Originally recorded as the sequel to Muddy Waters’ and Willie Dixon’s 1954 hit "Hoochie Coochie Man" and simultaneously as the response to Bo Diddley’s 1955 massive "I’m A Man," the A-side "Mannish Boy", or “Manish Boy” as it was originally titled, has since become a blues standard, covered by everyone from Erykah Badu to The Band who performed the song with Muddy at their farewell concert The Last Waltz . Recorded on May 24, 1955, this song is a staple in the Chicago blues subgenre and also served as a particularly important inspiration for loads of young British musicians, leading up to what would become the British Invasion of the 1960s.
The lyrics, taken at face value, reveal a raunchy take on male sexual bragging, with lyrics like “I’m a natural born lover” and “I passed 21/I want you to believe baby/I had lots of fun,” but dig deeper and they reveal a more potent message about the Jim Crow South. The songs chorus demands:
I’m a man
I spell M-A child –N
That represents man
No B-O child –Y
That mean mannish boy
For Muddy, growing up in Mississippi, racism was a way of life. Growing up in the South, African-Americans were treated less then human by whites and one of the ways this was reinforced was the way in which they’d never be referred to as a man – but as “boy”. In this context, the song takes on new meaning. “Mannish Boy” is not only an assertion of black manhood but, free from southern laws in his new home of Chicago, the song is nothing less than a black Declaration Of Independence. Civil rights protesters in the 1960s understood this when they marched with signs declaring “I Am A Man” throughout the South.
Notably, the 1955 version is the only recording not featuring frequent collaborator Little Walter on harmonica, but was one of the few recordings with Junior Wells, during what was arguably Waters’ most creative periods for single blues hits. The swelling, adoring screams of women during the chorus makes the 1955 recording the definitive version. Muddy would revisit the song many times over the years, notably on the 1968 Chess album Electric Mud, where it was radically reworked as psych-blues track, again in 1977 on Hard Again produced by Johnny Winter on the Blue Sky label and a live version, also with Johnny Winter appears on the 1979 album Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live”.
The song reached #5 on the Billboard R&B chart and would remain on that chart for a total of six weeks. Since then it has been included in the Blues Hall Of Fame’s “Classics Of Blues Recordings” category. In was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll” and Rolling Stone magazine ranked it number 230 on its’ list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.