Saturday, September 24, 2011

Muddy Waters

McKinley Morganfield is such a great name I don't know why Muddy Waters preferred becoming famous under his nickname.

Howlin Wolf, once Muddy's greatest rival, also had a great name: he was Chester Burnett.

If McKinley Morganfield and Chester Burnett had not been musicians they could have done well as two tough-guy Chicago cops. McKinley is the urbane, confident one, the man who deals with city hall operators as efficiently and effectively as the hoods on the street. Chester kicks ass and takes no shit. He has no finesse and he gets the job done and when he's done no-one will undo it.

Today rappers use nicknames almost without exception. The only rappers that I can quickly think of that don't or didn't are Will Smith and Tupac Shakur, and Tupac's monicker sounded like a street name anyway. The thing is this: why would the magnificently named Calvin Broadus want to be known as Snoop Doggy Dogg?

Muddy Waters grew up on Stovall's plantation where he learnt his music, became a tractor driver so that he had an easier job than picking cotton in the field, so that he could play his guitar at parties and fish fries and was eventually recorded for the Library of Congress, at least partly because he was a kind of repository of Robert Johnson's style/. During World War II Muddy moved to Chicago, became a truck driver, a job that gave him a lot of time to recover from late nights in Southside clubs, bought an electric guitar, was discovered by Chess Records and recorded a bunch of hits that were also hugely influential in establishing the so-called electric down home style of blues and, once Muddy put together a band, the Southside style of blues. In his modest way Muddy was as great an innovator and original thinker in music as Louis Armstrong had once been.

I knew the name and I somehow knew that "Hoochie Coochie Man" was a big Muddy song, though I got to know the song through a live version by Chuck Berry, and I knew that both the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" were tributes to one of Muddy's most well-known songs but other than that I hardly knew anything about Muddy's music or life until Charles Shaar Murray wrote a piece about him in the NME after the release of the Hard Again album that revitalised the bluesman's career during the last five years before his death. Murray supplied biographical information as well as telling details of Muddy's then current success.

NME also published reviews of Hard Again and its follow-up I'm Ready that made these records sound like parts one and two of the second coming, in blues at least. The blues were back with a vengeance and the master of the blues was romping and stomping like days of old.

Of course none of these records were readily available in Stellenbosch and they got no airplay on local radio. The first time I heard any of the songs at all was when Dr Feelgood, post Wilko Johnson, recorded a version of "The Blues Had A Baby (And They Named It Rock and Roll)" on Be Seeing You. It was a pleasant enough versions, without the urgency Wilko Johnson\s guitar style could have brought to it, and seemed like a lightweight composition for the man who wrote "Rolling Stone" but my guess was that the song simply pandered to the age old cliché of rock coming from the blues.

It was a couple of years later that I found Hard Again, probably at a discount price somewhere in Cape Town. It was not the first blues album I owned but it was pretty well the best blues album I owned at the time. Albert King's Years Gone By was a close second but it did not quite have the triumphalism of the Muddy Waters record, especially since the King album was an original release from the late Sixties.

The first noticeable thing about Hard Again was the incredible loudness and toughness of the music, from opening track "Mannish Boy" onward. It was kind of like a hard rock production of a very traditional blues sound. This was modern blues, not so much in the style as in the production values that emphasised a clean, crystal clear definition of, and differentiation between, instruments and with in-your-face, yet warm, vocals. The musicians were sharp and emphatic in their profound understanding of what makes Chicago blues tick, that ensemble sound where there is hardly any lead instrument and yet there is space for everyone, and on top of this solid foundation the magisterial, imperious Muddy Waters declaimed his blues. It was Muddy's world and I was just so much in awe to be able to behold its splendour.

Yeah, I liked Hard Again that much!

The NME review of I'm Ready made it sound like even better of a deal than its predecessor. Somehow this record just never showed up in any record store I visited and I never bought it and never heard the album at all until I bought a Columbia Legacy 3-CD package of Hard Again, I'm Ready and King Bee. I have owned the records of Hard Again and King Bee but not I'm Ready or Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live, though I have the Columbia Records CD Blues Sky, which is a compilation of tracks from this quartet of albums that will serve as the legacy of the grand old man of electric down home blues as testament that even an old guy could rock the house pretty good.

A good five or six years after I bought Hard Again I found King Bee as a budget album somewhere in Cape Town. If Hard Again was the surprisingly strong and emphatic resurgence of the Muddy Waters career, King Bee was the more rollicking, almost fun, cap on the illustrious career, a fitting finale for a colossus of the blues. The songs seemed more tuneful and catchy, for example "Champagne & Reefer", which is very much what I call a pop blues. It is definitely not a song about the hardships of life; it is a celebration of life even if Muddy has to explain clearly that dope is his only vice after champagne and that he will not do that cocaine.

