interview with him and performances of two potent blues, “Country Blues” and “I Be’s Troubled.” They would return to record him again, with Sims’ string band and solo, in July 1942; more importantly, a commercial single of the two 1941 numbers by was issued in January 1943 under the Library of Congress’ auspices – by “McKinley Morganfield” -- as part of a six-disc album. The artist was paid $20 for the sides.

           

The die was cast. Later in 1943, after Stovall’s overseer refused to raise his wage from twenty-two-and-a-half cents an hour to a quarter an hour, Muddy Waters quit tractor driving, bid his grandmother goodbye, grabbed his guitar, and boarded an afternoon train for Chicago.

           

At the time, the Windy City was still primarily a jazz town, so Muddy scuffled for a time, playing with the young guitarists Jimmy Rogers and Claude “Blue Smitty” Smith; he also accompanied John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson, then the city’s top harmonica player. In 1946, he recorded a “B” side for producer J. Mayo Williams on a single headlined by James “Sweet Lucy” Carter, and several unreleased sides for Columbia Records under the direction of Lester Melrose, who had produced lightly swinging Chicago blues singles for the Bluebird label.

           

By this time, Muddy was playing an electric guitar, purchased for him by his uncle Joe Grant. His simple, slashing bottleneck playing and virile singing became the centerpiece of a tough, loud young band. Rogers supported Muddy on guitar; “Baby Face Leroy” Foster sat in on drums; and Little Walter Jacobs – a hot-headed teenaged Louisiana transplant – was drafted to play harmonica after Rogers heard him performing at the open-air market on Maxwell Street. The band set up shop at the Zanzibar, a club at Ashland and 13th Street on Chicago’s South Side, where they started developing a following with their brazenly electrified sound.

           

In 1947, Muddy finally made his mark as a real recording artist. Then working as a driver for a Venetian blind company, he received a call from pianist Sunnyland Slim, who needed support for a session he was doing for Aristocrat Records, a new blues label run by Leonard and Phil Chess, two Polish immigrants who ran a South Side saloon, and their partner Evelyn Aron. A couple of tracks he recorded at Slim’s session were issued as an unsuccessful single, and a second session in 1948 went unreleased.

           

However, in April 1948, a Muddy Waters single hit pay dirt – the second time around. Using his electric guitar and backed by bassist Ernest “Big” Crawford, he re-recorded the songs he first cut at Lomax and Work’s field session; “I Be’s Troubled” became “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and “Country Blues” became “Feel Like Going Home.” The single – a mix of sexual swagger and tremulous introspection – became an instant overnight hit. In Chicago, retailers couldn’t keep it in stock and rationed out copies, one per customer; Muddy was able to purchase just a single 78 disc for himself. It became a No. 11 hit on Billboard’s R&B chart.

           

            For the next two years, even as the Waters band continued to develop its bulky, hard-edged sound at the Zanzibar, the electric guitar-and-bass format served as the basic template for Muddy’s recordings for Aristocrat (which was rechristened Chess Records in 1950, after the Chesses bought out Aron). After the core of the live group – Muddy, Little Walter, and Baby Face Leroy – cut the ghostly, kinetic two-part “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” under Foster’s name for the small Parkway label, Chess chose to squelch the single with a remake featuring just Muddy and Big Crawford.

 

The full-blown electric sound finally began to creep into the marketplace with the 1951 hits “Louisiana Blues,” “Long Distance Call,” and “Honey Bee,” all of which featured either Rogers or Little Walter. In 1951-52, the band lineup solidified with the addition of Elga (a/k/a Elgin) Edmonds on drums and the gifted pianist Otis Spann (who remained a constant in Muddy’s band until his death in April 1970). While Walter would quit playing live regularly with Muddy after his instrumental “Juke” became a hit in 1952, he was often employed on his former boss’ studio sessions; Junior Wells and James Cotton frequently took the harp chair as well.

 

This was the group that defined the outline of electric Chicago blues from 1952 to 1956. The songs were bold and sexually in-your-face; the playing, charged by Muddy’s razor-flashing slide work and Walter’s boldly amplified harp, blazed new trails for blues power. Muddy’s top 10 R&B hits of this era – many of which became staples of the rock ‘n’ roll songbook in later years – included “I’m Your Hoochie Koochie Man,” “Just Make Love to Me” (also known as “I Just Want to Make Love to You”), “Mannish Boy” (a rewrite of Chess label mate Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man”) “Trouble, No More,” and “Forty Days and Forty Nights.” One of Muddy’s most virile numbers, “I’m Ready,” would be used nearly 50 years later as part of a TV ad campaign for the sexual potency stimulant Viagra.

 

By the late ‘50s, Muddy Waters had established himself as one of the blues’ top stars – as a hometown star and major touring attraction -- and had helped put Chess on the map as one of America’s leading blues and R&B labels. (He’d aided the company immensely in 1955 when he pointed a young singer-guitarist from St. Louis to Chess, setting Chuck Berry on his path to stardom.) But tastes were changing, and the appetite for Muddy’s style of blues declined; he tallied his last chart single, “Close to You,” in late ’58. But events would serve to bring his music to a new audience.

