“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…”