Q Magazine

On This Day In Music… April 4, 1913: Muddy Waters, Father of Chicago Blues, Inspiration for a Generation, is Born

The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and others all owed a huge debt to the Hoochie Coochie Man.

muddy waters
Source: Brian Foskett/National Jazz Archive/Heritage I AiWire/Newscom/The Mega Agency

'I first heard him as a little boy,' said Jimi Hendrix, 'and it scared me to death.'

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Muddy Waters once declared: “The Blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll”.

He knew what he was talking about. Perhaps more than any of the great early Blues artists, it was the music of Muddy Waters that would resonate most strongly through the developing sounds of rock ‘n’ roll. Jimi Hendrix once said of Waters, “I first heard him as a little boy and it scared me to death”, Eric Clapton covered the Waters song “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” on Cream’s 1966 debut album, Led Zeppelin drew heavily from Waters’ “You Need Love” for “Whole Lotta Love”, Angus Young was similarly inspired by Waters’ “You Shook Me” for AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”, and Waters’ 1954 song “Hoochie Coochie Man” has been covered by artists as diverse as Chuck Berry, Steppenwolf and Supertramp.

Most famously of course, it was a track from 1958’s The Best of Muddy Waters that inspired a young Brian Jones to rename his fledgling band from The Blues Boys to the Rolling Stones.

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muddy waters
Source: Philippe Gras / Le Pictorium/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Muddy Waters bought his first acoustic guitar aged 17.

Born McKinley Morganfield in rural Mississippi on April 4, 1913 (or 1914, or 1915… records are hazy), he was brought up by his grandmother, who gave him the nickname after his boyhood habit of playing in the creek.

As he grew up be worked on the plantation, but became increasingly entranced by music, first through the gospel songs he heard in church, and then teaching himself harmonica, before, aged 17, buying his first guitar. He later remembered: “I sold the last horse that we had. Made about 15 dollars for him, gave my grandmother seven dollars and 50 cents, I kept seven-fifty and paid about two-fifty for that guitar.”

Developing a technique that involved picking out bass notes with his thumb while using the neck of a bottle to slide across the frets, he began playing at local juke joints and dances, before, in 1943, packing his suitcase and heading for Chicago to try to make it as a musician.

Balancing a day job at a paper factory with hustling for gigs at night, he soon came to the attention of one of the city’s leading bluesmen, Big Bill Broonzy, who booked him to open for his shows. In the packed, rowdy Chicago clubs, his acoustic guitar wasn’t going to cut through, and so 1944, Muddy went electric, later explaining: “When I went into the clubs, the first thing I wanted was an amplifier. Couldn't nobody hear you with an acoustic.”

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The switch both inspired and galvanized a new kind of blues sound, combining the traditional Delta bottleneck technique with a more energized, propulsive edge. “There was quite a few people around singing the blues but most of them was singing all sad blues,” legendary blues artist Willie Dixon later said. “Muddy was giving his blues a little pep.”

That “little pep” caught the ear of Aristocrat Records (later renamed Chess), and in 1947 Waters began recording for the label, scoring an early R&B chart hit with 1948’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, before releasing a string of songs now regarded as Blues standards through the early 1950s, including “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, “I’m Ready” and “Mannish Boy”, all of which made the Top 5 in the R&B chart.

But it would arguably be Muddy Waters’ 1958 tour of Britain that sealed him as one of the defining influences on rock ‘n’ roll. Few outside Chicago had experienced his electrified take on the Blues in a live setting, and in front of audiences that included future members of the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Cream, he played louder and more thrillingly than had ever been heard before; one review of his show describing it as “Screaming guitar and howling piano”.

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muddy waters hoochie coochie man
Source: Philippe Gras / Le Pictorium/Newscom/The Mega Agency

Muddy Waters electrified and inspired a generation of rockers.

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Half a world away, a 15-year-old kid named James Marshall Hendrix bought his first guitar that same year.

“The first guitarist I was aware of was Muddy Waters,” Hendrix told Rolling Stone in 1968. “Where I first started playing guitar was way up in the Northwest, in Seattle, Washington. They don’t have too many of the real Blues singers up there. When I really learned to play was down South… I went down South and all the cats down there were playing blues, and this is when I really began to get interested in the scene.”

If Muddy Waters’ commercial success never matched that of the generation of rockers who were inspired by him, his influence on and inspiration for their music remained sacrosanct. In 1981, the Father of Chicago Blues performed alongside the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World at Chicago’s Checkerboard Lounge. Writing in his memoir Life, Keith Richards described it as one of the highlights of his entire career.

“You want to be a blues player, the next minute you f---ing well are and you’re stuck right amongst them, and there’s Muddy Waters standing next to you. It happens so fast you really can’t register all of the impressions that are coming at you… It’s one thing to play a Muddy Waters song. It’s another thing to play with him.”

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Just two years later, Muddy Waters died in his sleep at his home in Illinois, aged 70.

In 2010, Rolling Stone placed Waters seventeenth in their list of the Greatest Artists of all Time. Writing for the magazine, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons said:

“I picked up the guitar because of Muddy Waters as much as anyone. Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Albert King, B.B. King, Freddie King — they all had an impact too, but they all followed Muddy Waters.

“People call his sound raw and dirty and gritty, but it wasn't particularly loud. It just sounded that way. A guitar amplifier in the Fifties was maybe the size of a tabletop radio. To be heard over a party, you had to crank that thing as loud as it would go. And then you left behind all semblance of circuit design and entered the elegant field of distortion that made everything so much deeper. If you didn't have a big band with 20 guys, you had 20 watts.

“The remarkable thing is that the blues never died out, ever. It's been rediscovered every 10 years since the Twenties. Nobody can do what Muddy did, but his energy is still fueling that fire. You can hear his enthusiasm in bands like the White Stripes or the Black Keys.

“It was all supposed to be disposable. Just noise on a shellac disc. And here we are in the 21st century still trying to figure out how such a simple art form could be so complicated and subtle. It's still firing brain synapses around the world. You've got the Japanese Muddy Waters Society corresponding with fans in Sweden and England, and his music can still propel a party in the U.S. He made three chords sound deep, and they are.”


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