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Muddy Waters was the single most important artist to emerge in post-war American blues. A peerless singer, agiftedsongwriter, an able guitarist, and leader of one of the strongest bands in the genre (which became a proving ground foranumber of musicians who would become legends in their own right), Waters absorbed the influences of rural blues fromtheDeep South and moved them uptown, injecting his music with a fierce, electric energy and helping pioneer the ChicagoBluesstyle that would come to dominate the music through the 1950s, ‘60s, and '70s. The depth of Waters' influence on rockaswell ...read more
Muddy Waters was the single most important artist to emerge in post-war American blues. A peerless singer, agiftedsongwriter, an able guitarist, and leader of one of the strongest bands in the genre (which became a proving ground foranumber of musicians who would become legends in their own right), Waters absorbed the influences of rural blues fromtheDeep South and moved them uptown, injecting his music with a fierce, electric energy and helping pioneer the ChicagoBluesstyle that would come to dominate the music through the 1950s, ‘60s, and '70s. The depth of Waters' influence on rockaswell as blues is almost incalculable, and remarkably, he made some of his strongest and most vital recordings in the lastfiveyears of his life.Waters was born McKinley Morganfield, and historians argue about some details of his early life; while heoften told reportershe was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi on April 4, 1915, researchers have uncovered census records andpersonal documentsthat would pin the year of his birth at 1913 or 1914, and others have cited the place of his birth as Jug'sCorner, a town inMississippi's Issaquena County. What is certain is that Morganfield's mother died when he just three yearsold, and from thenon he was raised on the Stovall Plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi by his grandmother, Della Grant. Grantis said to havegiven young Morganfield the nickname "Muddy" because he liked to play in the mud as a boy, and the namestuck, with"Water" and "Waters" being tacked on a few years later. The rural South was a hotbed for the blues in the '20sand ‘30s, andyoung Muddy became entranced with the music when he discovered a neighbor had a phonograph and recordsby the likes ofBlind Lemon Jefferson, Lonnie Johnson, and Tampa Red.
As Muddy became more deeply immersed in the blues, he took up the harmonica; he was performing locally at parties andfishfries by the age of 13, sometimes with guitarist Scott Bohanner, who lived and worked in Stovall. In his early teens,Muddywas introduced to the sound of contemporary Delta blues artists, such as Son House, Robert Johnson, and CharleyPatton;their music inspired Waters to switch instruments, and he bought a guitar when he was 17, learning to play in thebottleneckstyle. Within a few years, he was performing on his own and with a local string band, the Son Simms Four; he alsoopened ajuke joint on the Stovall grounds, where fellow sharecroppers could listen to music, enjoy a drink or a snack, andgamble.Waters became a fixture in Mississippi, performing with the likes of Big Joe Williams and Robert Nighthawk, and in thelatesummer of 1941, musical archivists Alan Lomax and John Work III arrived in Mississippi with a portable recording rig, eagertodocument local blues talent for the Library of Congress (it's said they were hoping to locate Robert Johnson, only to learnhehad died three years earlier). Lomax and Work were strongly impressed with Waters, and recorded several sides ofhimperforming in his juke joint; two of the songs were released as a 78, and when Waters received two copies of the singleand$20 from Lomax, it encouraged him to seriously consider a professional career. In July 1943, Lomax returned to recordmorematerial with Waters; these early sessions with Lomax were collected on the album Down On Stovall's Plantation in 1966,anda 1994 reissue of the material, The Complete Plantation Recordings, won a Grammy award.In 1943, Waters decided to pullup stakes and relocate to Chicago, Illinois in hopes of making a living off his music. (He movedto St. Louis for a spell in 1940,but didn't care for it.) Waters drove a truck and worked at a paper plant by day, and at nightstruggled to make a name forhimself, playing house parties and any bar that would have him. Big Bill Broonzy reached out toWaters and helped him landbetter gigs; Muddy had recently switched to electric guitar to be better heard in noisy clubs,which added a new power to hiscutting slide work. By 1946, Waters had come to the attention of Okeh Records, who tookhim into the studio to record butchose not to release the results. A session that same year for 20th Century Recordsresulted in just one tune being issued asthe B-side of a James "Sweet Lucy" Carter release, but Waters fared better withAristocrat Records, a Chicago-based labelfounded by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. The Chess Brothers began recordingWaters in 1947, and while a few early sideswith Sunnyland Slim failed to make an impression, his second single for Aristocratas a headliner, "I Can't Be Satisfied" b/w "(IFeel Like) Goin' Home," became a significant hit and launched Waters as a star onthe Chicago blues scene.Initially, the ChessBrothers recorded Waters with trusted local musicians (including Earnest "Big" Crawford and Alex Atkins),but for his live work,Waters had recruited a band which included Little Walter on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, andBaby Face Leroy Fosteron drums (later replaced by Elgin Evans), and in person, Waters and his group earned their reputationas the most powerfulblues band in town, with Waters' passionate vocals and guitar matched by the force of his combo. Bythe early '50s, theChess Brothers (who had changed the name of their label from Aristocrat to Chess Records in 1950) beganusing Waters'stage band in the studio, and Little Walter in particular became a favorite with blues fans and a superb foil forWaters. OtisSpann joined Waters' group on piano in 1953, and he would become the anchor for the band well into the '60s,after LittleWalter and Jimmy Rogers had left to pursue solo careers. In the '50s, Waters released some of the most powerfulandinfluential music in the history of electric blues, scoring hits with numbers like "Rollin' and Tumblin,'" "I'm Ready," "I'mYourHoochie Coochie Man," "Mannish Boy," "Trouble No More," "Got My Mojo Working," and "I Just Want to Make Love toYou"which made him a frequent presence on the R&B charts.
