Ethel Waters, Vaudeville Star and pioneer of the 1920’s era of Classic Female Blues. Photo from 1929.
The Roots Of Acoustic Blues Guitar - Muddy Waters
Apart from Robert Johnson, no one name represent blues music than Muddy Waters. Playing in Chicago and introducing the electric sound, he was on the rise as Broonzy's swing sound was on the wane. It's not that Big bill wasn't still brilliant, but the crowds wanted something more, something exciting and the electric sound fit the bill admirably. It could be slow and sensual, or fast and easy to dance to - whatever style was preferred, it was always loud!
McKinley Morganfield (April 4, 1913 – April 30, 1983), known as Muddy Waters, was an American blues musician, generally considered the Father of modern Chicago blues. Blues musicians Big Bill Morganfield and Larry "Mud Morganfield" Williams are his sons. A major inspiration for the British blues explosion in the 1960s, Muddy was ranked #17 in Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Although in his later years Muddy usually said that he was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi in 1915, he was actually born at Jug's Corner in neighboring Issaquena County, Mississippi in 1913. Recent research has uncovered documentation showing that in the 1930s and 1940s he reported his birth year as 1913 on both his marriage license and musicians' union card. A 1955 interview in the Chicago Defender is the earliest claim of 1915 as his year of birth, which he continued to use in interviews from that point onward. The 1920 census lists him as five years old as of March 6, 1920, suggesting that his birth year may have been 1914. The Social Security Death Index, relying on the Social Security card application submitted after his move to Chicago in the mid '40s, lists him as being born April 4, 1915.
His grandmother Della Grant raised him after his mother died shortly after his birth. His fondness for playing in mud earned him the nickname "Muddy" at an early age. He then changed it to "Muddy Water" and finally "Muddy Waters". He started out on harmonica but by age seventeen he was playing the guitar at parties emulating two blues artists who were extremely popular in the south, Son House and Robert Johnson. "His thick heavy voice, the dark coloration of his tone and his firm, almost solid, personality were all clearly derived from House," wrote music critic Peter Guralnick in Feel Like Going Home, "but the embellishments which he added, the imaginative slide technique and more agile rhythms, were closer to Johnson."
On November 20, 1932 Muddy married Mabel Berry; Robert Nighthawk played guitar at the wedding, and the party reportedly got so wild the floor fell in. Mabel left Muddy three years later when Muddy's first child was born - the child's mother was Leola Spain, sixteen years old,(Leola later used her maiden name Brown), "married to a man named Steve" and "going with a guy named Tucker". Leola was the only one of his girlfriends with whom Muddy would stay in touch throughout his life; they never married. By the time he finally cut out for Chicago in 1943, there was another Mrs. Morganfield left behind, a girl called Sallie Ann.
Muddy's Blues Guitar - Early career
In 1940, Muddy moved to Chicago for the first time. He played with Silas Green a year later, and then returned to Mississippi. In the early part of the decade he ran a juke joint, complete with gambling, moonshine and a jukebox; he also performed music there himself. In the summer of 1941 Alan Lomax went to Stovall, Mississippi, on behalf of the Library of Congress to record various country blues musicians. "He brought his stuff down and recorded me right in my house," Muddy recalled in Rolling Stone, "and when he played back the first song I sounded just like anybody's records. Man, you don't know how I felt that Saturday afternoon when I heard that voice and it was my own voice. Later on he sent me two copies of the pressing and a check for twenty bucks, and I carried that record up to the corner and put it on the jukebox. Just played it and played it and said, `I can do it, I can do it.'" Lomax came back again in July 1942 to record Muddy again. Both sessions were eventually released as Down On Stovall's Plantation on the Testament label.
In 1943, Muddy headed back to Chicago with the hope of becoming a full-time professional musician. He lived with a relative for a short period while driving a truck and working in a factory by day and performing at night. Big Bill Broonzy, one of the leading bluesmen in Chicago at the time, helped Muddy break into the very competitive market by allowing him to open for his shows in the rowdy clubs. In 1945, Muddy's uncle Joe Grant gave him his first electric guitar which enabled him to be heard above the noisy crowds.
