A Half Century of Muddy Waters’ Greatest Album

The RNR Globe dives further into the legacy of Fathers and Sons in its 50th year

Muddy Waters Fathers and Sons, Chess 1969

By the dawn of 16th, Chicago bluesman McKinley Morganfield – better known to fans as Muddy Waters – was standing at a fork in the road in his career. Waters was an experienced, albeit weathered 56 years old; still young by the standards of blues music, and he was still at the top of his game.

Waters could sing those old songs like nobody else and his onstage charisma was second to none. Waters also attracted some of the most talented musicians in the business for his band.

The problem was that African-American record buyers had moved beyond ‘antiquated’ blues music and onto soul and funk sounds. Unlike contemporaries such as B.B. King, Waters had yet to catch on with young white audiences. During the 1950s, Waters had enjoyed a string of Top 10 charting R&B hits in songs like “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Mannish Boy,” and “I’m Ready.” Although Waters was still making great music, the hits had dried up during the ‘60s. As Chess Records’ signature artist, the label tried different gimmicks to make Waters more relevant to young record buyers.

 

AUDIO: Muddy Waters Electric Mud

Chess tried to market the urbane Chicago bluesman as a “folk blues” artist with 1964’s Folk Singer album and would reinvent Waters once more as a “psychedelic blues” artist with 1968’s much-maligned Electric Mud album. Recorded with members of the Chicago soul band Rotary Connection, including talented guitarists Pete Cosey and Phil Upchurch and keyboardist Charles Stepney, Electric Mud featured wah-wah pedals and fuzzbox, which were completely alien to the middle-aged blues singer. The album would ship an impressive 150,000 copies within the first six weeks of its release, peaking at #127 on the Billboard magazine album chart. Unsold copies would be returned in bulk.

But, as music historian and Waters biographer Robert Gordon (no relation) notes in his 2002 book Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, “though Electric Mud shipped to retailers like a success and initially sold well, critics in America panned it.” Although the album was highly-regarded in England, it never found an audience stateside. Waters himself, quoted by Gordon, dismisses the record, saying “that Electric Mud record I did, that one was dogshit. But when it first came out, it started selling like wild, and then they started sending them back.”

Despite the failed experiment, Chess Records decided to double down and, in early 1969, recorded Waters’ After the Rain with many of the same musicians as Electric Mud. After the Rain did little to restore Waters’ commercial fortunes, and while it has grown in prestige over the five decades since its release, the album is an often-overlooked chapter in the bluesman’s catalog. Still, both albums have their adherents. Contemporary blues-rock guitarists George Thorogood and Joe Bonamassa have both cited Electric Mud to this writer as an important musical influence.

 

AUDIO: Muddy Waters After The Rain

They say that “the third time’s a charm,” however, and Chess would tinker with Waters’ sound for the Fathers and Sons album by moving forward into the past. Released in late 1969, Fathers and Sons celebrates its 50th anniversary this year as a classic album ready for rediscovery. Conceived by guitarist Michael Bloomfield and producer Norman Dayron (who would go on to produce The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions a year later), Fathers and Sons was a “passing of the torch” from one generation to another. Unlike his previous two albums, Waters was playing with bona fide bluesmen like pianist Spann (who, with Waters, represented the “fathers”), guitarists Bloomfield and Paul Asbell, harp player Paul Butterfield, bassist (and Memphis soul legend) Donald “Duck” Dunn, and drummer Sam Lay (i.e. the “sons”).

A deluxe two album set, one disc was comprised of studio recordings and the other of live performances from the Super Cosmic Joy-Scout Jamboree in Chicago, a benefit show for The Phoenix Fellowship, “an academy of open enquiry designed to explore all cultural concepts, with the idea of creating new approaches to ethics, religion, philosophy, art and science” according to the album’s liner notes. Afforded an expensive gatefold sleeve, Fathers and Sons featured a striking cover illustration by artist Don Wilson that was based on Michelangelo’s design on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The album would prove to be the most commercially-successful of Waters’ career, peaking at #70 on the Billboard chart – no mean feat for a blues LP in 1969.

In Can’t Be Satisfied, Gordon writes of the album, “it combines good studio performances with live recordings. He’s ably backed by younger, sympathetic musicians, and his songs, all remakes of earlier versions, are rendered honestly. It’s true that the remakes lack the strength of the originals, but sometimes one hears a song anew when it’s done differently.” Gordon deems Fathers and Sons to be “among the better of Muddy’s latter Chess recordings,” and it would eventually be honored with a Blues Music Award by The Blues Foundation in 2002.

In reality, Waters was reinvigorated by performing with a younger generation of musicians that literally grew up at his feet. Opening with a blast of mouth harp, “All Aboard” sets the stage for the remainder of the studio side of Fathers and Sons. An up-tempo shuffle featuring an engaging harmonica battle between Butterfield and Jeff Carp, Waters’ blustery vocals breathe new life into a gem he first recorded in 1956. By contrast, “Mean Disposition” is a slow-burn blues fueled by Waters’ devastating slide-guitar and Butterfield’s slinky harpwork, while Spann’s piano rolls on beneath the soundtrack. Spann gets his own instrumental showcase with the spry “Blow Wind Blow,” which he first recorded with Waters in 1953. Waters’ voice bellows with authority, Butterfield and Bloomfield swap licks on their respective instruments and beneath it all, Spann’s lithe-fingered keyboard runs lend the performance an undeniable energy.

Waters had recorded “Walking Thru the Park” better than a decade previous, but the proto-rocker reignites here with a spark provided by Butterfield and Bloomfield’s fiery contributions which, in turn, are anchored by a gymnastic rhythmic foundation provided by Dunn and Lay. Waters’ enormous vocal prowess is illustrated by the scorching “Forty Days and Forty Nights,” the singer’s soulful reading punctuated by a raging harp line and Spann’s rowdy keys. The Willie Dixon-penned “I’m Ready” was an often-recorded entry in the Waters’ catalog, the singer scoring a #4 R&B chart hit with the song in 1954. It is provided a jazzier feel here, with Spann’s piano and Butterfield’s harmonica taking the lead behind Waters’ fast-paced vocals.

The original studio part of Fathers and Sons wrapped up with a raucous take on songwriter Mel London’s “Sugar Sweet (I Can’t Call Her Sugar),” a #11 chart hit for Waters in 1955. Here it’s played like a free-for-all jam session, each instrumentalist getting a turn to shine, but none of them outshining Waters’ bold, brassy vocals. The album’s 2001 CD reissue tacked on four “bonus” songs from the original Fathers and Sons sessions, three of ‘em previously unreleased. Waters’ “Country Boy” is a keeper, the song a bruising, slow-rolling blues dirge driven by Waters’ sultry vox and Butterfield’s sizzling harpwork. A smoldering cover of Dixon’s “I Love the Life I Live (I Live the Life I Love)” is everything the blues should be – soulful, hypnotic, powerful, and provocative – making one wonder why the song didn’t make the cut for the original LP.

A cover of Waters’ idol Big Bill Broonzy’s “I Feel So Good” is a lesson in old-school blues, Waters vocals swinging on a string provided by Butterfield’s imaginative harpwork and Spann’s jazzy, nuanced piano-play. The live half of Fathers and Sons is equally impressive as its studio predecessor, the gang taking their chemistry on the road, delivering half-a-dozen high-octane performances that’ll melt your stereo speakers. “Long Distance Call” is one of the oldest songs here, a Top 10 R&B hit in 1951, and Waters spices up the performance with destructive slidework that has the audience roaring. A rockin’ cover of Big Joe Turner’s R&B standard “Baby, Please Don’t Go” soars on the strength of Waters’ low-register vocals and Butterfield’s gale-force harp riffs while “Honey Bee,” another Top 10 hit from 1951, is a textbook example of the Chicago blues style.

