Everybody’s got a favorite bluesman story. My current favorite about Muddy Waters is set far in the distant past, just slightly after the time when he was living and working on the Mississippi plantation he’d always called home, running a still and a “juke joint” where he’d put his own copy of the record he’d recorded for the Library of Congress on a record player to entertain the people who dropped in. That’s a good story, but my favorite is placed in time a few years later than that, after he’d argued with the plantation overseer and he’d had enough and finally had to leave. This happened after he headed up north to Chicago and made another record. That’s when he stopped into a tavern in Chicago and heard his own music playing on a jukebox in somebody else’s place for the very first time. He shoved coin after coin into the slot and sat down at a table to listen, and he played the record over and over again, getting more change from the bartender as he needed it. I imagine him amazed, exuberant, and generally acting like he never wanted the experience to end.
That’s a little like how I felt when I first heard that Muddy Waters Muddy Waters!! had his own LP. An LP (and only people like Frank Sinatra had LPs back then) and on Chess Records!! Put out in the late 1950’s, it was simply called The Best of Muddy Waters. And that’s precisely and exactly what it was. Imagine, all his best-known songs on one long-playing vinyl album. I knew if I could get my hands on that, I wouldn’t have to rely on laying awake all night hoping to hear one of his songs drift across radio airwaves by chance. That album had been released five years prior to my ever having known it existed. I’d even written a letter of inquiry to the Chess Company and received no reply. I was afraid it was out of print by the time I’d come to hear about it. It took me over a year to find that record.
But find it I did and I proceeded to play it to death. I stayed awake all night many nights playing it. I must have listened to that particular Best of easily a thousand times, maybe ten thousand times since and I’ve never yet tired of it. When I play it these days, I am reminded of different things by certain elements in the songs. My music education and personal history exists there, too: “That—right there—that’s exactly when I knew Fred Below was the best blues drummer!” Little Walter was so sharp on the harp, he set the measure for whoever followed him into the band.
Yet however great the back-up players were, there was never any question about Muddy Waters’s stature for me. He was the greatest. And these were the very songs that Waters would draw from and continue performing for the rest of his long life. So you can guess, can’t you, that I believe that everybody who says they love the blues should rightly get into a high state of excitement just hearing the name Muddy Waters?
Released in 1979, Mississippi Muddy Waters Live is a different sort of Muddy Waters record. By the time he recorded this, he was older, more experienced. After decades with the company, he’d left Chess and was recording for Blue Sky, a label he shared with Johnny and Edgar Winter. And he had just been awarded his first Grammy. His stage presence had been sharpened over the years, but he was still performing his well-known songs. I had to warm up to this record, and it is not my favorite Muddy Waters album by a long shot. But I can’t in anyway casually regard the opportunity of hearing Muddy Waters play.
The original release was seven tracks on one long-playing record. For this re-release, 12 extra tracks were added to fill out this offering into a double disc item. There’s not a bad track among them, but some of the material, like “Deep Down in Florida”, can sound a little too easy-going. Like Muddy honored a request from the producers and the young audience by 1978 didn’t know it was once a tremendously big deal for a black person just to go to the beach anywhere much less Florida, segregation existing in the sand and surf like everywhere else.
And Muddy, who never ever once had the same lead-in to a song, here onstage with Johnny Winter has two lead-ins exactly the same. Unfortunately, both of them placed one after another in a row because somebody (probably the producer) liked the big sound of that siren-like wail announcing a song. But one of those songs, a slow blues (“where the Soul is”, as Waters used to insist) is “Streamline Woman”. This is the one that proves Muddy Waters could still show anybody how it should really be done.
Imagine Muddy onstage with some of these players. Muddy, who had persevered for years and undeniably was one of the great blues guitarists, whose records inspired some of these very same guys onstage with him here to want to pick up a guitar in the first place; a man who had worked for years and was acknowledged as the greatest for years before he even got close enough to serious money to hear it existed. And young Johnny Winter, who had major labels competing for him for the privilege of selling his second album, what was recognized would be his monster solo album, receiving a cool million dollars just to sign on the dotted line before he so much as stepped in the studio or set down a note for it in the early ‘70s. I confess I felt like I was putting up with Winter onstage here trading licks with Muddy, and all his people, too, especially the ones I suspect are his noisy fans in the audience, the ones who yelled “hoo” or “yeah” just as a song was starting. They sound a little more out of it now than they did at the time, like they’re going to start shouting “boogie” at any minute. One particular guy in the audience, I recognized the sound of his boozy screech on three, four, five tracks: Loudmouth drunk dude, I have to tell you that you’re just ridiculous.
Nonetheless, there are some advantages to this record. On this recording the re-engineering yields crystal clear results and the ability to clearly hear some of Waters’s onstage vocal tricks is something to be treasured. The way he squeezes out a staggered long vocal line by pumping the air out of his lower abdomen like it’s a concertina. And finally, the art and craft of the master of prestidigitation is revealed. There’s no hint there’s a furry little creature hidden up the magician’s sleeve until the showman decides it’s time to pull it out of his hat to amaze the audience, and once the cat is out of the bag, the crowd is stunned into momentary silence.
Muddy’s proving he’s the man with the real magic here. He launches into an extended guitar solo on “Streamline Woman” that just sounds unbelievably nasty. Sliding and quivering, with a shrill nasally pitch, this raunchy long solo will make your facial muscles react—your eyes will squint, your lips will pull apart and expose your teeth, and your choppers will clench and snap. As the guitar crescendos to conclusion, the electric squeal sounds exactly like the screech of a naughty little cat in heat and the yowls of a tom flying through the air mid-pounce.
Muddy Waters is one of the greats and I love him dearly. And, yes, anyone who claims to love the blues should start breathing faster just hearing his name. This record, a sentimental favorite as it was one of his last before his departure from this world, though a good job doesn’t seem likely to ever replace some of his others as being among my favorites. My favorite is 1957’s Best of Muddy Waters. But taken with his Best Of, this can be as good a starting place as anywhere.
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// Notes from the Road
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