Muddy Waters

McKinley Morganfield or Muddy Waters as he is more famously known is often cited as being the ‘father of modern Chicago blues’. Born in 1913, he would go on to pave the way for rock and roll with his dynamic electrified blues.

Muddy Waters grew up on Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi. Muddy’s mother died shortly after his birth and was raised by his grandmother, Della Grant. It was Della that gave him the nickname ‘Muddy’ due to his enthusiasm for playing in the mud by the water of Deer Creek.

Muddy Waters started out by playing harmonica before moving onto guitar. By the age of 17 he was playing at local parties, emulating his heroes, Son House and Robert Johnson. In 1941, Alan Lomax visited Stovall to record musicians for the Library of Congress, Muddy was one of the musicians he recorded during this time. Lomax would return a year later to record Muddy again, both these sessions were released by Testament Records as ‘Down on Stovall’s Plantation’.

In 1943, Muddy Waters relocated to Chicago to peruse a full-time career as a musician. Blues legend, Big Bill Broonzy helped Muddy break into the competitive Chicago scene by letting him open shows for him and in 1945 Muddy’s uncle would buy him his first electric guitar. In 1945 Muddy would start recording for Aristocrat Records (soon to become the famous Chess Records) where he would find commercial success.

Muddy Waters’ band was unrivalled, boasting Little Walter on harmonica they had a visceral and immediate sound. Muddy developed a long-running rivalry with other Chicago blues great, Howlin’ Wolf. This rivalry however, was good natured and the two men had a great deal of respect for each other. Throughout the 1950s Muddy Waters released a number of successful singles, his most famous being a Bo Diddley cover, ‘Manish Boy’.

Muddy would enjoy a renewed interest in his music during the folk and blues revival of the late 1950s and 1960s. He would tour Europe, taking his music to a new generation of fans and influence bands such as The Rolling Stones, who named themselves after his 1950 song ‘Rollin’ Stone’.

Throughout the 1960s, Muddy would continue to record. This would include the release of the ‘Electric Mud’ record which would take traditional blues in a whole new direction, mixing blues with elements of psychedelia.

Muddy Waters died in his sleep from heart failure in 1983. Many blues musicians attended his funeral to pay their respects to a man that had a profound impact upon their lives. Muddy’s childhood home in Stovall Plantation has now been renovated into the Delta Blues Museum. As a boy, the odds were stacked against him but Muddy Waters went on to become one of the most famous and influential bluesmen of all time. His songs have been covered by countless bands and his influence has shaped the way music sounds to this day.

Tampa Red

Tampa Red, born Hudson Woodbridge was a Florida based bluesman. Born in 1904, he was a virtuoso guitarist, his unrivalled ‘bottleneck’ playing would go on to inspire other artists from Big Bill Broonzy to Muddy Waters.

Originally born in Smithville, Georgia, Tampa Red relocated to Tampa, Florida at an early age after his parents died. Here he was raised by his aunt and grandmother, taking their surname Whittaker. Red was inspired to play guitar at a young age by his brother as well as by a local street musician named, Piccolo Pete. Pete would teach a young Red blues licks on the guitar and it was here that he started his path as a musician. It’s easy to imagine Red as a child, sat next to a mangrove tree picking at his guitar. The mangroves large roots surrounding him as he practiced the licks he’d been taught. The trees and vegetation native to Florida is unique in many ways.

By the 1920s Red had perfected his trademark slide technique and decided to move to Chicago to peruse a career as a musician. He adopted the name ‘Tampa Red’ after his childhood home and the color of his hair. Red was invited to accompany blues legend, Ma Rainey and in 1928 he began recording ‘hokum’ songs. Red’s early recordings were made predominantly with Thomas A. Dorsey (known as Georgia Tom) and they would often play under the name ‘The Hokum Boys’, recording almost 90 sides together.

