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Mojo Man 

Muddy Waters was a rollin' stone

Wednesday, Jul 10 2002
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On September 2, 1941, an illiterate sharecropper and aspiring professional musician on the Stovall plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi, dictated a letter to a fellow worker for delivery to a Library of Congress field researcher who had recorded him days before. The ’cropper had at first mistaken Alan Lomax, whose recordings would bring him his first taste of renown, for a ”revenue man,“ come to bust him for operating a still.

The anxious, misspelled, ill-punctuated letter to Lomax read, ”This is the boy. That put out Bur Clover Blues. And number one high Way Blues. and several. more. blues. Want to know did they take.“

The jittery bluesman -- born McKinley Morganfield, also known as Muddy Waters -- was, in the words of his biographer Robert Gordon, ”using the language he knew -- his songs were like a seed taking to the ground.“ Muddy needn‘t have worried. The seed planted by those first non-commercial recordings, and fertilized by the ambition apparent in that haltingly penned letter, soon flowered. Taking the loamy blues of his Mississippi Delta home north to Chicago a few years later, Waters transformed the music, and himself, forever.

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Waters’ metamorphosis from Deep South anonymity to international icon is retold in Gordon‘s briskly written new book. The author of It Came From Memphis, which drolly surveyed the push and pull between black and white musical and social forces in his Tennessee hometown, Gordon is supremely equipped to chart Waters’ ascent as a ‘50s R&B hitmaker and his latter-day lionization by young white listeners. Gordon’s a solid historian and a crackling, jivey stylist; he feels the earthy swing of Muddy‘s music and the funk of the jukehouses and clubs that spawned it. He has a harder time locating Waters the man, but ultimately Gordon delivers a full and oft-disturbing portrait of an artist at once sexually driven and emotionally remote.

Waters’ saga began humbly enough. Born on April 4, 1913, in Issaquena, Mississippi, he abandoned school to chop cotton and push a plow; more important, he was schooled in the blues at the feet of local musicians. Learning harmonica first and then guitar, as a boy he saw Delta legend Charlie Patton, and worshipped slide-guitar titan Eddie ”Son“ House. Blues wraith Robert Johnson became the source of Muddy‘s own style, but he ducked Johnson’s juju in their lone encounter, on the street in Friar‘s Point, Mississippi, before the older bluesman’s death in 1938. ”He was a dangerous man,“ Muddy recalled. ”I crawled away and pulled out, because it was too heavy for me.“

Muddy had married once, taken the first of many outside women, fathered the first of several illegitimate children, and worked as a bootlegger and juke-joint operator by the time Lomax and pioneering African-American researcher John Work III found him in August of 1941. They recorded three songs and a blunt interview with the 28-year-old musician on the porch of the Stovall plantation commissary. That encounter, and a subsequent one in 1942, gave Muddy the nerve to walk off his plantation job in 1943 and move to Chicago.

The Windy City was then the focal point of black migration from the South, and the blues hub of the country. When Muddy arrived, the light, uptown ”Bluebird beat“ held sway, and Waters‘ first recorded work passed into obscurity. However, in 1947, Muddy hooked up with two Polish immigrant entrepreneurs, Leonard and Phil Chess, and things began to click.

Muddy had started to use an electric guitar in the Chicago clubs; as he explained, ”a ’cue-stick‘ [acoustic] guitar wouldn’t answer there, not in a liquor club.“ His first records for the brothers‘ label (first named Aristocrat and then, famously, Chess) found him performing an assault on the Delta blues with his amplified slide; early sides like ”I Can’t Be Satisfied“ and ”Rollin‘ Stone“ created a sensation with black record buyers.

