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Blues

March 23, 2018

The Best of Muddy Waters

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Harvey Kubernik talks to Marshall Chess, Robbie Robertson,
Andrew Loog Oldham and Bill Wyman about the legacy of Muddy Waters and the 60th anniversary of his debut album,
The Best of Muddy Waters

Few pieces of art have been as influential as 
Muddy Waters’ seminal debut album The Best of Muddy Waters, a humble piece of vinyl released by the landmark Chess Records label in 1958 that served as The Big Bang for rock ‘n’ roll and the ensuing half century of modern popular culture.

On November 10, Geffen/UMe celebrated the forthcoming 60th anniversary of Waters’ first album on Chess by reissuing The Best of Muddy Waters on vinyl in original mono for the first time in 30 years while also making it available for download and streaming for the first time ever, giving new and familiar listeners a reminder of the blues man’s truly incandescent music.

Born McKinley Morganfield in Mississippi in 1915, Waters was initially a sharecropper playing his acoustic guitar for change and tips at rural plantation parties. He migrated to Chicago in 1943 where he brought together a pipeline of the city’s top musicians to create, refine and define the modern blues. While he was undergoing this transformation, millions of rural Southern blacks were making the same journey, and their stories and music were working into the popular consciousness – and capturing the imagination of a restless teenage suburbia increasingly open to new things in the rebellious 1960s.

An assemblage of Waters 78 RPM recording made between 1948 and 1954 for Chess Records, The Best of Muddy Waters captured Waters’ growth from acoustic artist to archetypical electrified band leader and charted the exciting evolution of blues. 

Between the thematically fitting bookends of opener “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and unforgettable closer “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” the LP laid the blueprint for modern blues, rock and even country music, with monumental recordings like “Rollin’ Stone,” “Honey Bee” and “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man.”

Waters’ deeply emotional, often foreboding and always mysterious music helped inspire the imagination of acts such as the Rolling Stones – who take their name directly from Waters’ music – the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, John Mayall, Fleetwood Mac, Savoy Brown Blues Band, Led Zeppelin, the Band and so many others.

These artists in turn took their love and appreciation of Waters to millions of listeners and aspiring musicians, creating a timeless feedback loop that continues with each generation. Waters’ music arrived at important crossroads moments in both the blues man’s personal life and that of the nation.

The re-release The Best of Muddy Waters gives fans a chance to examine this masterpiece again, a classic work of art that both inspires creative genius and entertains casual fans in ways that changed popular culture.

Marshall Chess, born in Chicago, Ill. on March 13, 1942, and was raised during the heyday of the independent record business. Leonard Chess had a piece of a record company named Aristocrat Records in 1947, and later in 1950 he brought his brother Phil into the fold and the brothers assumed sole ownership of the company and renamed it Chess Records.

Marshall “started” in the family business at age 7 initially accompanying his father Leonard on radio station visits. For sixteen years Marshall worked with his dad and his uncle Phil, doing everything from pressing records, applying shrink wrap and loading trucks to producing over 100 Chess Records projects, eventually heading up the label as President after the GRT acquisition in 1969. Over years the monumental Chess catalog has had various homes, including a 1975 sale to All Platinum Records, and eventually a couple of decades ago the Chess master tapes were purchased by MCA Records, now Universal Music Enterprises.

After departing from Chess Records in 1969, Marshall helped form and ran Rolling Stone Records for seven years. He helped create the Rolling Stones famous tongue and lip logo and was involved as Executive Producer on 7 Rolling Stone #1 albums during the 1970’s.

In 2009 and 2010 I interviewed Marshall Chess.

Marshall Chess

Q: Can you explain how your uncle and father, Polish immigrants, knew so much about music, the blues, and bringing it to our world?

A: Because they were very bright people. They worked in black businesses. My dad had a liquor store. I sat around my uncle and asked, ‘everyone always asks me about music, and how did Chess get into music.’ And, my uncle’s vision is this. That in Poland, in the small Jewish ghetto town, there was no music. Then some guy got a windup Victrola. And the whole fuckin’ village would stand underneath this guy’s window when he played it. That was the first recorded music they heard.

“They come to America. My grandfather, who was here seven years prior in Chicago brings them. He had a scrap metal yard. Across the street from it, on the west side of Chicago, was a black gospel church. My uncle said that my dad and him were kids, and after work they would hear the bass drum and gospel singing with a piano, they would be fascinated. They would stand there and get punished for being late. ‘Cause they were listening to the black music. That’s where it began to me. For some reason it affected them.

“And then, when my uncle went into the army, my dad, I think because he was an immigrant got him near Maxwell Street, the black neighborhood. No prejudice. That’s just it. No blacks in Poland. You don’t get raised being prejudiced in Europe. You hate Nazis, but no blacks to hate.

“So, they had no problem, and they saw that there was this giant influx of blacks in Chicago, and they had money, and they were working. And my dad started with a liquor store. First he worked in a shoe shop. Berger’s shoes. Then the liquor store, where he had a jukebox, and he was there 15-18 hours a day hearing blues. I watched the jukeboxes being serviced. They used to be controlled by the Italian gangsters of Chicago. They’d come and pick ‘em up from us.

“Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters went to my Bar Mitzvah. A lot of black people were which was a very unusual event back then in 1955. The Chess recording artists were always writing about women problems and sex. That’s all I ever heard from them when I was a kid. I saw some of these records being recorded. I sold them originally.

“Muddy Waters and B.B. King really dug white people doin’ their stuff. Sonny Boy was very much into white people doin’ his stuff. So was Howlin’ Wolf.

“It blew our mind. Of course it was a fantastic thing. We loved it. And we never thought that could happen. It was a total fantasy. But we first noticed it with the Muddy At Newport album came out. I can remember we got all these orders from Boston on the Muddy album and we knew it was white people buying it. College kids. The first things we noticed as the album market developed.

Q: Muddy was a showman. I met him in 1978 when he gigged at the Roxy Theater in West Hollywood when he was making albums with Johnny Winter.

A: Muddy liked to drink. Muddy on stage and in the studio was the best. He was organized. He was a fuckin’ leader. I always say this. People say ‘what do you mean?’ He was a fuckin’ leader. Muddy was the reincarnation of a tribal chief, of a President, of a King. Such a powerful presence. I just loved him. He used to call me his white grandson. His wife Geneva used to send me fried chicken wrapped in foil. Muddy once wrote a poem to a girl for me that I gave when I was in high school. I always say this and people laugh but most of what I discussed with these guys was about sex. That was the main thing on their mind. Look at their lyrics.

Q: Why are the records of Chess gifts?

A: The best explanation is, this may sound way out. It contains magic. The most apparent magic that we can see or experience is music. Let’s face it. Music changes the way you feel. That’s magical. Chess Records for some reason was a magnet for amazing artistry. All these magicians came to Chess. And we were able to capture it. And the method of recording. And it’s something that can be experienced through audio. The music has stood up without a cinematic aspect like video.

“As I grew older, and was a person of the hippie generation, and discovered things like meditation, psychedelic drugs, Buddhism. I realized what was happening in the early Chess studio was like a high Buddhist monk meditation manager. Because when you recorded in mono and two-track with 5 or 6 players and a singer there wasn’t any correction possible. One of the main jobs as a producer was like a meditation manager master. He had to get the band locked together to go down. I remember when they were teaching me to produce they always would say, ‘when the motherfucker fucks up you got to embarrass him and tell him to play that shit right over and over.’

Q: Who buys Chess Records reissues this century?

A: Today the consumers are col-
lectors, man, because they have credit cards. Who are blues fans? They are usually Jewish guys.
Jewish with plastic. (Laughs). We’re kibitzing. They’re always been middle class. They’d buy 30 fuckin’ copies of Muddy Waters at a time when they first discovered him. Now I go around the fuckin’ world and talk about Chess and people kiss my ass. It’s always a pimply faced, middle aged, balding Jewish guy. Blues nerds! It’s hysterical to me! (Laughs).

