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Muddy Waters

Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield, Issaquena County, Mississippi, April 4, 1913 - Westmont, Illinois, April 30, 1983) was an American blues musician and is generally considered "the father of Chicago Blues." His career spanned over thirty years and he produced what are considered to be some of the finest blues songs ever, such as Hoochie Coochie Man, Mannish Boy and Got My Mojo Working.

Muddy Waters is generally considered one of the most influential bluesmen of all time. His fondness for playing in mud earned him the nickname "Muddy" at an early age. He later changed it to "Muddy Water" and finally "Muddy Waters".

Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in Issaquena County, Mississippi in 1913 (He later told people that he was born in 1915 in Rolling Fork, Mississippi; the reason for this remains unknown). His grandmother Della Grant raised him after his mother died in 1918. Waters started out on harmonica but by age seventeen he was playing the guitar at parties and "fish fries", 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 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."

In 1940 Waters moved to St. Louis before playing with Silas Green a year later and returning back to Mississippi. In the early part of the decade he ran a juke house, complete with gambling, moonshine, a jukebox and live music courtesy of Muddy himself. In the Summer of 1941 Alan Lomax came 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," Waters 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 of 1942 to record Waters again. Both sessions were eventually released as Down On Stovall's Plantation on the Testament label.

In 1943 Waters headed north to Chicago in hopes of becoming a full-time professional. He lived with a relative for a short period while driving a truck and working in a factory by day and playing at night. Big Bill Broonzy was the leading bluesman in Chicago until his death in 1958 and the city was a very competitive market for a newcomer to become established. Broonzy helped Waters out by letting him open Broonzy's show in the rowdy clubs. In 1945 Waters's uncle gave him his first electric guitar, which enabled him to be heard above the noisy crowds. In 1946 Waters recorded some tunes for Mayo Williams at Columbia but they were never released. Later that year he began recording for Aristocrat, a newly-formed label run by two brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess. In 1947 Waters played guitar with Sunnyland Slim on piano on the cuts "Gypsy Woman" and "Little Anna Mae." These were also shelved, but in 1948 Waters's "I Can't Be Satisfied" and "I Feel Like Going Home" became big and his popularity in clubs began to take off. Soon after, Aristocrat changed their name to Chess and Waters's signature tune, "Rollin' Stone", became a smash hit.

The Chess brothers would not allow Waters to use his own musicians (Jimmy Rogers and Blue Smitty) in the studio; instead he was only provided with a backing bass by Big Crawford. However, by 1952 Waters was recording with perhaps the best blues group ever: Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica; Jimmy Rogers on guitar; Elgin Evans on drums; Otis Spann on piano; Big Crawford on bass; and Waters handling vocals and second guitar. The band recorded a string of blues classics during the early 1950s with the help of bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon. "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 bluesman trying to break out of the grind of local gigs into national prominence."

Waters reigned over the 1950s Chicago blues scene; he was its most popular artist and led its tightest band, fueled by hits from Willie Dixon, its strongest composer. On all these fronts, however, Waters contended with fierce competition from the gravel-voiced singer Howlin' Wolf. Wolf's band rivaled Waters's all-star lineup, notably featuring the now-legendary guitarist Hubert Sumlin. Wolf also competed with Waters for the songwriting attention of Willie Dixon and recorded a large number of Dixon tunes. Nonetheless, Waters consistently retained an edge in popularity and esteem. Both Waters and Wolf are held in immense regard by modern rock and blues aficionados, but Waters scored far more chart hits and is generally considered to be the more commercially successful and the more well-known of the two; especially to the casual listener.

By 1954, Waters was at the height of his career. "By the time he achieved his popular peak, Muddy Waters had become a shouting, declamatory kind of singer who had forsaken his guitar as a kind of anachronism and whose band played with a single pulsating rhythm," wrote Guralnick in his Listener's Guide.

