He roller coaster/he got Muddy Waters. Not many people could pull off being one of the coolest people on the planet with a name like ‘Muddy Waters’. His real name was McKinley Morganfield which I think is an infinitely cool name. I’d love to be called McKinley Morganfield. But our pal McKinley loved playing in muddy water when he was a child living in a shack on a plantation so he was called Muddy. And then Muddy Water. And then Muddy Waters. There’s some uncertainty as to when Muddy was born. At different times he seems to have thought he was born in 1913 or 1915. Either way, he was born a good while ago. I decided on Muddy Waters as a Legend of the Month because he’s a bit of a legend. I first got into blues when I made a feeble attempt at learning to play the guitar in about 2002/03. I listened to people like Buddy Guy and John Hooker and B.B King. Around the same time I was into The White Stripes in a big way (still am). The White Stripes are basically blues rock punk garage people. But listening to Jack White talking about the old blues musicians makes you really respect these guys. Well, it did for me anyway. I heard him talking about Son House, and his favourite song ‘Grinnin’ in Your Face‘: “By the time I was about eighteen, someone played me Son House, that was it for me. It spoke to me in a thousand different ways, didn’t know that you could do that, just singing and clapping, and it meant everything, everything about rock and roll, everything about expression and creativity and art, one man against the world, and one song. That’s my favourite song, still is. Became my favourite song the first time I heard it, and it still is. I heard everything disappearing. It didn’t matter that he was clapping off time, it didn’t matter that there was no instruments being played. All that mattered was the attitude of the song.”
But when I got very into the blues buzz was after I watched the film Cadillac Records with Adrian Brody and Beyoncé and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters. As uncool a reason as this might be to get into the blues, it was still a way in and that’s okay with me. This is when I downloaded loads of stuff and read about things and became a proper fan. I became a little bit obsessed with Howlin’ Wolf for a while. I wanted to write about a blues musician. I thought about who deserved this great honour and I considered (and rejected) Lead Belly (killed someone), Son House (killed someone), Robert Johnson (killed by someone). This obsession with killing and being killed wouldn’t really prevent me from writing about them, they were all great, of course. But Muddy Waters has a little bit more appeal for me. He stands out. In mud puddles. I originally had the ‘in mud puddles’ to come as a follow line to ‘He stands out,’ but then I thought, “maybe that shit band Puddle of Mud is yet one more thing inspired by Muddy Waters.” So I made a new paragraph here to write this, and I’m going to research that now. Turns out it’s not inspired by Muddy Waters. This is probably good. Muddy Waters seems to have influenced everyone in the world. He even influenced influential stuff. For example, probably the most influential music magazine, Rolling Stone, is named after a Muddy Waters song, as is one of the most influential Rock bands of all time. Indeed Muddy Waters played a show with The Rolling Stones on more than one occasion.
He seems to have picked up a guitar for the first time at the age of seventeen and played to emulate the other dudes I mentioned above, particularly Son House and Robert Johnson. He played at parties that I’d say were mental. Apparently the floor nearly caved in at his first wedding ,which was also around this time, and this is when he started to make babies, not necessarily with his wife. His career seems to have kicked off in earnest when he was about twenty-five. He’s another guy that was recorded by Alan Lomax on behalf of the Library of Congress. Muddy said that when he was recorded and he heard it played back, that it sounded like any other recorded musician. He knew he could do it. He could be a musician. Within two years he was moving to Chicago to become a full time musician. He nailed that. Eventually becoming the King of the Chicago Blues. One important thing happened in Chicago; he was given an electric guitar. With this he basically invented a new sound; his electric blues which he played in loud ass clubs. He became popular in the clubs and started recording with Chess Records (then Aristocrat Records). This is when shit got real. Pretty quickly he recorded ‘Rollin’ Stone’ which as a legendary song, speaks for itself. The band he put together for his recording sessions is often described as the greatest blues band ever assembled. And this set-up that he wanted, even though Leonard Chess didn’t want it, is basically the invention of the rock and roll band. For the first time there was the set up of guitarist/singer, bass player, drummer, keyboards all playing together. This is huge. And iconic. And important. Muddy Waters is quoted as saying; “I made Chess Records, and they made me.” In the early days and through the glory days of Chicago Blues, the 1950s, Chess Records paid their recording artists in Cadillacs. Which is all well and good until you want to buy a litre of milk. How many litres of milk can you get for a Cadillac Series Sixty