The album I am about to review is one that, upon its release, had the effect of dividing the opinion the artist’s fans and also, opening up the artists music to a new, wider audience. That album is Muddy Water’s 1968 release Electric Mud. Electric Mud had the effect of reviving Water’s career, a career that by 1968, was on a downward slide. However, the album’s release did not please blue’s purists, they preferred the old Muddy Waters sound, and this, to them, was almost sacrilege. This was almost shades of Dylan going electric, albeit on a much smaller scale. But why was this? The answer to this lies in the sound of the music to be found within the album. If you listen to Electric Mud, what you will find is a psychedelic blues album. That, is why the blue’s purists were upset. So who was Muddy Waters, and what was his music like prior to the release of Electric Mud?

Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in 1913, in Issaquena County, Mississippi. As he grew up, he enjoyed playing music, playing firstly, harmonica, and then when he was seventeen, he changed to guitar. When he went to parties he entertained playing his guitar, emulating the sound produced by the blues players he heard. Aged 27, he moved to Chicago for the first time, only staying there for a year. When he returned to Mississippi he ran a duke joint, and played there regularly. Waters’ big break happened when blue’s historian Alan Lomax recorded Muddy Waters for a project to record country blues musicians on behalf of the Library of Congress. Lomax returned a year later and recorded Waters again, the recordings were later released as Down On Stovall’s Plantation.

In 1943 Waters returned to Chicago hoping to earn a living as a full-time blues musician. Big Bill Broonzy gave Waters a break, allowing him to open for Broonzy. In 1945, Waters received his first electric guitar, a gift from Joe Grant, his uncle. A year later, in 1946, Waters recorded some tracks for Columbia, sadly they were not released. Waters luck changed when he met Leonard and Phil Chess, who had started a new record label Aristocrat, which later became Chess Records. His first releases on Aristocrat were not released, however, in 1948 his tracks I Feel Like Going Home and I Can’t Be Satisfied were big hits in the Chicago clubs he became a popular performer. When Aristocrat changed their name to Chess in 1948, Waters’ best known song Rollin’ Stone became a huge success. This was the start of Muddy Waters most successful period.

Waters was to be successful for the best part of the next twenty years, performing with the creme de la creme of blues musicians. Throughout that period he played alongside Little Walter on harmonica, Otis Spann on piano and Willie Dixon on bass. Dixon was also to prove influential in Waters’ career, writing many songs for Waters and other blues musicians. In 1958 Waters went to England, where crowds were both shocked and in awe of Waters’ sound. He was later to prove influential for a new generation of British bands and artists, particularly the Rolling Stones, the Yarbirds and Eric Clapton. Such was Waters’ influence that the Rolling Stones went on to record a number of his songs.

In 1960 Waters played at the Newport Blues Festival and his performance was recorded and released as his first live album At Newport 1960. This had the effect of introducing his music to a much wider audience. 

However, by 1968 Waters career was on the slide, as many people who had previously followed his career turned their back on Waters, and his music. Waters was not happy that members of his own race were no longer interested in blues music. However, Waters and blues music in general, had found a new audience, consisting of white people who loved, and respected the music. By 1968 Waters had not had a hit since I’m Ready in 1956. The problem was, many of Waters’ former fans had become fans of psychedelic music that was, by now, popular. Marshall Chess however, had an idea that would revive interest in Waters’ flagging career. 

In 1967 Marshall Chess, the son of Leonard Chess, had set up the Cadet Concept label to release music that Chess would not have released. The first signing for that label was Rotary Connection. Their album sold a quarter of a million copies. Marshall Chess’ idea to revive Water’s career was that Waters would release a psychedelic blues album. This was not an attempt to turn him into a psychedelic artist, no, this was a concept album. When the album was released, it horrified blues’ purists, who hated the album. They felt that Waters had turned his back on his roots. Previously, Waters sound was an electrified version of the delta blues. This was way different. The album proved to be successful. Marshall Chess estimated that album sold between 150,000-200,000 copies. 

Electric Mud had the effect of relaunching Waters‘ career. In 1972 he returned to England and recorded the London Muddy Waters Sessions with Eric Clapton, Charlie Watts, Steve Winwood and Bill Wyman. Four years later in 1976, Waters played at The Band’s final concert, and can be heard and seen on the album and film The Last Waltz. In 1977 Waters signed to Johhny Winter’s label and recorded a comeback album Hard Again, which saw a return to his old sound. This album was to win a Grammy Award. Then in 1979 Waters recorded another well received album, Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live. Waters played at ChicagoFest, the city’s premier outdoor music festival, giving a great performance, with Johhny Winter playing alongside Waters. Sadly, Waters health began to fail badly, and his last performance was in 1982, joining Eric Clapton at one of his concerts in Florida. A year later, Waters died, aged 70. 

Electric Mud was released in 1968 on the same day as Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. The album was produced by Marshall Chess, only the second album he had ever produced and contains only eight songs. However, these are eight great tracks. if you are unfamiliar with either Muddy Waters’ music or blues music in general, or do not like the sound, believing it be a depressing sound, listen to this and you will soon change your mind. This is unlike any blues album from that time. I am sure one listen to this album and you will be hooked.

