Waters’ approach to the blues underwent a dramatic metamorphosis after moving to Chicago, where he befriended and played with such estimable figures as Big Bill Broonzy and John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson. Waters switched from acoustic to electric guitar in order to be heard over the din of patrons at the clubs he played on Chicago’s South Side. After a few false starts, Waters’ recording career began in earnest soon after pianist Sunnyland Slim introduced him to Leonard Chess, co-owner of the Aristocrat label (later Chess Records). Working at the famed Chess Studios on South Michigan Avenue, Waters cut many of the greatest recordings in the blues canon. He developed a fruitful team approach to record-making with producer Leonard Chess, bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon, and various musical associates.
In a relaxed, informal studio setting Waters and band laid down a string of citified, plugged-in electric blues that bore the rustic stamp of their Mississippi Delta underpinnings. A flood of blues-standards-to-be from Waters commenced with the 1948 release of “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” a raw, uncut Delta blues. Other classic sides included songs written for Waters by Willie Dixon (“I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “I’m Ready”) and by Waters himself (“Mannish Boy,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”).
Waters was a fierce singer and slashing slide guitarist whose uncut blues bore the stamp of his mentors, Robert Johnson and Son House. For his own part, Waters served to mentor or at least launch many prominent blues musicians, many of whom went on to careers as bandleaders in their own right. The list of notable musicians who passed through Waters’ band includes harmonica players “Little Walter” Jacobs, “Big Walter” Horton, Junior Wells and James Cotton; guitarists Jimmy Rogers, Pat Hare, Luther Tucker and Earl Hooker; pianists Memphis Slim, Otis Spann and Pinetop Perkins; and drummers Elgin Evans, Fred Below and Francis Clay.
Waters’ greatest studio recordings were released as singles during the Fifties, and his first album – a collection of singles entitled The Best of Muddy Waters – didn’t appear until 1958. The Sixties found Waters performing to an ever-widening and appreciative audience as the younger generation acquired an insight into rock and roll’s essential grounding in the blues. In 1960, Waters performed a fiery, unforgettable set at the Newport Folk Festival, released that same year as Muddy Waters at Newport.
Waters also capitalized on the folk-music craze of the late Fifties and early Sixties with a series of albums that found him assaying acoustic blues on such albums as Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill (a tribute to rural bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, released in 1960), Muddy Waters, Folk Singer (1964) and The Real Folk Blues (1966). Less successful were attempts to contemporize his sound with such ill-advised efforts as “Muddy Waters Twist” (a 1962 single) and Electric Mud (an album of psychedelic blues from 1968). More satisfying by far were a couple of albums – Fathers and Sons (1969) and The London Muddy Waters Sessions (1972) – that found Waters accompanied by such vanguard rock musicians as Mike Bloomfield and Eric Clapton. His thirty-year tenure with Chess Records ended in 1975 with the release of The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album. From here, he moved to the Blue Sky label (a Columbia subsidiary).
Waters’ audience grew exponentially following his electrifying performance in The Last Waltz, a film documentary (produced by Martin Scorsese) of The Band’s farewell concert. Staged at San Francisco’s Winterland ballroom, the Thanksgiving 1976 event was a star-studded affair. Water’s scalding rendition of “Mannish Boy” – on which he was accompanied by The Band and Paul Butterfield on harmonica – was an unforgettable highlight. Subsequent to that, he kept the momentum going with a series of uncompromising albums for Blue Sky that were produced by longtime fan Johnny Winter. These included Hard Again (1977), I’m Ready (1978), Muddy Mississippi Waters Live (1979) and King Bee (1981). All were critical and popular successes.
In addition to his musical legacy, Waters helped cultivate a great respect for the blues as one of its most commanding and articulate figureheads. Drummer Levon Helm of The Band, who worked with him on The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album and at The Last Waltz, had this to say about him in a Goldmine magazine interview: “Muddy taught us to take things in context, to be respectful, and to be serious about our music, as he was. He showed us music is a sacred thing.”
Waters, who remained active till the end, died of a heart attack in 1983. He was 68 years old. In the years since his death, the one-room cedar shack in which he lived on the Stovall Plantation has been preserved as a memorial to Waters’ humble origins