Milwaukee is not the center of Blues music today. Well it’s never been the center. But when I grew up there I could hear Blues on the college radio station and on a weekend show on local R&B station WAWA. Some local artists were solid R&B performers who achieved enough success to travel regionally and occasionally nationally. My all time favorite was the group Harvey Scales and The Seven Sounds. Scales died this year at the age of 78. He was born in Arkansas but happily for me grew up in Milwaukee. I remember seeing him on a multi-act show at the old Milwaukee Auditorium and at live music clubs in the city. Scales knew how to attract black and white audiences with his live shows, and his 1967 hit record “Loveitis” only helped bring in more fans. And it’s on my list of ‘desert island discs’.
When I moved to Chicago I had multiple opportunities to see and hear the Blues, and that’s when I met Bruce Iglauer who was already a man on a mission. Bruce was perhaps the most passionate music guy I met in those days. He decided to roll the dice and with his own money started Alligator Records. In 1971 I was lucky enough to be working for the local indie distributor in Chicago when Alligator’s first album by Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers arrived. Bruce came into the offices and handed copies to us. One could easily tell that a lot more than Bruce’s money was invested in Taylor. His heart and soul were there too. It was one more reminder about Chicago’s place in the history of the Blues. At one time or another Alligator released albums by Big Walter Horton, Son Seals, Fenton Robinson, Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Lonnie Brooks and others.
Last October I wrote about a couple of rising artists, both of whom I happened to find through an ancient and yet dynamic media source: FM. Two separate and distinct radio stations—KZYX and KRSH—had become well-worn push buttons on my car radio, and my drives through Mendocino or Sonoma Counties will usually find me listening to one station or the other. Elise LeGrow was one of those rising artists. As I wrote in 2018, “. . . KZYX radio’s Audible Feast host Fred Wooley played a track that left me confused. I knew those lyrics. At least I thought I did. But something was “wrong”. The tempo? The singer? The instruments? And suddenly it all came exploding out of some hidden part of my brain. The song was “You Never Can Tell”, a classic Chuck Berry hit from the 1950s.” LeGrow’s album, “Playing Chess” is all about the Chess Brothers—Leonard and Phil Chess—and their eponymous Chicago record label. For her album Legrow chose a list of songs from the Chess catalog including “Over The Mountain”, “Rescue Me”, “Who Do You Love”, and “You Never Can Tell”.
The list of people who sang, played, wrote songs, produced records, or otherwise contributed to the success of Chess Records includes, of course, Chuck Berry. But there was also Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, The Moonglows, The Flamingos, Etta James, Fontella Bass, Little Milton, and Muddy Waters. Some (or perhaps many) of those names you know. And if the names don’t immediately ring a bell, when you hear the music you’ll recognize much of the musical history of Chess.
Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield in Mississippi in the years just before World War I. (There is a difference of opinion as to whether he was born in 1913 or 1915. No matter.) As many people before and since can attest, growing up in Mississippi in the first half of the twentieth century shapes one’s life, and some of those influences were transformed into music. Muddy Waters wouldn’t be the first to grind his way through a ‘professional life’ as a musician, delivering that history in his music. His voice had equal parts gravel and pure emotion. And he was often surrounded by some of those same musicians when he recorded or toured. People like Otis Spann, Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Elga Edmonds, and others. Influence was a two-way street. In his autobiography Chuck Berry recalled Muddy Waters touring through St. Louis in 1955. As Berry recalled in his 1987 autobiography, “Enthralled to be so near one of my idols, I delegated myself to chaperone him around spots of entertainment in East St. Louis. Ike Turner was playing at the Manhattan Club and since he was my local rival for prestige I took Muddy there to show Ike how big I was and who I knew. . . . I took Muddy to my house that night and introduced him to [my wife] Toddy.” Berry’s wife was such a fan she had a picture taken with Muddy Waters while the bluesman held Berry’s guitar.” As I said, the paths of these musicians crossed regularly, in the studio and out.
Muddy Waters toured England and performed at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. Clearly he was reaching a wider audience, and the 1960s was a decade of crossover music. By the time he released “Electric Mud” in 1968, Waters was known to tried-and-true Blues fans, R&B disc jockeys, and a burgeoning largely white audience listening to “underground FM” radio. “Electric Mud was embraced by the new audiences and reluctantly accepted by his core. Produced and recorded with some of the amazing musicians of Rotary Connection (who, in theory, helped bring along a perceived ‘psychedelic” flavor,) the album included Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love To You” and “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”, Mick Jagger/Keith Richards’ “Let’s Spend The Night Together”, his own “She’s All Right” and more. The packaging was simultaneously understated and over the top. The basic white exterior had only the title “Electric Mud”. When opened up, the inside of the gatefold jacket contained a single long shot of Waters holding his guitar, standing in a white robe, sandals, with a look topped off (literally) with a freshly-processed ‘do’.
The “Electric Mud” sessions included Muddy Waters – vocals, Gene Barge – tenor saxophone, producer, Phil Upchurch – guitars, Roland Faulkner – guitars, Pete Cosey – guitars, Charles Stepney – organ, arranger, producer, Louis Satterfield – Bass guitar, and Morris Jennings – drums.
Muddy Waters recorded about a dozen studio albums between 1960 and his death in 1983. His gravestone says “McKinley Morganfield, 1915-1983. The Mojo Is Gone. The Master has Won”. Long after the era of Chess Records, we can look back on the evolution of artists like McKinley Morganfield and be thankful they came our way.