Waters, Muddy (1915-1983)

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Waters, Muddy (1915-1983)

Muddy Waters' affirmation, in the title of his composition "The Blues Had a Baby and They Called It Rock and Roll," is somewhat autobiographical, striking both at home and abroad. For rock 'n' roll, Waters was a mentor whose musical style was widely emulated, directly linking the blues to rock 'n' roll; he was the musical father of post-war Chicago blues.

Born McKinley Morganfield, the vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter played a major role in the evolution of rock 'n' roll, influencing scores of rock and blues musicians such as Mick Jagger, the Beatles, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Bob Dylan, James Cotton, and Johnny Winter. His 1950 composition, "Rolling Stone," inspired the name for Jagger's rock group. In 1949, Waters transformed the "down-home" country Mississippi Delta style to an urbanized raw and uncompromising Chicago style blues. His band attracted some of the finest Chicago musicians, many of whom later formed their own bands. Waters' impact on the conventional blues aesthetic, Chicago blues, and rock 'n' roll music is unparalleled.

The basis for Waters' Chicago style was centered in the Mississippi Delta. He was born on April 4, 1915 in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. His father was a farmer and part-time musician. When his mother died, Waters moved to Clarksdale to live with his grandmother. His early musical experiences consisted of singing in the church choir and playing blues in juke joints and at suppers, picnics, and parties. When Waters was nine, his father taught him to play the harmonica and the guitar—he otherwise was largely self-taught. He earned the world-famous nickname Muddy Waters by often performing "in the dirt" in and around the Delta.

Black patrons' taste for the blues in the juke joints in the Mississippi Delta changed when they moved to Chicago. Likewise, when Waters decided to move to Chicago in 1943, he made changes in his music to appeal to this changing musical taste. The music became louder, with amplified instruments, more forceful rhythms, and the accompaniment now enhanced by five musicians. Before starting his own band, Waters was a sideman with John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson at the Plantation Club.

It was as a sideman for Sunnyland Slim that Waters got his first commercial recording break. Alan Lomax had initially recorded Waters in 1941 for the Library of Congress's archives on the Stovall plantation in Mississippi. In 1948, at the end of a recording session in the Aristocrat (later Chess) recording studio, some free time was allotted to Waters and he recorded his first single, "Gypsy Woman." The record was successful enough to provide an opportunity for another recording session. Subsequent recordings of "(I Feel Like) Going Home," "Rollin' Stone," "I Can't Be Satisfied," and "Mannish Boy" established the archetype for the post-war Chicago blues style.

While various musicians worked for him over the years, Waters in 1953 assembled one of the best-ever Chicago blues bands consisting of harmonica player Little Walter Jacobs, pianist Otis Spann, guitarist Jimmy Rodgers, and drummer Elgin Evans. With various personnel, Waters' band toured the South, the rest of the United States, and eventually Europe. Willie Dixon, a celebrated singer, bassist, and composer in his own right, wrote a number of songs specifically for Waters that were successful, including "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "Same Thing." By 1958, Waters had scored 14 hits in the top ten rhythm and blues charts. In the same year, he toured with Otis Spann in the United Kingdom; reviews were mixed because the British audience's perception of the blues was misguided, having been accustomed to the acoustic performances of artists such as Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee.

Waters' vocal approach drew from the congregational song style of the black church. He often moaned (hummed) the ends of phrases. He also made extensive use of a recitative style, bending and sliding upward on syllables with shouts, vocal punches, and occasional use of the upper falsetto register. His guitar style made extensive use of the slide or bottleneck technique, the use of repetitive guitar phrases in response to his vocal line in typical call and response fashion, and an uncompromising rough musical texture.

As soul music gained favor among blacks in the 1960s, there was a decreasing interest in the blues. Waters' popularity among black patrons consequently began to wane. Fortunately, the blues revival was taking place in the United States and United Kingdom, and musicians were emulating American blues. As groups began to acknowledge Waters' influence, renewed attention to his music occurred. This, along with his performance and recording at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, and Johnny Winter serving as producer for several successful collaborations with Waters in the 1970s, fueled a rediscovery of his music by a largely white audience. Waters was at the center of a revival of interest in the blues and the genre's influence on rock.

Waters continued to hit his artistic stride, gaining financial success. His band won the Downbeat Critics Poll for rhythm and blues group in 1968, and a Grammy for Best Ethnic/Traditional recording—They Call Me Muddy Waters —in 1971. In an interview, Waters defined the music he played as follows: "I think it's about tellin' a beautiful story … something about the hard times you've had." Waters died quietly in his sleep at his home in the Chicago suburb of Westmont on April 30, 1983.

—Willie Collins

Further Reading:

Rooney, James. Bossmen: Bill Monroe & Muddy Waters. New York, Dial Press, 1971.