Muddy Waters emerged from the wetlands of the Mississippi Delta to bear a story of survival and determination. Waters arose during an era of racism, yet he eventually affected the music industry forever. He became an electric-slide guitarist who would not go away without letting the world know that greatness could be found in the corners of Small-Town America.
In the beginning
McKinley A. Morganfield was born on April 4, 1913, in the Mississippi sharecropping hamlet of Jug's Corner. That tiny sprout of a town is situated in Issaquena County, along the Mississippi River.
McKinley's mother, Berta Jones, died when he was very young, which left his grandmother to look after him. When he was three years old, his grandmother found better circumstances for the two of them at the Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale. The new sharecropping plantation became home for McKinley until he reached the age of 30.
The swampy stretches of the Delta constituted a fantasy land for a boy growing up in the Mississippi "sticks." When he was a toddler, McKinley's grandmother gave him his nickname, "Muddy Waters."
Young Muddy's passion for music soon became evident from the magical sounds of joy that frequently resounded from his grandmother's sharecropper shack. A hollow twang from a kerosene can, the clumsy patchwork of sounds emanating from a broken-down accordion, followed by his grandmother's encouragement of his squeaky harmonica playing, were the stepping stones for a five-year-old blues musician-in-the-making. In 1930, Muddy purchased his first acoustic guitar and easily found harmony through the tips of his fingers.
Muddy was a strong singer, which landed him a vocalist gig with a local band called the Son Sims Four. The guys in the band helped Muddy play various guitar styles, including a signature bottleneck technique that he would employ until the end of his days.
As any musician would agree, playing music is not the most lucrative vocation. Muddy was forced to find a way to make ends meet in addition the marginal livelihood of a sharecropper. From early on, Muddy scavenged bottles for bootleggers, which paved the way for him to hustle his own whiskey. Muddy did whatever it took to survive, including fur trapping, and running an automobile shuttle service when a horse would probably have been more reliable than his 1938 Ford.
Muddy Waters is discovered
The Sons Sims Four began to travel outside of the Stovall area, and gained popularity. In the fall of 1941, two traveling musical researchers were on the lookout for information about black musicians and their way of life. When the researchers came through the area, they kept hearing that they should check out Muddy and his band of blues artists. John Work III, a musicologist from Nashville's Fisk University, and Alan Lomax, from the Library of Congress, found Waters' cabin, then quickly set up recording equipment. After recording "Can't Be Satisfied," and "Feel Like Going Home," Lomax returned to Washington, D.C., and entered those original songs into the Library of Congress as part of a folk music history collection.
That Fisk-Library of Congress visit sparked an urge in Waters to become one of the godfathers of the new blues sound. After a racially intimidating trip to St. Louis, Waters returned home to find his old ways of small-town life comforting. However, Alan Lomax would not let things rest, and returned to Stovall in 1942 to record many other riffs — some just with Muddy and others accompanied by the Son Sims Four.
The summer of 1943 became the beginning of stardom for Waters, following an argument with the plantation boss. The confrontation motivated Waters to travel to the northern reaches of booming Chicago, Illinois. The idea of moving to a major city gave the pioneering blues player plenty of pause. Fortunately, friends and family awaited Waters' arrival, and his second day in Chicago yielded a job in a factory. He held various jobs, none of them as stimulating as the night-club and house-party gigs that he relished.
By 1944, Waters had discovered the electric guitar. The loud, rustic sound that boomed from his first hand-me-down electric guitar and raspy amp began to distinguish his Southern, bottleneck, slide style of the blues.
It did not take long for Chicago-area record producers to catch wind of some of the grittiest and nastiest blues in the Windy City. J. Mayo Williams, an independent producer, recorded "Mean Red Spider" in 1946, which was released under another musician's name. Waters also recorded two other sides for Columbia and RCA that languished on a dusty shelf for decades.
Aristocrat Records found him in 1947, and recorded songs supported by Waters' guitar and vocals, accompanied by a double bass. He eventually incorporated a rhythm line, and the sweet harmonica work of Little Walter, to establish his Chicago blues band.
Over the next four years of enriching the blues, Waters added some great men of music to his increasingly popular style. Such artists as Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, James Cotton, and Junior Wells jammed on harmonica; Willie Dixon plucked the bass; Otis Spann, and Pinetop Perkins performed on piano; and Pat Hare, Jimmy Rogers, and many other great guitarists expressed their love for the blues.
Big hits and the Rock 'n Roll influence
The Fifties proved to be prosperous for the onetime Mississippi sharecropper. Famous blues artist, B.B. King, would later reveal that in the 1950s, Waters was the "Boss of Chicago." With many hits during this decade — such as "Got My Mojo Working," "She's Nineteen Years Old," "Hoochie Coochie Man," and "Just Make Love To Me" — Muddy was unstoppable. Unstoppable until Rock 'n Roll burst onto the music scene in the mid Fifties.
Chess Records, which spun off from Aristocrat Records, began to extend their contracts to such Rock 'n Roll greats as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. This transformation in musical style forced Waters into the back seat of popular music. Waters had always been able to improvise to make things work; the rock 'n roll phenom meant that his style would have to change as well.
With the addition of drums and more electricity, Waters' altered style was eagerly accepted by many 1960s rock musicians. His producers booked him with younger audiences, which resulted in a recorded concert with a collage of modern rockers. The gig included Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, and other talented musicians — resulting in the album, Fathers and Sons. A year prior to the successful concert, Waters' manager, Ashwood Kavanna, persuaded the "Boss of Chicago" to release an assortment of his hits to form an album with a Seattle/Jimi-Hendrix guitar style. The new album became known as Electric Mudd.
In the Seventies, Waters got involved in filming and recording his band's The Last Waltz. On February 6 and 7, 1975, the veteran made his famous appearance at Woodstock, New York, where he recorded with his band the Grammy-winning Woodstock Album.
A year after performing in Woodstock, Waters left Chess Records, following the sudden death of Leonard Chess. He began work on an album with the Blue Sky Label of CBS Records. Accompanying him at CBS was legendary vocalist/guitarist Johnny Winters, to record the three highest-quality albums of his career. Grammy-winning Hard Again, I'm Ready, and King Bee became a stimulating trio of albums by means of Winters' mostly live production style.
Soon after the successful King Bee album was cut, Waters fired everyone in his band because of unresolved money matters. Nevertheless, he continued to shine for six years with such rock legends as Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. During those final days of glory, Muddy managed to land two more Grammy awards.
On April 30, 1983, Muddy Waters passed away at his home in Westmont, Illinois, where his remains are buried at Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois. His contribution to music's colorful culture gained him a 1987 induction into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, as well as being honored with the Record Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.
Muddy's cabin was dismantled, taken on tour to various musical museums, then re-assembled for the final time in the Delta Blues Museum of Clarksdale, Mississippi. A guitar was made from some of the planks off of his cabin walls. Both Chicago and Westmont have streets named after the blues legend, and every year in Westmont, the city puts on a Muddy Waters Blues Festival.