Friday, September 17, 2010

Blues Legends - Muddy Waters

This week, in the first of a series, FBF focuses on a blues legend of the past. This week we’ll look at the one and only Muddy Waters.

Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, MS in 1915, and spent his early years working in the cotton fields. He learned to play harmonica in his early teens, and got his first guitar around the age of 17. A major influence on Waters was Eddie “Son” House, one of the true icons of the pre-war era. Waters was soon playing in the local juke joints and fish fries when he attracted the attention of John Lomax, who recorded Waters in 1941 for the Library of Congress. Lack of employment and the struggle of raising a family led Waters to make the move north to Chicago, where his dreams of being a musician were rekindled as he formed a powerhouse band in the late 40’s.

He caught on with Chess Records in the late 40’s and they recorded him in a sparse setting, featuring only Waters on guitar and Big Crawford on bass. These records sold very well, mainly because their downhome style reminded many listeners of what they’d heard back in the Delta. Here’s one of Waters’ first recordings for Chess, from 1948, “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” featuring his wondrous slide guitar.

An early edition of the Muddy Waters Band, with Waters (left), Otis Spann (piano) and Jimmy Rogers (far right)
Even though his first recordings for Chess sold well, Waters longed to record with his band, which featured Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Baby Face Leroy on drums, and Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica. This band was THE band in Chicago at that time. No one in the Windy City could compete with them. Finally, after some arm-twisting, Chess recorded the full band in 1951 and never looked back. These songs were even bigger than the downhome recordings. From 1954, here’s one of Muddy’s most beloved songs, “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” featuring one of the greatest Chicago Blues bands ever assembled:  Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, Willie Dixon on bass, Fred Below on drums, and the immortal Otis Spann on piano.

Another song from Muddy’s salad days is “I Love The Life I Live and I Live the Life I Love,” one of many Willie Dixon-penned classics recorded by Waters. By now, Little Walter had embarked on his own successful solo career and had been replaced by James Cotton on harmonica. Second guitarist Pat Hare was later known for his hit song for Sun Records called “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby,” which proved to be prophetic after he murdered his baby and spend most of the rest of his life in prison.

By the late 50’s, musical styles and tastes were changing, so Waters’ record sales dipped a bit, but he continued to record for Chess until the early 70’s with varying degrees of success.  Chess put him in an acoustic setting to try and draw the folk music crowd (Folk Singer) and, later, in an ill-advised foray into psychedelic music, entitled Electric Mud.  Here's a clip of Waters at the Newport Jazz Festival in the early 1960's, performing one of his classics, "Rollin' Stone," and, yes, Brian Jones named his band after this song.....maybe you're familiar with them.

One of his bigger songs in the early 60’s was the autobiographical “My Home Is In The Delta,” which gives you an earful of Waters' amazing slide guitar along with a young Buddy Guy on guitar backing up the legend.  Waters also recorded this tune with Otis Spann in the late 60's and his slide guitar (this time plugged in) was even better on Spann's version.

Waters with Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy

Waters' band also served as a launching pad for many of Chicago's legendary blues artists of the 50's and 60's.  Among those who either recorded with Waters or played in his regular band are Little Walter Jacobs, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Otis Spann, Jimmy Rogers, Big Walter Horton, Fred Below, Francis Clay, Luther Tucker, Sammy Lawhorn, Fred Robinson, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Earl Hooker, A. C. Reed, Big Moose Walker, Lafayette Leake, Casey Jones, Pee Wee Madison, Buddy Guy, Pinetop Perkins, Jerry Portnoy, Bob Margolin, Johnny Winter, Hubert Sumlin, and many, many others.  Check out Waters and slide guitar master Earl Hooker on "You Shook Me."

Muddy and the Wolf
Over the years, there arose a friendly rivalry between Waters and Howlin' Wolf, though much of it was blown out of proportion.  Waters actually helped the Wolf get his first job in Chicago, which soon led to the suddenly in-demand Wolf taking club dates away from him.  There was also the time when Waters "stole" guitarist Hubert Sumlin away from Wolf after he was fired during one of Sumlin and Wolf's regular falling-outs, and then Wolf stretching out his set at the 1969 Ann Arbor Blues Festival in an attempt to keep Waters from getting onstage.  Still, the two held a grudging respect for each other over the years.

Waters recorded for Chess until the label closed up shop and he continued to tour nationally and internationally (see below for a clip of Waters, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy from Montreux in 1974).  He appeared with Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and others during the decade, and made an appearance at the Band's final concert, captured on the film, The Last Waltz.

In the late 70’s, he signed with Johnny Winter’s Blue Sky label and recorded several albums, including the classic Hard Again. One of the originals Waters brought to the session was “The Blues Had A Baby.” The backing band included Winter (who produced the Blue Sky albums) on guitar, Pinetop Perkins on piano, and Cotton on harmonica.  Though Waters was now in his 60's, his new recordings were every bit as powerful as his Chess sides.

Waters passed on in 1983, but his place is secure as one of the Mount Rushmore figures of the blues. Today, it’s hard to find an artist who wasn’t influenced by this great man.  If you're not familiar with Muddy Waters' music, there are several fantastic collections of his recordings for Chess, including the single-disc The Definitive Collectionor Anthology: 1947-1972, a 2-CD set. Several of his Chess albums are still available, too, like Folk Singer, At Newport 1960, and Fathers & Sons.  For his early recordings in Mississippi, check out The Complete Plantation RecordingsMost of his 70's recordings are still available too, like Hard Again, King Bee, Muddy "Mississippi" Waters, and I'm Ready.  You can't go wrong with any Muddy Waters you find and you'll never be able to get enough of it either.

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