Muddy Waters: 1915-1983 - Rolling Stone
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Muddy Waters: 1915–1983

An obituary of the blues legend, with memories from Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards and more

Muddy WatersMuddy Waters

Muddy Waters

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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.

THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM REGARDING Muddy Waters is that he learned blues in the back country, brought his down-home blues to the city and added electricity and a solid backbeat, thereby laying the groundwork for rock & roll. His story began in Rolling Fork, in the Southern Mississippi Delta near Highway 61, where he was born on April 4th, 1915. His parents separated when he was six months old, and his grandmother took him north to live with her on the Stovall Plantation, in the rich cotton lands near Clarksdale, Mississippi, where John Lee Hooker and many other future blues stars grew to maturity.

As a youngster, Muddy took up the harmonica, and that was the instrument, he played when he began performing at country suppers and picnics in his early teens. But the guitar and the music that men like Son House and Robert Johnson were making with it soon claimed his attention. His formal education had stopped at about the third grade; he never cared for such plantation jobs as driving plow mules, drawing water and chopping cotton, and at age seventeen, he sold a horse to get the money– – about two dollars and fifty cents – –to buy his first guitar, a Stella, from Sears and Roebuck in Chicago. By 1941, when Alan Lomax showed up in Clarksdale and recorded Muddy for the Library of Congress, Muddy was the most powerful and widely esteemed guitarist in his part of the Delta. Lomax returned in 1942 and recorded Muddy again, but these recordings were for the library’s archives, and Muddy wanted to hear his records on jukeboxes. In 1943, he left Mississippi for Chicago, and though friends told him his down-home blues wouldn’t be popular there, he was soon playing at house parties and South Side taverns where the noise level necessitated his switch from acoustic to electric guitar.

Muddy bought his first electric guitar in 1944, and by 1946, he was gigging regularly with Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter. By 1949, Muddy and his band –– which by then included, along with Rogers and Jacobs, Baby Face Leroy Foster doubling on guitar and drums –– were packing in crowds at the Du Drop Lounge on Chicago’s South Side, and also recording for Aristocrat Records, a small Jazz and R & B label whose owners included two Polish-born Jews named Leonard and Phil Chess. When the Chess brothers bought out a partner and changed the name of their label to Chess, Muddy’s “Rollin’ Stone” was their first release. During the early Fifties, his blues hits – –”Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Just Make Love to Me,” “Louisiana Blues,” “Long Distance Call,” “She Moves Me” and the rest – –made him a hero to black fans throughout the South and in all the Midwestern and Northern cities where the population had swelled from Southern migration. In 1958, he played the first electric blues heard in England and launched a rhythm & blues movement that gave birth to groups like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. At the Newport Folk Festival in 1960, he introduced young white America to his music, especially “Got My Mojo Working,” the showstopper that would be associated with him from then on.

This often-repeated story is perfectly true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. The Muddy Waters we read about in books and magazines is still a part of our lives, and we are fortunate indeed that his music endures on records –– from the brash, strapping blues of his youth (which so influenced such later white blues aficionados as Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield), through his Fifties hits (collected on a splendid recent reissue, Rolling Stone, from the reactivated Chess label), to his Blue Sky albums of the late Seventies. But the real flesh-and-blood Muddy Waters, the man who kept his feet on the ground and his hands in the dirt, even as his music touched the sky –– that Muddy Waters is gone now.

But let’s avoid tears and regrets. Let’s play his records, and enjoy the life we’re living, because Muddy enjoyed his life to the fullest. It’s true that he never grew rich from his music, but he worked as often as he wanted and was well paid when he did. He lived comfortably in his two-story frame house in the suburbs, bouncing grandchildren on his knee, drinking fine champagne and frying shrimp and other delicacies seasoned with peppers and herbs from his own garden. He talked on the telephone to admirers who called from near and far, spinning tales of mojo bands, Delta wanderings and big-city tavern brawls. That’s how he passed the time during the months before his death –– “enjoying the fruits of his labor,” as his manager, Scott Cameron, put it.

“This is the best point of my life,” Muddy told me five years ago, when he was still working most of the year, before he was able to coast a bit on his success. “I’m glad it came before I died, I can tell you. Feels great.” There’s no reason to think he felt differently during his last day on earth, before he died quietly, of heart failure, in his sleep. He is survived by his wife, Marva, a son, three daughters, a stepson and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Appreciating Muddy

Eric Clapton
I was just starting to play, and I knew some of the guys who ran this sort of association over here called Blues Unlimited. They had a little record club, and one night they played the best of Muddy Waters. I’d never heard electric Delta blues before. I couldn’t believe it. It changed everything.