By the end of the '50s, while Waters was still making fine music, his career was going into a slump. The rise of rock & rollhadtaken the spotlight away from more traditional blues acts in favor of younger and rowdier acts (ironically, Watershadheadlined some of Alan Freed's early "Moondog" package shows), and Waters' first tour of England in 1958 waspoorlyreceived by many U.K. blues fans, who were expecting an acoustic set and were startled by the ferocity of Waters'electricguitar. Waters began playing more acoustic music informed by his Mississippi Delta heritage in the years that followed,evenissuing an album titled Muddy Waters: Folk Singer in 1964. However, the jolly irony was that British blues fans wouldsoonrekindle interest in Waters and electric Chicago blues; as the rise of the British Invasion made the world aware of theU.K.rock scene, the nascent British blues scene soon followed, and a number of Waters' U.K. acolytes became internationalstars,such as Eric Clapton, John Mayall, Alexis Korner, and a modestly successful London act who named themselves afterMuddy's1950 hit "Rollin' Stone." While Waters was still leading a fine band that delivered live (and included the likes of PinetopPerkinson piano and James Cotton on harmonica), Chess Records was moving more toward the rock, soul, and R&Bmarketplace, andseemed eager to market him to white rock fans, a notion that reached its nadir in 1968 with Electric Mud, inwhich Waterswas paired up with a psychedelic rock band (featuring guitarists Pete Cosey and Phil Upchurch) for rambling andaimless jamson Waters' blues classics. 1969's Fathers and Sons was a more inspired variation on this theme, with Watersplaying alongsidereverential white blues rockers such as Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield; 1971's The London MuddyWaters Sessions wasless impressive, featuring fine guitar work from Rory Gallagher but uninspired contributions from SteveWinwood, Rick Grech,and Georgie Fame.
Curiously, while Chess Records helped Waters make some of the finest blues records of the '50s and ‘60s, it was thelabel'sdemise that led to his creative rebirth. In 1969, the Chess Brothers sold the label to General Recorded Tape, and thelabelwent through a long, slow commercial decline, finally folding in 1975. (Waters would become one of several Chess artistswhosued the label for unpaid royalties in its later years.) Johnny Winter, a longtime Waters fan, heard the blues legendwaswithout a record deal, and was instrumental in getting Waters signed to Blue Sky Records, a CBS-distributed label thathadbecome his recording home. Winter produced the sessions for Waters' first Blue Sky release, and sat in with a bandcomprisedof members of Waters' road band (including Bob Margolin and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith) along with James Cotton onharp andPinetop Perkins on piano. 1977's Hard Again was a triumph, sounding as raw and forceful as Waters' classic Chesssides, witha couple extra decades of experience informing his performances, and it was rightly hailed as one of the finestalbums Watersever made while sparking new interest in his music. (It also earned him a Grammy award for Best Traditional orEthnic FolkRecording.) Waters also dazzled music fans when he appeared at the Band's celebrated farewell concert onThanksgiving1976 at the invitation of Levon Helm, who had helped produce one of his last Chess releases, The Muddy WatersWoodstockAlbum. Muddy delivered a stunning performance of "Mannish Boy" that became one of the highlights of MartinScorsese's 1978concert film The Last Waltz. Between Hard Again and The Last Waltz, Waters enjoyed a major career boost,and he foundhimself touring again for large and enthusiastic crowds, sharing stages with the likes of Eric Clapton and theRolling Stones,and cutting two more well-received albums with Winter as producer, 1978's I'm Ready and 1981's King Bee, aswell as a solid1979 concert set, Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live. Waters' health began to fail him in 1982, and his final liveappearancecame in the fall of that year, when he sang a few songs at an Eric Clapton show in Florida. Waters died quietly ofheartfailure at his home in Westmont, Illinois on April 30, 1983. Since then, both Chicago and Westmont have named streetsinMuddy's honor, he's appeared on a postage stamp, a marker commemorates the site of his childhood home in Clarksdale,andhe appeared as a character in the 2008 film Cadillac Records, played by Jeffrey Wright. « hide
Similar Bands: B.B. King, Otis Rush, Johnny Winter, Jimmy Reed, Howlin Wolf
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