Known as the father of Missippi delta blues, Muddy Waters took the blues to Chicago and electrified it in every sense of the word. When he first started playing in clubs in Chicago in 1943, due to the rowdiness of the city crowds, he had to switch to an electric guitar; this is when he also began using a slide. Born McKinley Morganfield, he got his now-iconic nickname from his grandmother who raised him and, believe it or not, she noticed that he like to play in the mud a lot.
Born on this day between 1913-1915, the tragic details of McKinley Morganfield’s birth remain a stain on the history of American culture for Black Americans during the earlier part of the century, birth certificates were harder to obtain, which leaves the exact year in question. He began playing the harmonica at the young age of eight or nine and switched to the guitar by 17. It would be a pivotal moment in Waters’ life.
His first recordings came in 1941 when Alan Lomax recorded him for the Library of Congress. After three years of playing around Chicago, he began developing a name for himself as the go-to guy for authentic blues. In 1946, he began recording albums, first for Colombia records, and then the famous blues and soul label company, Aristocratic Records, run by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess. In 1948, Muddy Waters found some success with his hits, ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’ and ‘I Feel Like Going Home’.
By the mid to late ’60s, American audiences had largely moved on from the blues greats such as Muddy Waters. He never made much money from his music and, as a consequence, would have to return to a day job.
By the time The Rolling Stones – named after one of Muddy Waters’ songs – started hitting it big in Britain, Waters found a new audience in young white British and American kids. The great bluesman had toured England in 1960, which did a lot in laying down the foundation for bands such as the Stones, who based a large majority of their songs in the blues and covered a lot of his songs.
It has been documented that Muddy Waters came to greatly appreciate what The Stones did for him, and that he admired the ‘white kids’ playing blues. Although, when confronted with the question of whether the white kids could sing the blues better than he could, he replied: “No, you know better than that, they don’t have enough soul, not enough hard times.”
Muddy Waters also spoke about what the blues means to him, stating: “My blues is based on hard times. I came up as a poor kid, my family was poor. I had a lot of trouble with women. I like women. That’s where my problems lay, between money problems and women problems and good times too.”
Waters also didn’t care too much about money and that he cared more about having ‘a good life.’ “I want to live good, I don’t want to be a millionaire, too much on your head. If you make a million dollars, your mind is trying to work out how to save it, but time is still passing on.” As a father, he cared more about spending time with his kids, “And your kids grow up, you better enjoy them, but you’re gonna get old and die and leave them.”
We dove into his catalogue and found the six best Muddy Waters songs one needs to hear as a way of introduction to the great bluesman.
Muddy Waters’ six definitive songs
‘Rollin Stone’ (1950)
Recorded and released in 1950, this is Muddy Waters’ interpretation of an old delta blues tune, called ‘Catfish Blues’, that dates back to as early as the 1920s in Mississippi. The track is extremely influential, if not just for its title.
The Rolling Stones named their band after it; when Brian Jones was asked what the name of his band was, he panicked at the moment as he needed a name; he saw the Muddy Waters record lying nearby.
The expression, ‘Rolling Stone’, refers to the traditional proverb, ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss.’ ‘Rollin Stone’ was the first one track to be released on Chess Records, and did not reach the R&B alternative charts that were set up at the time, solely for black musicians.
‘Long Distance Call’ (1951)
Released in ’51, this one proved to be Waters’ first charting song; it reached number eight on the US R&B Chart. In the subsequent years, it has become a mainstay in the blues canon, and in particular, is known for Waters’ brilliant vocal sustain of what are called ‘blue notes’ — typically, a blue note is defined by its variation in pitch from the rest of the song.
Due to the song’s commercial success and nature, Muddy began getting his name in news publications around the country. The New Musical Express called Muddy Waters “a genuine contemporary blues singer”. The climax of the song also features Muddy Waters gospel influence. Waters commented on his time as a child and how his music is every bit informed by religious gospel music:
“I used to belong to church. I was a good Baptist, singing in the church. So I got all of my good moaning and trembling going on for me right out of church.”
‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ (1954)
This track was written by Willie Dixon, Chess Records’ resident and supreme songwriter. Muddy Waters was the first to record and released it in 1954.
As a matter of fact, due to the success of the track, it established both Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon as artists. Dixon as a paid Chess songwriter, and Waters as a hoodoo magic, ramblin’ bluesman.
It instantly became a crowd favourite because of its stomping and innovative introduction of stop-time musical arrangements, which became a well-known technique in jazz and blues. It is also one of Water’s first numbers recorded with a full backing band. It is definitely one of his best.
‘Mannish Boy’ (1955)
Probably Muddy Waters’ most popular song, ‘Mannish Boy’, was released in 1955 and featured a call and response type format. The song was spurred by another bluesman, Bo Diddley’s ‘I’m a Man’. The track has got some powerful energy to it, both political and sexual. Muddy Waters once said about the lyrics, “I’m a Man!”
“Growing up in the South, African-Americans would never be referred to as a man – but as ‘boy’. In this context, the song is an assertion of black manhood.”
Sometime in the late ’70s, Muddy Waters was playing at the Checkerboard Club, and the Stones walked in. Muddy Waters invited them onto the stage, one by one, to sing this track. It’s a great piece of footage:
‘You Need Love’ (1963)
This is probably Muddy Waters’ most controversial song as a lawsuit was later filed in regards to a certain other legendary band ripping the track off. Written by Willie Dixon, who would later file a lawsuit against Led Zeppelin who alleged that Led Zeppelin had appropriated it too much in their well-known track, ‘Whole Lotta Love’.
Jimmy Page claims that the guitar riff is his own, however, Robert Plant admitted to taking some lyrics from the song, but it was meant as a nod per se, rather than a blatant rip off. Jimmy Page apparently got the idea for ‘Whole Lotta Love’ when he heard The Small Faces cover ‘You Need Love’, and then got inspired by the mixture of the two. Take a listen to the original, and you decide if Zeppelin did in fact steal the track.
‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ (1968)
In the late ’60s, Muddy Waters decided to reimagine some of his classic songs in a psychedelic rock format. He recorded Electric Mud with Rotary Connection as a backing band. Waters and the producer of the record, Marshall Chess, attempted to reach a more rock-oriented audience.
“I came up with the idea of Electric Mud to help Muddy make money. It wasn’t to bastardize the blues,” noted Marshall Chess, who was the son of Leonard Chess who had signed Muddy Waters in the first place.
He continued, “It was like a painting, and Muddy was going to be in the painting. It wasn’t to change his sound; it was a way to get it to that market.”