 

In late 1958, Muddy was invited to embark on a tour of England by trad jazz bandleader Chris Barber. He and Spann performed several British dates; local journalists, expecting a more sedate variety of acoustic blues, assailed their electrified performances under headlines like “SCREAMING GUITAR AND HOWLING PIANO.” However, some of the young acolytes in the audience – Eric Burdon (later of The Animals), Eric Clapton (soon a member of The Yardbirds), and Cyril Davies and Alexis Koerner (whose Blues Incorporated would morph into The Rolling Stones) – paid close attention to this crackling, exotic sound. Ironically, Muddy responded to the criticism of his shows by performing acoustically during his next U.K. tour in 1963 – by which time popular music had entirely absorbed his electric style.

           

            A new audience beckoned at home as well. On July 3, 1960, Muddy and his band performed at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. To close his set, the group tore into a version of a flop 1957 single, which Muddy had appropriated from  the set list of Ann Cole, a singer he had backed on a Southern tour. The tune, “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” caught fire at Newport, arousing the demonstrative crowd enough that the band turned in an instant encore of the song. “Mojo” became a career-long staple of Muddy’s set; the Newport performance alerted a fresh group of listeners to the danceable charms of Chicago blues.

           

 During the ‘60s, though Muddy continued to record material aimed at the waning black blues audience, Chess increasingly focused its attention on the growing legions of white listeners cocking an ear to the music. At first the folk-blues market was attacked with the albums Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy (1960) and Muddy Waters Folk Singer (1964), which featured the distinctly non-folkie guitar Buddy Guy as an accompanist. His old singles were repackaged in two volumes, The Real Folk Blues (1966) and More Real Folk Blues (1967). The Muddy-Little Walter-Bo Diddley “super session” Super Blues (1967) was hardly that. The nadir was reached in 1968, when Chess released Electric Mud, a collection of psychedelicized new versions of Muddy’s old material and an incongruous cover of The Stones’ “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” An equally misguided sequel, After the Rain, followed a year later; both albums featured guitarist Pete Cosey, whose extreme playing fired Miles Davis’ electric bands of the early ‘70s.

More successful, both commercially and aesthetically, was Fathers and Sons (1969), a two-LP set that mated Muddy and Spann with Chicago’s young Turk bluesmen, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s harp-playing leader and guitarist Mike Bloomfield, Booker T. & the MG’s bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, and drummers Buddy Miles (of Bloomfield’s Electric Flag) and Sam Lay (a veteran of both the Butterfied Band and Howlin’ Wolf’s unit). The album – half cut in the studio, half recorded live at an April 1969 show at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre – was Muddy’s top-charting LP, peaking at No. 70.

           

The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were not easy on Muddy. Chess Records was sold to a tape-manufacturing company in 1969, severing business and familial association that dated back two decades. In October 1969, Muddy was involved in a serious car crash that killed his driver and impeded his ability to play for months.

 

Under the new owner’s aegis, Muddy cut several indifferent albums for Chess, including an inevitable London Muddy Waters Sessions (1972), on which he was backed by several British stars. Only The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album (1975) showed much spark; it was cut with Butterfield and Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of The Band, whose final 1976 concert “The Last Waltz” featured a guest shot by Muddy. It marked his farewell to the Chicago label he had turned into a multi-million-dollar operation. (In 1976, Muddy sued Chess’ publishing company Arc Music for underpayment of royalties; the action was settled out of court.)

           

The last great chapter in Muddy Waters’ career was kicked off soon thereafter. He was signed to Blue Sky Records, a label distributed by giant Columbia Records; the albino Texas blues guitarist Johnny Winter, who idolized the elder statesman, served as his producer. Hard Again (1977) included super-heated re-recordings of Waters standards featuring Winter, James Cotton, and pianist Pinetop Perkins. The album became Muddy’s first chart entry in eight years; it won a Grammy Award as “best ethnic or traditional album,” as did its successor King Bee (1978). In all, he recorded four well-received sets for Blue Sky.

           

On Nov. 22, 1981, Muddy was filmed performing with The Rolling Stones at Buddy Guy’s club the Checkerboard Lounge in Chicago. It would be his last time he was ever recorded. Late that year he was diagnosed with lung cancer; surgery and chemotherapy was successful – enough so that he went out on tour in 1982, and surprised Eric Clapton with an unexpected onstage appearance at a Miami concert. But the cancer returned, and this time Muddy declined chemotherapy. He died April 30, 1983 at 70 from heart failure and lung cancer.

           

 Muddy Waters was an inaugural inductee in the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame in 1981. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1992 Grammy Awards. The blues, and much of rock ‘n’ roll, flow directly from his music – quite a legacy for “Stovall’s famous guitar picker.”

           

          

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