McKinley Morganfield was born in 1913 in Issaquena County, Mississippi but later claimed he was born in 1915 in a tiny hamlet of Rolling Fork, Mississippi. When his mother died in 1918, he moved to Clarksdale and was raised by his grandmother. Muddy Waters came because he liked playing in mud. He left school early, and worked as a farm labourer where in his spare time he played mouth organ (harp). Aged 17 he got his first guitar and within a year had mastered the bottleneck style preferred by the Delta blues men. The neck of a broken bottle was used across the frets and made the acoustic guitar sound like a vocal with dips, slurs, and sliding notes. Muddy Waters was naturally influenced by Delta blues musicians like Charley Patton, Son House, Tommy Johnson and, especially Robert Johnson.
He sang in a tightly constricted, pain-filled manner that characterized the best Delta singers. At first he played at local rough-and-tumble gigs forever sharpening his vocal and instrumental abilities. In 1940 he moved to St. Louis before returning back to Mississippi then relocated to Chicago in 1943. By day he worked as a trucker and factory worker and by night he played in the clubs and juke joints. Gradually Muddy established himself as a popular club performer. In part this was due to a gift of an electric guitar from his uncle so he could be heard over noisy crowds. Big Bill Broonzy saw him perform and Muddy was engaged to open for him, especially in front of rowdy clubs. Waters recorded some tunes for Michael Jackson at Columbia in 1946 but they were never released. He later signed with Aristocrat, owned by Leonard Chess and Phil Chess and played guitar with Sunnyland Slim (piano) on the cuts Johnson machine gun and Fly right, little girl.
Although these were shelved, Muddy Waters’ Mississippi Delta styled "I Can't Be Satisfied" and "I Feel Like Going Home" became big hits in 1948.
Aristocrat changed their name to Chess and Waters’ signature tune, "Rollin' Stone", became a smash hit.
At first the Chess brothers did not allow Waters to use his own musicians (Jimmy Rogers and Blue Smitty) in the studio; instead Big Crawford provided backing bass but by 1950 Muddy Waters was recording with the best blues musicians around; Little Walter Jacobs (harmonica); Jimmy Rogers (guitar); Elgin Evans (drums); Otis Spann (piano); Big Crawford (bass); and Muddy Waters (vocals and slide guitar). The band recorded a string of blues classics during the early 1950s with the help of bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon. "Hoochie Coochie Man", these included "I Just Want to Make Love to You", and "I'm Ready".
Muddy Waters was the most popular blues artist in Chicago in the 1950s and abandoned his guitar to become a front man singer. In Chicago he shared the limelight with gravel-voiced, Howlin' Wolf, who was a worthy rival with a superb sounding band, including Hubert Sumlin (guitar). Both artists recorded the compositions of Willie Dixon which influenced many others to follow in their wake.
In 1953 Little Walter left when his single "Juke" became a hit and in 1955 Jimmy Rogers quit to form his own band. Muddy never quite recaptured the glory days again as he struggled with various studio musicians thereafter. The introduction of rock’n’roll saw a decline in the popularity of the blues and in 1958 Muddy Waters toured the UK with the backing of Chris Barber's trad jazz group. To his utter surprise he discovered new legions of fans all keen to hear electric blues played loudly. Despite this on his return to the US he went back to playing acoustic blues, but switched again in 1964 as blues gained greater popularity with white audiences. No longer considered a headliner Muddy faded from the limelight but in 1972 was asked to London to record The London Muddy Waters Sessions.
The four session men were Rory Gallagher, Steve Winwood, Rick Grech, and Mitch Mitchell, but Muddy remain unimpressed. The album went on to win a Grammy. In 1973 was injured in a car crash and forced into semi-retirement for two years. He left Chess in 1977 and signed with Blue Sky Records, a label operated by Johnny Winter. Muddy Waters’ Hard Again album was recorded in just two days and captured the original Chicago sound.
Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter partnership worked well and year later Muddy was back working with Walter Horton and Jimmy Rogers. The comeback continued with the critically acclaimed release of Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live.
He retired from the music business in 1980 and passed away quietly in his sleep aged 68 in 1983. He was survived by his son and musician Big Bill Morganfield.
Worth a listen:
Rollin' Stone (1950)
Rollin' and Tumblin' (1950)
Still A Fool (1951)
Honey Bee (1951)
Long Distance Call (1951)
I Just Want To Make Love To You (1954)
Hoochie Coochie Man (1954)
I'm Ready" (1954)
Mannish boy (1954)
Just To Be With You" (1956)
Got My Mojo Working (1956)
Rock Me (1956)
She's Nineteen Years Old (1979)