[Today: The President of The Blues...]
McKinley Morganfield had a name befitting a 19th century presidential candidate, but as Muddy Waters he created a ferocious, amplified version of the blues that became the post-WWII standard of what that music could be. The Chess Box compiles 72 songs over 6 LPs, in a chronological order that offers ample reasons for Waters’ standing as one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Born and raised in the Mississippi delta, Waters moved to Chicago in 1943 and drove truck by day as he worked to establish himself on the local music scene. By 1947 he was recording for Phil and Leonard Chess, and success came quickly in the form of ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’. Over a distorted, rumbling guitar figure that could be an approaching train, Waters explains to his woman why he’s hitting the road for good. His voice is equal parts charisma and menace, a delicate balance he would strike for the next 36 years.
If Muddy Waters was a frontman with an appealing snarl, he was also blessed with one of the best bands in the business. Pianist Otis Spann, harmonica burners Little Walter and then James Cotton, guitarist Jimmy Rogers, and drummer Francis Clay were informally known as The Headhunters, and the music they made with Waters still buzzes like a fastball under the chin. Songs like ‘Mannish Boy’ ‘Got My Mojo Working’ and ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ roll and tumble, one after another, in a procession of blues greatness that is awesome to behold. ‘Rolling Stone’ inspired not only the name of a certain British blues band, but the title of Bob Dylan’s most famous song, and the name of America’s pre-eminent rock magazine. Each track on The Chess Box is a winding gravel road that leads to unexpected places.
Looking back over his career options, Waters reflected that “I wanted to definitely be a musician or a good preacher or a heck of a baseball player. I couldn’t play ball too good – I hurt my finger, and I stopped that. I couldn’t preach, and well, all I had left was getting into the music thing.” Glory, glory, hallelujah…
Listen: I Can’t Be Satisfied
Listen: Rolling Stone
Listen: Got My Mojo Working