The success of Waters'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 (although he would continue to play on Muddy's recording sessions until the late '50s), and in 1955 Rogers quit to work exclusively with his own band, which had been a sideline until that time. Waters could never recapture the glory of his pre-1956 years as the pressures of being a leader led him to use various studio musicians for quite a few years thereafter.

He 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 loud, amplified electric guitar and a thunderous beat. His performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960, which was recorded and released as his first live album (see At Newport 1960), helped to 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 to the genre while a Caucasian audience had shown increasing respect for the blues.

A major inspiration for the British beat explosion in the 1960s.
However, for the better part of twenty years (since his last big hit in 1956, "I'm Ready") Waters 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 1972 he went back to England to record The London Muddy Waters Sessions with four hotshot rockers—Rory Gallagher, Steve Winwood, Rick Grech, and Mitch Mitchell — but their playing wasn't 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."

Waters's sound was basically Delta country 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 plays onstage with my band, I have to get in there with my guitar and try to bring the sound down to me," he said in Rolling Stone. "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."

In 1977 Johnny Winter convinced his label, Blue Sky, to sign Waters, the beginning of a fruitful partnership. Waters's "comeback" LP, Hard Again, was recorded in just two days and was a return to original Chicago sound he had created 25 years earlier. Producer/guitarist Winter pushed Waters to his limit. Former Waters sideman James Cotton contributed harmonica on the Grammy Award-winning album and a brief but well received tour followed. "He sounds happy, energetic and out for business," stated Dan Oppenheimer in Rolling Stone. "In short, Muddy Waters is kicking in another mule's stall."

The importance of Muddy Waters' 1977 album Hard Again cannot be overstated, and its place as a near universal favorite in the Muddy Waters catalog is no mistake. Recorded in the last decade of his life, it was the first studio collaboration between Waters and guitarist Johnny Winter, who acted as producer on his last four albums -- the others are I'm Ready, King Bee, and Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live -- for Blue Sky, a Columbia subsidiary. The true revelation here is Waters, whose vigor and fire are renewed; he's hungry for the music and completely in possession of his prowess and power as the true King of the Blues. At 64, Waters was revving up for one final go and Winter recorded him like the champ he was. The Muddy Waters Blues Band was one of the crack outfits on the scene at the time and included guitarist Bob Margolin, pianist Pinetop Perkins, and drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith were on this session. Winter was on board playing guitar in addition to producing, and Waters asked James Cotton to play harp on the session and he brought his bassist Charles Calmese for the date. According to Margolin's amazingly warm and informative anecdotal liner notes, Waters never picked up his guitar during these sessions. It hardly matters, from the opening roar of "Mannish Boy," with shouts and hollers throughout, with incendiary guitars to the old-style Delta blues of "I Can't Be Satisfied," with a National steel solo by Winter to Cotton's screeching intro to "The Blues Had a Baby," to the moaning closer "Little Girl," Hard Again is rock solid. Its live feel heralds back to the Chess days, and its cooperative musicianship and intimate, good time vibe have rarely been replicated since that time -- and never on a major label. The expanded reissue includes one bonus track, an outtake called "Walking Through the Park," that could have been part of the original album without a problem -- the other outtake ended up on King Bee. Margolin's notes state that while the album has been remastered, it was not remixed because its sound holds up. This has the feel of an old-time blues record and the listener can hear -- even on CD -- the sound of the wood room it was recorded in as well as the camaraderie of the players. Hard Again showcased Waters as a blues lion, and in its grooves lies all the evidence for the legend he remains.

In 1978 Winter recruited Muddy's cohorts from the early '50s Walter Horton and Jimmy Rogers, and brought in the rest of Muddy's touring band at the time (harmonica player Jerry Portnoy, guitarist Luther Johnson, and bassist Calvin Jone) to record Waters's I'm Ready LP, which came close to the critical and commercial success of Hard Again.