The utterly weird thing, thinking about it now, is that the surviving Rolling Stones, who were relatively young men at the time, are now approaching the age at which Muddy died. For the White blues influenced rockers of the Sixties it was all right that their bluesmen heroes could be older than forty but the conventional wisdom was that rock is a young man's game. If you're over thirty you're over the hill. Now they have come to appreciate that rock can be a lifelong career and can be a lifelong imperative. Muddy Waters was as much of a pop star in Chicago or elsewhere in the African American community of the USA as the Rolling Stones are. It is a fallacy to think that Muddy was expressing deep, heartfelt blues emotion about his living conditions or his tragic love life. The blues tropes we are so familiar with nowadays can be described as folk wisdoms carried on from generation to generation though a more accurate description would be that these tropes are blues clichés as much as one has pop clichés. Sociologists can investigate the meaning behind the words and the hidden messages behind the lyrics of braggadocio, sexual prowess and lovelorn tears all they want and describe the secret society of Black America oppressed by the White majority and being reduced to code language to express their plight, anger and frustration, but the bottom line of Muddy Waters' music is that it was intended to be popular music, to sell, and not only or merely to be the expression of frustration and rage blues is often deemed to be. Ultimately blues is a style of music.

My second exposure to Muddy Waters was an audio cassette I bought at the Windhoek branch of the SADFI defence force store at Suiderhof Military Base, when I was stationed in Windhoek as Military Law Officer in the second year of my mandatory national service. The SADFI store was a basic warehouse building serving as a bare bones department store for military personnel and it even had a small music corner, mostly with contemporary popular music. The two strangest items were two compilations, on cassette, from the Chess Records archives. One was a selection of Chuck Berry tunes and the other was the Muddy Waters collection. It featured the usual suspects and the two outstanding tracks was the heavy rock version of "Let's Spend The Night Together" from Electric Mud and a gospelised version of |I'm Going Home", both of which sounded completely different to the other, more conventional blues on the album. Those two tunes demonstrated that Muddy Waters probably made a number of turns in his career that were nods to more populist styles for the sake of commercial success. Like all other professional musicians he would try many things at least once if there seemed to be money in it,

Today I own a number of CDs of Muddy's music. A budget compilation of his popular tunes from the latter part of the Fifties was one of the first two CDs I ever bought, along with a similar budget compilation of Howlin' Wolf tunes. Most of these Muddy Waters CDs are compilations. The only complete Muddy Waters albums I do own are the 3 Blue Sky albums referred to above and the Muddy Waters Woodstock album, his last album for Chess Records. There is an excellent chronological compilation of songs from "Gypsy Woman" onwards and a couple of live sets, one from the early Sixties and one from the late Seventies, that are great examples of the working band Muddy had behind him, and a number of compilations of the old favourites and lesser known songs, one of them even showcasing a batch of the Library of Congress filed recordings made my Alan Lomax.

My latest Muddy Waters acquisition is a mini box set from 2004, with the albums packaged in small scale, cardboard replicas of the original record sleeves, of the three final studio albums of Muddy's career, released on Blue Sky records between 1977 and 1981 and produced by Johnny Winter who gets the kudos for revitalising the moribund career of one of the giants of post war electric blues. The albums are Hard Again, I'm Ready and King Bee. The live album, Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live, that was released between the second and third studio releases is absent from this package, maybe because this would have meant too much of a duplication of studio material. Or perhaps Columbia thinks the live set is worth more or perhaps it is available as an expanded CD.

"Mannish Boy" opens Hard Again and its opening chant of "Everything's gonna be all right this morning," emphatic stop time rhythm, assertive lyrics and Muddy's triumphant vocal delivery set the scene for an album full of superlative contemporary blues in the traditional Chicago style. Muddy is back, in charge and ready to roar. The best thing about the electric Chicago blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf is that it does not feature endless guitar solos by superstar axmen. The guitar plays rhythm and fills, the harmonica is the most obvious lead instrument, yet also serves mostly as a counterpoint and the singer is front and centre. The formula is simple and effective and exhilarating, each time.

Muddy was known for his ferocious slide style on stage but does not play any slide guitar on this album. Bob Margolin takes care of the rhythm and Johnny Winters, who takes care not to overpower the music with his usual thousand notes a minute style, provides the extremely tasty lead and slide guitar. The whole is very much better than the sum of the parts and the lasting impression is of a highly tooled, powerful machine doing what it does best and doing it extremely well. Pure pleasure.

