Two blues giants and the pair of classics they delivered for the Woodstock era
Maybe it began the night in May 1965 that the Rolling Stones brought Howlin’ Wolf to prime time TV for an appearance on Shindig. Or even earlier, when the Yardbirds backed up Sonny Boy Williamson at the Crawdaddy Club in London. Some people point to the time Bill Graham’s Fillmore booked Muddy Waters to open for Jefferson Airplane and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in ’66.
There were a lot of flashpoints in the titanic convergence of contemporary rock and classic blues, but it all reached a peak fifty years ago, the year B.B. King released Live & Well—his first album to crack the top 100—and was invited to go on the arena tour with the Stones; the same year Muddy Waters was at the center of the double Fathers and Sons album (the biggest of his career), joined by Butterfield and his hotshot lead guitarist, Michael Bloomfield. 1969 was also the year pianist Otis Spann (who plays on Fathers and Sons) cut The Biggest Thing Since Colossus with members of Fleetwood Mac, and another Otis–Otis Rush–had Bloomfield on board as player and producer (and Duane Allman on guitar) on Mourning in the Morning.
For a generation (mine, specifically) that came of age in the mid-’60s, every album we bought by the Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds (and a little later, the Blues Project and the Butterfield Band) was a primer in music that we’d been deprived of, not through any deliberate malice, but because the artists those bands revered and covered—giants like John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters—were unrepresented on pop radio. It shouldn’t have taken the Stones’ version of “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” as presented on their debut album and incongruously on The Hollywood Palace, to point us toward Mr. Waters, but that was the case.
A number of things happened as the ’60s rolled on that lead to the end-of-decade rock-blues pinnacle, and brought artists like Muddy Waters and B.B. King to a wider (and, it must be said, paler) audience. Freeform FM rock radio, in the hands of music-savvy DJs with a license to go nuts, started to mix in the artists from blues’ Mt. Rushmore in with tracks by come-latelys like Savoy Brown. B.B. King’s album Lucille, which came out in 1968, didn’t cause much of a sales stir, but the 10-minute title track, an ode to his trusty guitar, got regular airplay on WNEW-FM in NYC, and when Live & Well (as the title says, one side cut live, at the Village Gate, the other in the studio) followed in June 1969, listeners to “underground radio” got to hear King classics like “Sweet Little Angel” and “Don’t Answer the Door” (Mr. King does not want anybody, even family, or the milkman, coming around when he isn’t home) and King’s 8-minute declaration-of-principles, “Why I Sing the Blues.”
Another significant development was having blues greats share concert bills with big-deal rock acts. On July 21, 1969, for example, I saw B.B. King open (!) for Led Zeppelin in Central Park as part of that summer’s Schaefer Music Festival (ticket cost: $1.50). In later years, Jimmy Page acknowledged the futility of having to follow King, and on that night, as much as I liked the debut Led Zeppelin album—the only one that was out at that juncture—and as stoned as I might’ve been, I had to concede that King’s fluid, tasteful, and passionate playing made Plant and Page and company seem rather overwrought and overexerted.
That summer of ’69 (the one I actually lived through, not the one of Bryan Adams’ mythology) was filled with events like that. Muddy Waters headlined—yay!—over the Butterfield Band in Queens, and he was a featured artist at a number of rock festivals, like one in Michigan where he shared the bill with, among others, the MC5, the Stooges, and T-Bone Walker (I’d love to have been at that one). At another, in Ann Arbor, Waters played on Independence Day with Procol Harum and Rotary Connection, who’d backed him on the divisive album—I think it’s a misguided hoot—Electric Mud. In July ’69, B.B. King played at the Newport Jazz Festival with Led Zeppelin and Johnny Winter (he and Winter did some jamming on “Every Day I Have the Blues” and “Five Long Years”), and then Muddy Waters did the Newport Folk Festival on a blues night. For some reason, neither artist was at Woodstock the following month, which was a damned shame, because that lineup could have used a blues corrective to Ten Years After.
Chess Records might have gotten the wrong message. The idea of souping up Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters with distortion and wah-wah guitar wasn’t going to make them any cooler. They couldn’t be any cooler. Electric Mud and its sequel, After the Rain, and The Howlin’ Wolf Album (one that announced the artist’s dissatisfaction with it on the front cover) are stuck in a moment—although each has tracks where, against all odds, everything clicks (After the Rain’s “Screamin’ and Cryin’” is a wild showpiece)—but when you hear a 1969 live Muddy Waters set—the one from Newport, let’s say, or the live cuts on Fathers and Sons—it could be anywhere, any time. Compare those Wolf and Muddy studio LPs to Albert King’s 1969 no-fuss Years Gone By, backed by Booker T. & the M.G.’s, or to the album that came after Live & Well, Completely Well, with B.B. King’s breakthrough cut “The Thrill Is Gone,” released at the end of the year, right after B.B.’s run of shows with the Stones. (Earlier in the year, he’d done his first-ever tour of the U.K., with Fleetwood Mac as his support act.)
If we went to the Fillmore East and got to see Albert King open for The Who, or B.B. King with Winter and Terry Reid, or took the subway to Queens to catch Muddy Waters set the stage for Iron Butterfly (the ultimate indignity) at the Pavilion, it wasn’t because we then wanted to buy albums where Muddy took any creative hints from Iron Butterfly. We knew, even as teenagers, that we were fortunate to be in the company of giants who were, as the saying went back then, doing their own thing.