THE DOZENS: ESSENTIAL MUDDY WATERS by Ed Leimbacher



            Muddy Waters, artwork by Leslie Herman

Country boy McKinley Morganfield, better known as Chicago Blues master Muddy Waters, brought the Mississippi Delta north. Though many other Clarksdale-to-Memphis-to-West Helena bluesmen made similar treks to record their music, Waters quickly settled in at Aristocrat/Chess as the best, most vital link straight back to Robert Johnson and Son House, Tommy Johnson and Charlie Patton, the Delta’s undisputed kings.

During a decade and some, his versions of familiar Mississippi-region numbers (and new blues fashioned by Willie Dixon and Muddy himself) expanded, then exploded with electric amplification, and suddenly shot out around the world, striking Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield, The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones (who took their name from a Muddy Waters song title), several blues magazines and one soon-to-be-famous U.S. rock journal all dead center.

Muddy pretty much invented the electrified blues band rules from the start, from the tentative mid-1940s to later, venerated 1970s. Only rarely did he sound like anything but himself, making for a certain rhythmic/melodic sameness over the years, which means picking a representative Dozens becomes a matter of honoring both his South Side shifts and his set-in-stone (becoming rock) standards.


Muddy Waters: Country Blues

Track

Country Blues

Artist

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals)

CD

The Complete Plantation Recordings (Chess MCA CHD-9344)

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Musicians:

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals).

Composed by McKinley Morganfield

.

Recorded: Stovall's Plantation, Mississippi, August 1941

Albumcovermuddywaters-thecompleteplantationrecordings

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

One might glibly say that Chicago Blues starts here. There were many Down South musicians recording in the Windy City ahead of Muddy Waters (in the 1930s and early '40s), yet this track his 1941 debut on disc, cut while still in Mississippi, for Library of Congress field folklorists Alan Lomax and John Work in retrospect announced the arrival of something new, maybe an insouciant, jaunty, sprung-rhythm approach to the rural blues (here applied to the Son House/Robert Johnson number "Walkin' Blues"). At any rate, Lomax lucked onto the perfect Delta descendent with 26-year-old Morganfield, whose first track transmits House and Johnson precisely (he'd observed or heard both), and the accompanying interview confirms it: Son was his unmatchable mentor, and Robert's aggressive guitar and high vocal tones clearly the better fit.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Muddy Waters: I Can't Be Satisfied

Track

I Can't Be Satisfied

Artist

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals)

CD

Rollin' Stone: The Golden Anniversary Collection (MCA 088 112 301-2)

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Musicians:

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals), Big Crawford (bass).

Composed by McKinley Morganfield

.

Recorded: Chicago, April 1948

Albumcovermuddywaters-rollinstone-thegoldenanniversarycollection

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Muddy Waters moved to Chicago in the mid-'40s and quickly cut a few forgettable tracks for Columbia, but it took the intercession of Sunnyland Slim and the unlikely interest of Leonard Chess at new independent label Aristocrat to launch greatness, as Waters was given the green light to play several Delta numbers on electric guitar, usually on what became his beloved red Telecaster, and with his bottleneck slide, and with solid driving bass by "Big" Crawford (the unsung hero of Muddy's early tracks). The 78-rpm release of rocking, rhythmic "I Can't Be Satisfied" bulked up and with more bounce to the ounce coupled with the slower, sadder "I Feel Like Going Home" sold out in a single afternoon, and a blues legend was born. As Muddy sang it, "Baby, I cain't never be satisfied," and one suspects The Rolling Stones took a hint from this track too.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Muddy Waters: Burying Ground

Track

Burying Ground

Artist

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals)

CD

Rollin' Stone: The Golden Anniversary Collection (MCA 088 112 301-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals), Big Crawford (bass).

Composed by McKinley Morganfield

.

Recorded: Chicago, July 1949

Albumcovermuddywaters-rollinstone-thegoldenanniversarycollection

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Although Muddy Waters had his own amplified band of four or five (usually including Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica) playing Chicago's South Side clubs from 1947 onward, producer Leonard Chess was reluctant to mess with success, so he kept Muddy recording "Big" bass-ic duets for the next two years (aside from a couple of sop-to-the-guitarist sessions where Muddy was allowed to add Leroy Foster or Jimmy Rogers on second guitar). Alongside "Down South Blues," "Kind Hearted Woman," "Little Geneva" and a dozen more, the most radical duet cut was "Burying Ground" as Waters applied everything in his guit-arsenal, digging in, reaching for that bigger blues band sound forceful picking, his loosened, snarling strings riding roughshod over the bass and battling his own vocals to a draw.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Muddy Waters: Rollin' and Tumblin'

Track

Rollin' and Tumblin'

Artist

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals)

CD

Rollin' Stone: The Golden Anniversary Collection (MCA 088 112 301-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals), Big Crawford (bass).

Composed by McKinley Morganfield (from earlier number identified with Hambone Willie Newburn)

.

