Born McKinley Morganfield, April 4, 1915, Rolling Fork, MS; died April 30, 1983, Chicago, IL.
Born in the area of rural Mississippi that spawned the first and greatest recorded bluesmen--Charley Patton, Son House and Robert Johnson--Muddy Waters electrified the sounds of rural blues and brought them to Chicago. At his peak in the 1950s, he was the undisputed King of the Blues, a moniker he went so far as to have printed on his calling cards. His name eventually became synonymous with the Chicago blues, and by the time of his death he was the most famous and beloved bluesman in the world.
Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield on April 4, 1915 in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, deep within cotton country. Sometime as a boy he was given the nickname Muddy Waters, for reasons no longer known. His sharecropper father, Ollie, played guitar but Muddy never had the chance to learn anything from him. After his mother's early death, he was sent away to be raised by his grandmother in Clarksdale. Muddy worked the farm as a boy, but music was his real interest. "I always thought of myself as a musician," he said. "If I wasn't a good musician then, I felt that sooner or later I would be a good musician. I felt it in me."
Muddy's first instrument was the harmonica, which he took up when he was around 13. He played country suppers for tips and food with a guitarist friend. Guitars were all around him in the Mississippi Delta country, however, and while still a teenager Muddy saw greats Charley Patton and Son House perform. House was an especially strong influence on Muddy's playing. He showed the youngster the rudiments of playing slide guitar with a bottleneck and impressed young Muddy with his powerful, emotional singing. Muddy began playing guitar when he was 17.
He learned quickly and was soon playing local events. In the early 1940s, he joined a group that included the singer Big Joe Williams that played around town. Muddy Waters' encounter with destiny took place in summer 1941 when Alan Lomax and John Work, two folklorists from the Library of Congress came to Clarksdale. The two men were looking for the legendary blues guitarist, Robert Johnson. Johnson, however, was dead, murdered years before. Instead, on Son House's recommendation, they found Muddy Waters at Stovall's plantation. Muddy recorded two songs for the Library of Congress, "I Be's Troubled" and "Country Blues."
The songs impressed Lomax and Work enough that they returned to Stovall's two years later and recorded Muddy again. His ambition and perhaps his confidence spurred by his two recording experiences, Muddy got his first job as a professional musician, playing harmonica in the Silas Green Carnival for a short time. Clarksdale couldn't satisfy the Muddy's needs though, and in May 1943 he packed his bags and took the train north to Chicago.
Times were good in Chicago and Muddy quickly found work and an apartment. Big Bill Broonzy, who had been part of the Chicago music scene for years, introduced him around. With Jimmy Rodgers, a guitarist and harp player, he began playing house parties around the South Side. "Little Walter, Jimmy Rodgers and myself," Muddy later recalled, "we would go around looking for bands that were playing. We called ourselves The Headhunters, 'cause we'd go in and if we got a chance we were gonna burn 'em."
Muddy's New Sound
It was three years before Muddy was finally able to record in Chicago. But the results of the sessions were just warmed over versions of the urban jump blues that were already a decade old and the record companies, 20th Century and Columbia, did not release any as records. Muddy got another chance when pianist Sunnyland Slim, with whom he had been performing around Chicago, was offered a session with Leonard Chess' Aristocrat Records. According to legend, Muddy was delivering venetian blinds when he heard that Slim wanted him to play the session. Muddy is said to have told his boss that he needed the rest of the day off--his cousin had been found dead in an alley. Slim and Muddy recorded two numbers each.
The music wouldn't have gone anywhere, except for the presence of a black music scout who arranged for another session, which resulted in a record for Muddy, "I Can't Be Satisfied" and "I Feel Like Going Home." The songs were nothing like the smooth blues that had been popular in Chicago. Backed only by Muddy's electric bottleneck guitar and Big Crawford's bass, they were raw, the delta blues transplanted to the city. Leonard Chess didn't like it. "I can't understand what he's singing," he complained to his partner. She insisted that the music had some indefinable something and pushed for its release.
The single, "Aristocrat 1305," came out on a Saturday in April 1948. It was a smash hit. By 2 o'clock in the afternoon the first pressing had sold out completely. Muddy Waters went down to a record store on Chicago's Maxwell Street, he found his record being sold for $1.10 instead of the list price 79¢. To make matters worse, the record was so popular the store would only sell customers one copy, despite Muddy's protestation "But I'm the man who made it!"
The unexpected success of the record forced Len Chess to reconsider his opinion of Muddy's music. Muddy was playing Chicago clubs regularly with Jimmy Rodgers and Baby Face Leroy. Chess did not want to give up a good thing. When new sessions were arranged, they were with Muddy and Big Crawford again. They produced a string of classics nonetheless, including "You're Gonna Miss Me," "Little Geneva," and "Rollin' Stone." When Muddy recorded with groups it was on the records others were making. He played on Baby Face Leroy's popular "Rollin' And Tumblin'" for example. When Leonard Chess found out he was incensed--he had hoped to keep Muddy's trademark slide sound restricted to Aristocrat Records. He responded by having Muddy record his own version of the song.
Got Mojo Workin'
In 1950 Aristocrat Records became Chess Records, and Little Walter, perhaps the greatest blues harp player in history, joined the Muddy Waters band. Mike Rowe, in his history of the Chicago blues, Chicago Breakdown, wrote "The Muddy Waters records of 1950 and 1951 represent the purest and most successful strain of the new country blues." The songs they made include "Louisiana Blues," "Early Morning Blues," "Sad Letter Blues," and "Long Distance Call." Muddy's sound continued to evolve, however. He and Rodgers refined the interaction of their two guitars, Junior Wells replaced Little Walter on harp, Otis Spann came in to play piano.
By the middle 1950s, he had all but abandoned the spare instrumentation of his earlier hits and replaced it with the rollicking sound of the songs that would come to be most closely associated with Muddy: "Hootchie Cootchie Man," "Mannish Boy," and "I Got My Mojo Workin'." The first record sold 4000 copies in its first week in stores and stayed at the top of the charts for most of summer 1954.
The middle 1950s represented Muddy Waters' peak as a recording artist. The musicians he recorded with during that period are a roster of the greats of the Chicago blues: harp players Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, and James Cotton, guitarists Buddy Guy and Matt Murphy, pianists Otis Spann and Pinetop Perkins, drummer Fred Below and bass player Willie Dixon. Dixon was responsible for composing many of the songs Muddy recorded in the latter half of the fifties.
New Audiences, New Sidemen
With the rise of rock and roll, Muddy's music--and blues music in general--entered a period of decline that would last until the end of his life. He continued to perform and make records during the 1960s. His performance at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival was electrifying and showed off his music to a whole new audience of young, white fans. He would continue to direct his music at this new audience and his 1960s albums, like The London Sessions which saw him team up with British rock musicians, like Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, and Fathers and Sons , with Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, reflected his new focus.
Muddy's career experienced a kind of renaissance in the 1970, when blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter became his manager. Recording and touring with Winter, Muddy cut four albums that recaptured some of the old excitement, in particular a live effort, Muddy "Mississippi" Waters, mostly on the Columbia label. When Muddy Waters died suddenly of a heart attack in Chicago on April 30, 1983 an era in the blues came to an end forever. Muddy was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980 and into the Rock Hall of Fame in 1987
by Gerald Brennan
Muddy Waters's Career
Performed with Big Joe Williams, Buddy Bradey, Louis Ford, Son Sims and Percy Thomas in Clarksdale, Mississippi in early 1940s; recorded for Library of Congress, 1941 and 1943; played first Chicago club gigs with Jimmy Rodgers 1943-44; first record, "I Can't Be Satisfied," released April 1948; appeared at Newport Folk Festival 1960.
Muddy Waters's Awards
Inducted to Blues Foundation Hall of Fame, 1980; inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1987.
- Selected discography
- Muddy Waters at Newport , MCA/Chess, 1960
- The Real Folk Blues , MCA/Chess, 1965
- More Real Folk Blues , MCA/Chess, 1967
- Hard Again , Blue Sky, 1977
- Muddy "Mississippi" Waters , Blue Sky, 1979
- The Chess Box , MCA/Chess, 1990
- Erlewene, Michael, Vladímir Bogdana, Chris Woodstra, and Cub Koda. All Music Guide to the Blues , San Francisco: Freeman Books, 1996
- Herzhaft, Gérard. Encyclopedia of the Blues , 2nd edition, Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1997
- Rowe, Mike. Chicago Breakdown , New York: Da Capo, 1979