The Best of Muddy Waters collects twelve tracks that the legendary bluesman recorded and released as 78s between 1948 and 1954. These songs, one masterpiece after another, not only made his reputation on the burgeoning Chicago blues scene but charted the music’s development to this day. Most specifically, this album — Waters’ first, and the first issued by the seminal Chess label — exerted an overwhelming influence on the likes of John Mayall, Eric Clapton, the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones. Those artists, in turn, exposed Waters — and the blues, in general — to generations of British and American fans.
On this compilation, Waters ranges from the haunted, Delta-style minimalism of “Rollin’ Stone” (which gave the band its name) and “Still a Fool” to the more rollicking full-band sound of “I’m Ready” (which features the classic lineup of Waters, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on bass and Fred Below on drums). Throughout, Waters embodies a persona that simmers with lust, loss and menace. His voice intimates threat, never more so than when he unleashes his gripping repertoire of moans, howls, hollers, hums, groans and growls.
The tension-wire whine of his slide guitar and the hypnotic drone of Little Walter’s harmonica often mimic the cadences of Waters’ voice, creating the claustrophobic impression that the singer’s pain, desperation and explosive urges are the only emotions that exist. Charms, spells and erotic magic suffuse these songs, which were all written by Waters himself or Willie Dixon, adding to their ominousness. That by all accounts Waters was unfailingly down-to-earth and gracious in real life only testifies further to the artful force of these performances.
Born McKinley Morganfield in Mississippi in 1915, Waters first moved to Chicago in 1943 and settled there shortly afterward. Like much of his audience, he was negotiating in these songs between the rural South — a place as myth-laden as oppressive — where he grew up, and a new, harder-edged urban life. For black transplants working factory jobs in impersonal Northern cities, Waters’ black-cat bones, mojos and Gypsy seers were already part of a world they had left behind — a world that, then as now, proved compelling in both memory and imagination.