Though Waters’ first records featured intimate bands, he developed a brazen, club-shaking live sound with his working group, which featured the blues equivalent of Robin Hood‘s Merry Men: steady Jimmie Rodgers on guitar, scrappy Little Walter Jacobs on harp, dissolute Otis Spann on piano. (These stars would be succeeded in the studio and onstage by other luminaries, including Junior Wells, James Cotton and Buddy Guy; Muddy’s band was to blues what Miles Davis‘ was to jazz.) But only belatedly, in 1953, did Muddy’s full band record for Chess; as Gordon explains, ”The idea of wrangling that sound in the studio was beyond Leonard‘s accomplishments.“ On record, at least, Howlin’ Wolf‘s slamming 1951 sides for Sam Phillips’ Sun label trumped his Chicago rival‘s.

But Muddy ultimately ruled the mid-’50s blues, as one elemental, powerfully erotic single followed another: ”(I‘m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man,“ ”I Just Want To Make Love to You,“ ”Mannish Boy“ and more. However, the success of Chess’ rock & roll stars Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley eclipsed Muddy in popularity, and soon the listless performer could hardly be bothered to pick up his guitar during a nightclub gig.

Gordon notes that it was left to a growing legion of white blues fans here and overseas to save Muddy‘s commercial bacon. In 1958, he toured Britain for the first time, incongruously backed by clarinetist Chris Barber’s trad-jazz band; audiences went wild, and future members of Brit-blooze units like the Animals and the Rolling Stones drew their inspiration from the concerts. In 1960, Muddy and his group appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival, where a spirited ”Got My Mojo Working“ tore the crowd apart. He had entered the world blues pantheon, never to exit it.

Muddy cruised through his ‘60s success, living comfortably on Chess’ dole and content with label-mandated incarnations such as ”folk artist“ (on Muddy Waters, Folk Singer), psychedelic shaman (on Electric Mud) and supergroup front man (on Fathers & Sons). According to Gordon, he remained a man of simple tastes even as fame found him; he liked nothing more than sitting around the house, sipping a beer and watching a ball game on TV. He kept his friends close: Pianist Spann lived for many years in the basement of Muddy‘s home on Chicago’s South Side.

But he had one problem. ”Muddy loved women,“ his cousin Elve tells Gordon. ”Just like any other man, you supposed to love a woman. But you ain‘t supposed to try to have all of ’em.“

He tried anyway. Can‘t Be Satisfied features a cast of so many spouses, ”road wives,“ back-door gals and bastard offspring that a genealogical chart would have proved helpful. Though he lived with one woman, Geneva Wade, for over 20 years, Muddy was moved by what one of his song lyrics calls ”that same thing that makes a preacher lay his Bible down.“ His chronic womanizing created a mountain of personal wreckage in his later years: Some children and wives were abandoned or ignored; others grappled with or expired from drug or alcohol abuse. His granddaughter Cookie notes grimly near the book’s end, ”He was not a very nice person.“

He was also, given his illiteracy, not much of a businessman. It was only after Scott Cameron became Muddy‘s manager in 1973 that the singer got his monetary due. By that time, Leonard Chess was long dead, and the label had been sold. It was left to Cameron to untangle Waters’ exploitive contract and publishing deal; the manager maintains in the book that Muddy got his first royalty check after the 1977 release of the soundtrack for The Band‘s The Last Waltz.

After finally splitting from Chess in ’75, Waters made his last record deal with CBS-distributed Blue Sky Records, which released Hard Again, produced by Johnny Winter, in 1977. That thumping album, and to a lesser degree the three that succeeded it before Muddy‘s death on April 30, 1983, resuscitated the primal force and sexual charge felt in his historic ’50s recordings.

Those records also re-explored the long route Muddy‘s music took, from the boggy earth of the Delta to the bright lights and harsh pavement of the urban North. In that journey lay the musician’s truest victory, Gordon says in his closing pages. ”Muddy‘s achievement is the triumph of the dirt farmer,“ he writes. ”His music brought respect to a culture dismissed as offal. His music spawned the triumphant voice of angry people demanding change. This dirt has meaning.“ And so does this rich, knowing book.

CAN’T BE SATISFIED: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters By ROBERT GORDON | Little, Brown and Co. | 408 pages $26 hardcover

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