What he had was inimitable. Everyone I know who can play the blues well can play in the Elmore James style or in the B.B. King style. But I never heard anyone who even attempted to play like Muddy Waters. It was impossible because it was the subtlest of them all: it wasn’t very fancy or fast. It was just the deepest. Muddy knew that he was secure.

He was always very paternal to anyone he thought was any good. He always kept an eye on me and put me in my place if he thought I was slipping in the wrong direction or not really paying attention. He tried to make me realize that I’m first and foremost a blues musician. And not to get led astray by the ways of the world and by temptation, commercialism and success. And that blues music was a very long-lasting and ongoing thing. He never put it into words; it was something I realized by his example.

I used to try to milk him about the old days. Once you got him talking, it was impossible to keep up because he wouldn’t talk about things from the same perspective as I would. You know, all I could refer to were people whose names I’d seen on record labels or in reference books, whereas they were all friends to him. Therefore, he’d refer to them as friends, and then refer to their brothers and sisters and uncles. I couldn’t keep up.

I spoke to him about two and a half months ago. His wife Marva said that he had had a little bit of a turn but that he was all right. Then he came on the phone and said he was feeling fine and not to worry, and was I being a good boy and such. He sounded great.

I felt so much love for him. I felt like he was my father and I was his adopted son. It was honor bound. But I was in love with Muddy before I ever met him. And that’s the great thing. His records will always be there.

Marshall Chess
My first really vivid memory of Muddy was probably somewhere between 1948 and 1950. I was about seven or eight years old, and my father, Leonard, came home with him. What fascinated me about Muddy was that he had on this bright green suit and shoes made out of pinto-pony skin. He carried himself in a very regal kind of way. A real leader. I can actually close my eyes and remember that.

Muddy was also the first person whose music seemed very sexual to me – songs like “Mannish Boy,” you know? I remember a lot of recording sessions where Muddy would always bring these heavy black women – I used to call them “blues women.” And these guys would be sitting there in this very funky-smelling recording studio, wearing real old-time, sleeveless T-shirts and drinking bourbon whiskey right out of paper cups, and three or four of these heavy blues women sitting on folding chairs, you know? I guess that having the women right in the studio stimulated them. Years later, when I was traveling with the Rolling Stones, I would see Mick projecting that same kind of sexuality as Muddy, and I started to put it all together.

I had a real hard time conveying my enthusiasm for music like Muddy’s to my school friends. There was a heavy racist attitude, and white kids just didn’t go for it. When the Stones came to Chicago to record in the Sixties, I was blown away that they were big fans of Muddy’s. I packed up records for them in boxes. They were big blues fans. When the coffeehouse folk boom hit, white kids started buying blues –– they used to call it “folk music.” And we started packaging it. We had Muddy Waters Folk Singer and Real Folk Blues, More Real Folk Blues. We were all amazed, including Muddy; a whole new market had developed.

As far as business and royalties, well…it was different then with artists. I think that in the end, Muddy had managers and lawyers who integrated him into the record business as it is in the Eighties. But he was my father’s favorite –– him and Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry. Those were the three. They got royalties that were, I guess, as good as any at that time.

Muddy’s music always makes you feel something. It can make you feel good or it can make you feel bad, but it’s definitely music that cuts through and makes you feel. I think one of the reasons for his success was that his music was really him. If you can get into Muddy Waters’ music, you can really get an idea of how it was to be around him as a person.

Mick Jagger
We admired Muddy Waters and his music very much, and we played a lot of his songs in imitation of him. He encouraged us a lot before we met him –– when we just listened to his records, we were encouraged. After we met him, when we came to the States in 1964, he encouraged us. He could have said, “Who do you think you are?” But he encouraged us, which we thought was nice.

When Muddy Waters came to England in 1958, he shocked the English public by coming out and playing electric guitars and electric basses and electric harmonicas. Instead of one sultry Negro man playing the blues –– which is what those English people paid for –– he came out with the band and made a deafening noise. And they all walked out and asked for their money back. This was a famous tour. It was like Dylan’s electric tour. This was a great moment, because it showed that Muddy Waters’ was an electric blues band. The last time I saw Muddy Waters was in 1981, when we played with him at the Checker Board Lounge in Chicago. Muddy was singing, and we came in and joined him–me and Keith [Richards] and Ronnie [Wood] and Buddy Guy. We had a lot of people down there. It was a very enjoyable evening, a very happy occasion, and we remember it with great joy. *

