Muddy Waters helped chart the course of twentieth-century American music. As a singer, guitarist, songwriter, and bandleader, Waters pioneered black blues music and heavily influenced the development of rock and roll. His career included the Mississippi black string band tradition, acoustic solo Delta blues guitar and vocal styles, the early amplified and electric blues of the urban North, and the blues-rock fusion that influenced countless white British and American rock artists. His bands provided the mold for the Chicago blues sound and launched the careers of many important blues innovators and stylists. Tough, physically powerful, dignified, and regal, he became the archetypal American bluesman.
McKinley Morganfield was born in Jug’s Corner in 1913 to poor sharecropper parents who eventually had twelve children. After the death of his mother, Morganfield’s grandmother, Della Jones, took him to live at Howard Stovall’s plantation near Clarksdale. Jones nicknamed her grandson Muddy because of his penchant for playing in the mud. Morganfield began playing harmonica as a child and listened to the recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake. He also directly absorbed the string band music of the Son Sims Four, a local group based on the popular Mississippi Sheiks. Taking Muddy Water (he later added the s) as his stage name, he eventually joined the Son Sims Four and played juke joints and black social gatherings and occasionally white parties and square dances.
Waters also studied the showmanship skills of Charley Patton, a guitarist and singer who lived on the nearby Dockery Plantation. Although Patton influenced blues music with his slide guitar style, syncopation, and lyrical snapshots of Delta life, the most important direct musical influence on Waters was Son House, a charismatic singer and guitarist who played a heavy, percussive style punctuated with stinging slides and deep, intensely emotional vocals. House’s music convinced him to probe deeper into the blues instead of sacred music, but Waters always pointed to the church as a major influence on his singing style. Later in his life, he would say that many of his younger rock and roll imitators had instrumental skill but lacked the necessary background of the southern black church and its range of emotion.
Waters, who drove a tractor at Stovall, had acquired a solid reputation as a musician among his Delta peers by the time he was first recorded in 1941. Folklorists Alan Lomax and John Work encountered Waters while conducting fieldwork for Fisk University and the Library of Congress. Their recordings of Waters consisted of interviews and music, and although he included songs (“I Be’s Troubled,” “Country Blues”) that he would rework into two of his signature tunes, Waters’s solo performances were the rough sounds of Mississippi Delta laborers. He talked about his admiration for Son House, the church music that inspired his blues, and the mundane events that made up his day. Lomax returned to Stovall in July 1942 to record Waters and the Son Sims Four. The Library of Congress issued “I Be’s Troubled” and “Country Blues” on a six-sided package in January 1943.
The recording sessions increased Waters’s confidence in developing as a professional musician, and he knew that doing so would require leaving Mississippi. The lure of World War II industry jobs in the North and increased farm mechanization in the South caused a surge in the migration of black farm laborers to urban industrial centers. In 1943 Waters moved to Chicago, where he immediately found a job in a paper factory. The blues Waters found in Chicago had been refined for the record-buying public. Swing and big bands dominated the venues for live performances. Waters’s first audiences in the city were the house parties of Delta migrants who thought his music spoke to their lives. In these informal sessions, Waters switched to an electric guitar to project his music into the noisy crowds, and in 1946 he recorded eight songs with spare accompaniment for Columbia Records. He recorded thirty-five sides for the Chicago-based Aristocrat label from 1947 to 1949, beginning a relationship with Leonard and Phil Chess that lasted for nearly thirty years.
One of the most formidable bands in blues music included Waters (who had honed his slide guitar technique), Mississippi natives Jimmy Rogers on guitar and Otis Spann on piano, and Louisiana native Marion “Little Walter” Jacobs on harmonica. All of the musicians on the early Chess recordings contributed to the Deep South amplified blues that Waters envisioned, but Little Walter, with a jump blues technique and amplified harmonica blasts that sounded like saxophone solos, particularly proved himself an innovator. One session with this band yielded three Top 10 blues hits—“Louisiana Blues,” “Long Distance Call,” and “Honey Bee”—and established Waters as a major force in postwar black music.
Although Waters was inspired by the acoustic blues of the Delta, he avoided the rural themes of his field recordings. Loud, electric, raw, aggressive, and sinuous, his new music grafted its unmistakably southern roots onto the gritty street life of Chicago’s South Side. It was amplified attitude, and the lyrics boldly proclaimed his new lifestyle. Waters sang proudly and boastfully about power and sex and the deliverance that both could bring from the drudgery of everyday life. Waters exalted masculinity and equated it with independence, confidence, and emotional release. Many of Waters’s best-known songs were written by Vicksburg native and Chess staff songwriter Willie Dixon, including “I’m Ready,” “Forty Days and Forty Nights,” “You Shook Me,” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Long Distance Call,” and “Got My Mojo Working.”
By 1954 nine of Waters’s recordings had appeared on the national record charts, including “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” which entered at No. 5. But Waters’s influence on other musicians threatened to derail his career. Chuck Berry’s successful and seminal rock and roll records on the Chess label opened up new musical frontiers for musicians and audiences. When Waters was in danger of becoming a relic, a fascination with America’s roots music spread in England, and Waters began traveling abroad to new fans. He also performed at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival and received an enthusiastic reception. Young whites caught up in the American folk revival began embracing the blues, and Waters found that his audience was changing, even in Chicago. The idolatry that surrounded Waters appeared most visibly in the styles and songs of British rock musicians, including the Rolling Stones, who named themselves after a Waters song.
While Waters’s music was rediscovered through reissues of his early landmark recordings, Chess tried to put Waters in experimental situations, including a 1968 psychedelic project, Electric Mud. In 1971 Billboard bestowed its Trendsetter Award on Waters, and he won his first Grammy Award for They Call Me Muddy Waters. Waters left Chess in 1975 and began performing with bands that proclaimed his rock and roll pedigree. Texas rock guitarist Johnny Winter produced Waters’s critically acclaimed Hard Again in 1977, featuring Waters’s trademark Delta blues in rocking arrangements. Waters extended his rock audience with a live performance of a track from Hard Again, “Mannish Boy,” in Martin Scorsese’s 1977 concert film The Last Waltz. Winter produced Waters’s last album, I’m Ready, which reunited Waters with Rogers.
Waters died of a heart attack on 30 April 1983. He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980 and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1992 he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.
- Willie Dixon with Don Snowden, I Am the Blues (1989)
- Robert Gordon, Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters (2002)
- Alan Lomax, Land Where the Blues Began (1993)
- Robert Palmer, Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta (1981)
- James Rooney, Bossmen: Bill Monroe and Muddy Waters (1971)
- Sandra Tooze, Muddy Waters: The Mojo Man (1997)
- Muddy Waters, The Best of Muddy Waters (CD, 1987)
- Muddy Waters, The Complete Plantation Recordings (CD, 1993)
- Muddy Waters, Hard Again (CD, 1977)