A new compilation collects the best moments of blues legend Muddy Waters’ three trips to Switzerland
The Montreux Jazz Festival was launched in June 1967.
And while the esteemed annual event, held on the Lake Geneva shoreline in Switzerland, may be best-known as the setting for Deep Purple’s classic early ‘70s hit “Smoke On the Water,” there’s a lot more to the festival than the infamous casino fire that served as the song’s antagonist. Whereas the festival originally featured jazz (or jazz-rooted) artists like Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Weather Report and Soft Machine, by 1970 the three-day musical celebration had expanded to include rock ‘n’ blues performers like B.B. King, Pink Floyd, the Mothers of Invention, Buddy Guy, Chuck Berry, Van Morrison and, well, Deep Purple playing alongside folks like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Billy Cobham. Chicago blues legend Muddy Waters was one of many talented artists to grace the Montreux Jazz Festival stage, an event he performed three times before his death in 1983, appearing in 1972, 1974, and 1977.
The decade of the ‘70s was a fruitful one for Waters, critically and commercially, beginning with winning his first Grammy™ Award for his 1971 album They Call Me Muddy Waters. A year later he released The London Muddy Waters Sessions, the blues great recording with British acolytes such as Rory Gallagher, Mitch Mitchell, and Rick Grech, the album earning Waters his second Grammy™. Muddy would continue to work with younger musicians, The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album featuring Levon Helm and Garth Hudson from the Band as well as a friend from back in Chicago, Paul Butterfield. Waters’ association with blues-rock guitarist Johnny Winter lead to a critically-acclaimed trio of late ‘70s studio albums (and one live set) that would earn Waters two more Grammy™ Awards and cap off a truly legendary career.
The recently-released The Montreux Years cherry-picks sixteen of the finest songs from Waters’ three appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival. The first of a planned series that now includes releases by Etta James, Marianne Faithful, and Nina Simone, The Montreux Years albums dig into the festival’s rich half-century-plus of musical history. The Muddy Waters CD is packaged in a classy square-bound book with several rare photos and extensive liner notes by writer Brett J. Bonner, and it is also available as a two-LP set with all the songs. Waters’ three appearances at Montreux saw him fronting some of the best blues bands he ever enjoyed as a bandleader. The 1972 performance features the Aces – brothers Louis and Dave Meyers on guitar and bass, with drummer Fred Below – as well as pianist Lafayette Leake and harmonica player George ‘Mojo’ Buford.
Waters’ 1974 appearance featured a band that included talents like guitarists Buddy Guy and Terry Taylor, harmonica wizard Junior Wells, bass player Bill Wyman (yes, that Bill Wyman!), pianist Pinetop Perkins, and drummer Dallas Taylor (who had played with Crosby, Stills & Nash, Van Morrison, and others). His final appearance at Montreux, in 1977, offered what was probably his strongest band ever, with guitarists ‘Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin and Luther ‘Guitar Junior’ Johnson, bassists Calvin Jones and Bill Wyman, old friend Pinetop Perkins, harmonica player Jerry Portnoy, and drummer Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, who would later form The Legendary Blues Band with other Waters’ band alumni.
It is with a song from the 1977 show that The Montreux Years kicks off, Waters taking control of the stage with a slow-burning cover of former band member Otis Spann’s “Nobody Knows Chicago Like I Do.” Waters’ performance is deliberate, albeit powerful, his vocals accompanied by Portnoy’s creative harmonica trills, Perkins’ dancing 88s, and silver threads of elegant fretwork. The tracklist on The Montreux Years isn’t in any sort of chronological order, so we jump backwards from 1977 to ‘74 and a raucous performance of one of Waters’ signature songs, “Mannish Boy.” Waters’ swaggering vocals propel the song, with the band rock steady and locked into a groove as Guy embellishes Waters’ vocals with shards of jagged guitar and Wells blasts his harp on the edges.