Recorded: Chicago, February 1950

Albumcovermuddywaters-rollinstone-thegoldenanniversarycollection

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

This particular duel broke the mold with a fast, chugging-and-churning beat and a chanted, moaning-and-groaning vocal "Whiskey and women would not let me pray!" so compelling it was allowed to take up both sides of the disc. But, in fact, Muddy had already anchored a faster, louder, more inchoate version recorded for tiny label Parkway, with Leroy Foster on guitar and lead vocals, and harp master Little Walter. Foster's track is a primitive early landmark of Chicago Blues, Waters's cover merely manic but Mannish Boy proof that he could pretty much do it all by himself if he had to!

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Muddy Waters: Rollin' Stone

Track

Rollin' Stone

Artist

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals)

CD

Rollin' Stone: The Golden Anniversary Collection (MCA 088 112 301-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals), Big Crawford (bass).

Composed by McKinley Morganfield

.

Recorded: Chicago, February 1950

Albumcovermuddywaters-rollinstone-thegoldenanniversarycollection

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

"Rollin' Stone" puts us waist-deep in the Big/Muddy duet that entered the DNA of more rockers and bluesers than any other Muddy Waters track, truly his defining moment, the potent frontdoor-man bragfest. A sterling stop-time de-rangement launches this upscale version of the familiar Delta standard known as "Catfish Blues"; then it's power strums and tolling bells, and Muddy's mama predicting: "Got a boy child comin' gonna be a son-of-a-gun," and "a rolling stone" to boot. And the music world was never the same again!

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Muddy Waters: Honey Bee

Track

Honey Bee

Artist

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals)

CD

Rollin' Stone: The Golden Anniversary Collection (MCA 088 112 301-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals), Little Walter (second guitar), Big Crawford (bass).

Composed by McKinley Morganfield

.

Recorded: Chicago, January 23, 1951

Albumcovermuddywaters-rollinstone-thegoldenanniversarycollection

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

By late 1950, producer Leonard Chess was finally admitting that the 1940s amplified duets approach had run its course, and that Muddy Waters's reputation as a bandleader had spread far enough to merit bigger session arrangements, starting with the addition of Little Walter or Jimmy Rogers fairly regularly (and gradually others). Chess himself played bang-along bass drum on the three-man thudder "She Moves Me," but this other, more intriguing trio puts Little Walter on guitar (a man of many parts!), his picking style ringing out in contrast to the slap-strings lead of Muddy. In the booklet accompanying the Chess Muddy Waters box, musician/critic Robert Palmer writes knowledgeably of microtonal sounds and black-keys-on-the-piano sources, but I just shrug and say, "Sail on, my little honey bee, sail on!"

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Muddy Waters: Louisiana Blues

Track

Louisiana Blues

Artist

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals)

CD

Rollin' Stone: The Golden Anniversary Collection (MCA 088 112 301-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals), Little Walter (harmonica), Big Crawford (bass),

Elgin Evans (washboard), possibly Jimmy Rogers (second guitar)

.

Composed by McKinley Morganfield

.

Recorded: Chicago, October 23, 1950

Albumcovermuddywaters-rollinstone-thegoldenanniversarycollection

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Little Walter's distinctive and soon-to-be prominent harp work was introduced on this October 1950 session, providing mellow backup for Muddy Waters's lazy, loping beat during the initial verses of "Louisiana Blues," the first of Muddy's major mojo-magical songs, with the familiar lyric "I'm goin' down in New Orleans, get me a mojo hand." (Those ju-ju devices figure most prominently in the near-theme song hit "Got My Mojo Working," and there's some voodoo happening in "Hoochie Coochie Man" too.) But what starts out melodically and a bit sleepily soon takes on a slightly greater urgency as both harp and guitar seem to speed up a fraction and gain some in volume. (This eventually became a favorite track and arrangement trick for some British blues bands.)

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Muddy Waters: Long Distance Call

Track

Long Distance Call

Artist

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals)

CD

Rollin' Stone: The Golden Anniversary Collection (MCA 088 112 301-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals), Little Walter (harmonica), Big Crawford (bass).

Composed by McKinley Morganfield

.

Recorded: Chicago, January 23, 1951

Albumcovermuddywaters-rollinstone-thegoldenanniversarycollection

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

At the session that produced "Honey Bee," Muddy Waters also cut this gently rocking ballad, its slightly stately pace perhaps suggesting the central role he was already occupying in the new electrified genre mentoring his sidemen, hosting new arrivals to town, becoming the genial godfather of Chicago Blues. Over the next couple of years, Big Crawford would be ousted by bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon, simplistic drummer Elgin Evans would yield to Francis Clay, Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter would become solidly present on all tracks. But for this quiet gem, and "Still a Fool" (Muddy's version of the traditional "Two Trains Running"), plus a few other tracks still ahead, the session crew was kept small and tight, and the Delta was still only two trains or a long distance call away.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Muddy Waters: Hoochie Coochie Man

Track

Hoochie Coochie Man

Artist

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals)

CD

Muddy Waters: The Chess Box (Chess MCA CHD3-80002)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals), Little Walter (harmonica), Otis Spann (piano), Jimmy Rogers (guitar), Willie Dixon (bass),

Elgin Evans (drums)

.

