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One of the most significant figures in the development of postwar blues music, singer-songwriter Muddy Waters' deceptively simple yet powerful songs came to define the electrified Chicago sound, which in turn, had a lasting influence on generations of rock-n-roll and blues players. Waters' deep, masculine voice was his calling card, and he could wield it in a wide variety of tempos, from slow and sensual on "I Can't Be Satisfied" and "King Bee" to an earth-shaking stomp on rockers like "Got My Mojo Workin'" and "Mannish Boy." These and other songs marked his initial rise to prominence in the early '50s through Chess Records, and their tremendous impact could be felt throughout popular music, most notably through British Invasion players like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, who drew heavily on his work. Waters fell out of fashion in the 1960s, only to experience a rebirth in the 1970s through collaborations with American bluesman Johnny Winter. Their work together generated countless Grammys and worldwide respect from the blues community until Waters' death in 1983. In the decades that followed, his stature in popular culture continued to grow, and Waters' best work came to represent for many...
One of the most significant figures in the development of postwar blues music, singer-songwriter Muddy Waters' deceptively simple yet powerful songs came to define the electrified Chicago sound, which in turn, had a lasting influence on generations of rock-n-roll and blues players. Waters' deep, masculine voice was his calling card, and he could wield it in a wide variety of tempos, from slow and sensual on "I Can't Be Satisfied" and "King Bee" to an earth-shaking stomp on rockers like "Got My Mojo Workin'" and "Mannish Boy." These and other songs marked his initial rise to prominence in the early '50s through Chess Records, and their tremendous impact could be felt throughout popular music, most notably through British Invasion players like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, who drew heavily on his work. Waters fell out of fashion in the 1960s, only to experience a rebirth in the 1970s through collaborations with American bluesman Johnny Winter. Their work together generated countless Grammys and worldwide respect from the blues community until Waters' death in 1983. In the decades that followed, his stature in popular culture continued to grow, and Waters' best work came to represent for many listeners the sound of the blues: earthy, sexy, unstoppable.
Born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, MS, his birth year was widely disputed, with most sources citing 1915 while others placed it as early as 1913. His father, Ollie Morganfield, was a singer and washboard player, while his mother, Berta Grant, was reportedly a teenager or younger at the time of his birth. Waters' parents never married, and he was raised by his material grandmother, Della Grant, on the Stovall Plantation in Coahoma County. There, he gained not only his nickname from a fondness for playing in mud, but also his first exposure to music. He listened to records by many of the great early 20th century blues men like Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charlie Patton. In his teenaged years, Waters saw House perform live, and his intricate guitar playing and deep, resonant voice would have a strong influence on his own music career. The legendary Robert Johnson, whom Waters saw performing on the street in the nearby town of Friar's Point, also influenced Waters with his economical yet stinging slide guitar work.
Waters soon began experimenting with his own music, quickly graduating from a drum fashioned from a kerosene can to an accordion, mouth harp and harmonica. He taught himself guitar on a homemade rig built from a box and a stick, and eventually took his meager earnings from working as a sharecropper in the cotton fields to purchase a second-hand guitar. He was soon playing at juke joints and parties throughout the area, where he would earn a few extra dollars by selling his own bootleg whiskey. During this period, he would befriend and frequently perform with many great Southern blues musicians, including Skip James, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Big Joe Williams. Waters also gained a reputation as a ladies' man, with at least one illegitimate child to his name, and two different women who called themselves Mrs. Morganfield.
Many of Waters' contemporaries began heading to Chicago to try their hand at recording their music, but he was initially reluctant to leave Mississippi or his grandmother. But he soon changed his mind after meeting ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who was traveling throughout the South to record blues musicians for the Library of Congress. Waters recorded three tunes for Lomax: "I Be's Troubled," "Country Blues" and "Burr Clover Farm Blues," which were featured on a Library of Congress folk music anthology. The recordings convinced Waters to head to Chicago and pursue a musical career. After arriving in 1943, he found that club dates and recording sessions were few and far between for blues players; jazz remained the city's most popular musical form. Water worked at a variety of odd jobs, which kept him afloat financially, while playing at house parties that netted him free food and a few dollars.
