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Muddy Waters: The Delta Son Never Sets

The original 'Rollin' Stone' on a life with the blues

Muddy Waters
Peter Sherman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
October 5, 1978

Muddy Waters, the master bluesman, is now sixty-three. He lives out in the suburbs, almost an hour's drive from downtown Chicago and the decaying South Side where he lived for the past three decades. His white, two-story frame house sits on a quiet corner, shaded by pine trees, with nothing to let a visitor know who owns it except the small, circumspect initials MW on the front door. Inside, it's comfortable: deep carpeting in the living room, modern furniture, a big, all-electric kitchen with grandchildren and neighbors' kids constantly running through it. A few dogs, brought from the South Side where they were protectors, sleep lazily by the toolshed. It's not a pop star's house by any stretch of the imagination, but it's the kind of house very, very few of Chicago's approximately 1.5 million black people will ever own.

Muddy, who is beginning to show his age but remains a wholly commanding presence with his high cheekbones, half-lidded Oriental eyes and undiminished aura of mannish self-confidence – ''I'm a full-growed man,'' he sings, ''a natural-born lover man,'' and you believe him – takes a visitor through the house matter-of-factly, with just a hint of pride. In the small anteroom to the den he points out framed portraits of former sidemen Little Walter and James Cotton, and in the little garden patches around the house and by the concrete driveway, he indicates his cabbage, his greens, his red and green chili peppers and his okra. He doesn't brag about his successes, one suspects, because he knows he deserves them. But he certainly couldn't have imagined it all when he first got off the Illinois Central train in Chicago, back in May 1943. Except for a brief and not very satisfactory sortie to St. Louis and a few quick visits to Memphis, he had not traveled beyond the countryside and small towns of the Mississippi Delta, and he was twenty-eight years old.

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Sunnyland Slim, the pianist and singer who got Muddy his first record date with Leonard and Phil Chess in 1947, is working in the heart of the South Side, 61st and Calumet under the El stop. To find Slim, you walk into Morgen's Liquors' front door, down the bar in the middle, into the boisterous music room in the rear. Slim is sitting at a battered, red Wurlitzer electric piano, rapping out tone clusters in the treble and walking the basses with all the authority of his sixty-odd years playing blues, while Louis Myers, the leader of the band and once the guitarist in Little Walter's celebrated Aces, sings blues standards.

''I don't like to play in these kind of places no more,'' Slim says during a break, sipping from a glass of booze and pushing his weathered face up close so he can be heard over the buzz of conversation and the B.B. King record on the jukebox. ''I'll be seventy-six soon. I've just been out to California, Europe. . . . I'm just down here helping Louis out.'' He knows the subject of the conversation is supposed to be Muddy, and like Muddy, he is a proud man. ''You want to know what made Muddy popular? Leonard Chess pushed him. At that time, see, they was still playing the blues on the radio, not like it is now. Those first records he had out, a whole bunch of us had been doin' that rockin' style for years. I brought him in to play guitar for me, on that session when I made 'Johnson Machine Gun.' The man asked me, 'Say, what about your boy there, can he sing?' Talking about Muddy, you know. And I said, 'Like a bird.'''

Later, over on the North Side in a white singles bar with pinball machines and pizza, Jimmy Rogers, second guitarist on Muddy's classic blues records of the early Fifties, is setting up for a gig with the brilliant but erratic harmonica virtuoso Walter Horton. ''Muddy,'' says Rogers, ''Muddy has a whole lot of soul. Maybe it's not the words that he says so much as the way that he says 'em. He has a voice that I haven't heard anybody could imitate. They can copy his slide style of guitar, but when the voice comes in, that's different. I know his voice anywhere I hear it.''

Willie Dixon, the blues bassist, songwriter and producer, sums up peer-group opinion in a few characteristically well-chosen words: ''Everybody liked him 'cause he could really howl those blues.''

What was it about Muddy that made him so widely respected and admired, that made his blues, in his own words, ''deeper'' than the blues of his competitors? Leonard Chess did push Muddy, but he was pushing a man with extraordinary musical gifts and an extraordinary feeling for the blues.

Conventional wisdom has it that blues melodies consist of five, six or seven pitches or notes, with the third and seventh and sometimes the fifth notes of the scale being treated a little funny, flattened but not quite as flat as the black keys on the piano; these are the ''blue notes.'' But if you listen carefully to Muddy, or to any other really deep blues singer, you'll find that he systematically sings the third and, especially, the fifth notes of the scale infintesimally flatter or sharper, depending on where in the line the pitches fall and on the feelings he's trying to convey.

Muddy is the living master of these subtleties. He gets them on guitar too – listen to his slide solo on ''Honey Bee,'' on the Chess/All-Platinum Muddy Waters reissue, for example – and he's aware of getting them. ''Yeah, yeah,'' he says when he is accused of playing microtones, or notes that would fall between the cracks on the piano. ''When I plays on the stage with my band, 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 look so simple, so easy to do, but it's not. They say my blues is the hardest blues in the world to play.''

The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time: Muddy Waters

Subtle as these inflections are, young guitarists can at least hope to learn to hear and execute them properly. But as Slim and Rogers and Dixon all noted, Muddy's great strength is his singing, something nobody has been able to duplicate. In addition to his mastery of pitch shadings, he also commands some remarkable textural effects. You can see him in Martin Scorsese's film The Last Waltz, screwing up the side of his face, shaking his jowls, constantly readjusting the shape of his mouth in order to get specific vocal sounds. And his timing is a kind of standing joke among musicians who have played with him. ''I'm a delay singer,'' he says. ''I don't sing on the beat. I sing behind it. And people have to delay to play with me. They got to hang around, wait, see what's going to happen next.''

Muddy's sovereign control of these techniques – how many other bluesmen have had comparable mastery of them? Son House? Robert Johnson? Charley Patton? – goes a long way toward explaining the absolute, unquestioned authority he radiates. It's evident that he didn't learn them in school. They could be taught, if the teacher knew them as well as Muddy does and the student were willing to put in as much time and hard work as it takes to become, say, a first-class opera diva. But in the Delta the learning process, while no less rigorous, was more diffuse.

It's important to remember that Muddy was already an established bluesman when Robert Johnson made the first of his own keening, driven recordings in 1936. In fact, Muddy was already known in Chicago. Willie Dixon, who settled in the Windy City that same year, remembers that when talk got around to serious blues singing, people from the Delta invaribly brought up Muddy. Although he heard phonograph records, the way he learned his music and the environment in which he learned it – two sides of the same coin – were almost entirely traditional.

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