The comeback continued in 1979 with the lauded LP Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live. "Muddy was loose for this one," wrote Jas Obrecht in Guitar Player, "and the result is the next best thing to being ringside at one of his foot-thumping, head-nodding, downhome blues shows." Accompanied by Johnny Winter and his band, Muddy Waters turns in an enthusiastic performance on Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live. The set list contains most of his biggest hits, and the sound quality and performances are mostly energetic. Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live is a nice addition to the Muddy Waters catalog, but it's not nearly as essential as his earlier work. King Bee the following year concluded Water's reign at Blue Sky and all four LPs turned out to be his biggest-selling albums ever. King Bee was the last album Muddy Waters recorded. Coming last in a trio of triumphant studio outings, and produced by Johnny Winter, it is also a mixed bag. During the sessions for King Bee, Waters, his manager, and his band were all in dispute over money. According to the liner notes by Bob Margolin, the conflict arose from Waters' health being on the wane and him playing less. The bandmembers wanted more money for the fewer gigs they did play in order to make ends meet. Ultimately a split occurred and the band quit. Because of the tensions in the studio preceding the split, Winter felt the sessions had not produced enough solid material to yield an entire album. He subsequently filled out King Bee with outtakes from the Hard Again sessions. For the listener, King Bee is a leaner and meaner record. None of the good-time exuberance present on the previous two outings is present here. This is blues, direct and immediate, a snarling, growling album. The title track, "Mean Old Frisco," "Sad Sad Day," and "I Feel Like Going Home," are all solid, razor-sharp blues with killer ensemble work and Waters in fine voice. The Sony Legacy issue features completely remastered sound and Margolin's candid notes, but it also hosts two bonus tracks from the King Bee sessions that Winter didn't see fit to release the first time. There's a redo of "I Won't Go Down," a cut from the '50s that Waters sings in his lower baritone roar, and "Clouds in My Heart," a deep, long, sad blues that is one of the great unearthed treasures in Waters catalog. This cut alone with all of its deep emotion and the sound of a band trying to hold the storm of emotions in check and failing is a masterpiece and one of the most amazing blues tunes of the last 30 years. While King Bee may have been considered last and least of Waters' Columbia albums, it is more than worth reconsidering.

In 1983 Waters died peacefully and unexpectedly in his sleep, aged 70. At his funeral, throngs of blues musicians 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 Hammond Jr., 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." Following Waters's death, B.B. King told Guitar World, "It's going to be years and years before most people realize how great he was to American music."

Two years after his death, the city that made Muddy Waters (and vice versa) honored their father by changing the name of 43rd Street to Muddy Waters Drive.

He is the father of blues musicians Big Bill Morganfield and Larry "Mud Morganfield" Williams.

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 by the Mississippi Blues Commission designating the site of Muddy Waters' cabin to commemorate his importance.

Grammy Awards
1971 Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording They Call Me Muddy Waters folk MCA/Chess winner
1972 Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording The London Muddy Waters Session folk MCA/Chess winner
1975 Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album folk MCA/Chess winner
1977 Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording Hard Again folk Blue Sky winner
1978 Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording I'm Ready folk Blue Sky winner
1979 Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live folk Blue Sky winner

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame listed four songs of Muddy Waters of the 500 songs that shaped rock.
1950 Rollin' Stone
1954 Hoochie Coochie Man
1955 Mannish Boy
1957 Got My Mojo Working

The Blues Foundation Awards
1994 Reissue Album of the Year The Complete Plantation Recordings Winner
1995 Reissue Album of the Year One More Mile Winner
2000 Traditional Blues Album of the Year The Lost Tapes of Muddy Waters Winner
2002 Historical Blues Album of the Year Fathers and Sons Winner
2006 Historical Album of the Year Hoochie Coochie Man: Complete Chess Recordings, Volume 2, 1952-1958 Winner

1980 Blues Foundation Hall of Fame
1987 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
1992 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award

U.S. Postage Stamp
1994 29 cents Commemorative stamp U.S. Postal Service

In 2004 he was ranked #17 in Rolling Stone Magazine's list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply.