"The blues had a baby and they called it rock & roll".
It is clear that rock & roll is ‘bastard music’, the fruit of many sources, but, if we could look into its DNA, the largest percentage would correspond to the blues and, specifically, to the Chicago electric blues that Muddy Waters led for several decades. In a month that celebrates both the date of his birth, April 4, 1913, and his death, April 30, 1983, from Guitars Exchange we want to celebrate this legendary figure by remembering our favourite songs.
I Can't Be Satisfied (1948)
In the famous recordings Muddy Waters made for the Library of Congress in 1941 there was a song called I Be's Troubled which, like the other recordings, was pure Delta blues played in the style of his masters, Son House and Robert Johnson. However, seven years later, in one of his first singles for Chess (at that time still called Aristocrat) Muddy Waters would transform it into I Can't Be Satisfied. It was not the name change that was most important, but the fact that Waters put a D'Armond FHC pickup on his Gretsch Synchromatic and began to electrify the Delta blues in Chicago with the only help of bassist Ernest "Big" Crawford. The lyrics are also sharpened and Waters gave his most dedicated disciples, the Rolling Stones, the idea for the title of their best known song: (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction.
Rollin’ Stone (1950)
But if we wish to talk about the deep imprint of Muddy Waters' music, we could take as an example this song, which helped name one of the most famous bands of all times, one of the most mythical songs (Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone) and one of the most famous magazines, Rolling Stone. As was usual among the bluesmen of the time, despite being apparently written by Waters himself, the song was really an adaptation of another traditional blues, Catfish Blues, but the singer and guitarist makes it totally his own with little more than his deep voice and his electrified Gretsch Synchromatic. Despite not being one of his biggest hits this was the song, the first he recorded for Chess and the second single to be released once the company changed its name, that allowed him to quit his day job and devote himself entirely to music.
Hoochie Coochie Man (1954)
Despite having electrified the Delta blues, his early recordings for Aristocrat/Chess still drew from the same sources as his masters, but by the time Muddy Waters recorded Hoochie Coochie Man on January 7, 1954 this was pure Chicago blues, the style that was going to be the main parent of rock & roll. It was not for nothing that Bo Diddley took this song that Willie Dixon wrote ex profeso for Waters and transformed it into his I'm A Man, turning those stops and go’s into one more part of the language of blues and rock, later resulting in Oh Well and Black Dog. But Hoochie Coochie Man is one of the biggest songs in the history of the blues, with Waters recording it with part of his well-known band, the Head Hunters, as well as other wonderful guests that make the lineup that recorded the original version of this song a true blues’ All Star. There was Muddy Waters on vocals and guitar, Jimmy Rogers on second guitar, Little Walter on harmonica, Otis Spann on piano, drummer Elgin Evans and the composer himself, Dixon, on double bass. Just like you have to know Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode to play rock & roll, you can't really play the blues without being aware of Hoochie Coochie Man.
I Just Want To Make Love To You (1954)
Another classic that Dixon wrote for Waters and that features a very similar lineup to Hoochie Coochie Man (although with Fred Below replacing Evans on drums). Walter shines on harmonica and Waters enters his ‘imperial period’; producing the goblet from which hundreds of bands and artists would drink, including great versions of this song by Etta James and the Rolling Stones.
Mannish Boy (1955)
As I wrote above Bo Diddley had found great success in adapting Hoochie Coochie Man into his I'm A Man, something that the competitive Waters did not like too much, so he decided to make the definitive version, inspired by Diddley's song and producing what may be the best song of his career. When you throw a challenge against the greatest, it is undertandable that you have to accept your defeat, as happened to Diddley. And in this monument Waters brings out all his swagger and the depth of his voice, in a song that can also be seen as a proclamation of racial pride. Those cries of "I'm A Man" are understood in another context if we take into account that in the South where Muddy Waters grew up, black men like him were always referred to as "boy" by the white population. The song became his trademark and would have multiple later versions such as on Electric Mud and the splendid Hard Again. It would also be the song of choice in his appearance on The Band's The Last Waltz.
Forty Days And Forty Nights (1956)
By the time Muddy Waters recorded this excellent song, in January 1956, the rivalry between the two Chicago blues greats, himself and Howlin' Wolf, was at its peak. One of the reasons being that Waters had taken Wolf's guitarist, his beloved Hubert Sumlin -who plays here on his Les Paul Gold Top-, the same guitar Waters was using at the time. The lead guitarist on this song is the amazing Pat Hare whose dirty, distorted style was perfect at a time when rock & roll was exploding. Little Walter shines again on harmonica for another of the undoubted classics from the leading figure of electric blues.
Got My Mojo Working (1957)
Preston Foster may have written the song but Muddy Waters made it his forever from the moment he first recorded it in December 1956. However perhaps the most impressive version was the one he recorded on July 3, 1960 on stage at the Newport Festival, an absolute rave-up with Waters giving it his all and doing dance moves befitting a man half his age, drummer Francis Clay giving eveything and the band proving that they could live up to their reputation. At a time when rock had lost its initial thrust, many saw in Waters and his band the lost excitement, making Live At Newport, released that same year, one of the most important live shows in history.
You Shook Me
We have already talked about the enormous impact that Muddy Waters had on the Rolling Stones, now it is time to talk about the tremendous influence he had on the only band that can dispute Jagger and Richards' band’s title of "greatest band in the history of rock & roll": Led Zeppelin. It is clear that Jimmy Page was an enormous fan of Waters, although on this occasion they arrived at this song through the excellent cover version made by the Jeff Beck Group in Truth. The original song has one of the strangest origins in Waters' career and that is that You Shook Me began as an instrumental to the greater glory of Earl Hooker's guitar (possibly his Univox copy of a Les Paul Custom), called Blue Guitar. Leonard Chess felt that there was a lot of potential there and decided to reach an agreement for Waters to record it, but instead of having Muddy's band, what they did was to record Waters' voice over the original track, with lyrics by Dixon and Waters improvising the melody over Hooker's excellent slide work.
You Need Love
The result of You Shook Me was so good that the formula was repeated again for Waters' next single. Hooker and his band were hired by Chess to record several tracks for Waters, but since Waters was in Ohio on tour, they recorded several instrumental tracks, including the basis for You Need Love, which prominently employs the Big Moose Walker organ. Dixon wrote the lyrics and melody, based on other Waters tracks, and finally Waters recorded his portentous voice when he returned. The single was released in 1963, although in the UK it was part of an EP with You Shook Me, Little Brown Bird and Muddy Waters Twist, becoming a favorite of several British youngsters like Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Steve Marriott. The latter would make an outrageous version with the Small Faces in 1966, twisting Dixon's words into wild screams "Woman Youuuu Neeed loving. It was the song with which they always opened their concerts; concerts in which Robert Plant was usually seen. A few years later Jimmy Page appeared with the heaviest riff that had been recorded to date and Plant began to improvise on Waters' theme, but based on Marriott's inflections - thus Whole Lotta Love was born.
The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock And Roll, Pt. 2
In 1977 Johnny Winter produced an excellent album for Muddy Waters- Hard Again - a work in which musicians like Pinetop Perkins, the great James Cotton on harmonica and Winter himself played, but if anything stood out was the great voice of Waters who had not lost a bit of his 'mojo'. There were several versions of his classics but also some new songs like this excellent The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock And Roll, Pt. 2 with which Waters reconfirmed his enormous footprint as the ‘father of rock’, and the fact that the genre clearly drew heavily on his influence. He was also responsible for giving the first opportunity to Chuck Berry with Chess, by recommending him to the owners. We can never be sufficiently grateful to him.