Muddy Waters: The Delta Son Never Sets

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In the States too the music was reaching young whites, who were coming in, literally in many cases, through the back door. Johnny Winter, who grew up in Beaumont, Texas, remembers that ''Muddy was one of the first people I fell in love with. I guess I was about eleven. My grandparents were fairly well off and they had a maid and a guy that'd been working for them for years, and they'd have the black radio station on. I just couldn't believe that music; as soon as I heard it I was obsessed with finding out what it was and hearing more of it. Pretty soon all the record shops in town were saving me a copy of every blues record that came in.'' The process had been going on since the early Fifties, when record-store proprietors began to notice whites showing up and buying race records ''for my maid'' or ''for my yardman'' – records they'd heard their maids and yardmen bopping to and wanted to bop to themselves. By the early Sixties young white musicians were emulating the music on those backdoor records, Johnny Winter among them.

For Muddy, though, the Sixties were an unsettled and unsettling period. It was true that young whites were beginning to appreciate his blues – outside of Chicago, they made up the major part of his audience. But he was much more concerned with the blacks who were turning their backs on the blues. ''When the Rollin' Stones came through the States,'' he said, ''they came to record at the Chess studios. When that happened, I thinks to myself how these white kids was sitting down and thinking and playing the blues that my black kids was bypassing. That was a hell of a thing, man, to think about. I still think about it today. Some of these white kids are playing good blues, but my people, they want something they can bump off of. I play in places now don't have no black faces in there but our black faces.''

Muddy's recording scene was unsettled, too. His brand of blues was no longer selling, and although he continued to put together strong hands with the help of Otis Spann, his pianist, bandleader and right-hand man from the mid-Fifties until his death in the late Sixties, Muddy never again found sidemen as creative, sympathetic and cohesive as Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers. (Walter left him in 1952 when ''Juke'' became a hit, and Rogers split in 1955 to put together his own band.) Leonard Chess' son Marshall and other young executives at Chess began trying to package Muddy, starting with albums like Muddy Waters Folk Singer, which was a reasonable acoustic album, and Brass and the Blues, culminating in the dreadful Electric Mud and After the Rain, which pleased nobody. Then Chess was sold and resold. For two decades Muddy had enjoved a family-style relationship with the Chess company. Now he belonged to a succession of faceless conglomerates.

The picture began to brighten during the early Seventies. He took on Scott Cameron, a shrewd, hardheaded manager who helped him in a number of ways. They sued Arc Music, the Chess publishing company, for back royalties on scores of his compositions, and although nobody will discuss the terms of the eventual out-of-eourt settlement, apparently Muddy was at least partially satisfied. And finally he pulled free of his Chess entanglements altogether and signed in 1976 with Blue Sky Records, the Columbia-affiliated label managed by Steve Paul. With Johnny Winter as producer he made two splendid albums, Hard Again and I'm Ready. Winter wisely avoided trying to duplicate the Chess sound, but he did put Muddy back in a raw-edged, pure blues context, with sympathetic backing from former sidemen like jimmy Rogers, Big Walter Horton and James Cotton. Winter mimicked Muddy's guitar style so accurately, especially on Hard Again, that it was virtually impossible to tell which one was playing.

The records sold 50-60,000 copies each and are still moving briskly, making them the best sellers of Muddys career. He began getting better jobs for better money, especially after an all-star tour with Cotton and Winter that furnished material for a third, soon-to- be-released Blue Sky album. And he was as impressive as ever on that tour. He would start each performance sitting on his stool, letting his voice carry the music, but then he would pick up his guitar and play a wrenching slide solo, the band would begin to fly. and soon he would be up working the lip of the stage, weaving and bobbing to the music and roaring out his lyrics as if they mattered more than anything else in the world.

''This is the best point of my life I'm living right now,'' Muddy said with great finality near the end of our last conversation. I wondered how he felt about having taken so long to get to this point and he looked at me like I was a plain fool, his eyes shining with the irony that informs some of his greatest records. "Feels good,'' he said, "are you kidding? I'm glad it came before I died, I can tell you. Feels great.''

This story is from the October 5th, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.

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