McKinley Morganfield (April 4, 1913 or 1915 – April 30, 1983), better known as Muddy Waters, was an American blues musician, generally considered the leading exemplar of Chicago blues style, which is typified by an electrified, hard-driving rhythm that dominated blues recording industry in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Discovered on a Mississippi cotton plantation by the legendary musicologist Alan Lomax in 1941, Waters was part of a major migration of southern blacks to northern cities, notably Detroit, Chicago, and New York City, in the early decades of the twentieth century. The integration of southern "folk" blues with the urban experience led to ground breaking innovations in African American music that would influence the emergence of rock and roll in the 1950s.
From 1948-55 Waters produces a series of now classic blues recordings with an all-star band of virtuoso musicians. Waters influence on popular music became unmistakable following the British discovery of American blues and the trans-Atlantic popularity of British bands such as the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds, and the Bluesbreakers. Waters and other American blues artists would tour Europe in the 1960s and 70s and find greater fame and commercial success as senior "statesmen" of the blues. Waters' thinly veiled sexual allusions, long a convention in both rural and urban blues recordings and performances, were increasingly incorporated into mainstream popular music, with rock bands pushing boundaries in lyrics and stag performances.
The blues, particularly the searing blues of the Mississippi Delta, expressed profound spiritual longing in starkly emotional terms. Blues masters such as Robert Johnson and Son House, an ordained minister and an important early influence on Waters, explored the anomie of southern blacks who endured virulent racism and, too often, violence during the Jim Crow era . Religious references and spiritual forces sometimes haunt Waters' songs, not as redemptive themes but as potent influences or supernatural powers. "I had the blues, I mean, I had them bad," Waters said in the 2003 PBS documentary "Can't be Satisfied." "...That’s my religion, blues."
McKinnley Morganfield was born in Jug's Corner, an area of Issaquena County, Mississippi, near the Mississippi River. The nearest town, Rolling Fork, is also sometimes listed as his birthplace.
Waters' mother, Berta Jones, died when he was very young, and he was subsequently raised by his grandmother. His fondness for playing in mud earned him his nickname at an early age. Waters started out on harmonica but by age 17 he was playing the guitar at parties and fish fries, emulating two blues artists who were popular in the south, Son House and Robert Johnson. He was soon in a regional outfit, the Son Sims Four.
Waters was first recorded at his cabin in Stovall, Mississippi, by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress in 1941. Lomax had traveled to Mississippi to make recordings of Robert Johnson, unaware that Johnson had been dead for three years by that time. Upon learning of Johnson's demise, Lomax was pointed in the direction of Waters. Although the sessions won Waters no immediate fame, they did have a powerful effect on him, giving him hope that he could make it big. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine Waters recalled:
Man, you don't know how I felt that Saturday afternoon when I heard that voice and it was my own voice. Later on he sent me two copies of the pressing and a check for twenty bucks, and I carried that record up to the corner and put it on the jukebox. Just played it and played it and said, "I can do it, I can do it!"
Waters longed for a break from the hardscrabble life of rural Mississippi and, like many other bluesmen, saw his music as a possible way out. After a fight with a plantation overseer in 1943, he moved to Chicago and took a factory job. In Chicago he switched from acoustic to electric guitar, which was becoming more popular among black musicians as it allowed them to be heard in heavily crowded city bars. Waters' guitar-playing soon gained notoriety due to his powerful use of the bottleneck slide on his electric guitar. Meanwhile, Big Bill Broonzy, the top blues musician in the Chicago scene at the time, gave Muddy and important break by inviting him to serve as his warm-up act.
By 1946, Waters had gained the attention of record producers. He cut some tracks for Columbia which went unreleased at the time. His first recordings for Aristocrat Records (which would later evolve into Chess Records) featured Waters on guitar and vocals, supported only by an acoustic bass. Later, he added a rhythm section and the harmonica of Little Walter to form his classic Chicago blues lineup. Although Bill Broonzy was still bigger on the national scene, Waters' richly deep voice, his ultra-macho personality, and his powerful back-up band ultimately made him the public face of Chicago Blues. B. B. King would later cite him as the "Boss of Chicago."
