Got his mojo workin', all right
Universal Music continues its release of the entire Muddy Waters library as recorded by legendary blues label Chess Records with Volume 3 of its archival series. You Shook Me is a two-disc set that chronicles the years 1958 to 1963, a critical period in the evolution of Muddy’s sound, one reflected in the recording industry as a whole: the shift away from the single to the album as the basic unit of musical recording.
The first tracks on disc one are engaging enough, but they reflect the stripped-down basics of the Chicago blues as it was played in the late ‘50s: Muddy’s voice is front and center, hollering and growling through 12-bar progressions to the accompaniment of a bass, drums, and perhaps a few accents from harmonica, piano or some subtle electric guitar. There are few solos and little if any showing off. “Blues Before Sunrise” epitomizes this approach, but many of these early tunes follow the template: “Mean Mistreater”, “Crawling King Snake”, “Take the Bitter with the Sweet” and any number of others.
40-odd songs later, by the end of disc two, Muddy’s sound has expanded to the point where the instrumental contributions were, arguably, as important as the vocals, and more attention was being paid to how to record and mix them. The guitar in “You Shook Me” adds a second voice to echo the singer’s, and the honking sax and tinkling piano (courtesy of longtime bandmate Otis Spann) is arguably as important to the song’s success as Muddy’s baritone growl. This is followed by the bad-assery of “You Need Love”, a song written by Willie Dixon and ripped off by Led Zeppelin, who released it as “Whole Lotta Love” on Led Zeppelin II. Dixon subsequently sued the band, and won an out-of-court settlement.
What happened between these early, stripped-down recordings and these more elaborate sessions later on was the release of two landmark albums. Muddy Waters Sings “Big Bill” was a collection of tunes by the fine songwriter “Big Bill” Broonzy, whose work suited Muddy’s voice and musicianship like a glove and provided a further measure of success to the singer, who already had a fairly successful career going at that time. Perhaps more important was the live album Muddy Waters at Newport 1960, a document of his performance at the Newport Jazz Fetival, then one of the most prestigious music festivals in the country. This national stage provided Muddy with a degree of exposure he’d never had before, and the album that resulted from it was a landmark. It couldn’t be anything else, given that the setlist includes “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Baby Please Don’t Go”, and a sizzling two-part “Got My Mojo Working”.
Both of these albums are included in full in this collection, so enthusiasts who don’t have them would do well to pick this up. The sound quality is extraordinary, full and rich with crystal-clear high end and full, rich bass—and virtually no tape hiss or popping, which is remarkable for material of this age. With 49 tracks in total, this is a generous package; a nicely illustrated booklet provides some context and recording information. This is crucial document for listeners interested in the history and development of the blues, or anyone who wants to hear one of the great vocalists of the 20th century as he entered his prime.