In 1977, Muddy Waters came back Hard Again. For decades, late-career comeback albums have been celebrated. Critics and fans alike have heaped praise on Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, and Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose, among others. Just as impressive, but too often overlooked, is an album that predated those by more than a decade: Hard Again by Muddy Waters.
Hard Again wasn’t an entirely unexpected return. It didn’t take the music world by surprise, like David Bowie’s The Next Day did in 2013. Nor was Waters like Rodriguez, an artist relatively unknown in the United States who suddenly won widespread attention. For years, Waters consistently tried to recapture the popularity he had enjoyed in the 1950s — or at least remain relevant. In the 1960s, he transitioned from the Black audience that had put his singles on the R&B chart to a white one that would support him in his later years.
He did this first by appealing to folk fans with albums like At Newport (1960) and Folk Singer (1961) and then by connecting with the white electric blues and rock bands that idolized him. Muddy teamed with white bluesmen Mike Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield on Fathers and Sons (1969); he cut The London Muddy Waters Sessions (1972) with Rory Gallagher, Steve Winwood, and Mitch Mitchell; and he worked with Butterfield and the Band’s Levon Helm and Garth Hudson on The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album (1974). Around that time, he also released a handful of studio albums without white superstar collaborators: After the Rain (1969), Can’t Get No Grindin’ (1973), and Unk in Funk (1974)
Aside from a failed psychedelic experiment (Electric Mud, 1968), most of Muddy’s albums following his classic period (1948-1958) were pretty good, but Hard Again is superb. It’s his best album by far after 1960, and compilations aside, it’s his best studio album, period. What sets Hard Again apart? It’s the chemistry between him and his excellent bandmates, the quality of the sound, and most of all, the infectious energy that courses through these songs.
The 1970s was a strange time for Muddy Waters, with many longstanding relationships ending. Leonard Chess — the man who ran Muddy’s record label (and underpaid him) for more than 20 years — died of a heart attack in late 1969. Chess Records, which could easily be called “the House that Muddy Built”, was sold that same year, right before Leonard’s death, and then ceased issuing new music in 1975. Muddy had recorded exclusively for Chess for nearly three decades, from 1947 (before it was even named Chess) through the very end. Howlin’ Wolf — Muddy’s frenemy, Chess labelmate, and only true rival for Chicago blues supremacy — passed away in January 1976. Perhaps Waters felt liberated as he moved on from these relationships, which had loomed large in his life for so long.
When Hard Again hit record stores, it was also an odd time for the blues, between one “revival” (in the 1960s) and the next (in the 1980s). 1977 will probably remain forever remembered for punk and disco; two genres generally dissociated from the blues. However, the upbeat, dynamic music on Hard Again bears some relationship to both. The album’s apt title was a sexual reference made by Muddy himself. For the 63-year-old, making this music was like taking Viagra.
As the album’s producer, Johnny Winter significantly impacted Hard Again. Waters told journalist Robert Palmer (author of Deep Blues) that Winter came closest to recreating in the studio the energy of his classic 1950s Chess sessions. Of the musicians on Hard Again, Winter is one of only two new additions (the other was bassist Charles Calmese, who had worked previously with Steve Miller, among others). All the other players were already part of Muddy’s touring and recording band; pianist Pinetop Perkins played on all three Waters studio albums released between 1973 and 1974, and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, harmonica player James Cotton, and guitarist Bob Margolin each played on two. Though Calmese contributes some fine bass work to Hard Again, it’s clear Winter was the missing ingredient that ignited these sessions. He was the first white artist inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and his work with Waters — beginning with this album — had much to do with him receiving that honor.
