“Saturday night is your big night. Everybody used to fry up fish and have one hell of a time. Find me playing till sunrise for 50 cents and a sandwich. And be glad of it. And they really liked the low-down blues.”
His tale of a tough plantation upbringing is well known but it was heartening to know that even late in life he relished thinking about the early days of learning to play blues and performing for hardworking sharecroppers at Saturday night fish fries. Little did they know they were watching a man who would change the face of music and bring the Delta blues to Chicago.
That surging powerful voice and awesome slide guitar has lost none of its electrifying impact and his brilliance was captured in a performance of Mannish Boy in Martin Scorsese‘s concert film of The Band called The Last Waltz. Muddy Waters had nearly been left off the bill because of time and money constraints — and only one camera was left on while he played — but it’s a show-stopping performance.
His main impact was on young British musicians, especially the Rolling Stones. Although I noted that in Buddy Guy’s 2012 autobiography When I Left Home, the old bluesman pointed out: “When the Rolling Stones came to Chess Records in 1964, they started telling everyone — and even wrote it up in books — that they saw Muddy Waters standing on a ladder where he was whitewashing the walls. They said the Mud had whitewash all over his face. For years Keith Richards repeated this story.
In the blues circle on the South Side of Chicago, Waters was a god. But back then, people just referred to him as “The Mud”. Buddy Guy talks about the first time he met Muddy — after showing up Otis Rush at a blues club.
“The Mud wants you,” someone told Buddy, who misheard and thought someone wanted to mug him. Instead, The Mud offered Buddy a sandwich and asked him to be a part of the blues that they had invented.
AC/DC’s monster hit “You Shook Me All Night Long” came from the lyrics of Muddy’s “You Shook Me”, which was written by Willie Dixon. (Fun fact: Led Zeppelin also released a cover of “You Shook Me” as track three on their debut album.)
“Because we grew up in Australia,” said Young in an interview with Rolling Stone, “to find information about a lot of blues guys I used to go to the library and find the jazz magazines. They didn’t even sell them at the time in news agents and stuff. So I’d go into the library and read all about where these people were playing, like Muddy Waters and Elmore James.”
Let’s investigate now the top six albums of Muddy Waters:
6. At Newport 1960
At the 1960 Newport Folk Festival, Muddy Waters wasn’t yet a Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame inductee or Chicago Blues titan – he was simply a man with a band trying to impress a whole bunch of white people. This soulful yet blistering set did the trick, and then some – igniting interest in electric blues and sending Waters on his way to all those accolades.
“Put A Tiger In Your Tank” is a perfect example of the barely restrained ferocity that marks the whole set. The band featured Otis Spann on piano and James Cotton on harmonica, and they provide the underpinning for Waters’ smooth growl. Muddy made many exceptional albums throughout his career, but none surpass the locomotive chug of At Newport 1960.
5. Hard Again
The album conveys the feeling of reaffirmation throughout “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” one of his oldest tunes, is carried largely by Winter, spotlighted on acoustic slide. Though the pale bluesman is very virtuous with his instrument, he’s really sophisticated and stays away from excesses of raunch in favor of clean, well-thought out lyrics. Willie Smith‘s drumming is recorded up front, his cymbal socks sounding inscrutably bluesy.
Waters doesn’t play his Telecaster much, but with Winter and Bob Margolin (from Waters’ road band) in the wings, he takes an improbable slide solo on “Deep Down in Florida.” He rambles up to some high notes, hits a clinker and, unperturbed, resumes singing about Florida, where the sun shines “damn near every day.”
4. Folk Singer
Just a few years after practically inventing the blues band format, Waters cast it aside to cut an album of guitar duets with Buddy Guy- and I’m glad he did. Without the raucous band, he doesn’t have to yell to make himself heard, which leaves room for more emotional renderings (“You Gonna Need My Help”), and his acoustic guitar accompaniment (occasionally on slide) is pleasingly subtle.
Guy is just as restrained – often it sounds like there’s only one guitarist playing – and the austerity often suits the downbeat material (“Cold Weather Blues”). Three tracks also feature drums and bass, but they’re in the same low-key style, and more entertaining than anything by Big Bill Broonzy (“Good Morning School Girl”).
Most of the tunes are by Waters (“My Home Is In The Delta,” “Long Distance”), with Willie Dixon contributing “My Captain” and “Big Leg Woman” with the courtesy of John Temple. Nothing like the Chicago blues that made Waters a legend, and so morose I frankly don’t want to hear it that often, but it’s a blues master at his purest.
3. Fathers and sons
Actually, the performances are surprisingly conservative efforts — certainly not the sort of exciting or fruitful cross-generation, cross-stylistic music one might have been led to expect from the lineup; Waters and Spann (and perhaps drummer Sam Lay) representing the modern Chicago blues mainstream, Bloomfield, Butterfield and Duck Dunn signaling more recent extensions of modern electric blues styles.
No, the anticipated fusion doesn’t really take place, and the younger musicians seem content in undertaking roles that are wholly subservient to Muddy’s music. It gives an indication of just how highly the sons regard the father(s), and is a Fine tribute to Muddy.
Happily, Muddy performs an excellent voice throughout these performances and he comes across solidly and excitingly. This is in fact some of the best, most convincing singing from Muddy in a hell of a long time; these tracks show that when he’s at the top of his game he’s unbeatable. And he’s there most of the way through these performances. The music takes its lead from Muddy, and everything falls in place behind him.
2. Electric Mud
When Electric Mud was released, it was a huge success, selling 150,000 in the first six weeks. It was also the best selling Muddy Waters recorded ever, entering Billboard’s Top 200 Chart. It was a triumph of a record that updated his sound and put him elbow to elbow with the bands that had influenced him.
The record broke down restrictions of genres with its inventiveness and ability to re-arrange songs and have them come out as something radically different. Unfortunately, narrow-minded blues purists across the board denounced it as atrocious, offensive and a big “sell out.” There’s a direct similarity between this and what happened to Bob Dylan a few years earlier when he decided to go electric, making his folk-purist fans angry that he was “selling out” to rock and roll. Since Muddy is primarily a blues artist, overviews of his career would be written by a number of blues historians who would automatically dismiss this record for years to come.
1. Breakin’ It Up, Breakin’ It Down
The story goes something like this: In 1977 Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Johnny Winter and Pinetop Perkins did a small tour to support Muddy’s latest release,Hard Again and now, some 30 years later, that material has found its way from tape to the cd that’s been in my deck for a few weeks now. It is really by little more than luck alone we are getting this cd at all.
The boxes that held these tapes were for all purposes abandoned and set out to trash by the long defunct Blue Sky Records. Fortunately for us, they were discovered, preserved and now brought to disc. While one could believe that Muddy, Cotton, Winter and Perkins on the same stage might turn into a case of too many chiefs not enough Indians, the disc proves otherwise.
And while no one would ever suggest that this is a monumental performance by any of the major players, it is an awesome glimpse back to a time with four blues veterans on a single stage trading licks and jokes, all the while creating a magic that can only happen on a stage, in front of a crowd.
Thank you for reading the article. Our next article will be about Ray Charles. angry that he was “selling out” to rock and roll. Since Muddy is primarily