Muddy Waters Biography - Clear As the Blues

Author: Peter J. Black  

Muddy Waters. McKinley Morganfield in real life was born in Issaquena County, Mississippi. He is known as an American blues musician and considered "the Father of Chicago blues", and was actual father of Big Bill Morganfield and Larry "Mud Morganfield" Williams. The Rolling Stone magazine ranks him at no. 17 of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

It was discovered that Muddy claimed he was born in 1915 in Rolling Fork, Mississippi but there were documents found later that revealed his real date of birth to be on April 4, 1913. Due to the early death of his mother, his grandmother took care of him and perhaps that's where the confusion arose. Nobody will ever know.

His nickname "Muddy" was coined due to his fondness in playing in the mud. He himself later changed it to "Muddy Water" and finally "Muddy Waters". The first musical instrument he played was the harmonica. However, he fell in love with the guitar when aged 17 after being inspired by two blues artists in the south: Son House and Robert Johnson. It was House who greatly influenced his style of thick, heavy voice, his dark tone color, and his firm, almost solid personality, but it was Johnson who contributed to his embellishments, imaginative slide techniques and more agile rhythms.

Muddy married Mabel Berry on November 20, 1932, but Mabel left him when Muddy had his firstborn with another woman, a sixteen-year-old named Leola Spain. When he moved to Chicago in 1943, he left another girl named Sallie Ann. He sure was popular with the girls - for a while!

Muddy Waters started his music career proper in the 1940s, and he joined the Silas Green tent show in 1941, singing and playing the harmonica. After his partnership with Silas Green, he met Allan Lomax and John Work who had the job of recording various country blues musicians for the Library of Congress. Muddy was very happy with his first recording experience which gave him more self-confidence in his performances. The following year, Lomax came back to him for another recording. The two works were released together under the Testament label.

He then tried his luck by becoming a full-time professional musician. In 1943 one of Chicago's leading blues men Big Bill Broonzy gave him a much needed break by allowing him to perform in his shows, usually in the opening number that nobody really wanted to take on.

His voice could be hardly heard amidst the noisy crowd, but thanks to his uncle Joe Grant who gave him his first electric guitar, he was able to use that to rise above the noise. Because of that he got noticed by audiences who were just waiting for the main acts to appear.

In the remaining half of the 40s he was given work by a number of different companies, such as working for Mayo Williams at Columbia and later that same year for Aristocrat run by Leonard and Phil Chess. He worked with Sunnyland Slim and did "Gypsy Woman" and "Little Anna Mae" in 1947. The year 1948 was his lucky year because his two songs "I Can't Be Satisfied" and "I Feel Like Going Home" became big hits. This was followed by a smash hit under Aristocrat which has changed its name to Chess Records - his signature song "Rollin' Stone".

Muddy's success became unstoppable, and in the early 1950s he reigned over the Chicago blues scene along with his former harmonica player Little Water Jacobs and Howlin' Wolf. Their relationship became more of a friendly competition even if later they went on their own. Muddy made the Chicago blues go electric and his work was fuel for many blues bands that came after him.

The year 1954 was the peak of Muddy's career. Having such great influence on other artists of his time, he inspired them to be successful in their own solo careers. Little Water Jacobs was able to score his hit in "Juke" when he left Muddy's band in 1952. Another band member, Rogers, also quit in 1955 to work with his own band, and Otis Spann enjoyed his solo career starting in the mid-50s.

In 1958, Muddy moved to England which at that time had only very limited exposure to blues. With his loud, amplified electric guitar and thunderous beat, he shocked audiences. Indeed Waters's sound generation was turned on in 1960. His superb performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960 produced his first live album entitled "At Newport 1960".

The next few years in England consisted of performances with old and new acquaintances. However, Muddy never varied from his own style that was very simple blues yet extremely difficult to duplicate and follow correctly.

When his long-time wife Geneva died of cancer in 1973, he was so devastated that he started smoking which his doctor advised him to quit. He did so, but due to his declining health Muddy's last public performance was in 1982 when he sat in with Eric Clapton's band in Florida.

During his relatively short-lived success Muddy Waters created such a tremendous influence, not only on the blues music, but also on R&B, rock 'n' roll, folk, jazz, and country. His 1950 song "Rollin Stone" inspired The Rolling Stones to name their band after it.

Muddy Waters died in his sleep on April 30, 1983 at his home in Westmont, Illinois. He was inducted into The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.

They were fitting tributes to a man who changed the blues in Chicago, and who influenced the music and lives of people the world over, from the 1940s to the UK band The Rolling Stones in the 1960s. Muddy Waters deserves every accolade he received, in life and in death.

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