The Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame honors Muddy Waters
by Sean Richardson
CLEVELAND -- Holding a conference about Muddy Waters is like
holding a conference about love. Here's why: love is essential to the human
heart -- and Muddy Waters is essential to the heart of America. His music and
his story are a perfect miniature of the rise and assimilation of
African-American influence in the 20th century -- the breakout from the Delta
and slavery, the breakthrough into the
mainstream. And as such his legacy is part of the genetic profile of
contemporary popular culture.
So it was appropriate for a pop-world citadel like the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of
Fame and Museum to organize "Got My Mojo Working: Muddy Waters and Modern
Blues" last month. The conference was the fifth such annual event in the
museum's American Music Masters series, which has honored Woody Guthrie, Jimmy
Rogers, Robert Johnson, and Louis Jordan in past years.
The beauty of events like this -- despite the politics that go into choosing
panelists and performers and the commercial aspects of credibly running a
museum -- is the exchange of ideas and the invocations of the music and the
people who made it, and their connections to the present, lest we forget.
That's also the charm of the museum itself, though its condensed, glib version
of history lacks a certain depth.
The best reminder and affirmation of Waters' legacy was actually the nine hours
of discussion. This took place on the first day, with panels hitting such
topics as Muddy's place in the Chicago blues scene and "Blues and Racial
Politics." That night there was an informal evening concert at the Odeon club,
which is located in Cleveland's Flats. The second day was marked by a more
formal, often disappointing performance at Case Western Reserve University's
Severance Hall that reunited members of Muddy's band and was headlined by
As you'd expect, the conference was attended by the subculture of music nerds
who come to all such things. In this case -- much as with the Robert Johnson
session that documentarian Robert Mugge captured on film -- that's blues nuts,
journalists, and historians who already know enough to sit on most of the
panels themselves. More, indeed, than some of the panelists. For example, there
was Alexander Shashko, a doctoral candidate from the University of Michigan who
espoused the theory that the racism African-Americans encountered when they
moved to Chicago and other northern cities was a domestic reflection of the
US's Cold War policy of containment. An interesting theory if one forgets that
a domestic policy of containment by chains was initiated for black people upon
their first arrival on these shores -- and that it left a bit of a lingering
There was also compelling evidence that journalists are rarely the best
speakers. Sandra B. Tooze, author of the fine 1997 biography Muddy
Waters, turned her opening remarks into a snoozy, deadpan capsule bio of
the man that made him seem as exciting as an accountant. Nadine Chohodas,
author of this year's Chess Records history Spinning Blues into Gold,
was Tooze's caffeinated counterweight, pouncing upon every question directed to
the "Chess Records" panel as if it were hers alone, then answering in
breathless rushes of information. But hell, nobody's perfect.
What was truly lacking in the panels were people who'd had direct, profound
experiences with the man who was born McKinley Morganfield. Dick Waterman and
Paul Oscher were notable exceptions, and they delivered some real insights on
Muddy and the kind of life he led. Waterman -- who managed Son House, John
Hurt, Skip James, and others among the pioneering blues recording artists who
enjoyed a '60s comeback -- spoke frequently of Waters' dignity, his regal
bearing, and his deep appreciation of the musicians who inspired him, like
Delta firebrand House. These remarks were a welcome affirmation of the
impressions one gets listening to roots-reflective Muddy albums like Folk
Singer or Sings Big Bill Broonzy.
But the best panel was the two-man show put on by Oscher and Memphis music
journalist Robert Gordon, who is working on his own Waters biography. Gordon
began by offering a tidy summation: "Muddy Waters is one way to answer the
question `What would have happened if Robert Johnson had lived?' "
Indeed, shortly before he was poisoned, Johnson had been experimenting with the
kind of electric-blues band that Waters is credited with pioneering. But that
takes nothing from Waters' talent, personality, and vitality, which were
recalled and re-created by Oscher with minimal prodding from Gordon. In the
late '60s, at 18, Oscher was the first white musician to join the Muddy Waters
Band. Equipped with guitar and harmonica, he displayed his mastery of Waters'
powerful, propulsive playing style and discussed the approach to
behind-the-beat singing that Muddy called "delay time."
Better yet, he told stories of his introduction to Muddy's hardcore-blues
world. "My first tour, I get in the van and [pianist] Otis Spann and his
girlfriend are sittin' there. Spann turns to her and goes, `Baby, gimme my
shit.' And she pulls a .25 caliber pistol out of her purse and Otis loads it
and puts it in his pocket. My eyes were popping out. I mean, these guys would
drink gin at eight o'clock in the morning."
He also gave us a demonstration of the stage trick Muddy reserved for playing
black clubs -- wedging a long-neck beer bottle down his pants and wagging it at
the audience during "Mannish Boy."