Special Fleetwood? On the one hand it might have been that the record companies recording the blues musicians of this time were getting rich while the musicians themselves just got by. On the other hand it was an outlet they never had before, and now they were all up to their eyes in Cadillacs. The musicians made most of their money from live performances. So they basically made hit records to promote their shows. And the electric blues, lead by Muddy Waters, ruled the scene with hit after hit. Chicago was the place to be for blues in the 50s. It was an entirely cosmopolitan town with a huge influx from the south, bluesmen like Muddy and his buddies (had to write that), and Europeans looking for a new home after the second World War destroyed their homes, Poles like the Chess family for example. Everyone had the blues, and everyone danced. If you haven’t listened to Muddy Waters, do give him a go. He had an incredible voice and a natural rhythm that makes me bop while I’m chopping my onions. Rock and roll has had it’s fair share of ups and downs in the years since, at it’s best it can be something special, but for the most part they are lacking the cool coolness of Muddy Waters. His songs are confident, they know what they are. The songs are in no rush, they take their time, they do their thing and they’re so powerful. Muddy Waters embodied the attitude in his songs. His songs were the blues and he was the blues. The blues are sexual. There’s something sexual in every blues song. They could be talking about slavery and plantations but they’ll use the metaphor of a sexual relationship, or they’ll be talking about fighting and it will be sexual or they’ll be talking about sex, ‘I Just want to Make Love to You’, and it will be sexual.
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You could say Robert Johnson was the seed from which rock and roll grew. But The Arctic Monkeys didn’t step out of Johnson’s corpse. Muddy Waters was the link. Via people like Chuck Berry who Muddy helped to get a record deal with Chess Records. For me there’s a direct link between Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. Johnson did two important recordings and died a year later. But Muddy had a forty year career, and if he never picked up that electric guitar, who knows what may or may not have happened. Would there have been a Chuck Berry and an Elvis Presley? Would there have been a Beatles and Rolling Stones? A Rolling Stone magazine and a Bob Dylan and a Led Zeppelin and an Eric Clapton? The whole English Invasion thing was all these people who were influenced by the blues. And the American bands were at the same thing. The Animals, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Canned Heat, Cream were all blues rock bands, all styled exactly on that Muddy Waters recording blues bands. And don’t just think he was in the right place at the right time. Muddy worked hard and he was as talented as anyone else. He had standards and a rare feel for music so high that even other world-class musicians couldn’t impress him. He once went to London to record with Rory Gallagher (who many would suggest is the greatest everything ever), and Steve Winwood and Rick Grech and Mitch Mitchell and Muddy had to stop, they weren’t up to his standards. “These boys are top musicians, they can play with me, put the book before ’em and play it, you know. But that ain’t what I need to sell my people, it ain’t the Muddy Waters sound. An’ if you change my sound, then you gonna change the whole man.” Muddy took it easy during the 60s recording only six albums (if you sense irony here that’s entirely your own input). During the 70s he hit his stride, maybe even more so than he had in the 50s. Don’t quote me on that, but every time he released an album in the 70s he won a Grammy, this happened six times. That’s somewhat impressive. Oh, also in the 70s he got custody of his ‘outside children’ that he made in the previous decades and invited them all to live with him, he had no kids with his wife. Another kid arrived on his doorstep and one introduced himself to daddy Muddy after a concert.
This guy is ridiculously influential. Blues, R’n’B, rock & roll, hard rock, folk, jazz and country music have a lot to thank him for. Eric Clapton has cited him as a massive influence, and they were also friends, Clapton was best man at Muddy Waters’ wedding. Jimi Hendrix covered Rollin’ Stone which was also called Catfish Blues. I could be here all day, so I’ll just list some cool people he influenced or covered his songs: Etta James, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Canned Heat, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin (their Whole Lotta Love is based on his You Need Love), The Allman Brothers, Humble Pie, Steppenwolf, Paul Rodgers, Gary Moore, Brian May, Jeff Beck, Angus Young (AC/DC’s You Shook Me All Night Long is based on his You Shook Me), Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac. Ah look, everyone was influenced by him. He’s a legend. And he’s the HeadStuff Legend of June. Go on and enjoy him. I reckon you could do a Kevin Bacon ‘degrees of separation’ style thing with Muddy Waters and degrees of influence. Feel free to try me on that, suggest someone.
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Here are three wonderful drawings of Muddy Waters by the supremely talented Jacob Stack: