Muddy Waters: The Chess Box

When he died in 1983 at the age of sixty-eight, McKinley Morganfield was possibly the best-known bluesman in the world. Yet the notoriety of the onetime Mississippi plantation hand known as Muddy Waters is due largely to his overwhelming influence on a pivotal generation of rockers — Sixties wild boys like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Winter — who covered his tunes, hot-wired his sound and assumed, to varying degrees, his inimitable style of barnyard machismo.

Meanwhile, Waters's own landmark recordings for the Chess label, the greatest single oeuvre in modern blues, languished on haphazard compilations and pricey imports until MCA initiated its current Chess reissue series. Muddy Waters: The Chess Box, a feast (six LPs, three cassettes or three CDs) of stone classics, vintage rarities and edifying curiosities, is the first comprehensive domestic Waters collection ever. That it's finally here is a gas. That no one bothered to do the job during Waters's lifetime ... well, that's why they call it the blues.

Hard-core blues nuts with deep pockets may grouse that The Chess Box is merely lip service compared with Muddy Waters (The Chess Box), the eleven-LP monster issued by P-Vine in Japan a few years back. But the seventy-two astutely chosen performances are more than ample testimony to the breadth of Waters's art. They vividly document not only the revolutionary qualities of Waters's electric blues inventions but the evolutionary odyssey of the blues itself as the music traveled upriver from Robert Johnson's Delta crossroads to Chicago, where émigrés like Waters married the desperate energies of the urban struggle to the timeless sound of black experience.

To that combustible equation Waters added force of personality: a potent compound of leonine pride, feral sexuality and sly wit graphically captured in the immortal 1954 hit "Hoochie Coochie Man," written by resident Chess tunesmith Willie Dixon and rendered by Waters with stunning autobiographical gusto. Waters first made blues history with his early-Forties recordings for the Library of Congress, so his consummate brand of blues power was already at an advanced stage when he cut his initial drummerless, small-group sides for Leonard and Phil Chess. Indeed, the first third of The Chess Box, covering 1947 to early 1954 and featuring early vinyl triumphs like "I Can't Be Satisfied," "Rollin' and Tumblin', Part I" and "Long Distance Call," is worth the cost of the entire set.

Particularly illuminating is the juxtaposition of Waters's own "Rolling Stone" (a major inspiration for a certain English band and a Bob Dylan hit — not to mention this magazine) with his dynamic reading of Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues." Both songs, first issued together as a 1950 single, bear the vital imprint of Waters's Delta roots. But Waters also displays a striking streetwise ferocity in his vocal delivery, heightened by the serrated shiver of his distorted electric slide guitar. The result is a compelling portent of the pioneering transformation of blues expression that would soon come with the sonic assault of Waters and his working band on the ragged but righteous "Standing Around Crying" (1952) and the superb single "Blow Wind Blow" (1953).

The extraordinary power of Waters's music, as it reached full maturity in the mid- and late Fifties, accrued from a remarkable collision of songwriting moxie, powerful contributions from Waters's accompanists and the production savvy of the Chess brothers — in particular Leonard, the hands-on studio half of the team. And although Waters wrote his share of classic tunes during that period ("Got My Mojo Working," "Trouble No More" and "Mannish Boy," his fearsome retooling of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man"), he also benefited from the genius of Willie Dixon, who captured in words and music Waters's mesmeric braggadocio and frisky virility.

Waters, in turn, didn't just sing Dixon diamonds like "I'm Ready," "I Just Want to Make Love to You" and "Don't Go No Farther." He inhabited them, delivering lines like "You need grits/Go to the grocer's/You need fish/Go to the sea/You need love/Look for me baby" with an immediacy that most of his white spiritual descendants never mustered. Steamrolling sidemen like pianist Otis Spann, harpmen Little Walter and James Cotton, guitarist Jimmy Rogers and drummer Francis Clay ensured that Waters's declarations of love were not mistaken for idle boasts.

Alas, just as Waters's music was setting off a blues revolution overseas, his commercial fortunes dipped at home. When the Rolling Stones first met Waters at the Chess studios in 1964, he wasn't cutting tracks; Leonard Chess had put him to work painting the ceiling. Yet the Sixties and early-Seventies tracks on The Chess Box, many of them rare or previously unissued, confirm Waters's enduring strengths despite ill-considered attempts to dress him up for the times, like 1966's dreary Muddy, Brass and the Blues. Dig the lean, mean remix of "Black Night" from that LP, minus the dull overdubbed horns. Other new-found delights include two smokin' alternate takes from the '69 Fathers and Sons sessions with Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield and live versions of "Country Boy" and "Going Down Slow," from 1968 and '71 respectively, which show Waters entering his twilight years with undiminished fire.

That fire crackles loud and clear all through this set. Reissue producer Andy McKaie (together with associate producer Mary Katherine Aldin) applied the same diligence and care to Waters's Chess Box that went into the earlier volumes devoted to Chuck Berry and Willie Dixon, and Robert Palmer's essay in the accompanying booklet is required reading. But although it deserves both, this music really transcends packaging and scholarship. Muddy Waters: The Chess Box is simply mojo magnifico.