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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Muddy Waters (1913-1983)

For many years a birth year of 1915 was reported for Muddy Waters (b. McKinley Morganfield, April 4, 1913, Issaquena County, MS - April 30, 1983); recent research uncovered documentation showing that, in the 1930's and 1940's, 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 documentation of him shaving off a couple of years and giving 1915 as his year of birth, which he continued to use in interviews from that point onward.

His grandmother Della Grant raised him after his mother died in 1918, and a fondness for playing in mud earned him his nickname at an early age.

Waters started out on harmonica, but, by 17, 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 joint, 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 20 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, 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.

Waters's uncle gave him his first electric guitar in 1945, which enabled him to be heard above the noisy crowds.

In 1946, Waters 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.

Two years later, 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' signature tune, Rollin' Stone, became a hit. Muddy Waters also sings the lyric "I'm a rolling stone" in the song Mannish Boy.

[Willie Dixon - Hoochie Coochie Man]

Initially, the Chess brothers would not allow Waters to use his own musicians (Jimmy Rogers and Claude "Blue Smitty" Smith) in the studio; instead he was only provided with a backing bass by Ernest "Big" Crawford. However, by 1952 Waters was recording with arguably the best blues group ever: Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica; Jimmy Rogers on guitar; Elga Edmonds (a/k/a 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 1950's, including the following written by bassist/composer 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."

His influence has been great, over a variety of popular music styles: blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, folk, jazz, and country. Waters also helped Chuck Berry get his first record contract.

His 1958 tour of England marked possibly the first time amplified, urban blues was heard there, although on his first tour he was the only one amplified.

The Rolling Stones named themselves after Waters's 1950 Rollin' Stone, (also known as Catfish Blues, which Jimi Hendrix covered as well). Cream recorded his song Rollin' and Tumblin' on their 1966 debut album Fresh Cream, as Eric Clapton was a big fan. The song was also adapted by Bob Dylan in the album Modern Times.

In 1983 Waters died in his sleep a few weeks after his 70th birthday. His funeral was attended by throngs of blues musicians and fans.

[8913 Britten / 8913 Muddy Waters / 8912 Nancarrow]

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