Muddy’s fondness for playing in mud earned him his nickname at an early age.
How many blues artists could boast of an alumni of band members that includes Otis Spann, Little Walter, Junior Wells, Fred Below, Walter Morton, Jimmy Rogers, James Cotton, Leroy Foster, Buddy Guy, Luther Johnson, Willie Dixon, Hubert Sumlin, and Earl Hooker, just to name a few? Muddy Waters gave these and many more their first big break in music while creating a style known now as Chicago blues (guitar, piano, bass, drums, and harmonica).
“Contemporary Chicago blues starts, and in some ways may very well end, with Muddy Waters,”wrote Peter Guralnick in Listener’s Guide To The Blues. From the 1950s until his death in 1983, Waters literally ruled the Windy City with a commanding stage presence that combined both dignity and raw sexual appeal with a fierce and emotional style of slide guitar playing.
Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, in 1915 but grew up in Clarksdale, where his grandmother raised him after his mother died in 1918. His fondness for playing in mud earned him his nickname at an early age. Waters started out on harmonica but by age seventeen he was playing the guitar at parties and fish fries, emulating two blues artists who were extremely popular in the south, Son House and Robert Johnson. “His thick heavy tone, the dark coloration of his voice and his firm almost stolid manner were all clearly derived from House,” wrote Guralnick in Feel Like Going Home, “but the embellishments which he added, the imaginative slide technique and more agile rhythms, were closer to Johnson.”
In 1940 Waters moved to St. Louis before playing with Silas Green a year later and returning back to Mississippi. In the early part of the decade he ran a juke house, complete with gambling, moonshine, a jukebox, and live music courtesy of Muddy himself. In the summer of 1941 Alan Lomax came to Stovall, Mississippi, on behalf of the Library of Congress to record various country blues musicians. “He brought his stuff down and recorded me right in my house,” Waters recalled in Rolling Stone, “and when he played back the first song I sounded just like anybody’s records. 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.’” Lomax came back again in July of 1942 to record Waters again. Both sessions were eventually released as Down On Stovall’s Plantation on the Testament label.
In 1943 Waters headed north to Chicago in hopes of becoming a full-time professional. He lived with a relative for a short period while driving a truck an
I always have loved Muddy. He is my favorite blues man bar none.