 

AUDIO: Muddy Waters with Mike Bloomfield and Buddy Miles “Got My Mojo Working”

Bloomfield’s Electric Flag bandmate Buddy Miles sits in on the second part of “Got My Mojo Working,” the former Hendrix sideman bringing an unrivaled recklessness to his performance that inspires the remainder of the band to similar joyful abandon. The breakneck performance is a miasma of clashing harmonica, guitars, and explosive rhythms painted atop the audience’s appreciative response. In the liner notes to the album’s 2001 CD reissue, noted music historian Bill Dahl writes “of all his later recordings, few captured the joy, hear, and soul of the summit meeting known as Fathers and Sons. The patriarch and his eager disciples had located acres of common musical ground.”

Discussing Fathers and Sons with an acquaintance, I’m told they he and his friends “played those records until they literally turned gray.” Interviewed by email for Rock and Roll Globe, Chicago blues guitarist Dave Specter writes of Fathers and Sons, “This was the very first Muddy album I had, and I have a cousin who was at the concert where the live tracks were recorded in Chicago. I always loved the sound, production, and vibe of the album. Muddy was sounding great and guys like Butterfield and Bloomfield made huge contributions to the album as I’m sure they were so inspired to be recording with Muddy.”

Continuing, Dave says “the versions of ‘Blow Wind Blow’, ‘All Aboard’, ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’, ‘Sugar Sweet’, and ‘Walkin’ Through the Park’ are some of my favorite tracks. They sound more contemporary and in some ways more alive than the original versions on Chess. I love the concept of bringing different generations of blues artists together and that album did it so well. That pretty much describes my career as a Chicago based blues musician as I was mentored by – and performed, toured, and recorded with so many great older musicians. In fact, one of my first gigs was touring (in my early 20s) with Sam Lay, who played so great on Fathers and Sons.”

Blues guitarist Walter Trout agrees. “Fathers and Sons was one of the most important albums to me in my formative years as a musician” he tells Rock and Roll Globe by email. “The combination of Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, Muddy Waters and Sam Lay was exactly what I was looking for at that time in my life. The first Paul Butterfield Blues Band album was the album that really got me into the blues and made me want to play the guitar. It was only by reading interviews with Butterfield and Bloomfield that I was able to discover people like muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.”

Trout adds “putting the two young guys together with the old masters was a stroke of genius as far as I’m concerned. My friends and I sat and listened to that album over and over and over and took in every note. To this day, I still love listening to it and I have it on vinyl and play it at least once a week in my house. Even the cover is a very memorable, potent work of art. I think you can hear the respect and the joy that Butterfield and Bloomfield have for the guys they are playing with on this they are at their finest! I have to top this off by saying that, in my own humble opinion, Sam Lay is the greatest drummer in the history of the blues!! He shines on this record; they all do!”

The critical and commercial success of Fathers and Sons set the stage for Waters’ late-career revival during the mid-to-late ‘70s. The London Muddy Waters Sessions was released in 1972, with the veteran bluesman backed in the studio by old friends from Chicago like harpist Carey Bell and guitarist Sammy Lawhorn along with rockers like Rory Gallagher, Traffic’s Steve Winwood, and Family’s Rick Grech, among others. The album earned Waters his second Grammy™ Award. Chess would release several more Waters albums with varying success until the label’s closure in 1975.

Signed by Johnny Winter’s Blue Sky label, which was distributed by Columbia Records, Waters would record three Winter-produced studio albums and a live LP, including the classic Hard Again (1977) and I’m Ready (1978), which would garner Waters three more Grammy™ Awards. Waters was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1980 and posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987; the bluesman would also receive a Grammy™ “Lifetime Achievement Award” in 1992. It was Fathers and Sons, however, which connected the great Muddy Waters to mainstream record buyers, cementing the blues giant’s legacy and influencing a generation of musicians to follow.

 

 

Dave Specter’s new album, Blues From the Inside Out, will be released in October by Delmark Records and we’re pretty psyched about it…

 

Walter Trout’s latest album, Survivor Blues, was released earlier this year and the guitarist is still on the road, touring in support of the album and thrilling audiences worldwide…

 

AUDIO: Muddy Waters Fathers and Sons (full album)

Rev. Keith A. Gordon

RockandRollGlobe contributor Rev. Gordon is an award-winning music critic with 40+ years experience writing for publications like Blues Music magazine and Blurt. Follow him on Twitter @reverendgordon.

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