Muddy Waters Bio BOOK review

Book Reviews
Muddy Waters Bio BOOK review
Dec 30, 2002, 15:12

CAN'T BE SATISFIED: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MUDDY WATERS by Robert Gordon; Little, Brown And Company, 2002

On reading this, the lengthy look at one of the undisputed giants of the blues by noted music scribe Robert Gordon (It Came from Memphis; The King on the Road), three recurring aspects of the life of the great Muddy Waters hit home.

The first is the shady world of loose morals and rough company that surrounded the man like the sweat on a beer glass. Almost everyone in his band (Muddy included) was a gambler, an alcoholic, or carried a gun—in most cases all three. Mouth harp legend Little Walter died after being hit in the head with a hammer after a dice game gone bad; during an evening of drunken revelry, Muddy accidentally shot his charge and boyhood friend Bo Bolton in the leg—and avoided both the law and the press by keeping him in the basement, drunk, for a solid week; and, years after he was abandoned by Muddy in a Massachusetts jail, guitarist Sammy Lawhorn turned up back home in Chicago—pimping his own daughter. The real OG's? I'd sure say so. Muddy also had so many children—from his numerous wives and even more numerous “outside” women—that trying to keep track of everyone had me checking for a “family appendix” between the book's discography and bibliography. Something to think about for the reprint, I guess.

Another frequent point of interest is Waters' relationship with Chess Records. While their benevolence shone through on more than one occasion (by advancing cash to Muddy and other founding artists such as Howlin' Wolf—even when newer acts like Chuck Berry were actually paying the bills), Leonard and Phil Chess didn't always play it straight. Knowing full well that Muddy was illiterate, they coerced him into signing ridiculously unfavorable contracts that had him giving up huge amounts of songwriting and sales royalties. (This situation would eventually be righted, somewhat, through the work of Muddy's late-period manager, Scott Cameron.) And although the label is now rightfully acknowledged as perhaps the greatest blues label of all time, one gets the feeling that Chess's success came mainly from being in the right place at the right time. In the studio, Muddy was often at war with his producers, who for some time were unconvinced of his pioneering, electric approach to stripped-down blues. Despite the live popularity of his two-guitar/drums/harmonica/bass outfit, they forced him to record overtly commercial, needlessly horn-laden efforts such as “The Muddy Waters Twist”—only relenting after a long string of flops.

The remaining constant of the story is perhaps also the most tragic: cancer. Muddy watched it take so many of those he held near and dear: Geneva, his closest, dearest wife; his friend and band mate, the great pianist Otis Spann; and lifelong buddy Bo Bolton. Eventually, it would come for Muddy, too, in April of 1983. But he would meet it head on, refusing the uncertain hardships of chemotherapy. To the end, a full-grown M-A-N.

Gordon's insightful work, clearly slanted toward Waters' several generations of fans, takes us from Muddy's earthy origins of sharecropping and his discovery in Mississippi by Alan Lomax, through his trailblazing Chicago years, his validation via the Rolling Stones (Keith Richards wrote the forward here) and rock & rollers the world over, and right up to that characteristically dignified end. The resulting portrait is that of a man who lived life recklessly, but also one that never got what he really deserved for all of his hard work.

In August of 1978, with only a day's notice, Muddy and his band were asked by then- President Jimmy Carter to perform at the White House. After a nice introduction by the President of the United States, the group ripped through a few hits like “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “I Got My “Working.” “We didn't get paid nothing,” remembered bassist Calvin Jones. “Shit no. I got pictures with Jimmy Carter and all of us. Somebody got paid but I don't know who it was. Playing for the White House, don't make no money – that's tough, ain't it? They didn't even give us good dinners, give us some hot dogs.”

Figures, huh? 

-Peter Aaron

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