According to Joe Bonamassa, there may be very few things that blues aficionados agree on, but one thing they do agree on is Mr. Muddy Waters: that he is truly one of the greats, and that he’s one of the men that every contemporary bluesman owes a musical debt to. Not only does Joe’s music owe a debt to Muddy, but so does his stage persona – for it was Muddy Waters at the Newport Jazz festival in 1960 that inspired Joe Bonamassa to want to dress up for the blues and wear the suits that have become his trademark. This inspired me, in turn, to go back and look at that Newport Jazz Festival performance, which, happily, has been available on record for a long time. It is credited as one of the performances that helped to popularize the blues with white audiences. In addition, it was one of the earlier live blues recordings released, so it is a pretty special album. At Newport Jazz, blues was the featured music on Sunday, July 3rd 1960. After giving a lift to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and his blues band arrived on the scene. The day before Ray Charles had played and it turned into a bit of a frenzy. Muddy’s band did not just back Waters but also performances by Otis Spann and John Lee Hooker. Finally Muddy Waters took the stage, all dressed in formal black clothing while his band wore white.
After graciously thanking the mostly white, very not-urban-Chicago audience, Muddy premiered a brand new song called “I Got My Brand On You,” a slow blues written by Willie Dixon, to open the set. The arrangement, with its juke joint piano and swampy harmonica is classic Muddy Waters. Next up is the stop-time classic with the riff known by virtually everybody, “Hoochie Coochie Man” – you can read more about that song here on the Keeping the Blues Alive Blog. Then the band kicks the tempo up a notch with the fun uptempo swinger, “Baby, Please Don’t Go.” Some other highlights of the performance include “Tiger In Your Tank” despite some flubbed lyrics, and the rousing “Got My Mojo Working.” By the time they got to Mojo, Muddy felt like he was back home playing to his familiar audiences in Chicago, dancing and hip thrusting all around the stage and immersing himself in the good times and the music. The performance of the song is so good that an encore performance is requested by the audience, and Muddy happily obliges. Overall, Muddy Waters is both the consummate musician and professional, his music is deeply moving and gritty, but he’s as smooth and polished a performer as there is in the business, and it reminds me a lot of Joe to be honest. You can really feel how inspired Joe was by listening to this performance, on all aesthetic levels, and while Joe is less hip-grinding, more guitar-wailing, the lineage is clear.
As we celebrate Muddy Waters’ birthday this week, I have kind of reflected on how influential and important Muddy Waters is to so much of the blues that I listen to. Yes, Robert Johnson might be the granddaddy and most of influential of them all, but as one of the first major electric guitar bluesmen on the scene, every electric guitarist owes Muddy a great deal – from Clapton to Gallagher to Stevie Ray and to Bonamassa. On The Pickup radio show, which you can listen to here, Bonamassa discusses Muddy and his peers as hard drinking, hard bluesing, music greats that live like professionals but also manly men. And there is definitely a very masculine edge to much blues music, although we know plenty of ladies who can rock it just as hard, many of whom you can read about and listen to on the Tribut Apparel blog here. For many people, the Chicago sound has become the defining style of blues music, and it’s impossible to image this without Muddy Waters paving the way and showing us all how it’s done. So let’s all get our mojo workin’ today by pulling out some Muddy Waters and celebrating the man, the musician, the legend to whom every blues fan and artist owes so much.
– Brian R.
What’s your favorite Muddy Waters tune? Let me know down below in the comments section!
If you dig Muddy and you dig Joe, you absolutely must get your hands on Joe’s latest record, Muddy Wolf at Red Rocks, a special tribute show during which Joe plays full sets of music by Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf and also a few originals. Get yours here.
And if cool music t-shirts are your thing, we got ’em over at Tribut Apparel. Check ’em out here!
Photo credit: Kevin Dooley