Growing up in Texas, Winter dreamed of playing with Muddy. Winter’s big break came in 1968, thanks to Bloomfield, who helped him get a contract with Columbia. While recording six albums for the label, Winter lived the wild life of a blues rock star, engaging in a brief affair with Janis Joplin, developing an addiction to heroin, and recording the original version of “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo” with his bandmate Rick Derringer. Winter was 30 (and Muddy 61) by the time the two first worked together — in 1974, on the initial, star-studded episode of the PBS show Soundstage (alongside Bloomfield, Perkins, Koko Taylor, Dr. John, Willie Dixon, and others). By the time Winter shared the stage with Muddy for the first time, his manager Steve Paul had founded the Columbia imprint Blue Sky, which would become a record label home to Winter, his brother Edgar, Derringer, Dan Hartman, and Muddy. Shortly after Winter signed Waters to Blue Sky, Hard Again was recorded over three days in October 1976.
The leadoff track, “Mannish Boy”, could easily have failed the way so much plodding, tired blues music does. The risk was considerable because the song is built around a riff that’s so overused that it has almost become a caricature of the blues. That stop-time riff was pioneered by Waters in “Hoochie Coochie Man” (#3 R&B, 1954). After Muddy’s Chess colleague Bo Diddley answered with the similar “I’m a Man” (#1 R&B, 1955), Muddy shot back with his original recording of “Manish Boy” (later “Mannish Boy”) (#5 R&B, 1955). Bo Diddley gets a writer’s credit on the song, as does Mel London (who later wrote the classic “Messin’ with the Kid” for Junior Wells).
In November 1976, three days after the New York photo session with Richard Avedon that yielded the album’s iconic cover shot, Muddy delivered a fierce rendition of “Mannish Boy” at the Band’s final concert (The Last Waltz), backed by Helm, Hudson, their Band mates, Perkins, Margolin, and Butterfield. This studio version — with Winter, Cotton, Calmese, and Smith in the mix — is better still, and it even surpasses the 1955 original. It’s the Waters recording with by far the most Spotify streams, more than 70 million.
From the first notes of “Mannish Boy”, it’s clear that Hard Again is a high-fidelity recording from the 1970s. Though it exhibits the energy and groove of Muddy’s earlier classics, the album is sonically a far cry from the Chess sound of the 1950s. Dave Still, who worked with other Blue Sky artists and Foghat, deserves credit for engineering this album so well. The sound is clear, crisp, powerful, warm, and expansive, unlike the more claustrophobic, clipped sound of Muddy’s classic Chess records. Quite simply, Muddy Waters had never before sounded this good on record.
Much has been made of the civil rights message in “Mannish Boy”, with Muddy telling everyone he’s a man, not a boy. That lyric remains important, of course, but here, the song sounds more like a statement of Muddy’s continued virility. The key lines in this version are the risqué ones missing from Muddy’s 1955 original. Borrowing from Diddley’s take on the song, Waters sings about a “line” he “shoots” that will “never miss” and the many “little girls” who “can’t resist” him — girls that have to wait in line “five minutes time” for their turn in bed with him. For those who mistakenly believe that this might be just idle boasting on Muddy’s part, read Can’t Be Satisfied, Robert Gordon’s excellent 2003 Waters biography.
Musically, drummer Willie Smith drives “Mannish Boy”. The first two beats of each measure feature his drums along with bass, guitar, and harp, all playing the famous five-note riff in unison. Over the second two beats, Muddy answers, with just Smith’s rock-solid bass drum and snare beneath his vocals. The band members add hollers of encouragement, and Winter lays a few tasteful slide licks on top.
“Bus Driver”, written by Muddy and his friend Terry Abrahamson, offers clever, racy lyrics, like many great blues songs. Muddy’s woman has “run off” with the bus driver, who used to “give her rides in the daytime”, but now, she’s giving him “rides at night”. Unsurprisingly, she pays half the fare when she gets on the bus, but the driver charges Muddy double. The music glides on top of the loping beat as Margolin and Winter’s guitars dance with Cotton’s harp. Over nearly eight minutes, the band stretches out, with Winter, Cotton, and Perkins all taking solos.
