Muddy Waters... the name conjures up different images for many, but the recurring one is the title he so justly deserved - the King of Chicago Blues. Leaving his Clarksdale home in the early 1940's, McKinley Morganfield headed north, only to return home again, a couple of times before settling for good in Chicago. Once there, it didn't take long for his name to begin echoing around the neighborhoods where he got his start playing house parties. Big Bill Broonzy, an artist Muddy respected and admired, took the young newcomer under his wing and helped him plant his feet.
Waters' first city recording session was in 1946 for Columbia, a few years after he waxed a few sides for Alan Lomax, who was making southern field trips for the Library Of Congress. Muddy's initial studio journey in Chicago was issued as by James 'Sweet Lucy' Carter, but by 1947, he had come to the attention of Leonard Chess, through Sunnyland Slim, a journeyman piano player. The meteoric rise of Leonard Chess to the top of the Aristocrat label took time, beginning as he did as a lowly salesman hustling records out of the back end of his Buick, but he booked time for Muddy, an artist he believed could be successful, who in turn, cut a few superb sides that were left in limbo. The popular style in Chicago at the time was the small jump combos who played a 'polite' brand of blues, but Muddy's sessions were rude, electrified Delta Blues.
Returning in the spring of 1948, Waters cut once again, this time laying down a fierce and furious "I Can't Be Satisfied," which when issued in June, was distributed to barber shops, record outlets, beauty parlors, and barrooms from the trunk of a car. The initial pressing of a few thousand copies was gone by day's end, and Muddy later recalled that when he went to buy a couple for himself, stating that he was the man who cut the disc, he was allowed only one at the steep price of $1.10 - an increase of thirty-one cents over the regular price. Chicago thus began a blues renaissance, so to speak, and the spearhead was Muddy Waters, playing a hard driving, amplified Delta-styled blues that would soon find many following his lead.
Muddy teamed up with a crew consisting of Jimmy Rogers, Baby Face Leroy Foster, and soon, Little Walter Jacobs, and began haunting talent contests and nightspots calling themselves "the headhunters." Their primary concern was to take the stage and dismantle the surroundings, and indeed, the host band, by blowing them off the stage. Waters was finding growing crowds in the spots he was playing, and wanting to record with the individuals who backed him, he met with Leonard Chess' refusals. After the success of "I Can't Be Satisfied," Leonard would be hard-pressed to alter the winning combination of Muddy and Big Crawford, the upright bass player who supplied the bottom on Muddy's early sides. By 1950, the label's name had been changed to Chess, and it was finally in October of that year when Leonard reconsidered his stern regard for recording Muddy alone with only Crawford in support. "Louisiana Blues" was Muddy's first Chess recording to feature two longtime contributors; Jimmy Rogers on second guitar, and Little Walter Jacobs supplying laid-back harmonica lines, while Elgin Evans and Big Crawford anchored the rhythm section.
What this two-CD set consists of are 50 tracks spanning 1947 to 1972 with over two-hours of playing time, incredible sonic quality, detailed liner notes from Mary Katherine Aldin, and complete (though occasionally questionable) session details. As an anthology, it succeeds masterfully by focusing on Muddy's style from his early days, to his later connection with Willie Dixon, who penned some of the biggest hits the Chess label would benefit from, and Muddy's final sessions for a label he was with for better than twenty years, on what some say was a mere handshake between two businessmen.
Disc one features 26 titles, including "I Can't Be Satisfied," the brooding "Rollin' Stone," and "Walkin' Blues," both cut in February of 1950 and issued on Chess 1426. Leonard Chess removed himself from the recording booth a few times and became a sideman, adding his rather unsteady bass drum work for "Country Boy," the down-home "She Moves Me," and "Still A Fool," all with a very earthy quality to them. There is ample proof of Willie Dixon's genius as a writer for Muddy with "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man," "I Just Want To Make Love To You," and "I'm Ready;" all three continuing to reverberate throughout barrooms and clubs with today's crop who continue to pay homage to a master bluesman.
(L to R - Muddy, Jerome Green, Otis Spann, Henry Strong, Elgin Evans, Jimmy Rogers)
Disc two picks up 24 sides rooted in the middle-to-late 1950's with "Mannish Boy," the harrowing "Trouble No More" from 1955, a swinging "Diamonds At Your Feet," with Little Walter's malfunctioning-amplifier solo (session details incorrectly credit Walter Horton), "Rock Me," 1958's "She's Nineteen Years Old," featuring James Cotton's tough harp followed by a shattering vocal climax by Waters, and the bristling "Walking Through The Park," with Pat Hare's brilliant guitar break. Muddy's final decade with the Chess imprint is found on seven sides recorded between June of 1962 and March of 1972, and though aging, he maintained a highly original style. A newer, younger generation of sidemen began stepping up, and it's here we get a taste of Buddy Guy adding guitar to "My Home Is In The Delta" from the 'Folk Singer' LP, and James Madison, better known as Pee Wee, on "The Same Thing."
When time is taken to consider Muddy Waters' importance, his abilities as a leader become perfectly clear. After developing a name and reputation, he surrounded himself with the absolute best of Chicago's blues sidemen, many which went on to become stars in their own right; Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Otis Spann, Junior Wells, James Cotton, Earl Hooker, and more. Muddy recognized their convictions and allowed them plenty of room to breathe with his music, and it was his unselfish attitude that makes these performances all that much better in the long run.
(Muddy painting by Denis Gérablie)
There are no soft spots in this excellent double-disc set, just pure blues... some chaotic, some reflective, but all as pure as Muddy was himself; a man whose background and upbringing was similar to hundreds, if not thousands, who sharecropped in Mississippi, and decided to look for better futures in the North. Muddy's success in finding that better future was due to his deep belief that he had something to offer. He offered his talents, which became art in the truest sense of the word, and that art lives and breathes today. "The King of Chicago Blues" will never be silent.
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