Muddy Waters

by Vinyl Renewal

Who? Muddy Waters AKA McKinley Morganfield

When? 04/08/1913 – 30/4/1983

What? American blues musician; ‘father of modern Chicago blues’; major inspiration for British blues exposion in 1960s;

Legacy? Tremendous influence over all things blues, rock n’ roll, hard rock, folk, jazz, country — you name it, Muddy did it. He also helped Chuck Berry get his first record contract. Not to mention he brought modern urban blues to our shores for the very first time in 1958. Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin are huge fans. Has been parodied in Family Guy.

If you like… Robert Johnston, B.B. King, Eric Clapton.

The low-down:

If I was writing this a couple of years ago and told you when Muddy Waters was born: I’d be guessing. Whilst a 1955 interview in the Chicago Defender suggested he was born in 1915, the 1920 census listed him as five years old on March 6th 1920, suggesting he might have been born in 1914. All quibbling aside, it was his marriage license and musicians’ union card that silenced the guessing: Muddy Waters was born at Jug’s Corner, Mississippi in 1913. The ample supplies of mud at Jug’s Corner and his tendency to play in it earned him the nickname “Muddy” and it stuck, some might say, like Mud.

In the early 1940s, Muddy ran a juke point, complete with gambling, moonshine and a jukebox; it also provided the unique opportunity for him to play music to an audience regularly. Muddy soon gravitated towards Chicago in 1943 to fulfil his dreams of becoming a musician. He balanced a factory day job with nighttime performances – something of a chameleon, Muddy started to make his mark in the rowdy clubs of Chicago.

1946 saw Muddy record some music for Mayo Williams at Columbia, but to little avail. Later in the year, however, he began recording for Aristocrat Records, a newly-formed label run by two brothers, Leonard and Phill Chess. In 1947, he played guitar with Sunnyland Slim on piano on the cuts “Gypsy Woman” and “Little Anna Mae.” These were also shelved, but in 1948 “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home” became big hits and his popularity in clubs began to rocket. Soon after, Aristocrat changed their label name to Chess Records and Muddy’s signature tune “Rollin’ Stone” also became a smash hit.

Muddy Waters – I Feel Like Goin’ Home

Initially, the Chess brothers restricted Muddy on who he could record with. However, they gradually relented and by September 1953, he was recording with one of the most acclaimed ensembles of blues musicians in history: Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica; Jimmy Rogers on guitar; Elga Edmonds (a.k.a. Elgin Evans) on drums; Otis Spann on piano. The band recorded a series of blues classics during the early 1950s, some with the help of bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon, including “Hoochie Coochie Man”  and “I Just Want to Make Love to You.”

Muddy Waters – I Just Want to Make Love to You

Muddy, along with his former harmonica player Little Walter Jacobs and recent southern transplant Howlin’ Wolf reigned over the early 1950s Chicago blues scene, his band becoming a proving ground for some of the city’s best blues talent. While Little Walter continued a collaborative relationship long after he left Muddy’s band in 1952, appearing on most of Muddy’s classic recordings throughout the 1950s, Muddy developed a long running, generally good-natured rivalry with Wolf.

 Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf

Muddy hit England’s shores in 1958 to find an enthralled audience, whose ears were accustomed to folk/blues sounds from acts such as Big Bill Broonzy. This was a historical moment – it was the first time England heard the rich, amplified urban blues Muddy headed. Two years later at the Newport Jazz Festival, Muddy recorded and released his first live album, which marked the advent of a new generation to Muddy’s sound.

Muddy Waters Live Manchester 1958 – Blues Before Sunrise

Muddy’s sound was like no other:  “When I play on the stage with my band, I have to get in there with my guitar and try to bring the sound down to me. But no sooner than I quit playing, it goes back to another, different sound. My blues look so simple, so easy to do, but it’s not. They say my blues is the hardest blues in the world to play.”

Following a string of successes, Muddy was struck by personal tragedy in 1973 when his long-time wife Geneva died of cancer. A few years later, he mustered the strength to return to what he did best: the blues. On November 25, 1976, Muddy Waters performed at The Band’s farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco. Over the next decade, Muddy spun a web of infectious blues and rhythm wherever he went, releasing LPs such as ‘Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live and performing at prestigious events like ChicagoFest in 1981.

Muddy Live in 1981

However, in 1982, Muddy’s health dramatically curtailed his performance schedule. Muddy Waters’ last public performance took place when he sat in with Eric Clapton’s band at a Clapton concert in Florida in autumn of 1982.

On April 30, 1983 Muddy Waters died in his sleep from heart failure, at his home in Westmont, Illinois.  At his funeral at Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, throngs of blues musicians and fans showed up to pay tribute to one of the true originals of the art form.

“Muddy was a master of just the right notes,” John P. Hammond told Guitar World magazine. “It was profound guitar playing, deep and simple… more country blues transposed to the electric guitar, the kind of playing that enhanced the lyrics, gave profundity to the words themselves.”

Two years after his death, Chicago honored him by designating the one-block section between 900 and 1000 E. 43rd Street near his former home on the south side “Honorary Muddy Waters Drive” The Chicago suburb of Westmont, where Waters lived the last decade of his life, named a section of Cass Avenue near his home “Honorary Muddy Waters Way”.