McKinley Morganfield greeted the world April 4, 1915, born into the deepest poverty on the Stovall Plantation in the Mississippi delta around Rolling Fork, Mississippi. It was on this plantation that he lived out his childhood and young adult life, enduring servitude as a sharecropper, and thinking of music as his way out. His grandmother nicknamed him Muddy when he was a young boy and the kids at school added Waters. He adopted his childhood nickname as his stage name, Muddy Waters. Muddy was a second-generation blues man, his father Ollie Morganfield was also a talented musician and guitarist. By 17, Muddy had chops enough to chase the hellhound riffs of Robert Johnson and Eddie James "Son" House,” Jr.
In 1941, the great musicologist Alan Lomax appeared at Muddy’s shack in Stovall, Mississippi, to record him. Two test pressings and a check for $20 arrived in the mail sometime later. The blues visionary noted in a Rolling Stone interview that after hearing his own voice on shellac he was convinced, “I can do it.” That was when he set his sights on the big city.
In 1943 racial oppression in the south was a way of life. Rumor has it that Muddy fled Mississippi after a rift with the plantation overseer. He made his way to Chicago and it was there that he made his name. During the day he worked odd jobs and at night he played the black music circuit. The fired-up crowds at these gigs were so loud that Muddy’s acoustic guitar was drowned out. In 1945 he was introduced to the electric guitar and the world was introduced to Muddy Waters. His spidery, swampy slide guitar and deep, sensual voice, ambling over the grooves of his band, gave the blues a visceral wallop that took the back-porch jams of the Delta to an entirely new place.
After a few abortive record-company forays, Muddy’s recordings with the label that would become famed roots imprint Chess began to reach a mass audience with the release of “I Can’t Be Satisfied” in 1948. It was work in the subsequent decade, however—particularly his recordings accompanied by Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Elgin Evans and Otis Spann, essentially the first modern rock band—that made him a legend.
Muddy Waters pioneered the powerful electric conjuring of the blues that would galvanize the most influential rock artists of the ensuing decades. On cuts like “Mannish Boy,” “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Got My Mojo Workin’,” “I’m Ready” and “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” he limned a darkly charismatic, quasi-mystical, sexually masterful persona that was essentially a blueprint for the skinny white boys who invented the “rock star” a generation later.
A 1958 jaunt through the U.K. had an explosive impact on musicians like John Mayall, Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Van Morrison and a kid named Eric Clapton. His 1960 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, meanwhile, introduced him to an entirely new set of fans. Yet even as his work was inspiring and shaping the rock that would dominate the ensuing decades, commercial fortune largely eluded Muddy during this time. He recorded the famed Super Blues albums with Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and Little Walter for Chess in 1967, and was joined by a phalanx of U.K. rockers for the 1972 project The London Muddy Waters Sessions, which he said failed to capture his sound.
He continued recording throughout the ’70s and—on a series of albums for the Blue Sky label produced by Johnny Winter—into the ’80s, during which period his legendary status was assured. This was in no small part due to devotees like the Stones and Clapton, with whom he performed in the years just prior his death in 1983.
When Muddy died in 1983 the entire music industry mourned. Scores of musicians attended Muddy’s Illinois funeral, and Chicago’s south side soon had an Honorary Muddy Waters Drive. Muddy will be remembered as one of the founding fathers of the genre of music called the blues, one of the greatest guitarists of his generation and an icon in history who helped to shape and define American culture through his music.
Muddy’s influence changed the face of the blues and shaped the genre, which would become known as Rock and Roll. In addition to introducing many of the blues artists at the time to Chess records, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Elgin Evans, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon, Otis Spann and even Chuck Berry to name a few, he also helped sow the seeds for what would become the British Invasion of the 1960s.
Indeed, The Rolling Stones took their name from one of his best-known songs; Led Zeppelin imbibed his sound and took the lyrics for “Whole Lotta Love” from his version of Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love”; and Jim Morrison found in Muddy’s “Mojo” a spell to cement Jim’s rock-shaman status.
The mark of his pioneering electric blues is everywhere, from the blues-besotted work of rock greats like The Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Clapton, The Doors, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC to the more recent revivalism of Jack White, Alabama Shakes and Hozier. But his original recordings are as spellbinding as anything they influenced, and will likely continue to be a touchstone for plenty of generations to come.
His music has lent grit to countless films, he was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987; a Lifetime Achievement Grammy was posthumously bestowed in 1992. In 1994 the U.S. Postal Service put his soulful-eyed face on 29-cent stamp. Various Muddy anthologies have been honored by the Blues Foundation, including the 1994 set of reissued Plantation Recordings and 2006’s Hoochie Coochie Man: Complete Chess Recordings, Volume 2, 1952–1958.
Muddy Waters wasn’t just a blues legend; he is an American icon. His time in history was before synthesizers and digital compositions, when music was raw. His music was the place a black sharecropper from the Mississippi could empty all of his pain, talent and intellect and make sure the world remembered his name.