Eric Clapton: Showtime’s Exceptional Documentary, ‘Life In 12 Bars’

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One of the few joys of this brittle and brutal winter is that the Winter Olympics are taking place. I was never a huge fan of the Olympics, but the Rock Chick watches these things religiously. Naturally, when we got married she pulled me into watching them with her. Every time I leave the B&V lab and go downstairs she’s got the Games on… I’m beginning to think she’s got money on the Curling event… I told her, when in doubt always bet on Norway. With a nickname like ‘The Fighting Vikings’ you can’t possibly go wrong.

Unfortunately my wife’s Winter Olympics Obsession has prevented me from screening the Showtime Documentary on Eric Clapton, ‘Life In 12 Bars.’ Finally, after meeting my old friend Tomas out for a few drinks last night, with my wife asleep, I was able to pull up the rockumentary. I’ve always been a huge fan of Clapton’s music. However, I have to admit, his latter career has puzzled me a bit. I haven’t found anything I can really get into since Me And Mr. Johnson his tribute to Robert Johnson. And if I’m being honest, that one disappointed me when compared to his brilliant blues album, From The Cradle. I posited a theory about the latter stages of Clapton’s career before on B&V, Analysis: Clapton’s Late Career – Is He Making Amends?. I think my frustration with Clapton’s late career stems from reading his autobiography. He’s one of the few people who I’ve read an autobiography by and thought less of the person afterward. However, seeing this documentary has completely turned me around. I think this arresting look at Clapton does a lot to help give the man’s life more context than his writing did. Oh, Eric, I just can’t stay mad at you.

In the first hour of the documentary alone, he goes from illegitimate child (like Jack Nicholson, he thought his grandma was his mother and that his mom was his sister) to the Yardbirds, to John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers to Cream to hanging with Hendrix and recording with the Beatles on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” And again that’s just the first hour of this two hour-fifteen minute film. That’s a pretty wild ride. I’ve always felt that rock and roll sprang from the fertile roots of the blues and blossomed out in all sorts of different ways. Eric Clapton just may be the living embodiment of that theory.

He began his career as a blues purist and left the Yardbirds after he felt they’d turned “too commercial” or “too pop-sounding.” After joining, leaving and rejoining John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers he recorded one of the most influential blues albums of all time, Bluesbreakers With Eric Clapton only to leave and form Cream. Cream is where Clapton really broke into America. When he arrived in America, there’s a scene where they ask him what he’s listening to and he immediately shines a light on Jimi Hendrix and the Experience who hadn’t broken over here yet. Then he quickly added a list of black American bluesmen. Clapton and some of his other compatriots in the British Invasion brought black blues music back to America. It’s really cool to see Muddy Waters and B.B. King interviewed and hear them talk about how much those “English kids” did to help them. Thank God they did.

The documentary then follows Clapton through the brief career and collapse of Blind Faith, his band with Steve Winwood and Ginger Baker. Clapton retreated to his home in the English country-side where he was joined by keyboardist Bobby Whitlock. In the span of one year, 1970, these guys recorded Clapton’s solo debut (Eric Clapton), George Harrison’s landmark debut solo album All Things Must Pass and Derek and the Domino’s Layla…And Other Assorted Love Songs. That’s one hell of a year. I don’t think I’ve ever been that productive, that’s for sure. The build-up to the writing and recording of Clapton’s signature tune, “Layla” was a bit overwrought. I get it, it’s a great song, but there’s a lot more to Clapton than just that song. And I think everybody knows about his affair with Pattie Boyd, Harrison’s then wife. During those recording sessions in that momentous year of 1970 is when the heroin snuck in. Man, is that an insidious drug.

And this is where the documentary turns dark. They cover Clapton’s dissolution into heroin addiction and his retirement to seclusion. He was gone, out of sight for four years. When he finally kicked smack he emerged as an alcoholic. And when I say alcoholic, I mean the biggest asshole drunk I’ve ever seen. I described this documentary as unflinching mostly for the way it handles this portion of Clapton’s career. Clapton stood up on stage and made some horrid racist statements because he was drunk off his ass. Here’s a man who had carried the banner for black musicians in the 60s, spouting racist bullshit from the stage in the 70s. It just goes to show you how lost he really was.

It’s an important part of the story, his addiction and alcoholism, but they really blow past his solo music. He recorded some really great music in the 70s and 80s, 461 Ocean Boulevard and Slowhand just to name a few but the documentary just focuses on the alcoholism and the personal problems he faced. I guess I never realized how bad things got. Again, it’s important in understanding Clapton the artist to go through all this harrowing stuff but I felt the music of his solo career got short shrift. This is no happy tale. The man, like Gregg Allman, lived the blues. Naturally the last part of the documentary focuses on the tragic loss of his son, Conor. It finally ends on a lighter note when it highlights Clapton’s rehab clinic in Antigua. B.B. King gives a nice toast to Eric at the Crossroads Music Festival that is worth the price of admission.

I think everyone who is interested in music, the blues and Clapton will find this vital viewing. There are a lot of interviews, photos and film footage that I’ve never seen. I might also say, after watching the documentary, I was reminded of spending a whole afternoon back in my single days, just listening to Clapton’s monumental box set, Crossroads, which I think is the perfect sound track to listen to after you’ve seen the movie. Or, if you’re OCD like me, you’ll end up listening to the Yardbirds, Mayall, and now I’m in the middle of Cream headed to Blind Faith and on my way to Derek and the Dominos… I’ve got a lot of music to listen to between lady’s downhill races…

P.S. – At the beginning of the documentary Clapton appears to be on Skype. He gives a heartfelt speech about the passing of the legend B.B. King. In the midst of that he recommends a record by B.B., Live At The Regal. Clapton, in this case, is spot on – it’s one of the greatest live albums and one of the greatest blues albums of all time. It’s wonderful to listen to B.B. and his audience and the amazing rapport they had. It’s essential B&V listening.

Enjoy!

 

 

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Elton’s Retirement From Touring Takes Me Back to His KC Starlight Theater Show July 6, 1982

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I heard recently that like Paul Simon, who has decided to call it quits on touring, Elton John has announced he’s retiring from the road. While this is sad news for all rock and roll fans in general and Elton fans more specifically, the news could be worse. Poor Neil Diamond just announced he was retiring from the road due to Parkinson’s. I hated to hear that. A friend of mine saw Diamond in Wichita once… he said the blue hairs went crazy after Neil stood up and said, “If you want to, you can sing along, but if you’ve got any guts you’ll stand up and dance…” My buddy says it’s as close as he’s going to get in his lifetime to seeing Elvis. I was also told by a backstage hand once that during soundcheck, Neil chain smokes and cusses like a sailor…Oh, to be a fly on the wall. You gotta love Neil Diamond, but I digress.

Again, while the news that Elton is retiring from the road is sad, in light of some of the huge losses the rock and roll world has seen over the last few years – Petty, Prince, Chris Cornell, Lemmy, Glenn Frey, Bowie (to name but a few) – at least Elton is going out on his own terms and not feet first. Elton is a rock and roll survivor, managing to get through drug addiction and alcoholism to find joy, contentment, marriage and fatherhood waiting at the other end. Good for him! I certainly hope he continues recording because I’ve loved his late career LPs, from Songs From the West Coast all the way through Wonderful Crazy Night. It’s nice that he’s going to take this “victory lap.” The man is simply put, an Icon. The tour is supposed to last three years…And here I thought I struggled to say goodbye. The Rock Chick says it always takes me about a half an hour to leave a party… gotta get one more hug/handshake/joke told…

For those of you who only know Elton from The Lion King (and I feel sorry for you), let’s step back a bit… It’s hard to overstate how huge Elton was in the early 70s. From 1970 to 1976 he was the king of not only the rock charts but the pop charts as well. He was even big in the Soviet Union, which in the Cold War was no minor feat. Not only was his music popular, the albums he produced during that period are some of rock’s greatest: Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, 11-17-70 (Live), Madman Across the Water, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic and The Brown Dirt Cowboy. That’s a pretty staggering discography. Elton was to the first half of the 70s what Michael Jackson was to the 80s, The Beatles to the 60s, Elvis to the 50s or dare I say, what Sinatra was to the 40s. And like Sinatra or Elvis, you only need one name to identify Elton… although now I guess it’s Sir Elton.

He and his songwriting partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin rank up there with Lennon/McCartney and Jagger/Richards as far as I’m concerned. His backing band during most of his “golden” period were also a pretty top-notch outfit: the intrepid, often overlooked but fabulous Davey Johnstone on guitar, Nigel Olsson on drums and Dee Murray on bass. These guys could play great, hard rocking tunes like “Funeral For a Friend/Loves Lies Bleeding,” “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” or one of my favorites, “Elderberry Wine” or turn it down for any of Elton’s intricate, beautiful ballads. In the early 70s they really were untouchable. But, like happens to all artists, both physical and artistic energy begins to wane. It’s hard to sustain white-hot, fiery success like that forever.

By the end of the 70s Elton had started writing songs with other people. I don’t believe he and Taupin were estranged, but Elton decided new lyricists might give him a spark. The almost constant touring and partying probably weren’t helping, but we don’t judge here at B&V, especially Rock Stars. Surprisingly, by the latter half of the 70s Elton had also slowly separated from his backing band… first Olsson and Murray and later with Davey Johnstone. Along with all this change to the creative unit, Elton’s fortunes on the charts began to slow down. The chart topping juggernaut finally came to an end. I have heard some theorize that the cooling in his commercial success was a backlash to Elton’s admitting he was bisexual in a magazine article. 1976’s Blue Moves, his second double-album in 3 years only produced one hit song, “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.” The album’s melancholy tone seemed to signify that something had ended…

While the backlash was probably real, it’s hard to understate how much music changed in the latter half of the 70s. Punk rock blossomed in 1976-1977 and that changed everything. Elton wasn’t the only artist who was knocked back on their heels by the new attitude and energy of punk. Facing that, while dismantling his backing band and forging new songwriting partnerships was probably difficult and would have been for anybody. Luckily, by the time 1982 rolled around, Elton was slowly (literally) getting the band back together. He’d already pulled Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray back into his band. He had never fully stopped writing songs with Taupin. The final piece was put in place with the return of guitarist Davey Johnstone. In April of 82, with the support of his “classic” line-up, Elton released Jump Up! The album’s hit single was a beautiful Taupin lyric honoring the late John Lennon, entitled “Empty Garden.” I’ve always thought of that record as a minor come back for Elton… but I think I may be the only one who feels that way. The real comeback came with 83’s Too Low For Zero. 

Coincidentally by April of 1982, I had become an adult and could legally buy beer, which seemed like a huge deal at the time…”walk like a man…” By May of that year I had graduated from high school. I was getting ready to head off to a new life at the University that upcoming August. I spent that summer working in a local restaurant as a busboy, utterly filthy work, for minimum wage but I was happier than I’d ever been. I also spent the summer going out every night to drink beer with my friends or as was more likely the case, hanging out with my girlfriend… Ah, 1982. I was in love for the first time. And when I say, “in love,” I mean it in all the tragic, dramatic, painful intensity that youth brings. “Ah to be young and feel love’s keen sting…” One might say I had the tunnel vision of any narcissistic, in-love teenager who was drinking a lot of beer. So I was utterly surprised when my mother appeared in my bedroom to announce we were attending the Elton John concert at Starlight Theater. I had heard my brother, who was always light years ahead of me on music, listening to Elton’s first volume of Greatest Hits seemingly constantly through the shared wall of our bedrooms, but I didn’t remember him asking for these tickets for his birthday. At the time, I was focused on more temporal things…

And, here’s the thing that bugs me to this day. I didn’t want to go. I tried to get out of it. I wanted to go and park in some dark corner of the neighborhood with my girlfriend. I was listening to a lot of Van Halen at the time. I was a Stones and Zeppelin guy. I didn’t think I really knew a lot of Elton’s music, save for what I was hearing coming out of my brother’s room. I mean, everybody knew the hits, they were hard to avoid. To make matters worse, I’d be attending with not only my brother but with my parents. When you’re a teenager the prospect of spending a beautiful summer night with your parents is as appealing as a dental appointment. The show we were attending was the first of two dates at the Starlight Theater. The second show, July 7th was going to be broadcast on a radio station and blasted across America (what I’d give for a bootleg of that show!) so we weren’t even going to be a part of the broadcast. We attended the July 6th show. Last but not least, the Starlight Theater was a gentile, beautiful outdoor theater in Swope Park. Starlight had only recently started allowing rock concerts to be held there – while I’ve seen Bowie, Rush and Soundgarden at Starlight since then, that would have been unthinkable until my senior year in high school. Starlight was more known as a musical theater destination. My Fair Lady, anyone? I remember thinking, well it’s Elton, no wonder he’s playing Starlight, he’s mellow…. or so I thought.

