Muddy Waters: The Father Of Chicago Blues Who Named The Rolling Stones
With classics like "Mannish Boy, "Hoochie Coochie Man," "Rollin' Stone," and "Got My Mojo Working," Muddy Waters originated the Chicago blues sound, and influenced a generation of young artists who'd become rock and roll royalty. By electrifying the American blues, which was previously an acoustic sound, Waters laid the foundation for rock itself, inspiring the Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and many more blues-rockers. Though revered by these young, often British, mostly white musicians, Waters never showed interest in crossing over to their more mainstream (and more lucrative) genre. Though "the blues" is generally a melancholy genre, Waters' playing style and lyrics brought a more joyous and boastful aspect to it.
Muddy Waters Was From Mississippi
The details of Muddy Waters’ birth are a bit unclear and contradictory. He told reporters that he was born on April 4, 1915 in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, but some historians have found documents that claim he was born in 1913 or 1914 and some claim he was born in Jug’s Corner. Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield. His father, Ollie Morganfield, was also a guitarist and musician. His parents separated when he was just 6 months old and his mother died when he was three; his grandmother, Della Grant, then took him to Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale. While his exact birthplace may be uncertain, he did grow up in the hotbed of the blues, which would have an indelible impression on him. Waters had a propensity for music from a young age, and claimed that, from the age of three, he tried to get music out of anything he could find. He picked up the harmonica, which he would play around town at picnics. His name also came from his childhood. When he was young, his grandmother nicknamed him Muddy because of his early fondness for crawling around in the mud and his classmates tacked on the name Waters. He later adopted this name as a stage name.
How Waters Got His Start
He spent his early life in poverty, living as a sharecropper and dreaming of a way out through music. Education was not to provide a way out, as his formal education ended around third grade. He really didn’t care for work around the plantation either. At 17, he sold a horse for about $2.50 and bought his first guitar, a Stella from Sears and Roebuck. He was already considered the best guitarist in his part of the Mississippi Delta when Alan Lomax arrived at Water’s shack in 1941. Lomax recorded Waters for the Library of Congress. Lomax sent him two test pressings and a $20 check. Lomax returned in 1943 to do more recording, and the music he captured was released as an album in 1966, Down on Stovall’s Plantation. That album would be re-released in 1994 as The Complete Plantation Recordings, which won a Grammy. After Waters heard the initial pressings from Lomax, believing in his ability, Waters decided to head to the city. But even after he left Mississippi, he didn’t leave his roots behind, as was apparent in his garden, which he tended himself, at his home in Chicago.
Waters Started The Chicago Blues
According to stories, he had to contend with a racial incident which led him to leave Mississippi for Chicago. To pay the bills, he worked odd jobs during the day and at night he played music on the black music circuit, to rowdy crowds, whose noise overwhelmed his acoustic guitar. In 1945, he started playing his blues on an electric guitar. With this instrument, Waters pioneered the Chicago blues, transforming it and helping to shape the emerging genre of rock and roll. His first band, featuring Little Walter Jacobs and Jimmy Rogers was the first truly electric band, and had a different sound when he was not performing with them. As he said about his music, “They say my blues is the hardest blues in the world to play.”
Waters Recorded On The Chess Label
He had a few unsuccessful attempts at working with record labels, and then found success with the company that would become Chess, run by two Polish Jews, Leonard and Phil Chess. With his album releases, he reached a broader audience. His influence continued to spread with a 1958 tour of England, although his music was not well-received because audiences were not prepared for the volume of his music; they were expecting acoustic blues. However, he did have an impact on musicians such as Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, and the future members of The Rolling Stones.
Muddy Waters' Other Projects
In 1967, he recorded the Super Blues albums with Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and Little Walter for Chess, and then in 1972, with a bunch of British rockers, he participated in recording The London Muddy Waters Sessions. He was critical of this project saying that it did not capture his sound. Waters continued recording throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s on the Blue Sky label.
Muddy Waters' Influence
Before he died in 1983, he was already considered a legend. Brian Jones, the founder of The Rolling Stones was so inspired by Waters’ slide guitar, that he decided to learn it. The Rolling Stones took their name from the Muddy Waters’ song "Rollin' Stone." That same song influenced Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and inspired the name of Rolling Stone magazine (though the phrase itself comes from "a rolling stone gathers no moss," a proverb coined by Publilius Syrus in the first century BC.) Led Zeppelin’s song “Whole Lotta Love” arose out of Waters’ version of Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love,” and his influence continues to be heard in musicians like Jack White, Alabama Shakes and Hozier.
Waters developed a special relationship with Texas blues-rocker Johnny Winter, who produced several of Waters' albums. Three of these won Grammy Awards for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording. Waters' "Mannish Boy" is the basis of George Thorogood's "Bad To The Bone."
The Stones remained indebted to Waters, and when they played Chicago, they would visit him wherever he had a gig, which was often in a neighborhood tavern. During their last show in Chicago before Waters died, they performed with him, at the Checkerboard Lounge. The Rolling Stones were not the only group to perform with Muddy Waters; Eric Clapton, who called Muddy Waters his father, invited him along as a “special guest star” on his 1979 cross-country stadium tour.
Muddy Waters' Legacy
Martin Scorcese was also a fan of Muddy Waters, and during his filming of The Band’s Last Waltz, Scorcese included close-ups of Waters performing “Mannish Boy” which showed just how hard he worked while he was singing, capturing what it took to create his music.
Despite his lasting influence, he did not have commercial fortune during his early years and never became rich from his music. Waters may not have lived a life of luxury, but it was a life lived on his own terms, playing when he wanted to and spending time with his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.