Muddy Waters (1915 - 1983)

McKinley Morganfield, also known as "Muddy Waters" was considered to be the "father of modern Chicago blues" and a major influence and inspiration for the growing British musicians that shaped the blues explosion of the 1960s in the UK. He is arguably the most influential blues guitarist of all time, having helped to change the direction of blues guitar and blues music in general, with his loud, electric blues guitar style of playing, stage presence and natural charisma.


The exact date of Muddy Waters' birth isn't entirely clear it seems. Research has uncovered documents that in the 1930s and 1940s, that before he became famous he reported his birth year as 1913 on his marriage license, recording notes and his musicians union card. In his later years however, Muddy usually said that he was born in Rolling Fork Mississippi in 1915. Also, the 1920 census lists him as five years old on 6th March 1920, suggesting that his birth year may have been 1914.

Also, the Social Security Death Index, relying on the Social Security card application submitted after his move to Chicago in the mid-1940s, lists him as being born April 4, 1913. Muddy's gravestone however gives his birth year as 1915. But in reality, who really cares? The music world is just glad he was born at all!

Sadly, Muddy's mother died shortly following his birth so Muddy's grandmother, Della Grant, raised him. Della gave him the nickname "Muddy" when he was very young because he loved playing in the muddy water of Deer Creek near by. Muddy later changed it to "Muddy Water" and eventually "Muddy Waters".

Muddy started playing harmonica at around thirteen years old and by the age of seventeen was playing the guitar after being heavily influenced by two blues artists in particular, Son House and Robert Johnson.

The shack where Muddy lived during his early years on Stovall Plantation is now located at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Muddy's First Break

In the summer of 1941, the Library of Congress appointed Alan Lomax to travel to Stovall in Mississippi to record various country blues musicians. Lomax was apparently looking for the brilliant Robert Johnson who was one of Muddy's inspirations along with Son House, both of whom Muddy is said to have been heavily influenced by and whom he emulated at functions and parties and similar occasions.

Unfortunately Robert Johnson had passed away around three years earlier before Lomax arrived in Mississippi.  

Muddy Waters said about his first recording with Lomax in Rolling Stone magazine;

"He brought his stuff down and recorded me right in my house, 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 and Just played it and played it and said to myself, I can do it, I can do it."

In July 1942, Lomax came back to Mississippi once more to record Muddy again. Both sessions were eventually released as Down On Stovall's Plantation on the Testament label. The entire recordings were re-issued on CD as Muddy Waters: The Complete Plantation Recordings. The historic 1941-42 Library of Congress field recordings by Chess Records in 1993. They were re-mastered in 1997.

Muddy headed to Chicago in 1943 with the hope of becoming a full-time professional musician. He lived with a relative for a short period while driving a truck and working in a factory by day and performing at night. Big Bill Boonzy who was one of the leading blues-men in Chicago at that time, helped Muddy break into this very competitive market by allowing him to open for his shows in the rowdy and often very noisy clubs. In 1945, Muddy's uncle, Joe Grant, gave him his first electric guitar, which enabled him to be heard above those noisy crowds.

Muddy recorded some songs for Mayo Williams at Columbia in 1946 but they weren't released at the time. Muddy started recording for a new label founded by Charles and Evelyn Aron called Aristocrat Records. The label would later be taken over by two brothers called Phil and Leonard Chess in 1950 who would change the name of Aristocrat to Chess Records.

Muddy Waters played guitar with Albert Luandrew, a.k.a. Sunnyland Slim on piano on "Gypsy Woman" and "Little Anna Mae." These also were not released though. However, in 1948, "I Can't Be Satisfied" and "I Feel Like Going Home" became big hits and Muddy's popularity in clubs began to rise with Muddy's signature tune "Rollin Stone" also becoming a smash hit soon after.

Muddy Water's Commercial Success

At first, the Chess brothers wouldn't allow Muddy to use his working band in the recording studio and he was provided with session musicians instead. Bass player Ernest "Big" Crawford, "Baby Face" Leroy Foster on guitar and drums, and Little Johnny Jones on piano and vocals.

Eventually though, the Chess brothers gave in and by September 1953 Muddy Waters was recording with one of the most acclaimed blues groups in history. On harmonica was Little Walter JacobsJimmy Rogers on guitar, Elga Edmonds (a.k.a. Elgin Evans) on drums and Otis Spann on piano.

Muddy's first band in Chicago shown above, were sometimes referred to as "The Headcutters" or "The Headhunters" due to the fact that they often stole other local band's jobs by engaging in musical duals. This first Muddy Waters band defined the sound of the growing "Chicago Blues" style more specifically known as "South Side" Chicago Blues.

Muddy's band recorded a number of blues classics during the early 1950s such as "Hoochie Coochie Man", written by bass player and songwriter Willie Dixon which reached Number 8 on the R&B charts in 1954. "I Just Want To Make Love To You", also written by Willie Dixon and reached number 4 in 1954 along with "I'm Ready", another Willie Dixon song that also reached number 4 in the same year and lasted nine weeks in the R&B charts.

