Rock music has always drawn inspiration from a multitude of genres, but the mother of rock has to be the blues. Counted among its most lasting influences would have to be the legendary Muddy Waters.
McKinley Morganfield was born in rural Mississippi on April 4, 1915. His grandmother began calling him Muddy when he was a toddler, and the nickname stuck. He was about 13 when he began playing the harmonica, and he took up the guitar a few years later.
Waters was one of many musicians discovered by John and Alan Lomax, who first recorded him in 1941 as part of a project with the Library of Congress to record American folk music. They had travelled to the Delta looking for Robert Johnson, only to find that he had died several years earlier. Unwilling to write the trip off as a total loss, they sought out other blues musicians, and were referred to Waters.
By 1943, Waters had had enough of the sharecropping life and he headed to Chicago, where he had family, and factory jobs were plentiful. His real interest, though, was in music. He was an early adopter of a new technology – the electric guitar – and his reputation grew. He associated with some of the biggest names in Chicago blues, including Memphis Slim, Sunnyland Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson, and he began to attract attention to record producers. But despite his growing legend, his career continued to struggle until 1947, when Aristocrat Records released what became his first hit, “Can’t Be Satisfied.”
Aristocrat Records became Chess Records in 1950, and continued to release Waters’ songs. In 1951, Waters put together what may have been his ultimate band: Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Little Walter on harmonica, Elgin Evans on drums, and Otis Spann on piano. This line-up not only defined the blues, they created the template for later rock and roll, creating licks and styles still in use today. Ironically, if it had been left up to Chess, the group might never have been allowed to record – the label was having great success with smaller combos, and producers were reluctant to tamper with a good thing.
Waters had 14 songs on the national charts between 1951 and 1956, but the birth of rock hit hard at the popularity of the blues. Waters continued to record and tour, experimenting with different sounds, but he experienced his comeback in 1976 with a return to his Chicago Blues sound on the Grammy winning album Hard Again. He found himself performing with the likes of Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones (who had taken their name from his 1950 song).
Waters recorded three more albums before his death on April 30, 1984. Two of these also won Grammys. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and given the Record Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.