Q: Can you talk about the Chess studio?

A: We had fabulous engineers. Ron Malo and Malcolm Chism. They were the two best engineers. Ron came from Detroit. He had worked on Motown studios and he was a big part. Before Ron, we had these two Weiner brothers, who actually built the studio. It was a basic classic studio design, with the echo chamber in the basement, very small control room. One of the secrets of the Chess studio was not the studio but our mastering. We had a little mastering room with a lathe. Eventually we had a Neumann lathe. The first one was an American one. We did our own mastering and had these Electrovoice speakers on the wall. The great part about that room that when it sounded right in that mastering room it would pop off the radio. That’s what it was all about. And the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, later Fleetwood Mac had to make visits there.

“I’ll tell you a story about the Chess artists that sort of sums up the ‘blues nerds.’ This is going back to the ‘60s, right. Driving me crazy. I knew the blues fans, the guys from Blues Horizon, Mike and Richard Vernon. I knew them well and loved them. They would come to Chicago and I would show them the original Chess master book, and they’d put their fuckin’ hands on it like it was the bible.

“So, this blues nerd was driving me crazy. ‘I’ve got to know what kind of microphone Little Walter uses to get that sound.’ It drove me crazy.

“Just so happened, Walter was recording. And I knew Walter from being a very little kid. I said, ‘Walter. This crazy motherfucker is driving me crazy. He wants to know what kind of mike you use?’ ‘Are you crazy, motherfucker? Whatever microphone I didn’t pawn that week!’ [Laughs].

“You get it. These artists were great and would have been great in any studio. It was the artistry, the playing. The studio was great and we captured a sound, and it had a sound, but it was our artists that made that sound.”

The Rolling Stones came to Chess to record three times in 1964 and 1965.

Andrew Loog Oldham

Author and deejay, Andrew Loog Oldham, who managed and produced the band’s recordings from 1963-1967 emailed me memories about Chess Records and working in the fabled studio.

“It was Chess records, the vinyl actuals that re-united Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on Dartford Station in 1962. It was Chess Records, the company, the work that drove Brian Jones to form the Rollin’ Stones. It was Chess Records — the wave, that came over me in the Station Hotel in Richmond in April ‘ 63 when I first saw the Stones and we began our way of life together. Chess was always the underbelly of the Stones beast; the fuel that charged the engine, even after they became their own brand.

“The first U.S. tour by the Stones was not the Beatles tour. We had a cult following in the cities and were abandoned in the sticks. The boys needed cheering up. I could not have them de-planning in London looking like the brothers glum.

“I called Phil Spector from Texas where the Stones had just supported a band of performing seals and asked him to get us booked just as soon as possible into Chess studios. Phil or Marshall Chess called back and said he’d set up two days of recording time, two days hence. Chicago was a piece of heaven on earth for the Stones. The earth had been scorched on most of our mid-American concert stopovers. We hadn’t set any records; we didn’t yet have the goods, apart from a trio of wonderful one-offs, ‘I Wanna Be Your Man,’ ‘You Better Move On’ and ‘Not Fade Away’ we had yet to
..find our vinyl legs.

“2120 South Michigan Avenue housed Chess Records and Studios and in two days the group put down some thirteen tracks — their most relaxed and inspired session to date-moved, no doubt, by our newfound ability to sell coals to Newcastle. Who would have thought a bunch of English kids could produce black R ‘n’ B in the States? And here they were in the sanctum sanctorum of Chicago blues, playing in the lap of their gods. The ground floor was a gem, as was Chess engineer Ron Malo. He treated them just like… musicians.

