Biography works
that Waters mojo

New book details blues master's life

by Joel Selvin
San Francisco Chronicle

Men don't come more masculine than Muddy Waters. The dignified blues great whose face always looked like it was carved out of granite sang with a primordial force. "I'm a man," he famously sang, "That's spelled M ... A ... N ... man." It was no idle boast.

His name alone evokes his days as a Mississippi sharecropper, picking cotton, plowing fields, living in a one-room shack, making bootleg whiskey and playing the blues at juke joints on Saturday nights. But once he moved to Chicago during World War II, Waters began walking a musical path that not only dramatically transformed the rural music into the sound of the city but also made him one of the most important American musicians of the 20th century.

South Side beginnings

Working with a small band that included such important collaborators as harmonica ace Little Walter Jacobs, pianist Otis Spann and guitarist Jimmy Rogers, Waters and company ran their initial experiments at a small South Side club called the Zanzibar in 1946. They made a series of records in the late 40s and early 50s for the small Chess Records that revolutionized the blues, although they were scarcely heard outside Chicago when they were first released.

Author Robert Gordon gives us Muddy Waters, the man, in his new book, Can't Be Satisfied. The Memphis-based music writer has been working on this definitive biography for years. He brings Waters alive as a wise and careful man, not necessarily a dependable husband and father but a musician who kept his own counsel as he scrupulously maintained his small-time career around Chicago nightclubs for most of two decades before the rest of the world caught up with him.

Born McKinley Morganfield in Issaquena, Mississippi, in 1913, Muddy Waters was living on Stovall's Plantation deep in the Mississippi delta -- where the young Morganfield came under the influence of local musicians such as Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Son House -- when he was first recorded in 1941 and 1942 by the United States' most noted folklorist of the day, Alan Lomax. Four years later Waters was living in Chicago, playing electric guitar at house parties and bringing together the elements that would make his music heard around the world.

Fifteen years later, a group of young British musicians named their band after an old song of his, "Rolling Stone." The music of the Rolling Stones was drawn directly from the music Waters set in motion.

He was the Duke Ellington of the blues -- his repertoire became the music's standards and his band members the music's definitive soloists. And he was the fountainhead of modern blues. Gordon quotes Keith Richards (author of the book's foreword) as saying Muddy Waters "was like a code book."

Waters was in his late 30s, an illiterate truck driver trying to make a living playing music, when he started making his landmark blues records. His lifelong association with Chess Records' owners, brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, ran along the same lines as the beneficent plantation owner and the sharecropper, roles Waters knew from his childhood. Waters ws paid only one royalty check in his life -- a whopping $10,000 one that was delivered at the same meeting where he was asked to sign a new contract with Chess Records extending his publishing agreement.

Different direction

Waters held still for all the off-beat concepts and strange ideas the Chess family employed in his recording career, from albums designed to cash in on the folk music boom to "Electric Mud," a widely disparaged work that tried to fit his music into a contrived psychedelic rock context. Gordon points to Waters' 1976 album, "Hard Again," recorded for Columbia Records and produced by white Texas blues guitarist Jonny Winter, as the redemptive masterpiece the Chess brothers had so long denied him in the recording studio.

By the time he died of cancer in 1983, Waters had settled into a kind of comfortable domesticity, and he was accorded the kind of deep respect and honors that were due a musician of his stature and contributions. His journey from Southern plantation to Chicago suburb mirrored the migration of a generation of Blacks. Gordon, whose crisp writing, acute insights and obvious passion for the music fuels his work, has written a book as large as that man.

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