I remember standing in the hot July night, trying to look like I wasn’t really there with my parents, sitting on the other side of my brother wistfully missing my girlfriend… we’d seen each other earlier that day, I have no idea what was wrong with me. Mere hours apart were enough to turn me into Rimbaud. I had to admit, begrudgingly to myself, that we had really good seats – in the center and just far enough back I could see over everybody. I quietly noted to myself to ask dad where he scored the great seats. I was still lukewarm on the whole thing when the opening act came out. I have vague memories of that part of the show, but I remembered it was a female lead singer. I finally Googled it and it was Quarterflash, a one-hit wonder whose song “Harden My Heart” was big at the time. The only thing I truly remember about Quarterflash’s set was that Elton himself came and stood on the side of the stage and watched the show. I went from cynical teenager to utter fanboy at just the sight of Elton. He was dressed exactly like he is in the picture I used for this post. He had the black cowboy hat and a sport coat on. His mere presence changed my attitude.

Still, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The lights dimmed and the electronic keyboard/synthesizer opening to “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” started and in a fog of smoke, out comes Elton. The band launched into the song with a ferocity I had not anticipated. I was familiar with the song from the local rock station, KY/102 but hearing it live was like trying to pilot a 747. Every other thought in my mind – my girlfriend, my impending departure to college, even thoughts of ice cold beer – all melted away. I was mesmerized. What followed was simply one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. I have thought back and I wonder if it was the low expectations I carried in that made me respond to that show, but I don’t think it was. They were on fire that night. At the end of “Funeral,” Elton picked up his piano bench over his head and threw it to the back of the stage where it crumbled into pieces. I don’t know why, but my father thought that was hysterical. Every time Elton did it, and he did it a lot, my father doubled over. Me, I just thought it was cool.

The mix of hits and deep tracks was amazing. I hadn’t realized how much of his music I knew. He played songs everybody knew, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Empty Garden” (which was the new one), “The Bitch Is Back,” and “Pinball Wizard.” He also played deeper tracks, which, somehow, most of which I knew. “All the Girls Love Alice,” “Where To St Peter” and best of all “Teacher I Need You,” a song he announced by saying, “Most of these songs I pick for you, this song, I play for me…” Even the handful of songs he played that I hadn’t been familiar with, “Ticking,” “Elton’s Song” or “Chloe” were executed with such brilliance, I walked out of there loving them. The band must have been on stage for over 2 hours.

If my misty, gimlet-eyed memory serves me, they ended the main set with a crushing version of “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.” They returned to the stage and mellowed things out with “Daniel,” before revving it back up with “Crocodile Rock.” Now, I’ll admit “Crocodile Rock” has never been a favorite of mine, but that night, after all this band had put into the performance, I was up on my feet and dancing like everybody else. The last song they played, and I still remember this, was Jerry Lee Lewis/Beatles medley consisting of “Whole Lotta Shakin Going On/I Saw Her Standing There/Twist And Shout.” I walked out of Starlight wordlessly with my parents and brother, all of my self-consciousness about being with my family washed away. I had just witness rock and roll Royalty put on an amazing show. While Elton’s banter in between songs seemed a tad stilted and slightly shy, his playing had been that of a crazed, confident rocker.

I learned a lot of valuable lessons that night. First and foremost, Elton John kicks ass. There is nothing mellow about the guy. I also learned, always buy the ticket and see the show. It’s important to open yourself up to all things music. And, last but not least, try not be to so whipped… Well, ok it took me a few more months and a brutal break up to learn that last one… “Sorry Seems To Be the Hardest Word” actually played on the radio during my break up, so that seemed fitting. I’m sad to hear that Elton is retiring from the road. He’s truly one of the greatest rock’n’roll showmen of all time. It’s my hope I can talk the Rock Chick into going to the KC show. I’ve gotta see him one more time. After seeing him in 1982, I kept my ear tuned to what he was doing… do yourself a favor and check out any of the albums he’s put out since 2001, especially Songs From the West Coast and The Diving Board, you’ll thank me later…

Congratulations Sir Elton John on your impending concert retirement. I certainly appreciate the time I spent with you in 1982.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Muddy Waters: 1977 – 1981, The Late Career, Johnny Winters’ Produced Records

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“Well the blues had a baby and they named the baby ‘Rock and Roll'” – Muddy Waters, “The Blues Had a Baby”

I was a fan of the blues before I even knew what the blues were. I can still remember in the movie The Jerk, when Steve Martin’s character, Navin Johnson, is asked by his brother if he’d like to come out on the porch and sing the blues… Martin deadpans, “No, there’s just something about that music that depresses me.” That was my only impression of the blues. I grew up in the suburbs of a small, midwestern, American town and the blues were not something you heard on the radio. My parents weren’t exactly musical people and that didn’t help. So I really didn’t know anything about the blues except this vague impression that it was “downer” music. The only blues song I’d probably ever heard at that point was the amazing B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone,” and that’s a pretty sad song. I used to like to put that on mix tapes when I broke up with someone, but those records are sealed.