In 1945, Waters received his first electric guitar from his uncle, Joe Grant. The switch from acoustic to electric was significant in many ways: while it allowed him to perform at rowdy Chicago clubs, where the din of patrons would have drowned out his acoustic guitar, Waters was also forced to change his style of playing, as the amplification would highlight mistakes that would otherwise be missed on an acoustic guitar. With the help of fellow player "Claude "Blue Smitty" Smith, he developed his deliberate, highly dramatic style, which earned him work as an opening act for the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and others. He soon formed a band, the Headhunters, with guitarist Jimmy Rogers, teenaged harp player Little Walter Jacobs and drummer "Baby Face" Leroy Foster, which earned a reputation on the club scene for showing up at other artists' gigs and overpowering them with the force and skill of their playing.
Waters began recording for a variety of labels, including Columbia, but none of these sides would see the light of day for decades. But in 1947, he was discovered by Sammy Goldberg, talent scout for Leonard Chess' Aristocrat Records, who hired him to back Sunnyland Slim on a pair of singles. At the end of the session, Waters asked to try out some of his own songs. Accompanied by his own electric guitar and Ernest "Big" Crawford on bass, Waters recorded two songs: a reworking of "I Be's Troubled" called "I Can't Be Satisfied" and "I Feel Like Going Home," a mis-titled take on "Country Blues." Waters' earthy delivery and haunting guitar made the record an immediate hit, with all copies of its initial pressing sold out the day after its release. Soon after, Waters left his day jobs for good.
By 1950, Waters was a leading force in the Chicago blues scene. His music was raw, immediate and steeped in self-mythologizing, sexually charged bravado, as evidenced by his signature hit, the slow-boiling "Rollin' Stone," which later became a galvanizing moment for countless U.S. and U.K. bands. His band remained a proving ground for future blues legends in their own right: players such as pianist Otis Spann, drummers Elga "Elgin" Edmonds, harpist Junior Wells, and Howlin' Wolf's formidable guitarist, Hubert Sumlin all marked time with Waters. However, the ever-budget-conscious Leonard Chess, who had by this point teamed with his brother Phil to transform Aristocrat into the legendary Chess Records, refused to allow Waters' band into the studio until 1953. With them, Waters recorded some of his greatest material, including "Hoochie Coochie Man," "I Just Want to Make Love to You," "Mannish Boy" and "I'm Ready," all penned by songwriter-producer Willie Dixon. These and other numbers helped to make Waters the king of Chicago blues; only the mountainous force of nature known as Howlin' Wolf could offer any serious contention to the throne.
However, his time at the top of the heap was short-lived. The ascendency of rock-n-roll had a chilling effect on the blues market; by 1958, Waters had been usurped on the R&B charts by the likes of Fats Domino and his Chess labelmate, Bo Diddley. Like many blues musicians, he found an eager new market in England, where his electrified sonic assault shocked and thrilled listeners whose idea of the blues was built around acoustic acts like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Waters' appearances at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival further boosted his profile, but to the singer's dismay, he counted more white fans than members of his own race. Blues labels, which had sold predominately to black record buyers in previous decades, were unsure of how to package their acts to white audiences. Chess initially tried to re-package Waters as a folk act, only to discover that the rise of the British Invasion had sounded the death knell for acoustic blues. Ironically, English acts like the Rolling Stones, which took their name from his 1950 hit, counted Waters' electric sides as major influences on their own sound. Chess countered with Brass and the Blues (1967), which attempted to fill out Waters' spare arrangements with a horn section, and a pair of Super Blues albums that teamed him with other top acts on the wane, including Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley and former bandmate Little Walter. In 1969, Chess put Waters in the studio with a cadre of avant-garde jazz players for Electric Mud, a bald-faced play for the psychedelic counterculture movement. Critics loathed the album, as did Waters himself, but the record landed him on the Billboard charts for the first time in over a decade, and provided his career with some much-needed exposure.
