Muddy Waters was not a loquacious man, never saying more than he meant.
That came from growing up hard and unschooled on the Mississippi Delta plantation where folklorist Alan Lomax found him in 1940. Lomax was looking for the legendary blues figure Robert Johnson, who had been poisoned the previous year. Anxious not to waste the trip from Washington, Lomax was talked into recording the unknown Waters. He played acoustic guitar then, and Lomax recorded him in his bedroom.
The blues shine a harsh, unrelenting spotlight on everyday life and few have ever focused it as brightly or as accurately as Muddy Waters, who died Saturday at age 68 of a heart attack in Downers Grove, Ill. Yet he could sum up his art in a phrase as succinct as any line pulled from any blues: "I sing what people have been upon or what someday they might come upon."
For years, Lomax's recordings were available only to scholars at the Library of Congress, but the truths Waters expressed--pain, love, work, women, violence, alcohol--were universal as only the blues could be.
Muddy Waters seldom let on to what he was feeling, much less thinking. His face tended to be impassive, a wariness exuding from deeply hooded eyes. That second-nature caution came from living hard and working along the mean streets of Chicago's South Side.
Plugging in his first electric guitar in the mid-'40s, Waters virtually invented the electric blues ensemble and modern urban blues; it was the electric guitar that elevated his work from a sound to a style. It also powered one of the most creative periods of American blues, but Waters' own explanation was matter-of-fact, necessity-bound. "I took the old-time music and brought it up to date," he once said. "You've got to stay alive with it. You need to work."
For all his reticence, Waters had a way of looking into a person's eyes and answering questions no one had thought, or sometimes dared, to ask. It was a trick he pulled on the stage almost every night, as well. Although he let his bands carry the weight in later years, Waters remained undiluted in his raw honesty. He never forgot his hard country roots, never forgot that for many years seven nights of playing were an adjunct to six days of truck and factory work.
On stage, rivulets of perspiration snaked past eyebrows knit in concentration, coursed through facial English that floated between agony and exuberance. That muscular voice, erupting from Waters' barrel chest, was dark and dry, as bracing as the moonshine whiskey he used to make on Stovall Plantation.
He was born McKinley Morganfield in 1915. But he would frolic in the plantation's creek and come out Mississippi muddy. The name stuck. In performance, Waters bit off pain-anxious lyrics, urgently underlining them with stinging slide-guitar lines, setting them down firmly in the raucous insistence of the band. It wasn't an act. It was a natural fact.
A proud man, Waters carried himself like the legend he had become by the late '50s. Of the classic American bluesmen, only B.B. King and John Lee Hooker survive him: Only King can match his success. The Rolling Stones (who took their name from one of his early songs), Eric Clapton and Johnny Winter are among the many rockers who have acknowledged their debt to Waters' raw blues; they are also among the few who ever paid it back by including him on their tours and recording his music. Yet the bluesman refused to slide into anachronism--he kept working, diminishing only his playing time, never his commitment.
Waters' first band--the one with nearly-as-legendary guitarist Jimmy Rogers, pianist Otis Spann and harmonica player Little Walter--is considered the greatest in blues history. Like the youngsters in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, the players came, learned and eventually left to find their own place, so that Waters spent the last 30 years competing with his own sidemen. He never minded; but then, he seldom came out on the short end. "I always believed, if somebody can shine, put the light on him, let him shine." It shone on the likes of James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Jr. Wells and dozens of lesser known carriers of the tradition.
Waters never separated himself from the blues. There were periods when the thrill was gone, when his frustration made him almost invisible in his own band; he even gave up guitar-playing for a number of years until rock stars began crediting him as a major influence in the '60s. Yet while Waters made commercial accommodations in the recording studio over the years, he never pulled up his roots ("If you change my sound, then you change the whole man," he protested). Waters may have left the smoky, rough-and-tumble neighborhood joints, but they never left him. "I been in the blues all of my life," he explained to one writer. "I just got to love 'em. I enjoy 'em, feels 'em. Sure, I can kinda take care of myself now, but I still got that feelin'. I'm still delivering, 'cause I got a long memory."
In the past decade, bolstered by Johnny Winter, his disciple/producer, and supported by worldwide distribution of his still-fine records (he won five Grammys), Waters was enjoying the fruits of his latest renaissance.
He expressed few regrets. "Find me working all night, playing, working till sunrise for 50 cents and a sandwich," he recalled for one writer, adding quickly, "and be glad of it." Long before the concerts, clubs and festivals that attracted predominantly white audiences, Waters knew the support of the black community: the rent parties, the frolics, the Saturday night suppers, the juke joints where the blues were a more vibrant current than the electricity that finally let the music be heard in all its power.
He never did come to terms with black audiences abandoning the blues in the '50s, or the fact that it took him so long to get recognition. "I'm sorry the world didn't know me before they did," he told writer Peter Guralnik in 1970. "They could have come around a lot earlier, you know . . . when I was younger and could put out more."
Waters liked to recall the early years in Chicago, when he, Jimmy Rogers and Little Walter would slink around town, looking for blues bands playing in the neighborhood clubs. With the irrepressible energy of youth, they called themselves the Headhunters, and looked for "bands to burn" in cutting sessions as wild as any Charlie Parker ever knew. But Waters played down that aggressive thrust in later years, feeling that "you can't be the best, you can just be a good 'un."
He was the best, though, and many fans will remember Muddy Waters in the words to one of his first hits, "I Can't Be Satisfied":
Well I'm going away to leave, won't be back no more
Going back down South, child, don't you want to go?
Lord, I'm troubled, I be all worried mind
Babe, I just can't be satisfied
And I just can't keep from cryin'.