Monday, April 8, 2013

Happy birthday, Muddy Waters

"The gypsy woman told my mother
The day I was born
You got a boy child comin'
Gonna be a son of a gun
Gonna make pretty women
Jump and shout
Then the world's gonna know
What it's all about...."

If I can make space for only one blues disc on the tiny shelf in my room at the nursing home someday, it will be a compendium of McKinley Morganfield's greatest hits. The man best known as Muddy Waters would have turned 100 last Thursday, and "Hoochie Coochie Man" has been running through my mind since then. (I know Willie Dixon wrote and performed it. His version doesn't touch Muddy's.)

Robert Johnson has his partisans, including Eric Clapton (who played four of his songs at Time-Warner Cable Arena Tuesday.) Howlin' Wolf roars and snarls like nobody's business. Lonnie Johnson laid down some coolly restrained tracks and was a gifted guitarist. Blind Willie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson were powerful elder statesmen. Buddy Guy still tears up traditional blues with his searing guitar.

But Waters embodied everything about the blues tradition: irresistible beats, a salacious and self-mocking sense of humor, pathos mixed with stubborn pride. He was born in rural Mississippi and died in Illinois at the age of 70, after making the journey to Chicago that so many poor African-Americans undertook in the last century.

He wasn't the best harmonica player or guitarist or vocalist or songwriter of his mid-century era. He simply put the whole package together better than anyone and fronted a band that turned out immortal songs: "Rolling Stone" (for which the British band was named), "I Just Wanna Make Love to You," "Rollin' and Tumblin'," "You Shook Me" and many others.

I once interviewed Hubert Sumlin, who was Wolf's guitarist for many years (and lost two front teeth to the big man's fist in a disagreement). Between long stints with Wolf, he played lead guitar for Waters for one year. When I asked why he left after so short a time, he said, "Wolf let me sound like myself. Muddy wanted me to sound just like him, and that's hard to do. I couldn't do it."

Point taken.