Tampa Red was the first black musician to play a National steel-bodied resonator guitar, the loudest guitar available before amplification. This guitar helped cement Red’s distinctive sound, shying away from block chords he would often play single string runs and earned the nickname, ‘The Blues Wizard’. Red’s partnership with Dorsey would end in 1932 but he continued working as a high demand session musician, working with artists such as Memphis Minnie and his friend, Big Maceo.

In 1934 Red signed to Victor Records and would also form a band of session musicians known as the Chicago Five, creating what was known as the ‘Bluebird sound’. Red enjoyed commercial success and was generally financially stable throughout his working life. He became a key player in the blues community and would informally provide rehearsal spaces and lodgings for touring musicians arriving in Chicago from the Mississippi Delta.

By the 1940s Tampa Red had traded in his National steel for an electric guitar and in 1942 scored a #4 hit with ‘Let Me Play With Your Poodle’. Red enjoyed a renewed interest in his music during the 1950s like many other blues artists of the time, taking his music to a whole new generation of listeners, many across the Atlantic.

Unfortunately after his wife’s passing in 1953, Red became and alcoholic and his health gradually deteriorated. Tampa Red recorded his last session in 1960 and died in Chicago in 1981. During his recording career he not only received commercial success but also influenced a slew of artists that would go on themselves to shape the way music sounds the way it does today.

John Lee Hooker

John Lee Hooker is arguably one of the most famous and influential bluesmen of all time. There is some ambiguity surrounding his year of birth but it is commonly recorded as being 1917. Born in Mississippi to a Baptist preacher and sharecropper, his early exposure to music was mainly spiritual songs sung in church.

When Hooker’s parents separated in 1921, his mother remarried a blues singer named William Moore. It was here that a young John Lee Hooker was introduced to blues music and Moore would have a strong influence on Hooker’s distinctive playing style.

At the age of 14, Hooker ran away from home, never to see his parents again. During the 1930s he lived in Memphis, Tennessee where he would hone his craft as a blues performer, playing house parties. After some time drifting between cities as a factory worker, Hooker would eventually end up in Detroit, the city that would inspire and push him to new limits as an artist.

Hooker was quick to gain a local following in Detroit and in search of something louder, bought his first electric guitar. He released his first single, ‘Boogie Chillen’ in 1948 for Modern Records, which in my opinion earns the place as his signature tune. Unfortunately, like many black artists of the time, Hooker was financially exploited by his label, whose owners insisted on being included in his songwriting royalties.

John Lee Hooker’s early material is electrifying. Due to his idiosyncratic time keeping, Hooker found it hard to play with a band. As a result he was recorded solo, accompanied only by his electric guitar and the primordial stomp of his feet.

Later in his career, Hooker assembled a band of musicians that were able to work around his off-kilter playing style and recorded a number of sessions for VeeJay Records (including his biggest hit ‘Boom Boom’). Like many blues artists of his generation, there was a resurgence of interest in Hooker’s music during the 1960s. His unique playing style can be heard in bands such as ZZ Top, The Rolling Stones and Canned Heat.

By the 1980s, John Lee Hooker had become a household name and makes a memorable performance in the 1980 film, The Blues Brothers. In 1989, Hooker would release a collaborative record, ‘The Healer’ with renowned musicians such as Carlos Santana and Bonnie Rait, winning a Grammy Award.

Hooker continued to tour regularly and collaborate with musicians from Van Morrison to Eric Clapton. During his recording career he released over 100 albums and in 1997 opened a nightclub in San Francisco, named ‘John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Room’.

John Lee Hooker was taken ill just before a European tour in 2001 and died in his sleep at the age of 83. His influence has spread far and wide and continues to inspire musicians today. Hooker’s songs have appeared on TV commercials and have been covered by hundreds of bands, ranging from Led Zeppelin to Bruce Springsteen. In 1991 John Lee Hooker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has a star included on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s fair to say that John Lee Hooker firmly cemented his place as one of the most accomplished and individual bluesmen of all time.