Imagine if you will. Hmm, sounds like the Twilight Zone. Seriously imagine if you will that you are a blues man working in the delta or maybe Memphis or even Chicago. It’s the 1940’s or maybe early 50’s. You have worked hard, like every blues man before you from Charley Patton to Robert Johnson to Big Bill Broonzy. You have played every dive juke joint on every back road imaginable. You have seen knife fights, even been in a couple. You have laid people low with broken bottles and you have the scars to prove it. Now you have left those smaller joints behind and are playing to bigger audiences. You have a good band, people like to dance to your music and they spend their money. You may or may not have had a couple of small recordings, regional things that made you less than a hundred dollars. Tonight you expect a big payday. It’s a big crowd and there has already been a band out to warm things up for you. You are just about ready to go on when the owner taps you on the shoulder and tells you the bad news. You have been bumped. You are mad and getting ready to pull a blade out when you see the band that is there now. You know the singer, his guitar is out and you get it. You just got you head cut. Cuttin’ heads it’s what you could do to make money when you had a name for yourself. It’s how blues men survived when times were hard. It was part of the business and everyone did it on some scale or another unless you were on the bottom of the heap.
Some while back I had two blog entries fairly close together where I explained who my top bluesmen were. I have three that seem to rotate at the very top so I call them 1a 1b and 1c. Previously I covered Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker. For a long time though my third guy held the position of number one, and sometimes as I do with the others I think that he might deserve to be at the top by himself. They are all that good. They have all had a turn. When I hear his voice, that incredible distinctive voice it’s difficult to think that anyone ever could be as good.
He was mostly raised by his grandmother after his mother died. His famous nickname or at least part of it came from her as she tagged him at a young age because he was always playing in the muddiest stream possible. So she nicknamed him Muddy and years later he added Waters because it seemed right.
He was born in either 1913 or 1915 in either Rolling Fork, Mississippi or Jug’s Corner, Mississippi. His given name was McKinley Morganfield. He learned to sing in his unique style from church and bought his first guitar for $2.50. His early influences were Son House and Robert Johnson. He developed a style that was more up tempo after moving to Chicago to look for a break. That break came when two brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess put everything they had in a record label and studio and so Chess records was born. Muddy Waters would record some of his biggest hits with them including Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Wanna Make Love to You, and I’m Ready. To most blues aficionados he is considered the Father of the Chicago Blues.
Waters saw a real resurgence to blues music and his in particular with the British Invasion. All they could do was rave on the American Blues they had all fallen in love with. For the first time this seemed to give blues music an audience that was wider but it also caused problems. It was confusing to be loved by a white audience but hated in their hometowns by many of the same people. In the 70s this continued in a twisted way with blues stars sometimes dependent on a white artist to recognize them and give them an audience. On the one hand it brought them a bigger piece of the financial pie but it cost them part of their soul. It happened to Muddy a lot and many times he found himself having to introduce white stars because they were just more important than the artists that created the music.
I discovered Muddy Waters early in my blues journey as you might expect. I have always found his delivery of his songs magnificent and stunning. Mannish Boy will hit you right in the gut with just its raw power. He died on my birthday in 1983from complications from the cancer he had been fighting. What a life though, from his early days opening for Big Bill Broonzy to cutting heads with his band before he made it big, to his work with Chess Muddy Waters became a legend his name only drawing instant recognition. So he is at the top of my personal blues list along with John Lee and his friend Howlin’ Wolf. I can’t think of a better 3 to be at the top of any list.
If you don’t know his music well then it’s a good time to check him out. He is well worth your time. Open some good bourbon and bring a long a friend and give it enough volume to make it special.