Graded on a Curve: Muddy Waters, The Best of Muddy Waters

Where to start with the music of that sly titan of 20th century music Muddy Waters? Some will advise an inquisitive newbie to invest in an exhaustive multi-disc box set that retails in the neighborhood of a Franklin, while a closet Johnny Winter-aficionado might recommend one of his late-‘70s LPs for the Blue Sky label (and that’s definitely not the place to begin.) However, the most sensible way to commence a journey into the everlasting goodness of McKinley Morganfield is to simply follow the path many thousands have already made, and it leads directly to the doorstep of 1958’s extraordinarily enlightening The Best of Muddy Waters.

While a certifiable embarrassment of great LPs have been made since the format was first introduced in 1948, they don’t all command the same level of historical respect, even from individuals that happen to hold a deep relationship to the sounds those less revered records contain. For instance, after giving the realms of heavy-duty music connoisseurship a good inspection, there is no doubt that the Best of/Greatest Hits LP continues to shoulder something of a bad reputation, with its appeal often denigrated as being directed mostly to dabblers.

These records, awarded to artists who had managed to secure a handful of creative and/or commercial highpoints either in one fast spurt or in some period of sustained longevity, are reliably frowned upon by more intense listeners as essentially being easy primers designed by cash hungry record labels with the intention of giving more casual ears a quick fix and some level of conversance (a sort of career Cliff Notes, if you will) to discographies of considerable distinction.

That’s not necessarily an incorrect assessment. But there are other elements in the scenario, as anyone who ever got turned on to Donovan through their parent’s well-worn copy of his wildly popular Greatest Hits LP can surely understand. And when handed down by older siblings as they slouched off to spend four years in a cramped college dorm, the Best of/Greatest Hits album has surely functioned as a gateway into substantial musical discoveries of all types.

When these records are conceived and promoted as anthologies they seem to gather a bit more acceptance (see The Beatles’ 1962-1966 and 1967-1970, for example). Perhaps it’s because the gesture can appear more annotative (and therefore admirable) and less purely mercantile and reductive. But in fact many Best of/Greatest Hits collections have served as a major eye-opener into the work of the musicians they contain, particularly when the songs were originally released exclusively on singles.

Or in the case of Muddy Waters’ prime early junk, the tunes were engraved onto fragile old shellac 78s. And many a wiry old blues nut will tell you that Waters’ best period came during the years 1947-’57, but what gets discussed far less frequently is that the man’s stuff didn’t get issued on LP in any form until the very end of that span.

Like the vast majority of pop-focused performers during this era, Muddy didn’t make albums, he instead cut side after side that fueled interest in his constant club dates which in turn sent patrons scurrying out to the closest all-night record shack for the take-home version of his aural delights.

Along the way he also made a hefty sack of spending coin, both for himself and for the Brothers Phil and Leonard Chess, the founders of the label that led the way in bringing the Chicago Blues worldwide recognition. But if a crucial aspect in the history of recorded music as we know it, Chess Records was a small independent operation that thrived on the healthy jukebox business and sales to consumers who purchased their blues, R&B and vocal group offerings on a budget, and the imprint didn’t begin issuing long-playing records until at all until 1958.

Along with a comp from that eternally smooth mouth-harp scientist Little Walter Jacobs (a major component in the state of affairs described below) and the debut album from early rock ‘n’ roll cornerstone Bo Diddley, The Best of Muddy Waters was part of the label’s initial foray into the LP market, and if their choice to assemble previously issued well-proven material was a cautious one, it made very good sense.

And in the case of the Waters album, it was an extremely smart move, mainly because many of the songs it contained had been off the charts for years, with the short-playing discs that originally held them long gone from the racks, their absence making way for the fresh hits of the day. If by 1958 Muddy had a major hometown fan base, it’s doubtful that the majority of his following owned all or even most of the cuts included on the record.

So if a wise maneuver, it also proved to be an enduring one, with the record impacting the course of rock music and permanently bettering the listening habits of curious listeners for decades to come. A huge part of the reason comes from its functionality as an actual record and not as an academic study (the panache-drenched liner notes from the much missed Studs Terkel are loaded with info without becoming overly scholarly.) Dodging the impulse for strict chronology, The Best of Muddy Waters opens with 1954’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” at that time one of his more recent hits.

That tune remains one of the finest examples of the drum-tight and tough-as-nails ensemble sound of Waters’ band in its later, more advanced form, the song notably not a Muddy original but rather sourced from the flowing pen of the great Willie Dixon, who also plays superb standup-bass on the track. Dixon was a master of poetic braggadocio and captivating shit-talking in general, and his strengths contrast quite a bit from Waters’ more contemplative “old-school” writing style.

But the way the band clicks together as a unit continues to be a beauty to behold. Along with Dixon there’s the impeccable touch of pianist Otis Spann, the ludicrously non-showy drumming of Fred Below, the grand howls of Little Walter’s harmonica, and in-the-pocket second guitar from the important Chicago Blues figure, Jimmy Rogers.

Needless to say, nobody comes anywhere close to playing a bum note and their collective abilities have aged like the highest-quality vino. And the contrast between “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and the track that follows, ‘51’s “Long Distance Call” is striking, serving as a fast refutation to any suppositions over Waters’ blues being monochromatic in its progressions.

With just Muddy’s big as a mountain voice and the ringing and stinging of his guitar, the wickedly rhythmic elasticity of Ernest “Big” Crawford’s bass (just a tad more gutbucket than Dixon’s more sophisticated style) and the blowing of Walter’s harp (at this point still unamplified, giving the song a more “down-home” feel), they turn the tune into a true killer. And the simmering innuendo that comes through Waters’ singing of the line “One of these days/I’m gonna show you just how nice a man can be” helps in the understanding of why so many once considered the blues to be “The Devil’s Music.”

