The Blues Of Muddy Waters: A Magical, Musical Blend

Posted: November 16, 1989

Muddy Waters had a face that was as majestic as the blues. It was defined by high cheekbones, a broad nose and eyes that always held a twinkle. His mouth, topped by a suave, meticulously groomed mustache, was small, except when he smiled, when it seemed big enough to swallow you whole. It was a face whose dignified presence insisted that an exclamation point be put on a line

from his song "Mannish Blues": "Ain't that a man!"

Blues is often a bad dream, with artists dying young, broke or unappreciated - sometimes all three. Not for Muddy Waters. In Chicago, on April 30, 1983, he died in his sleep at the age of 68. A heart attack silenced his peaceful dreams, but nothing could quiet the indomitability of his life's work.

He had long ago taken on the regal countenance of the patriarch to generations touched by his elemental music. He'd seen songs that he'd written ("Rollin' and Tumblin'," "Got My Mojo Working," "Baby Please Don't Go") or defined through his interpretations ("Hoochie Coochie Man," "I Just Want to Make Love to You," "Smokestack

Lightnin' ") become staples of the young white blues bands of the '60s. And he'd been invited to Chicago Stadium to see the rock band that had taken its name from one of his songs - the Rolling Stones.

Muddy Waters, MCA's new boxed set chronicling his legendary quarter-century career with Chicago's Chess Records, offers vivid, visceral justification for the pride that shone through that smiling face.

"I sing deep, down-South blues, straight out of the bottom," says Waters in one of two essays included in the booklet that accompanies the set. "But I made myself classy with it.

"People have told me I should be preaching, looking as I do. They'd say, 'I looked to see a man with a pair of overalls on, cap pulled down over his ears, and just as drunk as he could be.' And I said, 'Not me, baby. I've got my mohair. Not me. That's for the birds.' I'm a gentleman with my blues singing."

MCKINLEY MORGANFIELD

McKinley Morganfield, who got his nickname from his childhood penchant for fishing a muddy stream, was born April 4, 1915, in Rolling Fork, Miss. He modeled his voice after Son House, studied the guitar of Robert Johnson and brought his Delta blues to Chicago in 1943. Early on, he drove a truck six days a week, and played clubs all seven nights. God could rest; Waters had work to do.

Waters recorded a number of singles during the mid '40s, first for Columbia's Okey subsidiary, later for Aristocrat Records, which would soon be renamed Chess. But the real action was taking place in the clubs and at the rent parties where he, his electric guitar and a growing coterie of musicians were tailoring the country blues to an urban environment.

The chronologically ordered tracks of this compilation let you hear how the country blues of the Delta evolved into the urban blues of Chicago. Waters' first big hit, 1948's "I Can't Be Satisfied," finds his slide guitar accompanied by only a bass, but as his voice twists and turns, you can almost hear the call-and-response of the absent instruments. With the success of "I Can't Be Satisfied," Leonard and Phil Chess insisted that Waters stick to his rural stylings, but inevitably the sound of the Southside juke joints crept into his recording sessions.

Critic Robert Palmer, who writes one of the accompanying essays, goes beyond the oft-stated contention that Waters was transforming a rural genre into an urban style, arguing that his early-'50s sessions were also formulating a whole new way of recording popular music. As more players were brought into the studio, they not only worked symbiotically within Waters' well-established groove, but also pushed that sound into a whole new realm. While it's plain that the blues were a musical root of rock and roll, the raucous sound of these recordings was equally influential, for it was here that popular music started to sound truly dangerous.

TREMBLING KNEES

Consider the introduction to "I Just Want to Make Love to You." Otis Spann's piano opens the tune with a bluesy riff that's quickly seconded by the harmonica of Little Walter Jacobs, before both accede to the deep throb of Willie Dixon's string bass. Before Waters has sung a word, your knees are trembling. Then the bluesman states his case: "I don't want you to be no slave / I don't want you to wait all day / I don't want you to be true / I just want to make love to you."

This band - and this performance - exemplify the subtle maturity of the blues. Years ago, getting hip to the blues through white rock stars, my teenage ears could hear the grace but missed the energetic punch of hyped-up rock and roll. Listening again farther down the road, the bottled-up passion is all but palpable, and that much more powerful.

Muddy Waters was probably born a world-class singer, but during the '50s he spoke in golden tongues. It's useful to consider him in the company of his illustrious peers: The scintillating delivery of Howlin' Wolf befit his name - his was truly a call of the wild, and Waters occasionally bayed at the same moon. The staccato vocals of John Lee Hooker were welded to the tap of his foot and the boogie rhythm of his guitar. There's a sweetness to the voice of B.B. King that is comparable to Waters', but King was a pure product of the urban blues, singing the melodic counterpart to his single-note lead guitar. Waters sang from two perspectives - he was equally comfortable delivering declarative melodies or intermingling with the band in a rhythmic manner that reflected the way his slide guitar would curl around his voice in his early country blues.

The combination made Waters the most emotionally varied of the great bluesmen. He'd sing "Trouble No More" (covered by the Allman Brothers) or ''You Need Love" (stolen by Led Zeppelin and retitled "Whole Lotta Love"), as if his voice were another rhythm instrument. Or he'd stop you cold on a song like "Long Distance Call," with the hesitation in his voice anticipating the devastating revelation in the last verse.

The Muddy Waters Band was never as fiery as during the '50s, but if the molten momentum of his music cooled in his final decades, his voice never lost its power to impart great truth. In the '60s, Waters also moved in different circles - not only was he revered by the likes of the Butterfield Blues Band, which joined with Waters' group to record Fathers and Sons in 1969, but by the folk crowd as well. In the late '70s, recording for the CBS subsidiary Blue Sky, Waters attracted yet another generation of fans when he recorded with a hard-boiled band led by blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter.

The breadth of Waters' career can't be comprehensively conveyed by the 72 tracks within this new boxed set. Worthy supplements include the rootsy Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill Broonzy and Folk Singer, and a pair of live albums, Muddy Waters at Newport, 1960, and Fathers and Sons. Stray hits can be found on The Best of Muddy Waters and Trouble No More: Singles 1955-1959. (All are available as Chess reissues.) Two CBS albums, Hard Again and I'm Ready, offer a pleasing peek at a blues veteran showing how his mojo never stopped working.

Yet in these 72 songs, there is a lifetime of joy, pain and the wisdom that comes from both. Waters traveled a long way from Rolling Fork. Fueled by his own songs and others by men such as Willie Dixon, he flew alongside the juicy harp of Little Walter, the classy piano fills of Otis Spann and the tonal eloquence of his own slide guitar. And Waters knew exactly where he was going. On 1950's "Louisiana Blues," he sings of leaving Chicago to go back "behind the sun," and a member of the band says, "Aw, take me with you, man, when you go."

Muddy Waters never did leave Chicago, but when he died, he surely went behind the sun. The music he left continues to shine, a testament to heaven in a world filled with the blues.

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