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Muddy Waters
Hoochie Coochie Man: Complete Chess Masters, Volume 2 1952-1958
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Muddy Waters
Hoochie Coochie Man: Complete Chess Masters, Volume 2 1952-1958

***Preliminary liner notes, subject to change. ***

The resonance of a man’s work after he’s gone is one measure of immortality. Immortality of that kind has visited Muddy Waters in surprising ways: in a massively successful British rock band named for one of his early recordings; by his image affixed to a 1994 U.S. postage stamp; by use of his 1954 performance of "I’m Ready" in a 2001 Viagra commercial; in rapper Chuck D’s tribute in Marc Levin’s 2003 film Godfathers and Sons (part of the Martin Scorsese-produced PBS series The Blues).

Though he would live to see the blues revival of the 1960s and must have sensed his music’s broad influence well before his 1983 passing, Muddy surely saw none of this coming when he was in his creative prime in the 1950s. Nor, one suspects, would he have much cared. He was too busy then making his music and enjoying the fruits of his labor. He liked `a taste’ and had an eye for the ladies, yet the former plantation worker from Rolling Fork, Mississippi had something of the preacher’s zeal in him, too. He was on a musical mission. His mission — forging an intensely-felt urban music from the Delta’s blues and by it bridging the gulf from that music’s milieu to mainstream pop culture -- had far ranging consequences for the future of American popular music.

`Classic’ is an overused modifier derived from descriptions of ancient Greek and Roman literature, art and architecture. Yet if one were to apply it to any period of Muddy Waters’ music, it would surely be the one represented by the half a hundred performances here. They embody Muddy’s flame burning at its hottest and brightest, forging a new music rooted in his tradition while reaching well beyond it. Abetted by the skilled songwriting of Willie Dixon and aided by Chicago’s finest blues musicians, Muddy Waters made the most of his musical moment, one which is exciting still to relive. The subtle changes, the bold strokes, the evolutionary process: all are here for the listening.

With this set of recordings, which covers the years 1952-1958, we continue the survey of the complete recorded works of Muddy Waters in chronological order. The first fifty tracks of his Aristocrat/Chess career appear on "Muddy Waters, Rollin' Stone: The Golden Anniversary Collection" (MCA/Chess 2301-2); the present set continues to follow his musical development, and showcases the second fifty sides, picking up where the previous collection ended and spanning an important seven year period in his career.

The period between 1952 and 1958 was an explosive era in the development of popular music history. Rhythm and blues, which had enjoyed enormous commercial success, would be elbowed aside by the advent of rock and roll. During this period major changes would occur both at Chess Records and in the music industry itself, as the recently introduced 45 and LP formats, which had emerged in 1948, took off, and the output of 78 rpm recordings was dwindling fast.

By 1952 Muddy Waters was firmly established as a recording and club artist on the Chicago scene. Since moving north from his native Mississippi to Chicago five years previously, Muddy had begun recording for the tiny Aristocrat label in 1947, and had racked up several chart successes for them; by the time this set opens the label had renamed itself Chess Records.

One immediately evident change is the musical self-confidence that Muddy has, after a surprisingly minimal amount of trial and error, found. He's established his formula, one from which he would rarely veer in years to come: the personnel rotates less frequently than it will in later years (the harmonica chair, in particular, becomes a revolving door), the caliber of musicianship is invariably high throughout these recordings, and his standard quintet of lead and rhythm guitar, harmonica, bass and drums produces an enduring body of work in a tautly controlled, high-energy environment.

The first session here, from September of 1952, is notable for harmonica ace Junior Wells' debut with the band. Wells was a wunderkind who'd been playing with a local band called The Aces (brothers Louis, Bob and David Myers and drummer Fred Below), and when Little Walter rode his surprise hit record "Juke" into the distance, leaving Muddy in mid-tour with no notice, Wells was waiting to step into his shoes. The band, consisting of Muddy trading licks with his longtime guitarist Jimmy Rogers, Junior Wells on harp, and Elgin Evans on drums, cut "Standing Around Crying," "Gone To Main Street," and "Iodine In My Coffee." Only seventeen at the time, Junior Wells hits all his marks from the get-go, and demonstrates the talent that would later take him to a legendary partnership with guitarist Buddy Guy and then a successful solo career.