Waters' bands were a "who's who" of Chicago blues musicians: Little Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells, and others on harmonica; songwriter Willie Dixon on bass; Otis Spann and Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins on piano; Elgin Evans on drums; Pat Hare, Jimmy Rogers, and other notables on guitar.
Waters' best years both artistically and commercially were the early 1950s. Although he continued to turn out excellent recordings, his fortunes gradually began to wane as Chess Records turned their attention to rock & roll artists such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley in the mid-1950s.
Many of the songs he performed have since become standards: "Got My Mojo Working," "Mannish Boy," "Hoochie Coochie Man," "I Just Want To Make Love To You," and "Rollin' and Tumblin'" have all become classic songs, frequently covered by bands from many genres. The Rolling Stones even took their name Waters' song, "Rolling Stone."
Indeed, the birth of rock and roll can be seen as an amalgamation of the musical styles typified by Muddy Waters in the blues field and Hank Williams in country. These seemingly disparate types of music were being soaked up in the musical melting pot of Memphis, Tennessee area by record producer Sam Phillips and the artists he was beginning to record, including a young Elvis Presley.
Still vital well into the era of psychedelia, Waters' music was embraced by many 1960s rock musicians. His managers, Willie Ashwood Kavanna and Bob Messenger, booked him with these "young rockers" as a way to introduce his music to college audiences. They convinced him to record one of these concerts, which resulted in a collaboration with Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and others—resulting in the album Fathers and Sons. The previous year, Chess had released Electric Mud, which featured wild, Jimi Hendrix-style arrangements of some of Waters' classic songs. The LP attempted to trace the lineage of the Delta blues to the then-current form of hard rock, as imported by various British groups, many of whom were spiritual descendants of Muddy Waters and other first generation bluesmen. Traditional blues fans were outraged, and Muddy himself was less than thrilled with the results, describing the album as "dog sh-t."
Most of Muddy Waters' studio output from the early and mid-1970s is considered by critics to have lost its edge. However, he made a memorable appearance in the film and soundtrack of The Band's The Last Waltz. Subsequently, on February 6–7, 1975, Waters went to Woodstock, New York to record what was to become his final Chess album, the Grammy-winning Woodstock Album. Backing him were The Band's Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, plus Paul Butterfield, Pinetop Perkins, and Bob Margolin. Clearly enjoying the busman's holiday, Waters turned in an acclaimed performance. Helm has called his production of the Woodstock Album perhaps his own greatest achievement.
A meeting shortly thereafter with Texas guitarist/vocalist Johnny Winter resulted in three more of Waters' most highly-regarded albums. Based on Winters' stripped-down production philosophy, the albums Hard Again, I'm Ready, and King Bee show Muddy Waters at his re-energized, essentialist best.
Muddy Waters died quietly in his sleep on April 30, 1983, at his home in Westmont, Illinois, at the age of 68 (or 70, depending on the source for his birthdate) and is buried in the Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, near Chicago. Westmont renamed a street for Waters and holds an annual blues festival there.
Waters is the father of blues musician Big Bill Morganfield.
The influence of Muddy Waters is substantial, impacting a variety of music genres: blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, folk, jazz, and country. Many of the top blues musicians came through Muddy Waters' band (see above). Waters reportedly helped Chuck Berry get his first record contract. The Rolling Stones named themselves after Waters' 1950 song, "Rollin' Stone," also known as "Catfish Blues," which Jimi Hendrix covered as well. Hendrix was strongly influenced by Muddy Waters' style, as well as by guitarists who played with Waters, such as Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin. One of Led Zeppelin's biggest hits, "Whole Lotta Love," is based upon the Muddy Waters hit, "You Need Love," written by Willie Dixon. Dixon wrote several of Muddy Waters' most famous songs, including "I Just Want to Make Love to You" (a big radio hit for the 1970s rock band Foghat), "Hoochie Coochie Man," and "I'm Ready." Angus Young of the rock group AC/DC has cited Waters as one of his influences, paying tribute through the band's cover of "Baby Please Don't Go." Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and others have credited him with providing one of the most direct lines from traditional blues to rock and roll.
Several complete video versions of Muddy Waters performances are available online:
All links retrieved October 29, 2018.
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