The album starts with a classic song I Just Wanna Make Love To You. This is a song that Waters had recorded before, and was covered by many other blues musicians at the time. In fact you could fill several albums with cover versions of this song by a multitude of artists. This version however, is something special. The song starts with Waters on guitar and the drums playing, then the rest of the band join in. They go on to give a performance of this song unlike no other. The guitar playing, complete with fuzz-box is exquisite, Waters plays the guitar in a way Hendrix at his best would be proud of. In fact, on this track, the style is almost a homage to Hendrix. On this track, have a band at the top of their game. They change the song completely, it is sung and played much quicker, and is a different and better song. 

I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man is another blues standard, that many people will be aware of, and are likely to have heard many times before. Not played like this before they won’t! The song is transformed, the band and Waters take the song, and play it with more feeling and passion, than you would thought possible. The musicianship on this track is of the highest standard. Here you have two dueling guitars, complete with wah-wah effects, competing against drums, fuzz-bass, harmonica and piano. Waters gives a standout vocal performance, and this for me, is the definitive version of this song.

The third track is Let’s Spend the Night Together, and when you hear this version you will be hard pushed to recognize this as the song the Rolling Stones recorded. This is a far better song, played by a real bluesman, not four English middle class blues wanna-bees. On this version, the guitar track is unlike anything the Stones could ever play, it is just over three minutes of glorious guitar playing. The bass line has the feel and sound of The Temptations song Get Ready. Listen carefully to the song, and you will hear Waters clapping, gospel style, in the background. On this track he really lets himself go, ad-libbing the lyrics, changing the words, like a soul many testifying.

The next track She’s Alright begins with Waters and his band kicking loose. This track has the sound of a band jamming, the sound is loud and big. Waters and the band compete for the listener’s attentions. The guitar playing and drumming on this track are outstanding, and later in the track there is even a flute solo. Waters sings the song well, but the band are every bit his equal, if not better. If Hendrix had given a performance like this, he would have been lauded, hailed a genius, sadly, Muddy Waters never received the same acclaim, acclaim that this performance deserves. Interestingly, towards the end of the song, Waters segues into a softly played, instrumental version of The Temptations’ hit My Girl. This is actually effective, and is a good way to end a great track.

Another familiar track on the album is Mannish Boy. This is another blues standard, that many people will have heard many times before. However, like other songs on Electric Mud, they will never have heard it played like this. The track starts with Waters singing solo, and a guitar wailing in the background. Don’t be fooled by this start, because after that, the band launch into a glorious psychedelic blues jam. The song swings, has a groove to it, it is loud and funky, and unlike no other version of this song. This is, in my opinion, the best version of this song i have ever heard.

Herbert Harper’s Free Press is a funky track, but it is more than that, it is a song with a message. The song muses on the dichotomy that was the United States at that time, where in Vietnam young American men were dying fighting a war, whilst hippies sing their flower songs and burn their draft card. However, this song  features some great musicians playing their instruments beautifully. On this song you will hear some great guitar playing and drumming. This is a powerful song with a message that also features some great musicianship.

The penultimate song on Electric Mud is Tom Cat. At the start of the song there is almost a call and response between the wah-wah guitar and fuzz bass. Later on the track the soprano saxophone played by Gene Barge howls and wails. He has the ability to make his soprano saxophone produce sounds that are almost not of this world, and this is a great addition to the track. Add into the mix some masterful vocals by vocals by Waters, and what you have here is a track that is totally of its time, and up there with the best psychedelic music of the era.

The final track is The Same Thing, a Willie Dixon penned song. If, I Just Wanna Make Love To You, was a good way to start this album, this is a fitting way to close it. Waters sings the song well, and is nearly overpowered by the guitars screeching in the background. The guitars and Waters enter into a duel from prominence, with Waters winning, however, only by a short head. The guitar playing is the best thing about the track. In fact, when listening to this track, you tend to be almost hypnotized by its quality, to the exclusion of everything else. This is not fair, as the band have reserved a stunning performance for the last track on the album.

Having told you about Muddy Waters and his album Electric Mud I hope that I have stimulated your interest sufficiently, that you will go out and buy this album. If you have heard of Muddy Waters, but never heard Electric Mud, you will not believe that this is the Muddy Waters that you may have heard previously. When I first heard this albums many years ago that was my reaction. I had started buying all of his older work. and chanced upon this album after having heard all of his earlier material. I was blown away, and could not believe this was the same Muddy Waters. It was, and  I believe that this is one of his finest recordings. Should you enjoy this album, and want to explore Muddy Waters’ back catalogue, you will have plenty of choice. However, I will warn you that not all of his recordings are worth buying. Some are badly compiled cash-ins, where no care has been taken in choosing the songs, others are badly recorded or mastered. There are some good Muddy Waters albums available. These include ones that he recorded for Chess Records including His Best 1947-1955 and The Plantation Recordings. If, however, you would like to hear not only Waters, but also his contemporaries, you should buy The Chess Blues-Rock Songbook, Chess Blues Guitar 1949-1969 or Willie Dixon-The Chess Box. Any of these albums are a great introduction to Chess Records, one of the most influential record labels ever, and they feature some of the best blues artists of all time. I hope that this article makes you want to find out not only more about Muddy Waters, but also about blues music, which played a huge part in the development of the music we all love and enjoy today. Standout Tracks: I Just Wanna Make Love To You, Mannish Boy and Tom Cat.


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