Muddy Waters was one of the most influential musicians of all time, and there can be no denying it. Born in Mississippi circa 1913, as the only child to two teenage parents on a plantation, he learnt music through church trips and tried to emulate the work of local blues legends such as Robert Johnson and Son House.
After cultivating his musical skill on the local circuit in 1943, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, and it was here he would truly make it as a professional musician. His contributions to blues music would culminate in him being hailed as the ‘father of modern Chicago blues.’
Waters is one of those rare musicians of old who inspired many of the modern greats. Featuring in the same category as Robert Johnson and Chuck Berry, his work had a massive impact on developing what is now commonly known as ‘classic rock’.
His list of apostles is endless, with The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Eric Clapton admitting they owe their careers to Waters. In fact, The Stones took their name straight from Waters’ 1950 single, ‘Rollin’ Stone’. After he died in 1983 from heart failure, blues contemporary B.B. King told Guitar World: “It’s going to be years and years before most people realise how greatly he contributed to American music.”
For someone with such a long and winding career, it can come as no surprise that he suffered many ups and downs. In fact, the most serious of these came in November 1969 during a particularly challenging period for Waters. On a professional note, his career had lost its freshness, primarily owing to the dominance of his young disciples. Meanwhile, outside of music, everything seemed to be falling apart.
The biggest tragedy arguably came when Leonard Chess, the founder of the iconic Chicago blues label, Chess Records suffered a heart attack at the wheel of a car on October 16, 1969. The day Chess died, he also took a large chunk of Chicago music history with him. A massively influential man, his work was nothing short of pioneering.
This wasn’t all, though. Around that time, doctors told Waters that he had to give up hard liquor, his favourite drink, owing to the severe problems it was causing his blood pressure. Furthermore, his band was going through a transitional period too. After 17 years backing Waters on the keyboard, Otis Spann left the group. This event was a momentous occasion as Spann was one of the most respected blues musicians of the Chicago scene.
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Then came the final indignity. This time, Waters would have his own brush with death. Driving home from a Saturday night show in Tennessee, Waters’ car was hit head-on by a vehicle coming from the opposite direction.
Muddy’s driver died in the crash, as did the two passengers of the other vehicle. Waters’ himself broke three ribs and shattered his pelvis, hip and sprained his back. He was hospitalised for two months and was released walking with a cane. In addition to the traumatic experience, his hands were both too swollen and numb to play his beloved six-string.
Luckily for Waters, he would eventually recover, and throughout the ’70s, his career would make a massive resurgence after this lull of the mid-late ’60s. His output became even bolder than before, and now he truly cemented himself as one of the greatest ever bluesmen.
Listen to Muddy Waters ‘Mannish Boy’ below.