Muddy Waters was the man who moved the blues north from the Delta and made it electric. The leading exponent of Chicago blues in the 1950s, Waters came up with guitar licks and a repertoire of classic songs that have fueled innumerable rock acts, from the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton to the Allman Brothers Band and Led Zeppelin.
Born McKinley Morganfield on April 4, 1913, in Issaquena County, Mississippi, he was the son of a farmer. Following his mother's death in 1918, he was raised by his grandmother. He picked up his nickname because he fished and played regularly in a muddy creek. He learned to play harmonica, and as a teen led a band that frequently played Mississippi Delta clubs. His singing was influenced by the style of local bluesman Son House. At 17, Waters began playing guitar by studying Robert Johnson records. In 1940 he traveled to St. Louis and in 1941 joined the Silas Green tent show as a singer and harmonica player. At some time in 1940 or 1941, folk archivists/researchers Alan Lomax and John Work recorded Waters in Mississippi for the Library of Congress.
In 1943 Waters moved to Chicago, where he found employment in a paper mill. The following year, he got an electric guitar and began performing at South Side clubs and rent parties. He cut several songs in 1946 for Columbia's Okeh subsidiary (those songs weren't released until 1981, when they appeared on a Columbia blues reissue Okeh Chicago Blues.) In 1946 bluesman Sunnyland Slim helped Waters get signed to Aristocrat Records, where he cut several unsuccessful singles. He continued playing clubs every night and driving a truck six days a week.
In 1948 the Chess brothers changed Aristocrat to Chess Recprds. Waters' first single on the new label was "Rollin' Stone," a major blues hit. "I Can't Be Satisfied" and "I Feel Like Going Home" from that year secured his position as a major blues performer. Most of Waters' early recordings featured him on electric guitar, Big Crawford or writer/producer Willie Dixon on bass, and occasionally Little Walter on harmonica. By 1951 he was supported by a complete band with Otis Spann on piano, Little Walter on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers on second guitar, and Elgin Evans on drums.
The songs Waters recorded that have become blues classics (and recorded by numerous rock groups) include "Honey Bee" in 1951; "She Moves Me" (Number 10 R&B) in 1952; "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man" (Number Eight R&B), "I Just Wanna Make Love to You" (Number Four R&B), "I'm Ready" (Number Five R&B), and "Got My Mojo Working" in 1954; and "Mannish Boy" (Number Nine R&B) in 1955. During the Fifties, many of Chicago's top bluesmen passed through Waters' band, including Walter Horton, Junior Wells, Jimmy Rogers, James Cotton, and Buddy Guy. In addition, Waters was helpful in the early stages of both Howlin' Wolf's and Chuck Berry's careers.
During his peak years as a record seller, most of Waters' sales were confined primarily to the Mississippi Delta, the New Orleans area, and Chicago. But his reputation and music were internationally known, as the attendance at concerts on his 1958 English tour revealed. The Rolling Stones named themselves after his song "Rollin' Stone."
After the mid-Fifties Waters never had another Top 10 R&B single, but his albums began to reach rock listeners. Into the Sixties, Waters appeared at concerts and festivals nationally, such as the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, where Muddy Waters at Newport was cut. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, he recorded several albums either with rock musicians or in a rock direction, the best of which were The London Sessions and Fathers and Sons, the latter with many of the players he had influenced, including Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield. In 1971 Waters won the first of several Grammys for They Call Me Muddy Waters.
In the early Seventies Waters left Chess and sued Chess's publishing arm for back royalties. He signed with Steve Paul's Blue Sky records in 1976, the year he appeared at the Band's farewell concert captured by filmmaker Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz.
Using members of his Fifties bands and producer/guitarist Johnny Winter, Waters made three of his best-selling albums, Hard Again, I'm Ready, and King Bee. Winter and Waters frequently performed together in the Seventies and Eighties. He last performed publicly at a June 1982 Eric Clapton show. Waters died of a heart attack on April 30 of the following year. In 1987 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Five years later he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.