Returning to 1972, The Montreux Years offers three blistering, dynamic, knock-yer-sox off performances from oldest-of-the-old-school Chicago blues talents. Fronting a band featuring the Aces, who had previously played behind Junior Wells and Little Water, Waters takes listeners back to the classroom with scorched-earth readings of “Long Distance Call,” “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” and “County Jail.” A Top 10 R&B chart hit for Waters in 1951, twenty years later he still belts out “Long Distance Call” like the club is on fire, including a humorous spoken-word finishing verse that leads to the band’s vamping outro. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is an obvious crowd favorite, the band digging a rhythmic groove so deep you could drive a truck into it, Waters’ hearty vox rising above ‘Mojo’ Buford’s subtle harpwork and Fred Below’s firm timekeeping.
A pair of well-worn Waters’ tunes from the 1977 show brighten up the grooves after the slow-walking, dark-hued blues of “Country Jail.” A number three R&B chart hit in 1954, “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” is a staggering, blustery blues classic while 1956’s “Got My Mojo Working,” although it didn’t perform nearly as well on the charts as its predecessor, would nevertheless become an audience favorite and a blues standard in its own right. The former song demands your respect as Waters’ lays waste to any modern rapper’s boasts with his testosterone-fueled braggadocio while the latter song is a runaway freight train of screeching guitars, shouted backing vocals, raging harmonica work, and fleet-fingered honky-tonk piano-pounding.
“I’m Ready,” another 1954 Top Ten chart hit, sounds almost pedestrian by comparison to the two previous performances, but this 1974 take plays up the song’s jazzy undercurrents with smooth yet menacing vocals by Waters accompanied by Wells’ fluid harp-play and Perkins’ lively piano riffs. The Montreux Years includes a number of songs from Waters’ extensive catalog that aren’t as well-known despite their mileage, and the performances here display the full extent of the singer, songwriter, and bandleader’s immense talents. The love-gone-wrong blues “Rosalie” dates back to the early ‘40s and Waters’ earliest recordings, made by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress on the Stovell Plantation in Mississippi. It benefits here from some crazed guitar-wonkery by Waters, matched in electricity by Buford’s manic harmonica.
VIDEO: Muddy Waters performs “Rosalie” in Montreux
“Howlin’ Wolf” is an odd song, sharing a name with Waters’ longtime ‘frenemy” and fellow blues great Chester Burnett a/k/a the mighty Howlin’ Wolf. Originally recorded in 1951, it remained unreleased until 1971’s They Call Me Muddy Waters compilation. This 1977 performance showcases Margolin’s fiery fretwork and Portnoy’s hurricane-force harmonica blasts, which drive home the intensity of Waters’ vocals. From 1974’s often-overlooked Unk In Funk album, the last Waters album he would record for the venerable Chess Records before it went belly-up, comes a 1974 performance of “Electric Man,” co-written by Terry Abrahamson. A Chicago Blues Hall of Fame inductee, Abrahamson had songs recorded by Waters, George Thorogood, John Lee Hooker, Johnny Winter, James Cotton, and several others, so he was a big part of the scene at the time. “Electric Man” is a classic Chicago-styled blues tune with larger-than-life lyrics delivered pitch-perfect by Waters and accompanied by Wells’ nuanced harmonica playing and Perkins’ graceful keyboard runs.
Reaching him by e-mail, former Waters’ guitarist Bob Margolin pointed to an article he wrote for Blues Revue magazine that offered his memories of the blues giant.
“What kind of person can so powerful a musician be? I’ve been asked that constantly in interviews and by blues lovers ever since I joined Muddy’s band right up until now,” he said. “I’ve developed a stock (but sincere, concise, and informative) answer: “Muddy was one of those very few who had true ‘charisma.’ He affected people in a spiritual way, both with his music and personally. I’ve had a lot of thrills while I was in Mud’s band, but the biggest was playing his blues with him onstage.”
As displayed by The Montreux Years, Muddy Waters was an artist of great talent, vision, and dignity and he’s the perfect choice to launch the Montreux Sounds series.