However, without even knowing it, I was already a fan of the blues. Every band I liked played blues-based music or as it was known, “blues rock.” My first love, the Rolling Stones, were basically a blues cover band for the first five years of their career and still play the blues today (LP Review: The Rolling Stones, The Superb “Blue And Lonesome” – They Come Full Circle). Led Zeppelin’s music was steeped in the blues so much they were sued for copyright infringement. Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Faces, Foghat, AC/DC, Humble Pie, the list goes on and on, were all either blues rock or at the very least performing blues covers. People think of the young Bob Dylan as a folkie, but I hear as much Robert Johnson in his early music as Woody Guthrie… I had no idea “I Just Wanna Make Love To You” was a blues cover… I thought it was just a Foghat song. Oh, the ignorance of youth… It wasn’t until I purchased, and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, the Blues Brother’s live album, Briefcase Full of Blues that I realized the blues were more than just sad, acoustic based songs. The blues were powerful and joyful and simply amazing all at the same time. God bless John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. A lot of criticism was leveled at the Blues Brothers, but that was an amazing band – Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn and an amazing horn section… Sure Belushi was no Sam Cooke on vocals, but he was committed. I love it when he says, “I suggest you buy all the blues albums you can,” in between songs. Sage advice, indeed.

It’s easy I suppose, especially when you’re young, to hear a band and not realize they were influenced heavily by other artists, the artists that came before them. It’s easy to hear Van Morrison’s band Them doing their version of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” (perhaps the definitive rock version of that song) and not realize how heavily influenced he was by Muddy Waters’ version. As a young kid I heard Cream’s version of “Rollin’ and Tumbling'” and thought it was their song. After hearing the Blues Brothers I began to explore the roots of all this rock and roll music I was listening to, and started reading liner notes and writing credits, and realized there was a world of blues artists I hadn’t realized existed. Searching and seeking out the blues was really the root of my life long obsession with musical spelunking.

There were names that my Rock Star heroes were dropping in interviews, the names of their heroes. There were the Three Kings – B.B., Freddie, and Albert. Albert Collins was another guy I heard a lot about. Then I discovered the legend of Robert Johnson, which is a whole other blog post. All of these men were Titans of the Blues. But there were others – names that conjured awe and fear all at the same time… Who was this Howlin Wolf person? That’s a pretty scary moniker… and then I heard that otherworldly voice. But the one name that always caught my ear, that made me feel we were talking about someone special, was Muddy… Muddy Waters. That name conjures up the very Delta where the blues sprang from. It was as if this Muddy Waters was the personification of the blues. His name was spoken of in such reverential tones you just knew he was important. I assumed, wrongly, that this was a person who had lived and sang the blues and died decades before I was born, like Robert Johnson. I didn’t even realize that Muddy was still alive when I was in high school while all of this musical spelunking was going on. Muddy didn’t pass until 1983. I didn’t even know it was Muddy’s version of “Mannish Boy” that was used so effectively in the movie Risky Business. “All I’m saying is, walk like a man…”

McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters was born in the Missisippi Delta. By the time he was in his teens he was playing guitar, harmonica and singing with the authority of a man much older. He was actually recorded by Alan Lomax on his famous recordings for the Library of Congress. Eventually, like the music of the blues itself, Muddy migrated north to Chicago. Muddy was one of the bedrock foundations of what was known as “Chicago Blues.” He played mostly acoustic blues on record, but in the clubs at night he had a full-on electric band. With Muddy and the legendary Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Otis Spann on piano and Little Walter on harmonica (or as it’s known in blues, the harp) Muddy’s band was probably the greatest blues outfit ever assembled. Muddy was the King of Chicago blues from the late 40’s through the mid-50s. I can close my eyes and see Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield hanging out in southside Chicago clubs hoping to get up and jam with Muddy…

While his fortunes may have waned by the dawn of the 60s, Muddy had toured England and in doing so turned-on a generation of white, English blues musicians from Steve Winwood and Van Morrison to Mick Jagger and Alexis Koerner to his brand of blues. His seminal live album, 1960s At Newport spurred on a whole new wave of popularity and boosted Muddy’s career. That was the first album of Muddy’s I ever heard and man… that voice gave me chills. He’s probably my favorite blues singer. The deep resonance of that voice rumbling around that broad chest… Simply amazing. Muddy’s career continued in a series of ebbs and flows well into the 70s. It was in the latter half of the 70s that a huge fan and follower of Muddy’s, blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winters, approached Muddy to produce an album for him…Muddy’s career had ebbed a bit at that point… he’d just signed a new contract with Blue Sky Records… I don’t think anybody saw anything coming as forceful and joyful as Hard Again. 

