Muddy Waters Biography

McKinley Morganfield, 4 April 1913, Rolling Fork, Mississippi, USA, d. 30 April 1983, Chicago, Illinois, USA. One of the dominant figures of post-war blues, Muddy Waters was raised in the rural Mississippi town of Clarksdale, in whose juke-joints he came into contact with the legendary Son House and Robert Nighthawk. Having already mastered the rudiments of the harmonica and guitar, Waters began performing and this early country blues period was later documented by Alan Lomax. Touring the south making field recordings for the Library Of Congress, this renowned archivist and his colleague John Work tracked down, interviewed and recorded Waters on a portable disc recorder on a number of occasions between August 1941 and 1942. Initially Muddy hid from them thinking they were policeman arresting him for making illegal liquor’. The first momentous recording was ‘Burr Clover Blues’, although this track was only used as a recording guide. The following year Waters moved to Chicago where he befriended ‘Big’ Bill Broonzy, whose influence and help proved vital to the younger performer.

Waters soon began using amplified, electric instruments and by 1948 had signed a recording contract with the newly founded Aristocrat label, the name of which was later changed to Chess Records. Waters’ second release, ‘I Feel Like Goin’ Home’/‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’, was a minor R&B hit and its understated accompaniment from bass player Big Crawford set a pattern for several further singles, including ‘Rollin’ And Tumblin’’, ‘Rollin’ Stone’ and ‘Walkin’ Blues’. By 1951 the guitarist was using a full backing band and among the magnificent musicians who passed through its ranks were Otis Spann (piano), Jimmy Rogers (guitar), Little Walter, Walter ‘Shakey’ Horton and James Cotton (all harmonica). This pool of talent ensured that the Muddy Waters Band was Chicago’s most influential unit and a score of seminal recordings, including ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘I’ve Got My Mojo Working’, ‘Mannish Boy’, ‘You Need Love’ and ‘I’m Ready’, established the leader’s abrasive guitar style and impassioned singing. Waters’ international stature was secured in 1958 when he toured Britain at the behest of jazz trombonist Chris Barber. Although criticized in some quarters for his use of amplification, Waters’ effect on a new generation of white enthusiasts was incalculable. Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner abandoned skiffle in his wake and their subsequent combo, Blues Incorporated, was the catalyst for the Rolling Stones, the Graham Bond Organisation, Long John Baldry and indeed British R&B itself.

Paradoxically, while such groups enjoyed commercial success, Waters struggled against indifference. Deemed ‘old-fashioned’ in the wake of soul music, he was obliged to update his sound and repertoire, resulting in such misjudged releases as Electric Mud, which featured a reading of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’, the ultimate artistic volte-face. Keith Richards has recalled the time when he visited Chess Records and discovered Waters in the hallway in white overalls painting the ceilings of the office. Although Richard’s observation has been challenged, there was a period when Waters greatness was not fully recognised.

The artist did complete a more sympathetic project in Fathers And Sons on which he was joined by Paul Butterfield and featured some excellent guitar from Mike Bloomfield, but his work during the 60s was overall generally disappointing. The London Sessions kept Waters in the public eye, as did his appearance at the Band’s The Last Waltz concert, but it was an inspired series of collaborations with guitarist Johnny Winter that signalled a dramatic rebirth. This pupil produced and arranged four excellent albums that recaptured the fire and purpose of Waters’ early releases and bestowed a sense of dignity to this musical giant’s legacy.

Waters had a majestic stage presence and possessed an amazing natural singing voice that became instantly recognisable. He died of heart failure in 1983, his status as one of the world’s most influential musical figures is unquestionably secured. Robert Gordon’s 2002 biography is highly recommended. Without Waters there would be no Rolling Stones, no Rolling Stone magazine, and no ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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