Muddy recorded three songs for Columbia in 1946, but they were never issued. In 1947 he was in the studio again, playing guitar for Sunnyland Slim and cutting two numbers of his own for the Aristocrat label, with Slim featured on the piano – ''Gypsy Woman,'' his first recorded blues on a hoodoo theme, and ''Little Anna Mae.'' Leonard and Phil Chess, two Polish immigrants who had started Aristocrat that year to record music aimed at the patrons of their South Side nightclub, didn't know what to make of Muddy's raw sound and shelved the records. But early in 1948 Leonard Chess, who handled the producing end of the business, called Muddy back to cut two more sides, which turned out to be reworkings of two of the traditional blues he'd recorded for Lomax. They were ''I Can't Be Satisfied'' and ''I Feel like Going Home.'' Singing at peak power and playing magnificent electric slide guitar, backed only by Big Crawford's string bass, Muddy was just too impressive to ignore.
Leonard Chess knew very little about down-home blues, having recorded mostly tenor-saxophone instrumental by the jazz-oriented performers who worked in his club, but he put the record out. To his surprise, it became Aristocrat's biggest seller. From that point on the Chess brothers were sold on Muddy, and of course the record changed Muddy's life. ''The little joint I was playing in doubled its business when the record came out,'' he recalled. ''Bigger joints starred looking for me. It was summer when that record came out, and I would hear it walking along the street, driving along the street. One time coming home about two or three o'clock in the morning I heard it coming from way upstairs somewhere and it scared me, I thought I had died.''
At first Leonard Chess would not record Muddy's band, apparently because he thought he had found a hit-making formula in Muddy's voice and guitar and the string bass. Of course, the records weren't really hits. They sold in an area that corresponded to the spread of the Delta's black population, from Mississippi up through Memphis, St. Louis, Detroit and Chicago, with very little action in the East or the West. But within this area, sales were strong and dependable. Soon Leonard grew confident enough of Muddy's abilities to let him bring in a few more musicians, and in 1950, the year the brothers changed the name of their label from Aristocrat to Chess, Muddy showed up for a session with a young, tough-looking harmonica player from Louisiana, Little Walter Jacobs.
Walter was the first harmonica player to use his amplifier creatively. He produced massive roars, ghostly tremolos and whoops, and punching, saxophonelike solo lines on the instrument and revolutionized the sound of Chicago blues while he was with Muddy's band.
In 1951 Jimmy Rogers joined the recording group on second guitar. With Elgin Evans on drums, this was the band that defined the sound of postwar Chicago blues and sent ripples through the world of popular music that continue to be felt. Muddy was still playing country blues, but with a beat. ''My first drummer was straight down the line ''he said, ''boom boom boom boom. I had to get me somebody who would put a backbeat to it.'' Added Willie Dixon, ''You know, when you go to changing beats in music, you change the entire style. Blues or rock & roll or jazz, it's the beat that actually changes it. And that's what Muddy did. He gave his blues a little more pep.''
The band turned out great records in profusion: ''Long Distance Call,'' ''Honey Bee,'' ''She Moves Me'' and the searing ''Still a Fool'' in 1951; ''Standing Around Crying'' (with an initial appearance by the incomparable pianist Otis Spann) in 1952; and the seminal ''Hoochie Coochie Man'' in 1953. This last tune, written by Willie Dixon, is the sort of thing most people associate with Muddy – a slow, lumbering stop-time riff, lyrics that combine hoodoo imagery and machismo. It was more flamboyant than Muddy's own hoodoo blues, but it was just the kind of thing his audience wanted to hear.
''Muddy was working in this joint at 14th and Ashland,'' Dixon remembers, ''and I went over there to take him the song. We went in the washroom and sang it over and over till he got it. It didn't take very long. Then he said, 'Man, when I go out there this time, I'm gonna sing it.' He went out and jumped on it, and it sounded so good the people kept on applauding and asking for more and he kept on singing the same thing over and over again.'' There was no need for further market research. The audience was right there and not at all shy about stating its preferences. Dixon wrote more hits for Muddy, most notably ''I'm Ready'' and ''I Just Want to Make Love to You.'' They remain the most macho songs in his repertoire; Muddy would never have composed anything so unsubtle. But they gave him a succession of showstoppers and an image, which were important for a bluesman trying to break out of the grind of local gigs into national prominence.
Muddy's records were never huge hits, not even among the nation's blacks. ''Hoochie Coochie Man'' made it to Number Eight on the R&B charts and ''Just Make Love to Me'' was Number Four in 1954. The band would drive from gig to gig in Muddy's Cadillac, working mostly in joints on the South and West Sides of Chicago and in the South, with occasional forays to the East. Even though he had fewer hits once rock & roll came along. Muddy was in the game for keeps. ''Rock & roll,'' he said, ''it hurt the blues pretty bad. People wanted to 'bug all the time and we couldn't play slow blues anymore. But we still hustled around and kept going. We survived, and then I went to Newport in 1960 and it started opening the door for me.''
His first crack at a white audience came in 1958, when the English promoter Chris Barber brought Waters' band to England on Big Bill Broonzy's recommendation. At first the tour seemed to be a disaster. ''Oh man,'' said Muddy, ''the headlines in all the papers was SCREAMING GUITAR AND HOWLING PIANO. Chris Barber said, 'You sound good, but don't play your amplifier so loud.' Then I came back to England in the early Sixties and everybody want to know why I didn't bring my amplifier. Those boys were playing louder than we ever played.''
''Those boys'' were the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds with young Eric Clapton, and other white blues groups that had sprung up in England, following the lead of older performers like Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies, been among the few enthralled by Muddy's volume and raw power in 1958. The Stones and their contemporaries were still kids in 1960 when Muddy scored a direct hit with the folk audience at Newport, but they eagerly bought his Newport album, which included the classic extended version of ''Got My Mojo Working.'' In fact, those blue-and-white labeled Chess records from America were as important to them as eating and sleeping. They listened hard to Chuck Berry, whose first recording date was set up by Muddy, and to Bo Diddley, who also came out of the South Side. But Muddy's records had a special, mysterious luminosity. They were so distinctive, so ''deep,'' that they couldn't really be copied, not like Chuck and Bo, though the Stones tried with a brooding rendition of ''Can't Be Satisfied'' that Muddy terms ''a very good job.'' (In mid-July 1978, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Charlie Watts surprised Muddy by showing up to jam with him at Chicago's the Quiet Knight. Mick and Muddy had a high time trading vocal licks on ''Mannish Boy,'' and Keith played some stinging slide guitar.)
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
MUSIC 9 Classic Devo Videos
OLYMPICS 18 Epic Opening Ceremonies
Picks From Around the Web
blog comments powered by Disqus