BourbonAndVinyl has always attempted to shed light on the latter careers of great artists like Bob Dylan or David Bowie. New music by older artists has always been my focus. When Johnny Winters entered the picture for Muddy Waters, and produced three studio albums (and one live album, but I’m only focusing on the studio stuff here), Muddy entered a golden, twilight period in his career. It was certainly one of my favorite periods in Muddy’s career. I could write and write and write about Muddy’s whole, long and storied history, but in the B&V tradition, I’m just focusing today on the Blue Sky Records, Johnny Winters period. If you’re a fan of anybody from Hendrix, who just released a cover of “Mannish Boy” (Jimi Hendrix: “Mannish Boy,” From The Upcoming, ‘Both Sides of the Sky’) to Greta Van Fleet, the music of Muddy Waters is the root of that music. I urge everyone to seek out the three Johnny Winters’ produced albums of Muddy’s post haste…

Hard Again, 1977

The first thing you hear belting out of the speakers on this record is Muddy’s voice as he begins “Mannish Boy.” “Oooooh, yeah, everything, everything gonna be alright this morning…” It’s one of the iconic moments in the blues. This music is loud, brash and so, well, joyful. You can tell everybody involved is having a great time, when you hear the band shout back at Muddy in the call and response of the song. Muddy and Johnny are on guitar along with Bob Margolin. Legends Pine Top Perkins is on piano and James Cotton on the harp (alas Little Walter had passed years prior). Willie “Big Eyes” Smith is pounding the skins and Charles Calmege is on bass. This is big, old-school Chicago blues. There is not a bad moment here. Muddy revisits some of his older, iconic tracks here, like “Mannish Boy,” and also “I Can’t Be Satisfied” (A rare acoustic blues moment here) and “I Want To Be Loved.” They also do some new stuff, the epic “Bus Driver” and “Deep Down In Florida.” This is simply one of the greatest blues albums of all time. It sounds like these guys cut the whole thing live in the studio. Heralded as a “comeback” it proved Muddy still had the power and glory.

I’m Ready, 1978

By happenstance, Muddy was reunited on this album by a member of his classic, late 40s/early 50s band, Jimmy Rogers on guitar. Hard Again gets all the attention, but I almost like I’m Ready better. The way Muddy and Jimmy weave together their guitars, much like Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood do, is mesmerizing. Margolin jumped over to bass. You throw in Johnny Winters on guitar and it’s a pretty amazing trio of axes. The title track opens things up and it’s a great version of a Muddy classic. Muddy not only wrote his own stuff, but he sang a bunch of Willie Dixon’s songs with the great “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” included here in a rousing version. “33 Years” is another stand out blues track. That good time, happy vibe continued over from the first album. These guys had found blues gold and they kept it rolling on this second album of the trio. Another must have blues album from Muddy.

King Bee, 1981

After a live album (which is definitely worth checking out), the team reconvened in the studio for the third and alas the final installment of this trio of superb records. By this time, Muddy’s health had begin to fail and he was forced more often than not to cancel his live performances. His great touring band made most their money from concerts… if a show was canceled, they didn’t get paid. This caused a schism between Muddy and his manager and the rest of the band. The big party sound of the first two albums is gone and Muddy sounds like he’s settled into a sadder, bluesier mood here. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just a farewell vibe. They only managed to bang out part of the album and had to augment it with outtakes from the Hard Again sessions. It’s too bad that money always seems to get in the way. I still think this record is essential listening. The title track is still great and I love this version of “Champagne and Reefer,” later covered by Buddy Guy and the Stones, live. Muddy’s favorite drink was champagne, why not sing about it, I mean, there are worse pastimes. On the extended version, the last track, “Clouds In My Heart” was the perfect capper on what was an amazing three record run.

For me, these three albums are a great place to start your Muddy Waters collection. For his early work, a nice place to start is the excellent Muddy Waters: The Anthology which collects over 50 of Muddy’s earliest recordings from 1945 to 1953. You can start at the beginning with Anthology or start at the end with the Johnny Winters’ produced albums, but I urge all of you to start somewhere on adding Muddy Waters to your collection.

Listen to these records and you know, deep down, “that everything, everything, everything gonna be alright this morning…”