Composed by Willie Dixon

.

Recorded: Chicago, January 7, 1954

Albumcovermuddywaters-thechessbox

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

You might say that for Muddy Waters 1954 came in with a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am, as bassist Willie Dixon and great blues pianist Otis Spann joined the team. Spann, sometimes identified as Muddy's "cousin" and certainly his musical doppelganger, brought new sophistication to the arrangements or at least the piano parts, and Dixon slathered a potent, inventive sexuality onto music and lyrics "I'm Ready," "I Just Want to Make Love to You" and this Coochie classic all recorded in the first few months alone. (Muddy too was juiced, cribbing and fiddling "Mannish Boy" away from Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" original.) Plus two solid years more of the best of Little Walter's jazz-influenced chromatic harp, up in the mix and heard to powerful effect on every recording. No wonder everybody knew Muddy was here!

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Muddy Waters: Forty Days and Forty Nights

Track

Forty Days and Forty Nights

Artist

Muddy Waters (vocals)

CD

Muddy Waters: The Chess Box (Chess MCA CHD3-80002)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Muddy Waters (vocals), Little Walter (harmonica), Jimmy Rogers (guitar), Willie Dixon (bass),

Francis Clay (drums)

.

Composed by Bernard Roth

.

Recorded: Chicago, 1956

Albumcovermuddywaters-thechessbox

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

From the mid-1950s into the '60s, Muddy Waters's Chess singles and "hits" kept a-comin' not big-money chart numbers, but releases gaining national and international acclaim and he settled comfortably into the role of master blues entertainer, purveying up-tempo arrangements, lyrics of innuendo (sly and not so), gruffer vocals, and less and less of his own slide guitar. (In fact the Chess Blues Box makes a point of his "vocals only" for half of the 72 chosen tracks.) So his Noah-count single "Forty Days and Forty Nights" will have to stand in for dozens of other candidate numbers. It's still Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers behind him, but could as well be James Cotton or Walter Horton, Pat Hare or Luther Tucker, or the scores of tunes blessed with Otis Spann rocking the piano. Muddy's shouted vocals seem the exalted epitome of his style of blues declaiming, and the band just keeps thrusting straight on: no muss, no fuss, don't go no further; the real thing is right here.

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Muddy Waters: The Blues Had a Baby and They Named it Rock and Roll

Track

The Blues Had a Baby and They Named it Rock and Roll

Artist

Muddy Waters (vocals)

CD

Hard Again (Sony Epic/Legacy 86817)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Muddy Waters (vocals), Johnny Winter (guitar), James Cotton (harmonica),

Pinetop Perkins (piano), Bob Margolin (guitar), Charles Calmese (bass), Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (drums)

.

Composed by McKinley Morganfield & Brownie McGhee

.

Recorded: New York, 1976

Albumcovermuddywaters-hardagain

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Good times don't last. The hits and the innovation faded away even as Muddy Waters's status as the honored senior of Chicago Blues rumbled on. Leonard Chess died, and later producers tried useless gimmicks; yet even though there were honorable moments, even whole albums, finally Muddy left Chess behind, signing with Johnny Winters's Blue Sky, a sub-label of Columbia. The guitar-mad albino produced a total of four LPs revitalizing Muddy's career; but the first, Hard Again, was the one that mattered. And this less-known track is still the most fun, if not the "hardest" blues: James Cotton blew the cobwebs out, Winter muscled the slide, and Muddy had a good time telling all, "Otis Spann said it, 'You know the Blues got soul' / Queen Victoria said it, 'You know the Blues got soul' / The Blues had a baby, And they named it Rock and Roll." Proof positive, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, of McKinley Morganfield's benign and lasting influence on rock!

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


Muddy Waters: Feel Like Going Home

Track

Feel Like Going Home

Artist

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals)

CD

Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy / Folk Singer (Chess MCA CHD-5907)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Muddy Waters (guitar, vocals).

Composed by McKinley Morganfield (based on “Walkin’ Blues”)

.

Recorded: Chicago, September 1963

Albumcovermuddywaters-singsbigbillbroonzy-folksinger

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

And so we come full circle back to that great standard identified as "Walkin' Blues." Muddy Waters had essayed a classic version early in his career, released on the flipside of "I Can't Be Satisfied" (the early Aristocrat 78), but 15 years later during the sessions for Folk Singer, his quiet album with backing mostly by Buddy Guy, the slide master hauled out his old red Telecaster and went to town, or at least back to Mississippi, for a Waters-only solo performance of slow and stately beauty, the guitarist carefully exploring every note, the ghosts gathering at Stovall's Plantation, the twangy amplified strings rollin' and tollin' in the Delta night, his echoey voice sighing resignedly, "All I had was gone."

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


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