McKinley Morganfield was born April 4, 1915, in Rolling Fork, in America’s southern Mississippi Delta near Highway 61. His father, Ollie Morganfield, farmed and played blues guitar, but his parents separated when he was six months old and he went to live with his maternal grandmother on a plantation outside Clarksdale, Mississippi, another town in the central Delta where John Lee Hooker and other future blues and gospel stars grew up. His grandmother began calling him “Muddy” when he was a baby because he liked playing in the mud, and when he was a child on the plantation playmates added the surname “Waters.”
Muddy Waters played a key role in the development of electric blues and rock and was the greatest contemporary exponent of the influential Mississippi Delta blues style.
In 1941 and 1942, Alan Lomax and John Work recorded Muddy in Mississippi for the Library of Congress. Hearing himself on records encouraged Muddy to try to make commercial recordings, and in 1943 he moved to Chicago. The following year he acquired an electric guitar, and by 1948 his band, with Jimmy Rogers on second guitar, Little Walter on harmonica, and Baby Face Leroy on guitar and drums, was the most popular blues combo working on Chicago’s black South Side. He recorded for Columbia Records and for Aristocrat, and his recording career took off in 1948 after Aristocrat, owned by Leonard and Phil Chess, became Chess Records, with Muddy Waters as its leading blues artist.
By the early Fifties, Muddy had made a series of hit records for Chess that made him the undisputed king of Chicago blues singers. He was the first popular bandleader to assemble and lead a truly electric band, a band that used amplification to make the music more ferociously physical instead of simply making it a little louder.
The songs he recorded and performed in the Fifties included Hoochie Coochie Man, Just Make Love To Me, She Moves Me and Mannish Boy. His songs, some of which were original, while others came from the blues tradition or were written for him by Willie Dixon, are still in the repertories of countless blues and rhythm-and-blues bands throughout the world.
In 1958, he became the first artist to play the electric blues in England, and while many British folk-blues fans recoiled in horror, his visit inspired young musicians like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones, who later named their band the Rolling Stones after Muddy Waters’ early hit Rollin’ Stone. Bob Dylan’s mid Sixties rock hit Like a Rolling Stone and the leading rock newspaper Rolling Stone were also named after Muddy’s original song.
Muddy played his blues at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1959, and in 1960 he made a triumphant appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, where he introduced his blues hit, Got My Mojo Working, to white music fans. His music was widely imitated by a generation of young white musicians, and virtually all leading rock guitarists who emerged in the Sixties, including Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Johnny Winter, named Muddy Waters as one of their earliest and most important influences.
Mr. Clapton returned the favor by hiring Muddy to open the concerts on one of his American tours in the Seventies, where hundreds of thousands of rock fans heard Muddy’s music for the first time. He once more received widespread recognition, including six Grammy awards and a dynamic featured performance in Martin Scorcese’s film about The Band, The Last Waltz.
His last albums, recorded for the Blue Sky label and produced by his longtime admirer, the rock guitarist Johnny Winter, sold better than all but a handful of his earlier recordings, and he was proud of them. “This is the best point of my life that I’m living right now.” he said in 1978. “I’m glad it came before I died, I can tell you.” He never grew rich from his music, but he was able to work virtually as often as he wanted. Muddy Waters passed away on April 30th, 1983.