The emissary of electric blues

By Sergio Ariza

Muddy Waters was the key man in the electrification of the blues, turning Chicago into his new musical kingdom. When on July 3, 1960, he took the stage at the Newport festival he had been the undisputed king of Chicago blues for over 10 years, recording at Chess Records. But while his reputation was well known within the black population, few whites had even heard of him, beyond a small group of fellow Chicagoans like Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield. This concert would change all that and become the philosopher’s stone for a new generation of musicians, especially in England, with the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. 


Muddy Waters had been one of the many fathers of rock, but the advent of new music, with pupils like Chuck Berry, kept him away from the charts despite his late 50s material which was just as good as ever. By then the only one left in his legendary band was loyal pianist Otis Spann, then came new blood such as James Cotton on harp (replacing another giant like Little Walter), Andrew Stevens on bass, drummer Francis Clay, and another guitar wizard, Pat Hare, filling the hole left by Jimmy Rodgers. If Waters band first was called the Headhunters these guys were known as the Drunken Ass Band. But the excess of liquor, with their leader showing the way, only made them play better.


This record is the perfect proof of that, it opens with I Got My Brand on You, a first sample of their quality, with Spann keeping the beat and Cotton showing his class. Never before did a white audience see such a thing and they responded feverishly to this unstoppable band. The 2nd song was one of his big hits,
Hoochie Coochie Man, where Muddy shows off his golden Telecaster from the 50s, then comes Baby Please Don’t Go, a song that Van Morrison’s Them would turn into  a big hit 4 years later. On Tiger in Your Tank, we can hear how he was one of the first masters of the slide guitar, while Cotton is heard in full force in songs like I Feel So Good.

Of course Hare also had his shining moments, as in Soon Forgotten, where his ‘53 Les Paul Goldtop throws sparks, his influence on later British guitarists like
Jeff Beck was clear. But the absolute rave came with Got My Mojo Working with Waters giving it his best shot and dancing like a man half his age, drummer Clay squeezes out his best and the band lives up to its reputation.  At a time when rock had lost its initial push, many saw in Waters and his band the lost excitement, making this record one of the most important in history. In the end Otis Spann takes over as singer, with Muddy completely exhausted in the improvised Goodbye Newport Blues.

When the record went to market, 4 months later, nothing would be the same again, making sure that this is one of the few albums that changed the course of music. One could not understand blues/rock and even hard rock, without the enormous footprint left by Muddy Waters on this particular album. Despite Muddy appearing on the album cover carrying a Harmony Monterrey semi-acoustic that belonged to his mate John Lee Hooker, that does little to show the tremendous electrical storm let loose that sensational afternoon in July 1960.