In January of 1953 Muddy was back in the studio, this time with Big Walter Horton on harmonica and Willie Nix on drums. They recorded four tracks (including this alternate take of "She's All Right," making its US album debut). Shortly thereafter, Little Walter returned, and Muddy's early bass player Big Crawford was added to fill out the May 4 date. It only takes one listen to "Baby Please Don't Go" to hear what an amazing difference Little Walter made to the whole feeling of the band. He, Rogers and Muddy had an almost telepathic musical affinity, making each arrangement blend effortlessly. As soon as the session ended, the same unit shifted slightly in their chairs and cut two more tracks on which Rogers was the leader, a common practice at Chess; while everyone was in town and in the studio, it was only practical to get as much material in the can as possible, and Rogers, like Little Walter, had already had hits under his own name.

Muddy had been using Otis Spann as his piano player on club dates for quite awhile, but it wasn't until this September 24, 1953 session that Leonard Chess finally allowed the unit to record together. Spann is perfect; supportive but never obtrusive, he gives the danceable "Blow Wind Blow" and "Mad Love" exactly the underpinning needed for Little Walter's harmonica to rock. For as long as Spann lived, he owned the piano bench in Muddy's band, and was only replaced when he became too sick to play.

Although by this time Muddy had plenty of original material, he was always looking for good songs to supplement his repertoire. One night around Christmas of 1953, Willie Dixon showed up at Muddy's regular gig at Club Zanzibar with a new song. He taught it to Muddy between sets in the only private place they could find, the men's bathroom; afraid of forgetting the lyrics, Muddy hastily taught the chords to the rest of the band and opened the very next set with it. The song was "(I'm Your) Hoochie Coochie Man," and it became Muddy's best selling single and one of his signature songs, rocketing to #3 on the national R&B charts. Dixon had been around the Chess studios for months, functioning as a de facto producer, arranger, house scribe, and go-between; he too had come north from Mississippi with a pocketful of original songs and a knack for knowing how to survive. With Muddy Waters, and later with Howlin' Wolf, Dixon had finally found the perfect outlet for his aggressive, earthy, and humorous material. He would go on to write hundreds of songs during his tenure at Chess, many of which became staples of the blues repertoire of the '50s and '60s. At the same January 1954 session that he recorded Dixon's new song, Muddy also brought in a new drummer; Fred Below had played with Little Walter in the Aces, and was a much more versatile musician than Elgin Evans had been; he would stay in the band for the next several years. And again, when Muddy's session was over, everyone stayed on, collected scale for a second shift, and did another session with Jimmy Rogers as frontman.

By April, 1954, Dixon was playing bass on Muddy's sessions as well as contributing songs, although he was so busy in the studio that he never toured with Muddy's band. At around the time of this session, at which they cut another huge hit, Dixon's "I Just Want To Make Love To You" and "Oh Yeh (Oh Yeah)," another great blues voice, Howlin' Wolf, was arriving on the scene. He had come north from Memphis, and although there would later be rivalry both spoken and unspoken between the two men, when he first arrived in Chicago all was well. Wolf stayed at Muddy's house, and Muddy introduced him to the local club owners.

On September 1, 1954, the same unit is pulling in perfect harness and roaring through the date. Little Walter on harp, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Otis Spann on piano and the battery of Dixon and Below are making some of the hottest music of their lives. Dixon's "I'm Ready" is heavy on chromatic harp and testosterone, and Below pounds the drums into the ground. Cash Box Magazine, which never won any awards for its grammar, said, "Beat is solid, ork-ing is torrid," and someone must have agreed; it went up the charts and stayed there for over two months, peaking at #4. At the same session they cut Wolf's thunderous "Smokestack Lightning," anticipating his own recording by nearly two years.

The next two sessions, five months apart, finds the personnel intact. Dixon is still contributing songs ("Young Fashioned Ways" is one of his), and the groups drives through "I'm a Natural Born Lover, "Young Fashioned Ways," and the previously unreleased in U.S. "This Pain." But even as they were laying down these tracks, a young truck driver from Tupelo, Mississippi named Elvis Presley was exploding onto the popular music scene, and although they didn't know it at the time, rock and roll was here to stay.