Other nuggets from Oscher:
* "Muddy never really shared much of what he was thinking. He had a
saying: `If you got something good, keep it in your pocket.' "
* "He had the timing of a preacher on stage. He was preaching the blues."
* "The records themselves were jams. Little Walter never played the same
* "We only had one rehearsal the whole time I was in the band, and that
ended when Otis Spann's girlfriend came in and stabbed him."
* "Muddy's daughter Cookie was 12 years old when she got pregnant. And
when Muddy found out, he said, `Young people make strong babies.' "
The problems of securing artists for a non-profit event like this surfaced in
the last panel. Deborah Coleman, Bernard Allison, and North Mississippi
All-Stars frontman Luther Dickinson are all talented players, but they have
only the most tangential connections to Waters and his music. They do, however,
all have new CDs out, and record companies hot to build their profiles. And the
panel was mostly hot air.
Nonetheless, all three justified their presence that night at the Odeon. The
All-Stars slew with a rip through their punk-edged version of stomping North
Mississippi blues. Coleman played like young Eric Clapton (at times,
exactly like young Eric Clapton), surpassing the blues pop of her Blind
Pig CDs. And Allison was a warm, exuberant entertainer, playing Coleman's
guitar by reaching around her back and singing with a voice as big and earnest
as that of his late father, Luther Allison.
Former Living Coloür guitarist Vernon Reid, Charlie Musselwhite, Jimmie
Vaughan, and his brother Stevie Ray's old rhythm section Double Trouble were
also on hand. But the performer who seemed closest to Muddy's spirit was Dave
Alvin -- ex-punk R&B man with the Blasters now turned Americana rocker.
During his segment, Alvin's crisp-defined fingerpicking led the band with the
slow, heavy precision of Waters' early Chicago blues recordings, and Alvin
respected Waters' "delay time" with every phrase.
Bonnie Raitt -- a tireless champion in the fight for royalties and other
benefits for pioneering blues and R&B artists -- did her customary fine job
closing the next night's concert at lovely old Severance Hall on the Case
Western campus. But this final evening was ill-conceived. Former Free and Bad
Company singer Paul Rodgers brought his straight-from-Vegas delivery, muddying
the blues waters with smug rock-star jive -- as he did on his terrible Muddy
Waters "tribute" CD a few years ago.
The core group was Waters alums Calvin Jones (bass), Willie Smith (drums), and
Hubert Sumlin (guitar) joined by pianist Johnnie Johnson. Sumlin suffered from
a lack of on-stage support, often traveling off-key for lack of someone to
shout out the changes. Shame on the Hall of Fame's organizers for this. Anyone
even slightly familiar with Sumlin's performances of the last 20 years would
have known this innovator needs a safety net to excel -- and did not deserve
such embarrassment. And Johnson, though an innovator in his own right, doesn't
have the same vocabulary as the late Spann or his inheritor of the Waters Band
piano bench, Pinetop Perkins. (For the record, former Raitt and Freddie King
pianist David Maxwell -- who played with Waters many times -- is the definitive
Spann torchbearer, so where was he? Perkins was getting a Lifetime Achievement
award at Lincoln Center.)
Waters Band vet James Cotton was the night's most winning presence. Growling
like a grizzly bear and hurling himself across the stage like a rotund fireball
of harmonica virtuosity, he drew waves of excitement from a crowd lulled by too
much uninspired jamming. It was only Cotton who, within the silver-trimmed old
opera house, rekindled the manly energy of Waters in his prime. That's an
energy that Waters exuded even well into his 50s, an energy that signaled -- as
panelist and Native American poet of conscience John Trudell put it the day
before -- "the blues was expressing the will of the black people."
Of course, there's also a Muddy Waters exhibit currently up in the Hall of
Fame's museum. It's a small room -- certainly when compared to the vast space
taken up by stage costumes in a display that says nothing about music or
costumery (good curators know that context is crucial, and this is a failing of
much of the museum) -- but a delightful one. While being serenaded by Waters'
slide-textbook "Sail On," one can gaze at his trademark red Telecaster
customized with volume and tone knobs taken off an amplifier. There's Muddy's
old union card, his early Aristocrat singles, and a couple of the suits he wore
on stage, plus the bright Hawaiian shirts of his later years. There's a red
Guild Thunderbird that Muddy owned but, as Oscher points out, never played. (He
preferred his brown one.) Also his 1978 Grammy, his funeral program, and a
short biography tracing his climb from poverty to the apex of musical
If I could add a coda to that biography, if would be a remark that Trudell made
as the "Blues and Racial Politics" panel ended: "As long as human beings have
feelings, I think the blues will live. Because human beings have
feeling. That's the message of Muddy Waters."