In his later years, when Muddy Waters started making the money he was long overdue, he’d call up his friend John Lee Hooker and the pair would jokingly brag about the cars they owned. If Waters said he had a new Mercedes then Hooker would call back a few weeks later and tell Waters he had just bought a Mercedes with a phone in the back. It was a small perk in a long career of endless nights gigging, playing or recording for little return.
For playing blues didn’t make money unless you were somebody, as Waters told the N.M.E.‘s Charles Shaar Murray in 1977:
The kind of blues I play, there’s no money in it. You makes a good livin’ when you gets established like I am, but you don’t reach that kind of overnight million dollar thing, man…no way.
If you play nuthin’ but blues, it’s hard to get big off of it. It takes years and years and still the kids come in and go, ‘Who he?’
That night in 1977, Waters was playing a gig with Johnny Winter at some small deathtrap venue in the village of Willimantic—which according to folklore means the “Place of the Swift Running Waters.” As journalist Murray discovered, Waters was right the audience knew more about Johnny Winter—ironically the whitest blues musician of all time, as the Texas guitarist, was of course an albino—than the legendary king Muddy Waters—even after forty years of hard work.
Forget Elvis—Muddy Waters is the true King of modern rock, r’n'b and all the rest. Without Muddy Waters things would have been a whole lot different and sure as hell not nearly as good.
McKinley Morganfield was born on April 4, 1913 or 1915—depending on who you believe—in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. He was the second son of farmer Ollie Morganfield. When his mother died in 1918, McKinley was sent off to live with his grandmother in Clarksdale, who first christened the boy “Muddy”:
‘I was raised in the country, and out there they didn’t have no concrete, ya know… just muddy country roads and people used to clean their feet off on our front porch. I’d be playing around crawlin’ in the mud, probably eatin’ it…and my granmother started callin’ me her little muddy baby.
‘I started to play harp [harmonica] when I was seven. At nine I was really tryin’ to play. At thirteen I thought I was good. The kids I used to sing to would call out “Hey Muddy Waters play us a piece.”
‘I didn’t like that “Muddy Water” thing, ya know…I didn’t mind my grandmother calling me Muddy, but that whole Muddy Waters thing, I didn’t like it. It just growed on me.’
As a teenager, Waters picked up his first influence, bluesman Charley Patton. Then Son House—from whom he learnt the finer points of bottleneck guitar—and Robert Johnson—whose style Waters copied before finding his very own distinct voice. He traded in his harmonica and took up the guitar. Waters had known for some time he was going to be a musician—he was going to be someone. Ever since he could remember music was what he wanted to do. If he couldn’t make it music, he figured, then he’d be a preacher, a ball player—“something outstanding.”
‘I didn’t want to grow up with no one knowin’ me but the neighbourhood people. I wanted the world to know a lot about me. I thank my God I got it through…’
By day, Waters worked on the cotton plantations. But he was soon earning more in a night playing blues than he made in a week working for someone else. His early recordings were for the Library of Congress in 1941—an organization which Charles Shaar Murray points out “treats folk musicians as wildlife specimens rather than artists.” Waters never made money on these recordings until about a quarter of a century later when they were released as Down on Stovall’s Plantation.
In 1943, Waters moved to Chicago to become a full-time musician. He earned his money playing bars and clubs. In 1944, he made a major change to his sound by purchasing his first electric guitar. With the release of his single “I Can’t Be Satisfied” in 1948, Waters changed the course of modern music—its beat and loud powerful electric sound announced the imminent arrival of rock ‘n’ roll.
As Murray writes in Shots from the Hip:
[Waters] consolidated his success with a series of harder, heavier, more passionate and more electric hits, and began to assemble, member by member, the toughest and most exciting band in town. Muddy Waters’ Blues Band was to become, not only the best and most influential band in Chicago, but what was for all practical purposes, the first electric rock band.
More Muddy Waters, after the jump…