Muddy Waters: 1915–1983

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 398 from June 23, 1983. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story . Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

Hot Red and Green Chili peppers, okra, turnip greens, cabbage and tomatoes grow in immaculate, carefully nurtured rows all around the foundation of Muddy Waters' house in Westmont, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Muddy planted them himself, and when his crowded touring schedule permitted, he could often be found pruning and weeding his little garden, crouched on his hands and knees between his house and driveway, working the brown earth and enjoying the way it felt between his fingers. Some country people who move to the city can't wait to get away from the mud and dirt. But Muddy Waters, who transformed the Delta's back-country blues into electric blues, always liked feeling the earth, crumbly and moist against his skin.

The rich, alluvial soil of the Mississippi figured in McKinley Morganfield's earliest childhood memories. "When I got big enough to crawl around, I would play in the mud and try to eat it," he once told me. His nickname, "Muddy," bestowed by his grandmother, celebrated that early fondness for mud. Later, playmates added the "Waters." Even his earliest musical experiments came from the earth. "When I was around three years old," he recalled, "anything with a sound, I would try to play it. I'd take my stick and beat on the ground tryin' to get a new sound and be hummin' my little baby song along with it."

Muddy Waters was a man, a full-grown man, a hoochie-coochie man, but the blues he sang and played were as basic and real as the sound he made when he hummed and beat on the ground with his stick as a child. His original band, the first truly electric band, had deep Delta roots and two brilliant musicians in harp player Little Walter Jacobs and guitarist Jimmy Rogers. But they never played blues quite as elemental or as deep as the blues Muddy Waters made alone, with just his voice and the keening metal sound of his slide guitar. And his later bands never came close. By himself, Muddy had a sound that was the very essence of the blues, a sound nobody else could make, and he knew it. "When I play on the stage with my band," he said in the Seventies, "I have to get in there with my guitar and try to bring the sound down to me. But no sooner than I quit playing, it goes back to another different sound. My blues looks so simple, so easy to do, but it's not. They say my blues is the hardest blues in the world to play."

No one ever succeeded in reproducing the sound of Muddy Waters' blues, but some who started out trying found their own sounds in the process. The list begins with the best and the brightest of Chicago's modern bluesmen, Otis Rush, whose tortured treble-string solos and grainy, heavily freighted vocal timbre fleetingly recall Muddy's sound, and who smiles–something he does very sparingly — at the mention of Muddy's name.

The list includes other Chicagoans, too — men like Son Seals and Jimmy Johnson, who came up from Mississippi and Arkansas, following the river and the Illinois Central Railroad to Chicago because that was where Muddy Waters made the blue-label Chess records that had made them want to play blues in the first place.

Then there are Muddy's fair-skinned musical progeny. Most of them grew up across the ocean, and after they heard those first Muddy Waters singles, their lives were never the same. Brian Jones, a traditional-jazz player in provincial Cheltenham, England, picked up on Muddy's records and thereupon became determined to learn slide guitar. He thought enough of an early Chess single of Muddy's, "Rollin' Stone," to name his band after it — the band he formed with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards after he moved down to London. Later came Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," and this magazine.

The Stones never forgot their debt to Muddy Waters. Whenever one of their multimillion-dollar tours would hit Chicago, they'd go visit Muddy where he was gigging, usually in a neighborhood tavern, after their own coliseum show. When they last played Chicago, in 1981, Jagger, Richards, Ron Wood and pianist Ian Stewart sat in with Muddy and company at the Checker Board Lounge on Chicago's South Side. Mick, singing beside the master, outdid himself that night, and Keith and Ronnie played interlocking guitar parts that sliced like a knife.

Eric Clapton called Muddy Waters his father and arranged to take him along as a "special guest star" on his 1979 cross-country stadium tour, partly to expose him to a vast new audience but mostly, one suspects, to hang out and learn. Muddy thought a great deal of Clapton, too. He'd grin broadly, the crow's-feet at the corners of his eyes crinkling, and call Eric his son. Muddy's final public appearance was a walk-on last June 30th at a Clapton concert in Miami. He played "Blow Wind Blow," a blues he'd recorded in the early Fifties. The crowd knew it because Clapton often performed it, but Clapton wouldn't dare play it, let alone sing it, when Muddy was around.

Johnny Winter also made substantial payments on the debt he owed Muddy Waters by producing Muddy's commercially successful albums for Blue Sky in the late Seventies. Robbie Robertson invited Muddy to the Band's Last Waltz and made sure he had a plum spot in Martin Scorsese's film of the event. But then, Scorsese is a Muddy Waters fan, too.

Muddy Waters was a power in the world of rock, as the list of his disciples and devotees attests, but he was much more than that. He was a great American singer. Muddy's timing, his phrasing, his razorsharp intonation and command of the subtlest shadings of pitch, and his vocabulary of vocal effects–from the purest falsetto to the grittiest roar — put him in a class by himself.

The close-up shots of Muddy during his spellbinding performance of "Mannish Boy" in Scorsese's The Last Waltz show how hard he worked. He would open and contract his throat, wrinkle his jowls and then give them a good healthy shake, just out his jaw or pull it back in, knowing exactly what each precisely calibrated movement would do to the sound he produced. He was without peer when it came to communicating the minutest gradations of feeling — the difference, say, between being sad with no hope and being sad but determined to carry on. And then he'd turn around and put his heart and soul into a pure, uncomplicated shout of mannish pride, declaring himself a ma-a-an, a natural-born lover man, a rollin' stone.

Muddy Waters would be remembered as a vocal artist of astonishing depth and power if he had never touched a guitar. But with the neck of a whiskey bottle or, later, a length of metal tubing on his finger, he was able to make his guitar sing, too. A close listen to one of his dramatic slide-guitar solos — on the Chess hit "Honey Bee," for example — reveals an extraordinary precision and emotional richness. He gave each note a specific weight, bending or flattening it as the emotional import and melodic contour of the musical situation required.

For Muddy Waters, the blues were a specific art, an art of emotional and musical exactitude. Each of his songs, whether he wrote it, forged it from traditional elements or learned it from his friend and fellow blues tunesmith Willie Dixon, meant something. And he'd convey a song's particular meaning with all the subtleties at his command — shaping a note just so, insinuating the slightest delay into the way he turned a phrase, coloring this word with a lupine growl and that one with a graveyard moan.

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From The Archives Issue 398: June 23, 1983