In 1946, he recorded some tunes for Mayo Williams at Columbia but they weren't released at the time. Later that year he began recording for Aristocrat, a newly-formed label run by two brothers, Leonard and Phil 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 take off. Soon after, Aristocrat changed their label name to Chess Records and Muddy's signature tune "Rollin' Stone" also became a smash hit.
Initially, the Chess brothers would not allow Muddy to use his own musicians in the recording studio; instead he was provided with a backing bass by Ernest "Big" Crawford, or by musicians assembled specifically for the recording session, including "Baby Face" Leroy Foster and Johnny Jones. Gradually Chess relented, and by September 1953 he was recording with one of the most acclaimed blues groups 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" (Number 8 on the R&B charts), "I Just Want to Make Love to You" (Number 4), and "I'm Ready". These three were "the most macho songs in his repertoire," wrote Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone. "Muddy would never have composed anything so unsubtle. But they gave him a succession of showstoppers and an image, which were important for a blues man trying to break out of the grind of local gigs into national prominence."
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. The success of Muddy's ensemble paved the way for others in his group to break away and enjoy their own solo careers. In 1952 Little Walter left when his single "Juke" became a hit, and in 1955 Rogers quit to work exclusively with his own band, which had been a sideline until that time. Although he continued working with Muddy's band, Otis Spann enjoyed a solo career and many releases under his own name beginning in the mid-1950s.
England and low profile for the blues guitarist
Muddy headed to England in 1958 and shocked audiences (whose only
previous exposure to blues had come via the acoustic folk/blues sounds
of acts such as Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and Big Bill Broonzy)
with his loud, amplified electric guitar and thunderous beat.
His performance at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, recorded and released as his first live album, At Newport 1960, helped turn on a whole new generation to Waters' sound. He expressed dismay when he realized that members of his own race were turning their backs on the genre while a white audience had shown increasing respect for the blues.
However, for the better part of twenty years (since his last big hit
in 1956, "I'm Ready") Muddy was put on the back shelf by the Chess
label and recorded albums with various "popular" themes: Brass And The Blues, Electric Mud, etc. In 1967, he joined forces with Bo Diddley, Little Walter and Howlin' Wolf to record the Super Blues and The Super Super Blues Band pair of albums of Chess blues standards.
In 1972 he went back to England to record The London Muddy Waters Sessions with Rory Gallagher, Steve Winwood, Rick Grech and Mitch Mitchell — but their playing was not up to his standards. "These boys are top musicians, they can play with me, put the book before 'em and play it, you know," he told Guralnick. "But that ain't what I need to sell my people, it ain't the Muddy Waters sound. An' if you change my sound, then you gonna change the whole man."
Muddy's sound was basically Delta blues electrified, but his use of microtones, in both his vocals and slide playing, made it extremely difficult to duplicate and follow correctly. "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."
April 30, 1983 Muddy Waters died in his sleep, 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
"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"
More recently, 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".
Following Waters' death, fellow blues musician B.B. King (who was hugely influenced by Waters) told Guitar World, "It's going to be years and years before most people realize how greatly he contributed to American music". Attesting to the historic place of Muddy Waters in the development of the blues in Mississippi, a Mississippi Blues Trail marker has been placed in Clarksdale, Mississippi by the Mississippi Blues Commission designating the site of Muddy Waters' cabin to commemorate his importance. The cabin of Muddy Waters still stands on the plantation of Stovall Mississippi, not very far from where he was said to have had other relatives.
Jim's Note: Although mostly considered an electric guitar player, try and listen to his acoustic version of 'Walkin' Blues', often attributed to Son House and Robert Johnson. Actually the song was almost traditional, as many early blues men had a version. Muddy's rendition pre-dates Johnson's and it's a stunning display of slow control and emotional vocals. As he says" s soon as I knew I could make money playing the blues, I was out of there!"
Jagged Grain::Blues Archive
Blues Veneration Archive
Bertha “Chippie” Hill, circa 1946, photo by William Gottlieb.
Three Kings and a Queen: Bob Dylan, Victoria Spivey, John Hammond, and Big Joe Williams, 1962.
Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, Jump Jackson and T-Bone Walker, Nervous. From American Folk Blues Festival, 1962.
Rare footage of the Poet Laureate of the Blues, Willie Dixon on guitar.
Willie Dixon, Weak Brain and a Narrow Mind.
John Lee Hooker, Maudie and Tupelo, from Rare Performances: 1960.