Keith Richards
In England, we had no idea what was going on. We just got a few records here and there. But when I eventually got to hear Muddy Waters, in about 1959 or 1960, it all fell into place for me. He was the thing I was looking for, the thing that pulled it all in for me. When I heard him, I realized the connection between all the music I’d heard. He made it all explainable. He was like the code book. I was incredibly inspired by him as a musician. When I met him, I was even more inspired by him as a person. That’s really all I can say about Muddy. He was more than a guitar player, more than a singer, more than a writer. It was all him. It’s the hoochie-coochie man.*

Peter Wolf
On my high-school graduation day, I opened up the envelope where my diploma was supposed to be, and there was a note that said, “If you want to know why you didn’t get a diploma, come see me at my office,” signed by the principal. That was my cue to get out of New York. I ended up in Chicago, studying painting, and I remember being in a dormitory on the South Side when somebody first played me Muddy Waters. There was an immediate attraction.

Later, I hitched to Boston, where I got into a band and my Muddy Waters obsession became stronger. There was just something about the name Muddy Waters. And that picture on the first album; the whole look of the Chess label. Fantastic. Then I found out –– this was the early Sixties –– that Muddy was coming to the Club 47 in Boston. I remember waiting in front all day, ’cause I’m figuring, man, it’s gonna be mobbed. All of a sudden, a funky old station wagon and a funky old Cadillac come driving up, and out steps Muddy Waters. He was the handsomest man I’ve ever seen. I walked up to him and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Waters, but I’m a big fan, and I can’t wait to hear you tonight.”

And he says, “Well, thanks – don’t just stand there, grab one of these here amps.” At that point, I became Muddy’s official valet in Boston –– helped him with the amps, watched the car so it wouldn’t get a ticket. I just couldn’t believe it. I had an apartment two blocks away from the club, and I said, “If you guys wanna loosen up or something. . . .” So everybody came over to my apartment, and James Cotton, who was an incredible cook, cooked up all this fried chicken, and it was good. Later, I took them over to their hotel, and it was a sad, sad story. It was far on the other end of town in the red-light district, just one step up from being a flophouse. And here were these men I worshiped, checking in. I’ll never forget that. That’s when I started to get a sense of the great injustice that was going on in music. You always read about it, but I mean, to see it so vividly – to see the plaster falling off the walls and the creaky old beds in this flea-bitten hotel, and here were these heroic men, these great, great artists.

You know, people talk about T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Robert Frost as the great American poets– – and they are. But for me, Muddy Waters and his peers and the great black jazz artists are the true poets of America. They sacrificed everything for their music, and they always kept their style and their dignity in times when it was very hard to do. Muddy’s passing marked the end of a dwindling era. It’s like when Louie went, or the Duke.

Johnny Winter
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Muddy. It was at a hippie club in Austin, Texas, called the Vulcan Gas Company. It was in 1968, right before I had “made it,” and we were going to open up two shows for Muddy. I had my camera and tape recorder, and I was runnin’ all over the room, trying to take pictures and record the whole thing. I was jumpin’ up and down and screaming and clapping. But it seemed as if Muddy’s band was not all that comfortable playing for younger white people. They were kind of reserved on the first night, and Muddy let the band do most of the work. They were doing a lot of James Brown-type things. But on the second night, Muddy finally realized that they really wanted to hear him, his stuff, real blues. And he just really got down and gave it to ’em. Muddy talked to me after the show and said real encouraging things. You know, he told me if I kept it up, he knew I would make it.

Bonnie Raitt
I met Muddy at the Newport Folk Festival when I was nineteen. You know that song, “Only nineteen years old, she’s got ways like a baby child”? He always used to sing that song to me. He and Fred McDowell really took me in and treated me like their little foundling. It was no, “Hey, what’s a girl like you doin’ playin’ slide guitar?” or, “You’re white, how come you make more money than me?” He was just real loving.

Over the last few years, he and I toured together quite a few times. I never saw him socially that much, but we saw each other two or three times a year, and in that sense, we were close. He had a lot of sorrow in his life, you know: he broke his hip a few years ago, and he lost his wife. For a long time, he was real, real lonesome. But he never really showed what pain or sorrow he was going through.

What always struck me as remarkable was his lack of resentment toward people like Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter and myself. Muddy just accepted everything. He was real good-hearted and didn’t have a competitive edge.

I think they should put up a statue like the ones in Thailand of the Buddha. You know, the ones that are fifty feet high, and he’s sitting there with a beatific smile on his face and his eyes closed? I think they should do one of those of Muddy in Chicago.

In This Article: Coverwall, Muddy Waters, R.I.P., Tribute


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