Muddy Waters was the patriarch of the post-World War II Chicago blues. He was a master artist who played slashing slide guitar with an earthy raspy voice who had seen his share of sorrow in life. Muddy was also a compelling songwriter; a storyteller in song. He was a master performer, recording artist and bandleader. His had a way of juicing up the music with a rocking backbeat and an unfiltered down-home intensity; he possessed an honesty and emotional clarity. He was able to use the blues to speak about human suffering, joy and truth and became one of the best blues artists and white people loved him. He began the revolution and electrified the Delta blues, disseminated the sound and therefore became known as the Chicago blues. Muddy was one of the most important musicians of the century, he reshaped the sound of the blues and set it on a new path. He set the stage for the music’s next development, rock & roll. His influence reined on some of the greatest blues and rock & role artists of our time both American and British. Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Robert Cray and the Rolling Stones are just a few. The Rolling Stones named their band after one of Muddy’s songs, Rolling Stone.
Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, Mississippi in 1915. His father used to sing to him constantly as a baby until his mother died when he was three. At that time his father shipped him off to live with his grandmother on a plantation with whom he lived until 1943. His grandmother was a big influence taking him to church where he learned to love gospel music and sang in the choir. Living in poverty and working the cotton fields, the gospel blues was a way of dealing with being poor. He played by the river in the dirty water where his grandmother called him “Muddy”. The local kids would make fun of his name and added “Waters” and that is where Muddy Waters was born. Always making music as a child banging on kerosene cans and various objects and singing. He learned to sing the blues from the fields; from after hour socials and get-togethers in Clarksdale, MI which was a hot bed of blues development. He would earn 50 cents a day singing on the streets as a child. He received his first instrument for Christmas, the harmonica at the age of 7. By the age of 13 he was serious about playing the harmonica. He also made a guitar out of a box and wooden stick during adolescence in hopes to play someday. In 1932, at the age of 17 he bought his first Stella guitar from Sears and Roebuck for $2.60 and taught himself how to play Leroy Carr’s How Long Blues from a record.
A Delta Bluesman, Son House and Robert Johnson mentored him and Muddy learned to appreciate blues sounds, began to fabricate songs and sang country blues. Both men were masters of the region’s characteristic “bottleneck” style of guitar accompaniment. Original bottleneck was a pocketknife or glass bottleneck usually on the 4th or 5th finger held against the strings in a gliding manner while playing the guitar. Muddy used his pinkie and with this type of technique, it helped Muddy utilize the guitar as an extension of his voice. The slide guitar can reproduce the in between the exact scale tones sung by blues vocalists and capture the intonation and emotion of a singer. He had mastered this style and learned to sing in a tightly pain-filled manner within 1 year. He sang at local gatherings such as “juke-joints, picnics and parties and sharpened his distinct style and talent. It was then that he met Alan Lomax, a folklorist who was collecting songs for the Library of Congress in 1941. Mr. Lomax was looking for Robert Johnson at the time and found out that he had died 3 years earlier and Muddy substituted and recorded his first two songs.
By 1943 Muddy Waters began to tire of the country blues scene, moved to Chicago and played backup acoustic guitar for John Lee Williamson, “Sonny Boy”. He did not develop his reputation as a performer until he started playing the electric guitar in 1943. He continued to play traditional Delta bottleneck style until he met Leonard Chess of Aristocrat, who eventually became Chess Records, and recorded his blues style songs with a shivering exciting edge. He had a friend at the steelmill make a piece of stainless steel tubing to replace his glass bottleneck and when added to the rhythmic strumming added unexpected texture. There was a bond between his voice and his guitar with long sustained notes with sudden atonic flurries that became Muddy’s legacy. That first recording with Chess sold out of stock in one day. “Chess sound” and “Chicago blues” became interchangeable because of Muddy’s music. By 1950 he had established his own band and blues history was made. This classic period lasted from 1951-1960 in Chicago. To reach new white fans Muddy toured England and transformed the Newport Folk Festival into a blues bash in 1960. These new fans sought out the electric blues and began his influence and relationships with young British talent.
In the 1970’s Muddy Waters was touring all over the world constantly and won his first Grammy award in 1971 and continued to gain seven more throughout his career. President Jimmy Carter invited Muddy to perform at the White House in 1978. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and made his last public appearance with Eric Clapton in 1982. He continued to gain awards long after his death for his lifetime accomplishments in music up to the year 2000. The Mayor of Chicago renamed 43rd street “Muddy Waters Drive” and the city of Clarksdale Mississippi declared a “Muddy Waters” Appreciation day. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp bearing his face and name. Songs like “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, Got My Mojo Working” and “Two Trains Running” became staples of the repertoires of white R & B bands in the UK and then in the US.