Personalities | Muddy Waters | Fifties | Jazz & Blues

Muddy Waters was without question the creator of the Chicago blues sound, the most important figure in post-war blues and the greatest influence on the British blues movement that followed. The Rolling Stones even went as far as to name themselves after a Muddy song.

Muddy’s music blended the downhome essence of Mississippi Delta blues with the sophistication of Chicago’s more urbanized sound, transforming blues music from a relatively self-contained genre into a worldwide phenomenon. His voice was rich, passionate and fiery, while his guitar style employed a refined slide technique that cut confidently through his vocals with a stinging yet soulful tone. Muddy’s tendency to sing slightly behind the beat gave his blues a laid-back feel, while his bending of notes and variations in pitch to match the emotional intensity of phrase enhanced the sincerity of his music.

McKinley Becomes Muddy

McKinley Morganfield was born in April 1915 in Rolling Fork, Mississippi and was raised by his grandmother Della Jones, a sharecropper on Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale. It was Della who gave him the name Muddy, in reference to his tendency as a child to play in the dirt. His education ended with the third grade and he remained illiterate throughout his life. Muddy was working on the plantation by the time he was 10.

Initially, young Muddy took up Jew’s harp, moving on to harmonica when he was around seven years old. He was a regular churchgoer throughout his childhood, which is where he gained much of his early exposure to music. On weekends, he was also able to hear music in local juke joints and on his grandmother’s phonograph. He was 13 when he heard Leroy Carr’s ‘How Long Blues’ and began to play along. He heard Charley Patton, in person and on record, and also caught Big Joe Williams and the Mississippi Sheiks in Clarksdale. Within a few months, he was playing functions in the area.

In 1932, Muddy bought his first guitar and taught himself to play, performing at picnics and fish fries with a guitarist friend. He became fascinated with Son House, who appeared frequently at area juke joints, and House showed the youngster how to fashion his first slide. Muddy also learned from Patton and his good friend Robert Lee McCollum, later Robert Nighthawk, and saw Robert Johnson play in 1937. Much later, Muddy would declare that his style was a mixture of House and Johnson influences, along with his own innovations.

From Stovall To Chicago

When folk music collector Alan Lomax came to Mississippi in 1941 in search of Robert Johnson, unaware that he had died three years previously, he encountered Muddy Waters and was impressed enough to record him, playing a steel-bodied guitar and using an actual bottleneck as a slide, for the Library of Congress. Lomax returned the following year to make some further recordings with Muddy; on some of these later tracks he was joined by Son Sims or Charles Berry on second...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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