Life And Times Of Muddy Waters

REVIEW by Willard Manus

Anyone who watched the recent seven-night PBS series, The Blues, will remember the segment dealing with Chicago and its importance in the history of the music. At the heart of that 90-minute program was a tribute to the legendary Muddy Waters, the man B.B. King called "the godfather of the blues."

Muddy was recalled on screen mostly by Marshall Chess, son of the man who released Waters' first records, Leonard Chess. This was back in 1947, when Muddy (real name McKinley A. Morganfield), was a struggling young singer/guitar player just out of the Mississippi Delta. Leonard Chess was struggling too. He and his brother Phil had come out of Poland, not the Delta, but they were fighting to make it in one of the toughest cities in America--"city of the big shoulders," as Carl Sandburg put it. They started with a liquor store, then opened a raunchy nightspot that attracted a largely black clientele because of its live music. That connection segued into Chess Records, which fixed on "race music," a euphemism for the blues and jazz most white folks considered too raw and uncouth to bring into their homes.

Muddy and Leonard formed a special bond from the gitgo. Waters, the illiterate sharecropper who grew up in a shack, found in Leonard a reflection of the plantation bossman of his youth, Captain Stovall, who treated him in a warm, paternalistic way even as he exploited his labor. Leonard also "took care" of Waters, making good on his promise to never let him starve--even as he made hundreds of thousands of dollars out of his artistic abilities.

Muddy never got a single royalty check from Chess Records, but to hear Marshall tell it on The Blues, the singer never had a quarrel with his father. Left out of that disingenuous view of things was the fact that Muddy, helped by an honest and shrewd manager, Scott Cameron, ultimately sued Chess Records in 1975 for unpaid back royalties and won his case. Thirty years of thievery had finally come to an end.

The unvarnished truth about Muddy and Chess Records is contained in the recently published book by Robert Gordon, CAN'T BE SATISFIED--THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MUDDY WATERS (Little Brown & Co.) Gordon worked on the biography for five years and his hard work has paid off handsomely. CAN'T BE SATISFIED is the definitive book on Muddy, a scrupulously researched, emphatically written account of the tumultuous life of a great American artist. The 400-page work also offers a concise history of the blues and vivid portraits of the men and women who, along with Muddy, helped bring the music of the cottonfields to the world at large.

Son House, Ann Cole, Willie Dixon, Junior Wells, Memphis Slim, Sonny Boy Williamson, Little Walter, Howlin Wolf, Jimmy Rogers and Otis Spann are just a few of the musicians and singers Muddy played with over the years, but as CAN'T BE SATISFIED shows, his genius also influenced scores of younger musicians such as Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and Paul Butterfield, to name but a few. All of them considered him the best, the king--yet Muddy himself remained the same humble person he'd always been.

"The blues was around way before I was born. They'll always be around. Long as people hurt, they'll be around," he said.

Muddy's personal life was on the messy side. He had numerous wives (only two of whom were legal), slews of children, but he did what he could for all of them, spreading his money and love around. Muddy also packed a pistol, drank an ocean of hard liquor, and never did learn how to read and write. But he believed in friendship, was a generous mentor and unselfish band leader, one who was delighted when his sidemen became accomplished enough to branch off on their own. Above all, he was an electrifying performer, a veritable force of nature.

As Gordon says, "Through Muddy, the blues became a music of hope--not just escape. What had been the music of oppression became the music of liberation."

CAN'T BE SATISFIED also contains a full discography and a list of recommended Muddy Waters recordings. No blues fan should be without this book.