While some tout 2015 as being Muddy Waters’ 100th anniversary, there’s doubt just when McKinley Morganfield was born. Some sources have it he was born April 4, 1913 in Issaquena County, Mississippi. After 1955, Muddy gave 1915 as his birth year, and that’s the date on his gravestone. Whatever the case, there’s no doubt it was Muddy’s grandmother, Della Grant, who gave him the nickname “Muddy” because he loved to play in the muddy water of a nearby creek.
There’s also certainly no doubt that, between 1941 and 1982, Muddy Waters produced some of the most influential recordings in music history. It’s difficult to picture how the Stones, Yardbirds, Eric Clapton, or Led Zeppelin could have tapped into the raw sounds of post-World War II Chicago blues without him, especially as he was among the first of his generation to play the electric guitar for young British blues fans. In turn, Waters enjoyed later success due to the devoted support of such acolytes, notably the late Texas axeman Johnny Winter, who both produced and performed with Waters during the 1970s.
Along the way, “Pops” Morganfield was very much a rolling stone, and among his numerous heirs is his eldest son, Larry “Mud” Morganfield, born in Chicago in 1954. In recent years, Mud has been building a reputation for himself as a singer, notably for his critically acclaimed albums, Fall Waters Fall (2008) and Son of a Seventh Son (2012). According to Severn Records president David Earl, it was the release of the latter disc along with The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ 2013 On the Verge that inspired a stream of requests to bring Morganfield and Kim Wilson together. After all, if you want to really make a disc commemorating the 100th birthday of a master, it’s hard to imagine a better pairing.
The result, For Pops (A Tribute to Muddy Waters), which hits stores August 19, was produced by Earl and Steve Gomes and recorded at Severn Sound Studios in Annapolis, Maryland. According to Earl, every attempt was made to capture the spirit and flavor of the original Muddy Waters Chess recordings. After a late night “house party” studio concert, Earl says, the instrumentalists played together live in one room over four days with Mud isolated in another booth to ensure a clean vocal track. Capturing the slow grooves of the original records were Billy Flynn and Rusty Zinn (guitars), Barrelhouse Chuck (piano), Steve Gomes (bass), and Robb Stupka (drums). Wilson, of course, blows the harp in the footsteps of the legendary gents who worked with Waters, including James Cotton, Jerry Portnoy, and the immortal Little Walter Jacobs. On this record, these players don’t give us stretched out jams or bridges of extended solos. That’s not what they did all those years ago, and this album is as primitive, raw, and rootsy as you can get.
The 14 tracks are not a “Greatest Hits” collection. There’s no “Mannish Boy” or “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Instead, Mud and Wilson chose some of their personal favorites, and why not? Naturally, some of the tunes allegedly written by Willie Dixon (whose authorship of many songs credited to him is debatable) are included, notably “I Just Want to Make Love to You” (covered by both Etta James and The Stones). Other Dixon staples are “I Want to Be Loved,” “I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love,” and “I Don’t Know Why.”
Appropriately, seven of the offerings are Muddy Waters compositions, many of which are his reworkings of older folk/blues patterns. For example, album standouts include the upbeat “Trouble No More,” a Waters revamp of a Sleepy John Estes melody. The album’s opener, “Gone to Main Street,” is the track the label chose to put online for streaming at SoundCloud.
But most of the Waters compositions are lesser-known numbers like “I Want You to Love Me,” “Still a Fool,” “Blow Wind Blow,” “Nineteen Years Old,” and “She Moves Me.” Only three tracks are by unfamiliar writers like the jumping “My Dog Can’t Bark” by Otis Smothers and “She’s Got It” by James Oden. In other words, even devoted Waters fans are going to hear new versions of songs that aren’t staples on many current playlists.
For most blues lovers, to really celebrate the legacy of Muddy Waters, of course going back to the original recordings is the way to go. But For Pops (A Tribute to Muddy Waters) is a nice addition to the collections performed by those keeping the flame alive. Before For Pops, perhaps the most famous of these was Paul Rodgers’ 1993 all-star Muddy Water Blues: A Tribute to Muddy Waters, where the songs were the foundation on which a host of guitar virtuosos added their particular stamps to the hits. For Pops is something very different. Mud and Wilson revisit that foundation to showcase why the songs of one McKinley Morganfield mattered then and matter now.
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