By the third track, “I Want to Be Loved”, it’s clear that something profound happened for harmonica player James Cotton during these sessions, something that positively transformed his more subdued playing on Muddy’s previous 1970s releases. No harmonica player could ever really fill Little Walter’s shoes, but Cotton was tasked with doing just that in Muddy’s band beginning in 1954, and he was well-prepared, having learned from Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf. After having a big impact on Muddy’s music, both in concert and in the studio, Cotton left Muddy’s band in 1966 to go solo, and he went on to open for rock legends such as Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, and Santana. On this album, it’s easy to hear why Muddy continued his on-and-off musical partnership with Cotton for almost three decades. Though Winter set the tone for the sessions and produced the record, Cotton emerges as the lead instrumentalist on Hard Again, his powerful, distorted harp complementing Muddy’s vocals. Was it something encouraging that Waters or Winter said to Cotton? Or did some other factor set him loose? Whatever the case, he’s on fire for nearly the entire album.
Like “Mannish Boy”, “I Want to Be Loved” was initially recorded by Waters in 1955. It was penned by Willie Dixon, perhaps the greatest of all blues songwriters. The original version crawls at a snail’s pace. It’s centered on Muddy’s voice, with the barely audible instrumentation fading into the background before the volume is turned up towards the end. A decade later, the Rolling Stones cut a much faster version, a bit of a mod rave-up. With this version, Muddy matches that version’s speed and intensity. Cotton carries the catchy, stutter-step riff in the verse, with Smith’s snare filling the spaces between his notes. Less than a minute in, the song explodes into an instrumental jam, with Cotton wailing away, Calmese walking up and down his bass, and Smith propelling the band forward with frantic triplets on his snare and toms. Then, the band stops on a dime and shifts directly into the bridge, followed by a final verse. Just like that, two minutes and 21 seconds in, the song’s all over; it’s almost a paean to punk brevity. After the music fades, Muddy says, “That’s it.” Apparently surprised at how well the session’s going, Winter asks, “That’s it?” Muddy, laughing, repeats himself, sure that it was the right take.
“Jealous Hearted Man” describes the two things Waters says he understands: a “lying woman” and a “jealous-hearted man”. As on “I Want to Be Loved”, Waters unleashes Cotton, who alternates wailing trills and a stabbing attack on his harp, sounding like a man possessed. Muddy’s hurt feelings about being cuckolded are conveyed less by his vocals than by Cotton’s crying and shouting harmonica.
“I Can’t Be Satisfied” is a third re-recorded Waters track on the album. Muddy’s initial commercial recording of the song was his first hit for Chess, reaching #11 R&B in 1948. Still, its history goes back even further — to the pre-Chess Mississippi field recording titled “I Be’s Troubled” from Muddy’s 1941 Library of Congress session with Alan Lomax. Though the 1947 version is electric and features an upright bass, there’s no harp or drums, so both of Muddy’s 1940s versions of the song are pretty firmly Delta blues, not the electric Chicago blues Waters helped birth in the years that followed.
On Hard Again, Waters stays true to his earlier versions of the song, with Smith laying way back on the drums and Cotton, Perkins, and Calmese nowhere to be found. Margolin’s syncopated strumming mainly provides the rhythm, and the star attraction isn’t Muddy’s powerful slide playing but Winter’s (Margolin has reported that Muddy played no guitar on Hard Again). After the song’s over, Waters exclaims to Winter, “You’re kicking ass!” Winter responds, “Yeah, we got that one down!” The upbeat instrumentation belies the song’s lyrics, which are dark and brooding. Because his lover has done him wrong, Waters sings of being “troubled”, “worried”, never “satisfied”, and “goin’ away” forever. “I feel like snapping” a “pistol in your face,” he sings. “I’m going to let some graveyard be your resting place.”
