June 19, 2024

The British blues boom of the 1960s begat many legends, but the figures who predated them are mightier still. Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Hooker, the three Kings, BB, Albert and Freddie; Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and the rest. But the single  legendary figure to bear responsibility for detonating the British blues explosion might just be Muddy Waters. Born McKinley Morganfield in Mississippi during the first world war, his first recordings were made during the second, relocating to Chicago in 1943 and becoming part of the burgeoning electric blues scene there. He was one of the first artists on the classic Chess label, so intimately associated with the genre. But it was when he toured the UK with pianist Otis Spann in 1958 that the die was cast.

Muddy Waters with Bob Margolin on guitar

Chicago audiences were used to blues being played in their night clubs, where it was necessary for the artists to use amplification in order to make themselves heard. But the Brits were only familiar with the blues as a kind of American folk music played on acoustic instruments. When Muddy turned up in Britain – and turned up to 11 – it was unexpected, shocking even, appalling and inspiring all at once. A generation of British musicians suddenly became aware of the power of the blues as a venue-filling, audience-ready sound. Alexis Korner, the Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Cream, Led Zeppelin  and others immediately turned it into a hard-rocking power genre and exported it back to the States. It was effectively the same form that Gary Moore would be peddling years later, and we now hear echoed back to us from across the pond by the likes of Joe Bonamassa.

In 1975, Muddy’s career all but foundered when the Chess brothers sold their label, and the new owners All Platinum stopped recording any more new music. But when massive fan and fellow bluesman Johnny Winter stepped up to produce, and Columbia’s Blue Sky subsidiary signed him up, suddenly Muddy was in business again, and Winters went on to produce 3 studio albums and a live set, before Muddy succumbed to cancer and heart failure in 1983. These three studio albums – Hard Again (1977), I’m Ready (1978),  and King Bee (1981) – turned out to be a highlight of Muddy’s recording career, and they have been gathered up by Floating World Records and released as a 3 CD set. It’s not named, except as a concatenation of the three original album titles, but it’s a tremendous tribute to one of the godfathers of electric blues.

Hard Again was received as a triumphal comeback when it was released, successfully vying for attention with the emerging late ‘70s punk bands.  Winter contributed guitar and slide, Pinetop Perkins tickled the ivories, and harp was supplied by the great James Cotton. Every song but one was a Muddy original or co-write, although some of them were recycled. The classic, strutting opener, Mannish Boy, had in fact been heard on albums in 1955 and 1983, so this version was his third studio recording. Willie Dixon’s poppy I Want To Be Loved, (the only cover on the set), and Muddy’s I Can’t Be Satisfied were also re-recordings of songs from previous albums.

Now I’m going to step out of line here and state that, however Muddy’s fans may have taken this set to their hearts, it’s as primitive and raw as it can get. Winter’s production skills seemed to stop at mixing everything to more-or-less the same volume, so everyone is hammering away at full throttle most of the time. Neither did much thought go into the performance. Bus Driver for instance, a slow blues lamenting the singer’s girl leaving him for the titular bus driver, features some great, rapid-fire bass, but everything’s going at once – there is a Johnny Winter slide solo, a screaming harp, then Pinetop whacking the honky-tonk piano as hard as he can to be heard, with no concession to subtlety at all, and the ending is an absolute car crash. Jealous-Hearted Man, similarly, is a rocking shuffle with everything thrown at it. There are changes of scene for sure, with the down-home, front porch acoustic blues of I Can’t Be Satisfied, and The Blues Had A Baby And They Named It Rock And Roll, which is a proper, classic, up-tempo pub rocker. The highlight for me though, has to be the groovy, riffy, Crosseyed Cat. I wouldn’t always recommend a fade-out as the way to end a blues number, but it really sounds like some effort was made to knock this one into professional shape.

The following album, I’m Ready, carries on in much the same vein, although the sound seems to be slightly more balanced and refined. Harp player James Cotton is replaced by the equally iconic Big Walter Horton for some undisclosed reason, and his sound seems a little less overdriven, although still satisfyingly grungy. It sounds as if Pinetop may have hired a piano tuner in the interim too. Muddy’s stock-in-trade is the classic 12-bar slow blues, and the majority of these songs follow that format. The opening title track, another Willie Dixon cover, is an exception, and the slightly faster-than-most, loosely rolling Rock Me is a highlight. The only other number to raise the tempo is the closer, a cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s Good Morning Little School Girl. The lyrical content would certainly raise some eyebrows if attempted today, but it’s an up-tempo, chugging four-to-the-floor rocker with a slight syncopation that makes for a nice groove. The slight gap between I’m Ready in 1978 and King Bee in January 1981 is explained by the fact that there was also a live album in between: 1979’s Muddy “Mississippi” Waters – Live. That album is not part of this set, although it was also produced by Winter and used essentially the same band, and, like the previous two studio releases, won a Grammy award.

Top: Hard Again (1977)
Middle: I’m Ready (1978)
Bottom: King Bee (1981)

King Bee turned out to be Muddy’s last album; in fact his failing health put a serious crimp in the sessions, and the production was dogged by personnel issues, so it wasn’t really finished. They ended up using a couple of outtakes from the I’m Ready sessions to fill out the space, which means that both sets of musicians are credited on the album, although there is, of course, some overlap. It was still well-received, but the accepted wisdom is that it was a noble swan-song rather than a great set. Once again, I am going to step out of line here, because in my opinion, it’s the best of the three, and so much better, it’s not even funny.

The improvement is noticeable right from the start. It opens with a count-in to the title track, a groovy, rolling, mid-tempo cover of Slim Harpo’s I’m A King Bee, with beautiful production and balance. The wailing harp is now courtesy of Chicago bluesman Jerry Portnoy, and the imaginative sliding guitar riff is distinctive. for the first time, it doesn’t sound like a bunch of mates jamming; this is a properly put-together track, with actual composition, both subtle and beautiful. Mean Old Frisco Blues is a rapid rock’n’roll Arthur Crudup cover, with rim shots and loads of cymbals. There is a neat timing feature which makes it a kind of 11½-bar blues, with half a bar missing in each verse; in fact several of the numbers feature non-standard numbers of bars. Even the guitar tones are smoother and less harsh; in fact the slow 15-bar(!) Champagne & Reefer starts with some overdriven distortion which adds a more modern feel.

The slow blues numbers still predominate, although there are more up-tempo songs in this set, and instruments are faded up for the solos and down for the verses, which is especially notable on the mid-tempo (My Eyes) Keep Me In Trouble. There is an alternative version of the song Deep Down In Florida from the I’m Ready sessions, although this one is a couple of keys higher, and actually includes some sweet, rapid guitar riffage. Don’t go away with the impression that Muddy’s whole sound has been tamed and dumbed down for a 1980s pop audience ripe for electronic drums and pinging Casio keyboards. It’s still raw and strident enough to be recognizably Chicago blues, but with some of the biggest splinters sandpapered off. There is another front porch, acoustic blues in I Feel Like Going Home, with some impressively off-key slide, and no bass at all. And if you are desperate to hear a good, loose ending, check out track 2, the slow triplet-time Too Young To Know, although you’ll also have to accept some tremendous piano playing from Pinetop.

Muddy’s history is deep and wide, of course. It will still be necessary to hear his older recordings, with his band of blues heavyweights including Little Walter on harp, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, and Otis Spann on piano. This collection is also missing possibly his most popular song, the audience sing-along standard Got My Mojo Working. But honestly, an exploration of blues history could do a lot worse than start here, with King Bee, and work its way backwards.

Hard Again / I’m Ready / King Bee by Muddy Waters  is available now from Floating World Records