The songs are mostly quite lengthy and give everyone an opportunity to stretch out and make the most of the space and time they are given within the structure. Even after 5 minutes or more the tracks do not pall. This is prime stuff and hard again is absolutely apposite as a description. If Johnny Winter is not remembered and celebrated for any accomplishment other than his production duties and guitar playing on Hard Again and the two studio albums that followed, he will still have built a monument to himself.

The production values give the band a big, solid, commanding sound that verges on the kind of audio a rock band would have. The blues need not sound weedy or tinny or scratchy. It is music of dominance and exultation as much is it can be music of heartbreak and trouble and on this album the exultation dominates.

The original electric version of "I Can't Be Satisfied", the hit that launched Muddy's career in Chicago, and featuring Muddy on vocals and slide guitar and Big Crawford on bass, has one of the most memorable opening slide riffs ever and still thrills me every time I hear it. On Hard Again Muddy reprises his venerable hit but does not play any instrument and is accompanied by Johnny Winter on a National steel guitar. Johnny emulates Muddy's slide riff without slavishly copying it and provides a more old fashioned Delta version of the tune, as one would perhaps have expected the Mississippi Sheiks to do, and it is rollicking good fun. A lyric of ostensible despair is turned around into a performance of triumph over adversity rather than a depressed wail.

"I'm Ready" is not as much of a powerhouse opening track to the eponymous album as "Mannish Boy" was to Hard Again. The lyrics are a "Hoochie Coochie Man" retread and probably want to make the same statement as "Mannish Boy" made but somehow "I'm Ready" is less dynamic and less emphatic. For a reason I cannot quite explain it has never been one of my favourite Muddy Waters' tunes anyway.

This 1978 album was recorded with a different line-up to the group that went into the studio for Hard Again. Jimmy Rogers is back in the band alongside Bob Margolin, and Walter Horton and Jerry Portnoy replace James Cotton on harp. Muddy does entertain us with some examples of his fiery slide technique and Johnny Winter contributes some guitar, though perhaps not as much as on the previous album.

Most of the songs seem to be new compositions, at least they are new to me. Willie Dixon has two songs on the record: the title track and "Hoochie Coochie Man." They are old songs and the rest of the bunch could be contemporary.

For the most part the songs follow the same template as laid down on Hard Again and the grooves are as tight and solid as before. The sound is streamlined, efficient and effective the album won Muddy his first Grammy ever, not only for a good record (actually two good records in a row) but as the typical long denied recognition for a stalwart of a less fashionable genre who found a new lease of life and became a breath of fresh air in a somewhat moribund style of music.

I'm Ready suffers a bit because it follows Hard Again and the shock of the brand new and improved Muddy Waters is no longer as acute. He's made the comeback with the stunning return to form and now simply consolidates his gains. There is less exuberance and more professionalism. It's as if Muddy wants to convince us, if we did not already know it, that his resurgence is not just dumb luck. This album is every bit as good as its predecessor.

The CD reissue of I'm Ready has three additional songs: "No Escape From The Blues", "That's Alright" (probably Jimmy Rogers' best known composition and on which he is the main singer) and "Lonely Man Blues".

King Bee is Muddy's last album, released in 1981 with tracks recorded in 1977 (Hard Again outtakes) and 1980. Muddy's health started to fail and he died in 1983. I bought this album as a budget reissue somewhere in the late Eighties. It was a valuable addition to my collection of blues records and a record I listened to a lot because the tunes seemed to bright, upbeat and joyous.

The title track is once again a celebration of Muddy's sexual prowess that packs more of a punch than "I'm Ready." "Champagne & Reefer" is a glorious paean to the simple joys of life. "Mean Old Frisco"
is yet another example of an Arthur Crudup song done justice by a singer other than Crudup himself, who wrote some noteworthy blues standards ("That's Alright, Mama" and "My Baby Left Me" are two more examples) but was at best a workmanlike guitarist and singer. "Deep Down In Florida" is a different version of a major track from Hard Again and there is another version of "No Escape From The Blues", one of the bonus tracks on the I'm Ready reissue.

The band consists of more or less the same personnel as on the previous records except that Luther Johnson is the third guitarist, along with Bob Margolin and Johnny Winter. Muddy sings and plays some of his always incredible slide guitar. The power of the band is undiminished, or seems so, even if outtakes had to be used to put together a complete album. The CD reissue adds two more tracks.

Having all three albums is special. I rate Muddy highly and his style of ensemble blues is more to my taste than the modern predilection for hot guitarists who solo endlessly and proficiently and who do not satisfy in the ways the Muddy Waters band could when it was in full flight. On his solo records Bob Margolin shows off the many styles of blues and rock and roll he's capable of but it is only on the odd Southside of Chicago's style tune that he throws into the mix that he really catches fire. On A Bigger Bang even the Rolling Stones tried their hand at this style on "Back of My Hand" and produced one of the most convincing songs on the album. It might be a homage but, unlike most of the rockers, it does not sound like a pastiche or a calculated move. This kind of music is their roots and if you dig deep into your roots you will almost always come up with the goods.

I gave away my entire collection of blues records when I disposed of all my records in 2009 and to a degree I am now sorry that I did, as some of them were seminal in my appreciation for the blues and will probably never be replaced. On the other hand I never really had that many blues records and my CD collection of blues albums far exceeds the couple dozen blues records I used to have. Since 1991 I have really dug deep into the blues. I've reacquired Albert King's Years Gone By, Junior Wells' "It's My Life, Baby" and John Lee Hooker's In Person. Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac debut Fleetwood Mac and The Original Fleetwood Mac and Stevie Ray Vaughan's Texas Flood. I am always on the lookout for CDs of records I used to own. Perhaps I should make a serious mission of it by ordering from Amazon but I have always preferred the method of not seeking and finding (a little philosophy I learnt from Picasso) than the more organised method of making an effort to acquire the many items on my wish list.

All of my Muddy Waters collection was acquired by chance when simply browsing through CD cases at various music stores and the same is true of this three album box set. I came across it, of all places, at the Willowbridge Mall (Bellville) branch of Look & Listen, in the heart of the northern suburbs where one would not expect such old school blues to have much of a footprint.

The three most important names in my blues music collection would be Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and John Lee Hooker, going by the impact their music had on me and by the number of albums of each I have. Albert king is also pretty important but I don't have that many of his albums. BB King is also getting there though his urban style is not always to my taste. Too sophisticated. I prefer the electric down home styles of Muddy, Wolf and Hooker above all else. Their blues are generally exciting, visceral and intriguing. The solo Muddy and Hooker recordings are at the top of my list but even the records made with various bands are pretty damn fine. Wolf led a crack band from the beginning and is best appreciated in this context. In fact, I don't think I've ever heard him other than backed by a band. For a long time I wanted to be able to play guitar like Willie Johnson, Wolf's main man in Memphis, before Hubert Sumlin joined him.

When I listen to Howlin Wolf I can understand why writers like Robert Palmer call him a feral beast. He does sound dangerous. Muddy, on the other hand, is magisterial and even imperial. He does not have to be in your face to impress his value on you. He does what he does with understated power and eloquent gravitas. Wolf can be hectoring and over the top. Muddy is calm, unruffled and as relentless in his drive as Wolf yet persuades almost with logic where Wolf wants to leave you no room to think.

Obviously one cannot and should not be expected to choose between any of these giants of the blues. Each is simply different to the rest in his respective style and not better than any of the other two.

John Lee Hooker had a far longer career than Muddy or Wolf and his comeback in the late Eighties lasted longer and produced more albums than Muddy's. Wolf never had the good fortune of such massive popular success late in his life and never won a Grammy. Somehow that is appropriate and fitting. Feral beasts do not stoop to collecting Grammy's.

Muddy was happy to experience the late coming success. It was better to have it late in life than not having it at all. I guess he was a realist and a stoic. He had been commercially very successful in the early part of his career and was critically acclaimed for most of, regardless of record sales. The black audience for the blues had declined by the end of the Fifties but the White audience, particularly the young Brits who fuelled the early Sixties and late Sixties blues booms, picked up the slack and Muddy may have had comparatively lean times but was never completely down and out. Perhaps he only became less of a vital innovator and more of an institution of the blues revered and respected but no longer at the cutting edge.

The three studio albums recorded at the end of Muddy's career revitalised the career and gave him a fitting final few years of glory: some kind of reward for consistently doing what he did best. I would imagine that no-one would claim these recordings are the best of his career, though they probably come close, and they do not break new ground, yet the enthusiasm and pleasure that come across, are infectious and both leader, band and producer deliver a product of certified quality.

Ultimately blues seems to have been taken over by purveyors of the West Side and Texas styles where a virtuoso lead guitarist is the dominant and characteristic element. Southside blues is still my favourite electric style and will always be.

Muddy Waters or McKinley Morganfield? What does it matter? At an advanced stage of his life he was the king bee, hard again and ready to take back his crown. And he did. It is still his and no-one will ever take it away.

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