Muddy's band reigned supreme during the early 1950's Chicago blues scene and set the standards for some of the city's best blues bands and artists.  

Each of the band members recorded and released music credited to them individually as solo artists and along with the success of Muddy's band the way was paved for them to break away and enjoy their own solo careers.

In 1952 Little Walter left when his single "Juke" became a hit. In 1955 Jimmy Rogers quit to work exclusively with his own band, which had been a side line up until that time. Otis Spann continued working with Muddy's band despite having a solo career and many releases under his own name in the mid-1950s. Around the same time in 1955, Muddy Waters had hits with blues rock songs "Manish Boy" and "Sugar Sweet". He had further hits in the R&B charts in 1956 with "Trouble No More", "Forty Days & Forty Nights" and "Don't Go No Farther".

Little Walter continued a long, collaborative relationship after he left Muddy's band in 1952 appearing on most of Muddy's classic recordings throughout the 1950s.  

The individual success of Muddy's band members only goes to show just how good they must have been collectively as one unit!

The UK and Quiet Times

In 1958 Muddy Waters headed for England. The English audiences were shocked as they had never before seen anything like him with his loud, amplified, electric guitar and thunderous beat. Up until then they had only been exposed to blues via the acoustic folk/blues sounds from acts such as Sonny Terry, Brownie McGee and Big Bill Broonzy. 

Muddy apparently showed disappointment when he became aware that many of his own race, and where the blues originated, were becoming increasingly disinterested in blues music while white audiences were becoming more and more interested and respectful of the blues.

Back in America his recorded performance at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival helped to switch on a completely new generation to the Muddy Waters' sound. This recorded performance was released as his first live album entitled 'At Newport 1960'.

Muddy Water's "Rolling Stone" Newport 1960

"Hoochie Coochie Man" at Newport 1960

Since his last big hit in 1956, "I'm Ready", Muddy recorded albums with various "popular" themes such as; "Brass And The Blues", and "Electric Mud" etc. in an attempt by Chess records to follow certain trends. This was a quiet time for Muddy as far as playing 'pure blues' was concerned. In 1967 however, Muddy joined Bo Didley, and Little Walter to record the "Super Blues" album followed by "The Super Super Blues Band" album where Howlin' Wolf replaced Little Walter.  

Muddy went back to England in 1972 where he recorded "The London Muddy Waters' Sessions" with Rory Gallagher, Steve Windwood, Rich Grech and Mitch Mitchell. Their playing however was not up to Muddy's standards by all accounts.

Muddy said;

"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."

Basically, Muddy's sound was electrified Delta Blues. His use of microtones however, in both his vocals and slide playing, made it extremely difficult to duplicate and follow correctly.

"When I play on the stage with my band, I have to get in there with my guitar and try to bring the sound down to me. 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 to play."

On-stage with James Cotton in Toronto, Canada, 1971

by Jean-Luc [CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Muddy's Comeback

Muddy Waters performed on November 25, 1976, at The Winterland Arena in San Francisco, California, for a farewell concert for a Canadian-American roots rock group called 'The Band'. The concert was recorded and released as a record and a film entitled "The Last Waltz", where Muddy played "Mannish Boy" with Paul Butterfield on harmonica.

Muddy & 'The Band' in 1976 - "Mannish Boy"

In 1977 Johnny Winter, a blues guitarist and singer and later a producer, convinced his label, Blue Sky Records, to sign Muddy. This was the beginning of a successful partnership. Winter often told the story, during his live performances, about how as a child, he dreamed of playing with blues guitar legend Muddy Waters. Well in 1977, after Muddy's long-time record label Chess Records went bust, he got his chance. Johnny Winter brought Muddy into the studio to record "Hard Again" for Blue Sky Records, a label set up by Winter's manager and distributed by Columbia. Johnny Winter produced the album and also played guitar with harmonica player James Cotton. "Hard Again" received a Grammy Award in 1977 for 'Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording'.

In total, Winter produced three studio albums for Muddy Waters. The second was "I'm Ready", which included Big Walter Horton on harmonica. This was Muddy's thirteenth studio album and earned him another Grammy Award in 1978. The third and final Blue Sky/Johnny Winter studio album was "King Bee" which was recorded in 1980 and released in 1981. 

A live album was also produced by Winter under the Blue Sky Record label in 1978, entitled Muddy "Mississippi"-Live. It was a best-selling album and earned Muddy Waters yet another Grammy Award in 1979 for 'Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording'.

Muddy Water's partnership with Johnny Winter and Blue Sky Records produced three Grammy Awards for Muddy in total and one for Winter's own album entitled "Nothin' But The Blues", which included backing by members of Muddy's band.

Muddy told Robert Palmer, a 'Rolling Stone' editor, New York Times writer and author of Deep Blues, that Johnny Winter had done remarkable work in reproducing the sound and atmosphere of his vintage Chess Records recordings of the 1950s.

