Muddy Waters: American Blues Legends
It’s a hot summer day on the Stovall Plantation in the Mississippi Delta. A young black child plays in the muddy waters of the deer creek. That boy with an affinity for splashing around in that water will grow up to take Robert Johnson’s Delta Blues to Chicago. There he turns it into something different, something new. That boy will become the Man, Muddy Waters. He and Robert Johnson will be considered the two most influential figures in American Blues
Muddy Waters is Born
Muddy Waters was born April 4th, 1913 (1914 or 1915) as McKinley Morganfield in the Jug’s Corner community of rural Issaquena County, Mississippi, but always claimed Rolling Fork as his birthplace. However, He moved to Clarksdale in 1918 after his mother passed away to live with his grandmother on the Stovall Plantation, It is there where he got his name and found his passion for music. His fondness for playing in the muddy creek earns him his nickname from his grandmother. Around the age of 5, he picks up the harmonica. Later learns to squeeze an accordion, beats rhythms on a kerosene can and tinkers with a juice harp. Around the age of 17, he gets his first acoustic guitar.
The First Recording
He begins to perform with the Son Sims Four as a vocalist. It is with the band that he sees the bottleneck style of guitar play that he later emulates and perfects. Soon he gains a reputation for having a strong singing voice. It is this reputation that leads to his first recording. Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress was looking for musicians to record for a study in conjunction with John Work III an African-American musicologist at Fisk University. Work was studying the effect of music on the daily life of African-Americans. They wanted someone in the mode of the late Robert Johnson. As Lomax asks around, the name that kept coming up was Muddy Waters.
When Waters heard that a white man was looking for him, he did not trust him, assuming he is revenue agent looking for his illegal moonshine still. It was only after Lomax drank water from the same cup did he relax and trust him. He recorded the songs “Can’t Be Satisfied” and “Feel Like Going Home.” Later in 1942, Lomax returned, and Waters recorded several more songs for the Library of Congress. The songs are on the album The Complete Plantation Recordings. In these recording, Waters sounds very much like any typical Delta Bluesman of the period.
The Birth of the Chicago Blues
In 1943 after a dispute with an overseer on the plantation and with his growing musical confidence, Waters moves to Chicago. He soon focuses more and more on his music. He begins to play house parties and meets other musicians. His uncle who preceded him to Chicago gives him an electric guitar. The acoustic guitar is excellent for a quiet street corner or a small juke joint in the Mississippi Delta. However, the noise of the city and the larger, louder crowds needed a more powerful sound. Waters once said, “When I went into the clubs, the first thing I wanted was an amplifier. Couldn’t nobody hear you with an acoustic.” He also turned an optimistic spin on the blues. His sound reflected the optimism of postwar African Americans. Willie Dixon said that “There was quite a few people around singing the blues, but most of them was singing all sad blues. Muddy was giving his blues a little pep.”  Once Waters plugged in a new genre of Blues came to life, transforming traditional Delta Blues to the new Chicago Blues Sound.
By 1946, his popularity has grown to the point that he is recording songs for major labels like Colombia and RCA. However, it is Aristocrat that finally signs him to a recording contract, but his recordings gain little recognition. That is until 1950 when Chess Records buys Aristocrat. It is with Chess records that Water’s career takes off. He releases hits like “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Got My Mojo Working”, and “Rollin Stone.” A song about power, rootless and ruthless independence. It went on to inspire other song titles, a magazine, and a legendary band you may know.
Muddy Waters Performances
By 1951, Muddy Waters had established a full band with Otis Spann on piano, Little Walter on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers on a second electric guitar and Elgin Evans on drums. These five players defined the Chicago Blues and Rock and Roll Band template used for generations. Due to the reluctance of Leonard Chess, they did not record together until 1953. Chess found success recording with small combos and was hesitant to change. Despite this, Waters had 14 songs chart between 1951-1956. His music was typically full of sexual bravado, almost always about sex. Sex with someone else’s girlfriend, someone else’s wife, mainly sex and trouble. Trouble in which he escapes, symbolizing his strength and freedom.
Muddy Waters Performances
In 1955, Chuck Berry arrived in Chicago looking for a recording contract, and Muddy Waters recommends Chess records. Chess and Berry release “Maybellene” its success, and the new Rock ‘n’ Roll sound starts to diminish the popularity of the blues. With this, touring opportunities begin to dwindle, and Waters goes back to playing local clubs in Chicago. That is until he is invited to tour Europe were Blues is gaining popularity. He becomes an international star and helps inspire a new generation of Rock acts leading to the British Invasion.
A New Audience
He returns to the States to perform at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. It was a particularly pivotal point in his career. It gained him a new younger, whiter American fan base. Waters was able to adapt to the changing times, and his electric blues sound fit in well with the “love generation.” Waters continued to record with Blues greats and Rock Legends throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. He won his first Grammy in 1971 for the album, They Call Me Muddy Waters.
Waters continued to perform and inspire until his death in 1983. Rock legends like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Johnny Winter call him their single-greatest influence. Playing in Muddy’s band proved a to be a doorway to a solo career. Original bandmates like Little Walter, Otis Spann, and Jimmy Rogers had solo careers, so did future bandmates like James Cotton, Paul Oscher, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Waters is a charter member of the Blues Foundation’s Blues Hall of Fame, and a 1987 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
 Szatmary, David P. (2014). Rockin’ in Time: A Social History of Rock-and-Roll. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education. ISBN 978-0205675043.