This is followed by ‘50’s “Louisiana Blues,” again with Crawford and Walter but with the interesting additive of Elgin Evans’ washboard. If you’re getting the impression that the farther back you go in Waters’ discography the more countrified he sounds, that’s not far from accurate. But as Robert Palmer pointed out in his fantastic booklet notes to the 3CD Muddy collection The Chess Box, this more rural aura had more to do with the Chess Brothers than with Waters’ own desires.

For prior to his association with Chess, he’d cut some unissued sides for Columbia under Lester Melrose’s watch that weren’t far from the realms of that fine Texan T-Bone Walker. And his initial output for Chess was also far more urban in shape, even occasionally employing saxophone and the piano of Windy City stalwart Sunnyland Slim. Those discs just weren’t very successful in commercial terms, and since the only reason Phil and Leonard were in the business was to sell some records, Muddy’s style changed.

And I for one am glad it did. For I don’t think we’d have gotten a stone classic like “Honey Bee” otherwise. The guitar in this song is some of the best in Muddy’s career, capturing a tone that he pretty much abandoned as the focus of his music came to emphasize that full band sound, and “Honey Bee” also displays the man’s vocal assurance with aplomb.

And along with additional sweet slapping from Crawford, Little Walter switches to guitar to mimic the sound of the (huge, metallic) insect the tune is named after. The whole thing really shows just how inventive Muddy’s music was even before he was allowed to record his full live band in the studios of Chess, the Brothers preferring the milk the far more Delta-derived sound that was starting to chalk up substantial record sales.

And “Rolling Stone,” Waters’ first actual recording for Chess (all his previous waxings came through the imprint’s original moniker of Aristocrat) the song cut in 1950, is easily his most Delta-tinged work, finding him going it completely alone.

Muddy’s tone and delivery on guitar are both truly monstrous, his singing full of his typical rich gusto, and while not a big hit upon release (it did allow Muddy to quit his day job, however), the cultural importance of the song (an adaptation of a traditional blues that spans back to the ‘20s) is downright massive. It’s one of Waters’ key recordings, and an essential link in understanding the Delta-to-Chicago migration.

Side one ends with the grand swagger of “I’m Ready,”  jumping forward to ’54 and returning to the full band atmosphere of the album’s opener, with Muddy expressing the extroverted gush of Dixon’s lyrical talents to spectacular effect. And the flip continues in this endlessly rewarding zone, presenting the faultless stop-start motif of one of Dixon’s greatest tunes “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man.”

The disciplined heat the band was producing at this point is just a thrilling thing to soak up, but the remainder of the album again jumps back in time to examine Muddy’s earlier hits, with a few of the cuts amongst the deepest and most sonically raw material not only in the guy’s discography, but in the whole history of the electric blues as well.

“She Moves Me,” recorded in July of ’51, is sort of the tip of this iceberg. While the song is ultimately another essay in Waters’ fluid approach, it also finds Leonard Chess, his displeasure with Elgin Evans’ drumming now the stuff of legend, taking over the role of drummer. His bass drum pulse doesn’t exactly vindicate him as any kind of brilliant timekeeper, and at a few points he even audibly stumbles, but his idiosyncratic determination actually lends the tune an appealingly odd orientation.

Jumping forward on the side to the same session’s “Still a Fool” (a rough remake/remodel of “Rolling Stone,” this time with accompaniment) finds ol’ Leonard again thumping that bass drum, this time much more effectively, and the track is truly bent and borderline delirious in its strung-out blues feeling.

But it can’t but take a back seat to ‘52’s “Standing around Crying,” the harmonica from either Walter or estimable Chicago blower Junior Wells gnawing on all kinds of airspace as Waters details a story of love gone wrong with severe intensity. His guitar is vicious in its resonance, Evans gets loose on his kit in a way that was surely beyond Leonard (or most anybody for that matter), and Spann’s piano is in the mix somewhere, though the limitations of studio tech and the righteous blare of the group make him basically impossible to detect.

“Standing around Crying” is titanic in its grouchiness, and next to it a tune like ‘53’s “(Mad Love) I Want You to Love Me” can fell a little minor. But it’s actually quite revelatory as an early example of the full band sound that would fully flower in the following year, though it’s also interesting for its lineup, featuring Crawford, Evans, Rogers, and Big Walter “Shakey” Horton huffing into the harp.

The record closes with “I Can’t Be Satisfied” from ’48, a song that’s mild success basically shaped the Chess Brothers’ insistence on the more “country” stylings that were the cut of Muddy’s jib for the years directly following. With just Waters and Crawford giving a tune that Muddy first cut for Alan Lomax on Stovall’s Plantation in Mississippi back in ’41 (though it was originally titled “I Be’s Troubled”) a supremely energetic workout, it shows the man’s full command of the blues language at a very early point (as do those Lomax recordings, which are well worth anybody’s time.)

The guy was a true lynchpin in the development of recorded music as we know it, and this comp stands as a concise taste of what he was all about. The tracks were shuffled around and rereleased as the Sail On LP in ’69 (Terkel’s notes replaced by some good words from Pete Welding) and that incarnation of these tunes was given a fresh press on vinyl just last year. As The Best of Muddy Waters it was reissued on wax in 1987 (which is when it first handed this writer his inexperienced ass) and once more two decades later, so finding a copy shouldn’t be at all hard.

If you’ve only heard Muddy Waters in passing or have somehow missed his greatness completely, this LP will serve as a majestic building block in your musical education. Don’t sleep on it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A+

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