The albums produced by Winter increased the Muddy Waters' profile tenfold, along with the best financial rewards of his life. "Hard Again" was recorded in only two days and returned to the original Chicago blues sound Muddy created 25 years earlier. Johnny Winter's production had been a remarkable success. 

Muddy's Final Years

In 1981, Muddy performed at Chicago's top outdoor music festival, ChicagoFest. He was joined onstage by Johnny Winter and classics such as "Mannish Boy," "Trouble No More" and "Mojo Working" was now played to whole new generation of fans. In 2009 this performance was made available on DVD.

Muddy also performed live with the Rolling Stones at the Checkerboard Lounge later the same year (1981). A DVD of this concert was also released in 2012.

In 1982, Muddy's health was declining dramatically. His last public performance took place when he sat in with Eric Clapton and his band at a Clapton concert in Florida in autumn of 1982.

Muddy passed away on April 30, 1983 in his sleep from heart failure, at his home in Westmont, Illinois USA.

Influences and Tributes

Muddy Water's influences are tremendous to say the least. He apparently helped Chuck Berry to get his first record deal. Muddy has influenced so many different styles of music including; Blues, R&B, Rock n' Roll, Rock, Folk, Jazz and Country.

When he toured England in 1958, it was probably the first time that amplified, modern blues was heard there. It is said that one critic had to retreat to the toilets to write his review because he found the band so loud!

His use of amplification has been described as, "the technological missing link between Delta Blues and Rock 'N' Roll." In 1968 an article in Rolling Stone magazine said; “There was a difference between Muddy’s instrumental work and that of Son House and Robert Johnson, and the crucial difference was the result of Waters’ use of the electric guitar on his Aristocrat recordings; he had taken up the electric version of the guitar shortly after moving to Chicago in 1943."

The Rolling Stones are said to have named themselves after his 1950 song "Rollin Stone" as did Rolling Stone Magazine. Jimi Hendrix also covered the song. Jimi Hendrix said;

"The first guitar player I was aware of was Muddy Waters. I first heard him as a little boy and it scared me to death".

Eric Clapton was a big fan of Muddy Waters when he was growing up, and Muddy's music influenced Clapton's musical career. Clapton's group Cream covered "Rollin' and Tumblin'" on their 1966 debut album "Fresh Cream". The song was also covered at the Monterey Pop Festival by Canned Heat. It was also adapted later by Bob Dylan on his album "Modern Times".

"Whole Lotta Love", by Led Zeppelin is apparently lyrically based upon the Muddy Waters hit "You Need Love", written by Willie Dixon. Dixon wrote some of Muddy's most famous songs, including "I Just Wanna Make Love to You". This was a big radio hit for Etta James. The 1970s rock band Foghat also had a hit with this. 

"Hoochie Coochie Man" was famously covered by The Allman Brothers Band, as did Humble Pie and Steppenwolf.

In 1993, Paul Rodgers (free vocalist) released the album Muddy Water Blues: A Tribute to Muddy Waters, on which were covered a number of Muddy's songs, including "Louisiana Blues", "Rollin' Stone", "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "I'm Ready". A number of famous guitarists including Gary Moore, Brian May and Jeff Beck were involved.

AC/DC'S Angus Young has said Muddy Waters was one of his influences. The AC/DC song entitled; "You Shook Me All Night Long" was influenced by Muddy's song "You Shook Me", written by Willie Dixon and J. B. Lenoir. Earl Hooker originally recorded and released the song as an instrumental before the vocals were over-dubbed by Muddy in 1962. Led Zeppelin also covered it on their debut album.

The well-known film director Martin Scorsese, has been a long-time fan of Muddy's songs and as such has featured them in many of his films including; The Colour of Money, Goodfellas, and Casino. Muddy's 1970s recording of his '50s hit "Mannish Boy" was used in Goodfellas, Better Off Dead and Risky Business. It also features in the The Last Waltz, the 1978 'Rockumentary' of the 1976 concert.

The Beatles' song "Come Together" makes a reference to Muddy; John Lennon sings "He roller coaster, he got Muddy Waters."

The Van Morrison song "Cleaning Windows" from the album "Beautiful Vision" includes the lyrics, "Muddy Waters Singin', and "I'm a Rolling Stone".

American band Bongzilla covered Muddy's song "Champagne and Reefer" on their 2005 album Amerijuanican.


All in all I think its pretty safe to say, that Muddy Waters is arguably one of the most influential blues guitarists that has ever lived and one of the true blues guitar legends. In my opinion, he is quite possibly one of the most influential Western musical artists that has ever lived?! I say this because Rock n' Roll came from the blues, and most, if not all Western music came from Rock n' Roll.

Muddy Waters was one of the very first blues artists to use amplification on the guitar and as a result has inspired some very big names in the music world. They have then gone on themselves to inspire and influence others, which in-turn, has influenced and altered the course of Western music forever.

Thank You Muddy. 

Photo by Greg Goode Ft. Lauderdale, FL [CC-BY-SA-2.0

Muddy Waters at the opening of Peaches Records & Tapes in Rockville, Maryland in the mid-1970s.

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