Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in Issaquena County,
Mississippi in 1913 (He later told people that he was born
in 1915 in Rolling Fork, Mississippi; the reason for this
remains unknown). His grandmother Della Grant 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 voice
, the dark coloration of his tone and his firm almost solid
personality were all clearly derived from House," wrote
Peter 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
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 and working in a factory
by day and playing at night. Big Bill Broonzy was the leading
bluesman in Chicago until his death in 1958 and the city
was a very competitive market for a newcomer to become established.
Broonzy helped Waters out by letting him open Broonzy's
show in the rowdy clubs. In 1945 Waters's uncle gave him
his first electric guitar, which enabled him to be heard
above the noisy crowds. In 1946 Waters recorded some tunes
for Mayo Williams at Columbia but they were never released.
Later that year he began recording for Aristocrat, a newly-formed
label run by two brothers, Leonard Chess and Phil Chess.
In 1947 Waters played guitar with Sunnyland Slim on piano
on the cuts "Gypsy Woman" and "Little Anna
Mae." These were also shelved, but in 1948 Waters's
"I Can't Be Satisfied" and "I Feel Like Going
Home" became big and his popularity in clubs began
to take off. Soon after, Aristocrat changed their name to
Chess and Waters's signature tune, "Rollin' Stone",
became a smash hit.
The Chess brothers would not allow Waters to use his own
musicians (Jimmy Rogers and Blue Smitty) in the studio;
instead he was only provided with a backing bass by Big
Crawford. However, by 1950 Waters was recording with perhaps
the best blues group ever: Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica;
Jimmy Rogers on guitar; Elgin Evans on drums; Otis Spann
on piano; Big Crawford on bass; and Waters handling vocals
and slide guitar. The band recorded a string of blues classics
during the early 1950s with the help of bassist/songwriter
Willie Dixon. "Hoochie Coochie Man" (Number 8
on the R&B charts), "I Just Want to Make Love to
You" (Number 4), and "I'm Ready". These three
were "the most macho songs in his repertoire,"
wrote Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone. "Muddy would
never have composed anything so unsubtle. But they gave
him a succession of showstoppers and an image, which were
important for a bluesman trying to break out of the grind
of local gigs into national prominence."
Waters reigned over the 1950s Chicago blues scene; he was
its most popular artist and led its tightest band, fueled
by hits from Willie Dixon, its strongest composer. On all
these fronts, however, Waters contended with fierce competition
from the gravel-voiced singer Howlin' Wolf. Wolf's band
rivaled Water's all-star lineup, notably featuring the now-legendary
guitarist Hubert Sumlin. Wolf also competed with Waters
for the songwriting attention of Willie Dixon and recorded
a large number of Dixon tunes. Nonetheless, Waters consistently
retained an edge in popularity and esteem. Both Waters and
Wolf are held in immense regard by modern rock and blues
aficionados, but Waters is generally considered to be the
more influential artist.
By the early 1950s, Waters was at the height of his career.
"By the time he achieved his popular peak, Muddy Waters
had become a shouting, declamatory kind of singer who had
forsaken his guitar as a kind of anachronism and whose band
played with a single pulsating rhythm," wrote Guralnick
in his Listener's Guide.
Waters's success as the frontman led others in his group
to seek the same recognition. In 1953 Little Walter left
when his single "Juke" became a hit and in 1955
Rogers quit to form his own band. Waters could never recapture
the glory of his pre-1956 years as the pressures of being
a leader led him to use various studio musicians for quite
a few years thereafter.
England and low-profile
He headed to England in 1958 and shocked his overseas audiences
with loud, amplified electric guitar and a thunderous beat.
When R&B began to die down shortly after, Waters switched
back to his older style of country blues. His gig at the
Newport Jazz Festival in 1960 (see At Newport 1960) turned
on a whole new generation to Waters's Delta sound. After
which English musicians of the likes of Eric Clapton and
the Rolling Stones expressed a fondness for the new sound,
Waters switched back to electric circa 1964. Thereupon expressing
anger when he felt that members of his own race were turning
their backs to the genre while a Caucasian audience had
shown increasing respect for the blues.
However, for the better part of twenty years (since his
last big hit in 1956, "I'm Ready") Waters was
put on the back shelf by the Chess label and recorded albums
with various "popular" themes: Brass And The Blues,
Electric Mud, etc. In 1972 he went back to England to record
The London Muddy Waters Sessions with four hotshot rockers—Rory
Gallagher, Steve Winwood, Rick Grech, and Mitch Mitchell
— but their playing wasn'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," he told Guralnick.
"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."
Waters sound was basically Delta country blues electrified,
but his use of microtones, in both his vocals and slide
playing, made it extremely difficult to duplicate and follow
correctly. "When I plays onstage with my band, I have
to get in there with my guitar and try to bring the sound
down to me," he said in Rolling Stone. "But no
sooner than I quit playing, it goes back to another, different
sound. My blues look so simple, so easy to do, but it's
not. They say my blues is the hardest blues in the world
In 1977 Johnny Winter convinced his label, Blue Sky, to
sign Waters and the beginning of a fruitful partnership
was begun. Waters's "comeback" LP, Hard Again,
was recorded in just two days and was as close to the original
Chicago sound he had created as anyone could ever hope for.
Winter produced/played and pushed Waters to his limit. Former
Waters sideman James Cotton contributed harmonica on the
Grammy Award-winning album and a brief but well received
tour followed. "He sounds happy, energetic and out
for business," stated Dan Oppenheimer in Rolling Stone.
"In short, Muddy Waters is kicking in another mule's
In 1978 Winter recruited Walter Horton and Jimmy
Rogers to help out on Waters's I'm Ready LP duplicating
the critical and commercial success of Hard Again. The comeback
continued in 1979 with the lauded LP Muddy "Mississippi"
Waters Live. "Muddy was loose for this one," wrote
Jas Obrecht in Guitar Player, "and the result is the
next best thing to being ringside at one of his foot-thumping,
head-nodding, downhome blues shows." King Bee the following
year concluded Water's reign at Blue Sky and all four LPs
turned out to be his biggest-selling albums ever.
In 1983 Waters died in his sleep, aged 68. At his funeral,
throngs of blues musicians showed up to pay tribute to one
of the true originals of the art form. "Muddy was a
master of just the right notes," John Hammond Jr.,
told Guitar World. "It was profound guitar playing,
deep and simple. . . . more country blues transposed to
the electric guitar, the kind of playing that enhanced the
lyrics, gave profundity to the words themselves." Two
years after his death, the city that made Muddy Waters (and
vice versa) honored their father by changing the name of
43rd Street to Muddy Waters Drive. Following Waters's death,
B.B. King told Guitar World, "It's going to be years
and years before most people realize how great he was to
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