Co-written by Brownie McGhee, “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll, Pt. 2″ makes a case for the continued relevance of the blues in the 1970s popular music landscape. The blues is described as the mother of rock (still the dominant pop genre in 1976), and soul (the most popular African-American genre at the time) is name-checked as well (“the blues got soul”). Like a rapper, Waters gives shout-outs throughout the track by naming all the people who say the blues has soul, including Memphis Slim (with whom he shared a bill at Carnegie Hall in 1959), “Queen” Victoria Spivey (the 1920s blues star who died the month the track was recorded), Otis Spann (Muddy’s former pianist), and three members of Muddy’s current band (Pinetop Perkins, Johnny Winter, and James Cotton). The track is built around Cotton’s simple two-note riff, reminiscent of Muddy’s “I’m Ready” (which reached #4 R&B in 1954).
Unlike the re-recorded classics on Hard Again, it’s hard to imagine Waters writing or singing “Deep Down in Florida” as a younger man. While songs like “Mannish Boy” might seem less than credible coming from someone over 60, this song — about retiring to Florida — feels like a natural fit for a person his age. Muddy sings about the Sunshine State as the place he longs to be, where the “sun shines damn near every day”, and he can sit in a backyard beneath an orange tree. He describes visiting a friend in Gainesville, stopping by nearby Newberry, and his plan to “go back down” there and stay. After living through dozens of brutal Chicago winters, who could blame him? Calmese and Smith creep forward on this slow, loping blues while Cotton and Winter solo throughout.
Lyrically, “Crosseyed Cat” is the most surreal song on the album. Waters sings about getting away from a woman he can’t seem to please, one who owns a giant, crazy, cross-eyed cat that looks askance at him. It seems the cat represents the woman herself, but it’s a bit of an obscure lyric. Musically, the track is much easier to follow and terribly catchy. It’s hard-driving, led by Cotton’s descending riff, which sharply pulls up at the last moment. Clocking in at six minutes, “Crosseyed Cat” provides plenty of room for extended solos: one by Perkins (a rare moment for him to shine on this album) and another by Winter (which stretches to the fade).
Closing the album, “Little Girl” is yet another chance for the band to stretch out over a long track, and over its seven minutes, it includes solos from Winter, Cotton, and then Perkins. The lyrics don’t say much beyond Muddy wanting to be with a “sweet” girl raised down on a Louisiana farm. The song is a decent enough conclusion to a great album, but it isn’t very memorable.
Though it wasn’t on the original version of Hard Again, “Walking Through the Park” — a fourth re-recording of a Waters classic — is included as a bonus track on streaming services (it first appeared on the 2004 CD version of Hard Again). The song may have been left off the original vinyl LP due to time constraints, but it also doesn’t make the cut artistically. There are (at least) three better recordings of the song: the original (released as a single in 1959), another on Fathers and Sons (1969), and a third from the Hard Again sessions but released on Johnny Winter’s album Nothin’ but the Blues.
After Hard Again, which won the Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording, Waters and Winter tried to repeat their success with three subsequent albums: I’m Ready (1978), Muddy “Mississippi” Waters – Live (1979), and King Bee (1981). Though the first two also won Grammys and were fairly satisfying, the Waters-Winter collaboration delivered diminishing returns. Their follow-up work sadly lacked the excitement of Hard Again, and at times, it seemed like they were just going through the motions. James Cotton barely appears on these follow-up albums, replaced on harp by Big Walter Horton and Jerry Portnoy, and his absence is felt. By the May 1980 sessions for King Bee (which wasn’t even Grammy-nominated), the band was upset about being underpaid, and Muddy’s health was in decline. Those sessions stopped short of an album’s worth of music, and two Hard Again outtakes filled out the set. It would prove to be Muddy’s last studio album. Less than three years later, he died of heart failure at the age of 70, on 30 April 1983.
Unsurprisingly, many posthumous honors have been paid to Waters, including induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (1987) and commemoration on a US postage stamp (1994). One of the most inspiring tributes is the beautiful, nine-story-tall mural of him by Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra, which was dedicated in 2017 and still towers over State Street in downtown Chicago. Though Waters would never again reach the musical heights of Hard Again, that album, like Kobra’s mural, remains a glowing monument to him and to what electric Chicago blues can be at its very best.