“Is there anything I would like to see or conquer?”
An Interview with Muddy Waters at the Temple Music Festival, Ambler, PA, July 31, 1978.
I guess I first heard Muddy Waters in 1965 when my brother bought The Best of Muddy Waters. There was something about the sound of the guitar on “Louisiana Blues” that just knocked me out and I used to play it over and over. I believe it was in 1966 that I saw the Muddy Waters Band for the first time in concert at the McCarter Theater on the Princeton University campus. It was a show I’ll never forget. Muddy had two guitar players beside himself, Sammy Lawhorn and Luther Georgia Boy Snake Johnson. The harp player was Mojo Buford and the drummer was Francis Clay, and of course the incredible Otis Spann on piano.
Not long after Muddy played again in Newark, New Jersey at the Newark Museum. Unfortunately that night, the piano was out of tune, so they did one set with the piano and one set with the harp. A couple of years later I saw Muddy do a club show at the 2nd Fret in Philadelphia. This was the most amazing show I saw him do, three sets, the band crammed on a tiny little stage. This time he had a third guitar player, James Madison. I remember going up to the men’s room between sets and most of the band was in there getting stoned. Near the end of the third set they brought up Otis Spann’s wife Lucille and started playing gospel tunes. It would be the last time I saw Otis Spann perform. He died two years later of cancer at age 40.
That same year, I hitchhiked to Wisconsin. I managed to get a ride back sitting in the cafeteria of the University of Wisconsin and hearing someone say they were driving to New York. On the way we stopped on the Southside of Chicago to visit this guy’s girlfriend and the whole time I kept my eyes open hoping to see Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf. Much later that night probably past midnight, on the Ohio Turnpike we pulled into a rest stop to get gas. On the other side of the pumps there was a van and a station wagon with Illinois license plates. Both vehicles and tons of bumper stickers from blues radio stations in Chicago, and the back of the station wagon was full of amps and drums. The guy pumping the gas looked like Luther Johnson but he was wearing the kind of jump suit gas station attendants wore back then. Then Otis Spann stepped out of the station wagon. It was the Muddy Waters Band!
“Where you guys goin’?” I asked?
“He’s flyin’ in.”
Meeting Muddy Waters was truly like meeting a King. There was something regal about him but at the same time he was totally down to earth, incredibly friendly and not the least bit bothered to be talking to some fans. When he talked about seeing Son House in his youth he was still excited about it.
PSB: Maybe you could tell me about Mississippi and when you first started playing music in Rolling Fork?
I was born in Rolling Fork and raised up in a little town called Clarksdale. When I went back to play some music in Rolling Fork, I had records out then. I wasn’t raised in Rolling Fork. I was born there, and came away from there when I was two years old. I was raised on Stovall Plantation.
Did you ever see Robert Johnson play?
I might’ve seen him. In my mind, I’m sure I’ve seen him, but I don’t know enough about it to even say I’ve seen him.
Did he have records then that you heard?
It was ’37 when I got to hear those records, “Terraplane” and “Walking Blues,” that was up in Blytheville, Arkansas. I didn’t know enough about the man to realize who did it. I was raised up on that style of music. I’m sure he got a lot of things from Son House. Of course that was my idol, Son House. I think he did a lot for the Mississippi slide down there, before Robert. Robert, he made it real popular, ’cause he learned how to do it faster, with double-string it you know. ’Cause like Son House he plays kind of like I do, kind of single-string it.
Did you get to see Son House back then?
Oh, I knew him. Sure. I sat there and look at him, close as I am to you. He was a character man. God, late at night, man, he could be preaching them blues, be something else man. Women screamin’, he was a killer.
Can you tell me what Chicago was like when you arrived there?
When I first came there, they was going with things like Johnny Moore, the Three Blazers, and Charles Brown and Nat King Cole, and Billy Eckstine. Memphis Slim was there. He was a big blues man there. Big Bill Broonzy, he became a good friend of mine before he passed away. And Tampa Red, Big Maceo. It was a heavy scene for me to butt up against, ’cause I just left the country but I had to work under that, playin’ those neighborhood bars and I worked up under that thing till I got able to get … I got knowin’ most of the guys before I got a record out. But I was just a small fry and the big fish eat up the small fish. I got that first record out, it came out in ’47, I recorded it in ’46, “Feel Like Goin’ Home,” “Can’t Be Satisfied,” then my name began to ring around. I began to take over. From that point, I tell you, Chicago was in my hand, all the more time that those guys had to listen to me.
How did you meet Little Walter?
I met Little Walter before I started recording. He was around Chicago. He used to play Chicago in a place called Jew Town. That’s on the streets. He was a great harp player but he didn’t have the Walter style then, he had John Lee Williams, Sonny Boy, not Rice Miller, he was playin’ on that style. He changed everything when he got with me. He took that style and developed it to a Little Walter style, ’cause there wasn’t nobody playin’ the third position on the harp that much. You couldn’t hear that kind of thing. So he went to third position, he made the chromatic popular in the blues. Those recent harp players, they have the chromatic goin’, but they play jazz. But Walter takin’ that one chromatic and made it popular with the blues. Everybody started to use the chromatic and all that kind of jive and playin’ the third position on the harp.
When you bottleneck do you play in a straight tuning?
I play just straight E when I use my bar. But see if I play in A tuning, I gotta tune all over. When you’re doin’ a show, I ain’t got time just to set there and keep on tunin’ over and over. So I learned to use that bar and go in any key I wanna go in and do the slide.
Did you enjoy doing the Last Waltz?
Oh yeah, I loved it. Good guys. It was beautiful man. Like the boys from The Band, we pretty good friends and also Paul Butterfield, I know he’s tryin’ to get on top of it.
Did you like that record you did. The Woodstock Album?
I loved it man. See, GRT sold the company to Platinum and they didn’t do nothin’ with it, and GRT didn’t do nothin’ with it. It just had no push at all. If it had been with Blue Sky, it would’ve been much bigger than Hard Again I’d imagine.
It must be a great relief after all this time to be with a company that’s pushing you again.
This is a happy thing for me and they really cares about me, and they’re spending money on me. It’s a beautiful thing.
It must’ve been nice that the Stones came to see you….
That ain’t the first time they’ve been to see me. It was nice for ’em to come by, but they’ve been by to see me quite a bit, even when I be overseas or in Europe somewhere. If they’re around, they’ll come by to see me. They call me like Daddy.
Is there anything that you’ve achieved that you haven’t achieved?
Is there anything I would like to see or conquer?
Now that I’m gettin’ old enough to get some money, I’d like to have some money (laughs). I don’t get much made, I need to conquer a big chunk of money. Not quit playin’ but quit playin’ so hard.
Do you still tour a lot?
Yeah sure. If I had a million dollars, I just wouldn’t just completely set back. I’d have to get out there and show my face to all these good people who like me, I have to get out there and show my face. The only thing that would set me back if I get sick or something or pass away, that’s all you can do about that you know. But as long as I got my health goin’ pretty good, I’ll show up around here.
Out of all of your records, what was your favorite?
I got so many good ones I don’t know what to say. I can go out and play five or six good ones, ones I really like, like “Honey Bee,” “Long Distance Call,” “Howlin’ Wolf,” “Lonesome In My Bedroom,” “Louisiana Blues.” I got so many things to pick from man, I just don’t play a lot of ’em out there you know.
For me it was “Louisiana Blues” that did it.
Yeah, but see it didn’t have that all that big band on “Louisiana Blues,” it was just a couple or three of us doin’ that you know. We’d get lost doing that with all them pieces we got. But that was a beautiful song.