“Nothing sensational happened at Chess except the music. I was producing the sessions in the greatest sense of the word: I had provided the environment in which the work could get done. The Stones’ job was to fill up the available space correctly and this they did. This was not the session for pop suggestions; this was the place to let them be. Oh, I may have insisted on a sordid amount of echo on the under-belly figure on ‘It’s all Over Now,’ but that was only ear candy to a part that was already there.

“I can remember being impressed with the order of things and how quietness and calm got things done. I remember meeting Leonard and/or perhaps Phil Chess, and being cognizant of the fact that there was no suppressive limey stymieing from the head office to the factory floor. There was just a factory floor and a very relaxed combo of artists, musicians, engineers, and salesmen all at one with each other and getting their jobs done and
royalty Cadillacs royally driven.”

Bill Wyman

Last decade I interviewed Rolling Stones’ bassist Bill Wyman. We chatted about the Stones’ visit to Chess.

“Keith talks about how he saw Muddy painting the walls at Chess. It’s funny. It gets headlines and it gets a laugh. Willie [Dixon] tried to pawn a song on us and Muddy did help us in with the gear. It’s in my diary that day.

“The greatest thing about Chess Records wasn’t the recording, or having Buddy Guy walk in, Muddy, and Chuck Berry coming and saying ‘Swing on, gentlemen, you are sounding most well, if I may say so,” and he knew he was going to make some money. But it was being told we could go down in the cellar and pick some albums if we wanted. Racks of Little Walter albums we had never seen. That was the magic of Chess for us.

“We had recorded at Chess for a couple of dates, a few times. When we came into L.A. we went to RCA. We walked into the studio and it was too big. We were really worried. We were intimidated. We were used to recording in little places like Regent Sound. The studio was like this hotel room. And Chess wasn’t very big either. Suddenly we’re at RCA and it’s enormous. It was like Olympic (in England) later. But we solved that same problem. We thought ‘God, we can’t record in here. We’re gonna get the wrong sound.’

“But Andrew had this brain wave and he put us all in the corner of one room, turned all the lights down, and just tucked us all around in a little small circle. And we forgot about the rest of the room and the height of the ceiling. And we just did it in this little corner with engineer Dave Hassinger.”

“When I heard these early Sun and Chess Records,” Robbie Robertson of the Band recollected to me in a 2016 interview, “I thought, ‘what is going on here? The sound coming out of Chess Records in Chicago. What kind of a room is that? What is this magic?’”

RICK DANKO

In November 2016 Rhino Entertainment released four new 40th Anniversary Editions of the Band’s The Last Waltz in various CD, Blu-ray, and vinyl formats.

I attended the monumental event and stunned by Muddy Waters’ two-song segment.

In 1977 and ’78 I interviewed Rick Danko, the bassist of the Band for Melody Maker.

“At The Last Waltz we were the perfect house band. Even the rehearsals were incredible. Preparing for the gig was a trip in itself. For four days we did nothing but play music.

“The Band has always been into precision, like a fine car. We didn’t take it easy during preparation. No way was I gonna walk out on stage and wing it next to Joni Mitchell. And Muddy Waters…

“Wait ‘till you see Muddy in the film,” warned Rick. “We also did a version of ‘Mannish Boy’ at the hotel and nobody had a tape recorder. I was playing next to him and got chills. I think for Muddy and for Ronnie Hawkins, they arrived at the high point in their lives
that night.”

Robbie Robertson

In 2016 I spoke with Robbie Robertson
for Record Collector News magazine about The Last Waltz and Muddy Waters. I asked about Muddy’s moment on celluloid.

“Because now when I’m watching it I’m also hearing it that way. And the power of it. And what this man, and you look at him and say, ‘This guy…I don’t know what the Rolling Stones would have done, or a lot of music would have existed if it hadn’t been for this guy.’ And look at him, and can’t you see why?

“It is one of the high points for me in this. And just talking about pedal to the metal, and pulling the trigger.