Chess attempted to repeat the formula with Fathers and Sons (1969), which brought Waters and Spann together with white rock musicians like Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield, who had been deeply influenced by his early Chess sides. Its success put Waters back on the road as a popular act on the white rock circuit, which paid substantially better than his blues gigs. He was seriously injured while driving from a show in 1970, which took him out of circulation for several months. During this period, Waters found a new manager, Scott Cameron, who began booking him into larger clubs both in the U.S. and England. Following his recovery, Waters began performing and recording with renewed vigor, as evidenced by his 1971 concert album, Live (At Mr. Kelley's). A trip to London that same year produced The London Muddy Waters Sessions, which featured such British acolytes as Steve Winwood and Rory Gallagher backing Waters on a tour his best-loved material.
In 1973, Waters suffered a tremendous personal blow with the death of his wife, Geneva. In the months that followed, he attempted to wrest control over his life by quitting smoking and settling down into a suburban home in Westmont, IL. Waters surrounded himself there with many of his "outside kids" - children born outside of his marriage, including blues singer Big Bill Morganfield. He also remarried during this period to 19-year-old Marva Jean Brooks, whom he nicknamed "Sunshine." As his personal life knit itself together, his career experienced an extraordinary upswing: Waters earned his first Grammy for They Call Me Muddy Waters (1971), a collection of older, unreleased material. A second Grammy followed for the London sessions, and a third came for his 1975 LP, The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album, featuring members of The Band. Waters would join the group onstage for their farewell concert in San Francisco, which was captured on film by Martin Scorsese in "The Last Waltz." (1976). The Woodstock album also marked the end of Waters' long and celebrated tenure at Chess, after which he signed with guitarist Johnny Winters' Blue Sky label.
His first effort for his new label was Hard Again (1975), a raucous collection of new and previously recorded material produced by Winter over the course of three days and featuring members of his then-current and previous touring bands, including guitarist Bob "Steady Rollin" Margolin, pianist Pinetop Perkins and harmonica player James Cotton. The album's exuberant sound, as exemplified by its devastating tear through "Mannish Boy," brought Waters some of the best critical reviews of his career. Hard Again won Waters his fourth Grammy, and a fifth came for I'm Ready (1978), which featured his postwar partners Jimmy Rogers and Big Walter Horton. He also toured relentlessly during this period, netting top dollars for major gigs around the world; a live record, Muddy "Mississippi" Waters - Live (1979) waxed during this period netted the singer his sixth Grammy Award. Despite the accolades, the schedule put a tremendous strain on Waters' health, and he was soon forced to curtail his concert schedule.
Waters entered the studio in 1979 to record King Bee, his fourth album for Blue Sky. Tensions soon erupted between Waters, manager Scott Cameron and his band, which had been forced to extend their own personal touring schedules to make up for the money lost by Waters' reduced live performances. Unable to reach an agreement, the band abandoned the record after recording only a few numbers, forcing producer Johnny Winter to fill out its track time with outtakes from earlier sessions.King Bee would prove to be Waters' final album. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1981, which required radiation treatment and the partial removal of one lung. Undaunted, he continued to perform live during this period, but after a surprise appearance at an Eric Clapton show in 1982, his cancer returned anew. Waters took to his bed at his home in Westmont, Illinois, where he died of heart failure on April 30, 1983. Tributes from critics and fans poured in, as did praise from the many musicians who owed a debt to his music, from the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to AC/DC and countless others. The city of Chicago named a section of the suburb near his Westmont home in his honor, while the Mississippi Blues Commission designated the cabin where he was raised by his grandmother as part of its Mississippi Blues Trail, which marked important sites in the state that contributed to the growth of blues music.
By Paul Gaita
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