Only one song was recorded on May 24, 1955, but one was all it took. A Muddy original (though probably inspired by Bo Diddley's "I'm A Man" to some extent), "Mannish Boy" is a stop-time tour de force of macho bragging, strutting and posing; only Muddy in his prime (and eventually Howlin' Wolf in his) could put this kind of song across in person without seeming ridiculous. It's surprising that the tape didn't melt while they were cutting it.

The session from November 3, 1955 reflects a coming shift in personnel; in addition to regular Otis Spann, newcomer Lafayette Leake is in the studio, and probably plays piano on at least one of the day's four tracks. But the style is the same, although the chart successes were coming more slowly; Chuck Berry had come to Chess earlier that summer, and his electrifying sound was taking over, pushing the older blues sounds to the far end of the shelf. Rather than trying to imitate the younger man's fusion of blues with rock and roll, and unable to keep up with the flashy new guitar licks that Berry ripped off so casually, Muddy laid down the guitar. It was clear that rock and roll was the rising star and that harder times were coming.

A few months later, in early February of 1956, an expanded band went back into the studio. Muddy had discovered the young harmonica player James Cotton while on tour, and although Little Walter, perhaps understandably, wasn't very forthcoming, Spann kindly took the young man under his wing and taught him how to follow Muddy by picking out the appropriate harp notes on the piano. Both Walter and Cotton play on this session, producing "Forty Days and Forty Nights," which visited the Top 10 on the charts briefly, and "All Aboard," and there was also an extra guitar present. Auburn "Pat" Hare, was an Arkansas transplant who had cut one session of his own in Memphis (which included the eerily precognitive "I'm Gonna Murder My Baby" - Hare would later die in prison after doing just that) before moving north to Chicago. In addition to his own session, Hare had played with Wolf in Memphis; he was renting a room from Muddy, and recorded and toured with him for a couple of years. He and Rogers also shared the guitar chores on the next session four months later, at which they waxed "Just To Be With You," "Don't Go No Farther," and "Diamonds At Your Feet."

The next session was fraught with good omens. Chess had recently moved into their newer, and by comparison much more elegant, studios at 2120 S Michigan Ave., an address that would go down in music lore. Willie Dixon contributed another song to this session, usually a good sign. But it was Muddy himself who rolled a deuce, and hit the jackpot. He brought two "original" songs to the session, "Rock Me" and "Got My Mojo Working," and both were monsters. It took the combined harmonica efforts of Cotton and Little Walter, and the burning guitar duo of Jimmy Rogers and Pat Hare, to keep up with him. One of the sexiest tracks he ever recorded, "Mojo" is sweaty and exciting, and when he performed it onstage, the women fell out left and right. In fact, though it seems to fit him perfectly, it wasn't an original at all; he had learned it from singer Ann Cole when they shared a bill during a tour of the South. It would take all concerned quite awhile to untangle the rights.

Other Chess artists had already recorded with a horn section, and in early summer 1957 Muddy added two saxes to his date, probably as a bow to the unstoppable rock and roll. He also had a different guitarist; the enormously inventive Robert Lockwood was brought in by Dixon, who knew him from his earlier work on Little Walter sessions.. They cut four tunes, of which "Come Home Baby I Wish You Would" is seeing its first U.S. album release. Although Dixon is still playing upright bass on all these sessions, for his club dates Muddy was already auditioning electric bass players.

James Cotton and Pat Hare return for the next outing, which produced "I Won't Go On," "She's Got It," and "Born Lover." A few months later, in the fall of 1958, new drummer Francis Clay made his studio debut with the band. "She's Nineteen Years Old" was written by St. Louis Jimmy Oden and adapted slightly by Muddy. The flip side, "Close To You," would become Muddy's last Top 20 recording. Another bit of Chess history was made that same day, as the identical personnel backed a Little Walter session which produced "Key To the Highway" and "Rock Bottom."

Mary Katherine Aldin
June 2004
Thanks to Jim Dawson, Todd Everett and Mark A. Humphrey