Muddy WatersJun 20th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1915-1983 Muddy Waters was the first to make the leap from acoustic Delta Blues to amplified electric Chicago Blues. In so doing, he became an internationally famous performer, a top-selling recording artist, and in many respects, the progenitor of urban blues, rock and roll, and all of their descendants.
Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in 1915 in the village of Rolling Fork, Mississippi. His mother died when he was three years old, and he went to live with his grandmother in the town of Clarksdale on Stovall’s Plantation, where he acquired his nickname. This was Delta Blues country at a time when the masters of that form were in their musical prime. The young Waters was directly inspired by the legendary Son House and Robert Johnson, and their distinctive bottleneck style of playing acoustic guitar. Like many beginners, Waters first learned to play the harmonica as a way of grasping the rudiments of the form at age 13. By his own account, when he began playing guitar four years later, he mastered the bottleneck slide style in only one year. As was common in the region at that time, he played for parties, juke joints, and festivities of all kinds, developing his skill and the distinctively earthy voice that would become his trademark.
In 1941, musicologist Alan Lomax traveled through the Stovall Plantation as part of a Library of Congress folk music project. He immediately recognized Waters’ talent, and recorded him playing, singing, and talking on his portable field equipment, including a rendition of “I Be’s Troubled.” Lomax returned in 1942 to capture more of this authentic sound, as well as that of Waters’ string band, the Son Simms Four. By this time, Waters was renowned across the Delta region for his exceptional musicianship; the following year, he decided to try his luck in the big city, and moved to Chicago, Illinois.
Electrifying the Blues
Arriving in the Windy City in 1943, Waters began to adapt his bottleneck style to the still-new electric guitar. He gradually became noticed at live venues on Chicago’s South and West Side black ghettos. A local producer, Lester Melrose, succeeded in arranging a session with Columbia Records in 1946, but the sound was too unusual for that label’s taste and the recordings remained unreleased for decades. Then in 1947, the pianist Sunnyland Slim asked Waters to accompany him on a date for the Chess brothers’ Aristocrat label. After Slim’s tunes, Waters was recorded singing two of his own, which became his Aristocrat debut. By 1948, he was back in the Chess studios for what would be his first R&B hit: “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (a reworking of his 1941 “I Be’s Troubled,” which some believe inspired the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”), and “I Feel Like Going Home.” Backed by Big Crawford on the standup bass, Waters’ trademark slashing slide guitar and emotive vocal style became an immediate Chicago sensation.
Waters concurrently put together a live stage band with such a formidable reputation that they were known as The Headhunters. The band initially featured Little Walter on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers on rhythm guitar, and Baby Face Leroy on drums, with all four joining on vocals. This would become the standard electric blues ensemble. Back in the studio, he continued to perfect his recorded sound. The year 1950 saw Waters’ classic “Rollin’ Stone,” which would inspire the British band to take that name. And in 1951, Waters hit the R&B charts an amazing four times with “Louisiana Blues,” “Long Distance Call,” “Honey Bee,” and “Still a Fool.” Another hit followed with 1952’s “She Moves Me.”
As other musicians replaced Waters’ original sidemen, the ensemble grew even tighter. In particular, pianist Otis Spann had joined the band and would remain with Waters for 16 years. Willie Dixon had become the main bass player for Waters’ recording dates, and that prolifically talented songwriter turned his energies to composing a number of classic tunes for Waters: “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I’m Ready,” and “Just Make Love to Me” all surged to the top of the R&B charts upon their release in 1954. The following years brought another five hit tunes; but despite Waters’ continued success and fame, Chess Records was shifting toward a smoother urban blues sound personified by Chuck Berry (who was helped by Waters to get his first recording contract), B.B. King, and Bo Diddley. Waters had only one subsequent charting song, “Close to You,” in 1958, although he continued recording high-quality and authentic material for Chess for several more years.
Also in 1958, Waters toured England, the first time many British had heard an amplified band. This tour is largely credited with igniting the rock revolution there, including the work of the Rolling Stones who would remain devoted followers. At the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, Waters, backed by Cotton and Spann, delivered an inspired rendition of his 1954 recording “Got My Mojo Working,” and a modern classic was born. Another was launched in 1962 with “You Need Love,” which Led Zeppelin would later cover as “Whole Lot of Love.” Meanwhile, former members of Waters’ bands, and others influenced by him such as Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, were performing and recording on their own.
Even as his white protégés were succeeding with a blues-inspired rock and roll, Waters’ pure style was increasingly ignored by black listeners. Several attempts to recast his sound and image were unsuccessful, both musically and commercially. Fortunately, white fans of the new rock sound learned to appreciate its progenitor, and Waters became a popular figure at festivals, college auditoriums, and blues and jazz clubs, with additional international tours and television appearances bolstering his reputation. An upturn in his recorded legacy came with a session that paired Waters with two younger masters, Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, entitled “Fathers and Sons;” and a 1977 album produced, arranged, and accompanied by Waters protégé Johnny Winter. These, and three more albums with Winter, served to confirm Waters’ place at the pinnacle of achievement and influence in the history of modern music upon his death in 1983.