"And Muddy must have been about 65 or so, he came out and he was the daddy of the whole Delta Blues scene for sure, but such a gentleman. He came out there with people who are so large and their own music, and held his own at 64, or 65, and didn’t take a step backwards. There’s a true master,” underlined Robertson.

I had seen Muddy previously in clubs in Hollywood like The Troubadour in 1966, the Kaleidoscope in July 1968 and a few shows at Ash Grove in 1971. However, being at The Last Waltz was a revelation just seeing and hearing Muddy with the best sound system, the incredible lights, a huge stage, and lots of people behind him.

“Well you know there was something to the idea of when all these people are in this place and you’re coming out and doing one song, or two songs, or whatever you’re doing, and then there’s all these people who had been out before you, and then all these people coming after you, all of that, it made everybody just rise to an occasion musically, spiritually that sometimes you don’t know you even have in yourself,” Robbie stressed. “That’s one of the things I think, ‘Thank God this was captured in such a beautiful way, too.’ And that you can really see this and really go inside it, and really feel a part of the whole thing. Because it’s a movie. It isn’t just a video of something, where you looking at it and saying, ‘Is this fake?’ ‘Is this real?’ ‘Is this being fluffed up like a television commercial?’

“This is the real thing in a setting of such respectful elegance and everything that when I was working on it I did think of Muddy Waters coming out there between all of these people and rock the very foundation of music in that whole place that night.

"This was like an outstanding experience. Sometimes I had to just catch myself not to be standing there with my mouth open.”

Celeste Goyer

“Muddy’s appearance in The Last Waltz film was my first introduction to the blues, and his performance of ‘Mannish Boy’ went off in me like a bomb,” admitted poet and artist
Celeste Goyer.

“I’d never seen anything like the command he had on stage — he looked out over the audience and knew it was his. People talk about authenticity in rock ‘n’ roll or the sexual appeal of a lead singer in their 20’s ­— this man in his 60’s had all that — but cranked up to 12, like an old, scarred lion that can still turn on the power and chase off rivals anytime he pleases."

DR. JAMES CUSHING

“I saw Muddy Waters in The Last Waltz
and earlier at the Ash Grove in 1971,” remembered deejay and poet Dr. James Cushing.

“His set began with his band doing a couple of instrumental numbers. And his lead guitarist was playing a Fender Jaguar through a wah-wah pedal. Muddy was seated and played slide.

"When I was exposed to his voice and slide work solos in person, I got from that moment the same thing a bunch of privileged white suburban kids got which was sense of total authenticity and integrity.

“This was popular music in which the bull shit quotient was as close to zero. Muddy did a song from 1949, before I was born, the same decade as World War 2.

“I heard a voice where history is speaking to me. I jumped on a table in the room because I couldn’t control myself to do otherwise. I had just learned in the most dramatic possible way that adulthood was not a drag. That it was possible to imagine an adulthood that was not as uselessly fucked up that my alcoholic parents had modeled for me,” Cushing confessed.

“Muddy and Chess Records are the bricks from which rock ‘n’ roll is built.

“In Chicago you have Jewish Polish emigrants form Chess Records. In New York there’s Blue Note, started by Austrian Jewish emigrants, and in Hollywood then you have Capitol Records in Hollywood with Stan Kenton, which has a more complex label history with songwriters as principals and the movie industry.

“Those were the three great centers of American music in the late 1940’s and early ‘50’s. And they need to be seen, I think, as examples of American cultural diversity at its best.”

Harvey Kubernik is the author of 12 books. His debut literary music anthology Inside Cave Hollywood: The Harvey Kubernik Music InnerViews and InterViews Collection, Vol. 1 was published in December 2017, by Cave Hollywood. Kubernik is also writing and assembling a multi-voice narrative book on The Doors Summer's Gone published in mid-March by Other World Cottage Industries.






One Comment


  1. Paul Petraitis

    Great collection of stories. Like the bit about going into the basement for albums. The basements all cleaned out now…lots of work to be done restoring 2120. What a Mecca!



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