When he passed away recently at the age of 89, B.B. King was rightly hailed as “The King of the Blues.” But in an earlier era, that title could have (and did) often belong to another man: Muddy Waters. A pioneer and perhaps best-known practitioner of Chicago electric blues (with apologies to Howlin’ Wolf), Waters' storied career ran decades from early country-blues pickings recorded on the Stovall Plantation (where he worked in the fields), to the heyday of the Windy City club/Chess Records scene, to his later status as an Elder Statesman of the genre.
Waters was deified by white rockers like Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield, The Band and Johnny Winter. And, as legend goes, when teenagers Mick Jagger met Keith Richards on a bus, it was because the latter was holding two records — one of which was The Best of Muddy Waters. The duo would later form a little band you may have heard of, who took their name from a Waters song. But you many not find a bigger advocate of the music of Muddy Waters today than John Primer. The Chicago-based singer/guitarist played in Waters’ band for the last few years of the legend’s life, and has flown the flag for All Things Muddy since then.
“Muddy stands out among the greatest of them all, because he took the blues music to a different level, he electrified it!” the 70-year-old Primer says today. “He knew how important it was to unify the musicians and to bring them up from Mississippi to Chicago. He was a father to us! He helped all of us get recorded.And he was a master songwriter too!”
This year, Muddy Waters would have turned 100, though other sources indicated he might actually have been older. Primer’s admiration for his former boss takes tangible from in the upcoming CD Muddy Waters 100 (Raisin’ Music Records). Primer and a core backing group tear through 15 tracks written, performed, or made famous by Waters. They include both the familiar (“Got My Mojo Working,” “I’m Ready,” “Mannish Boy”), pivotal (“Feel Like Going Home,” “40 Days and 40 Nights,” “She Moves Me”), and deeper cuts (“Rosalie,” “Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You,” “Can’t Get No Grindin’”).
And the list of guest performers who appear ain’t too shoddy, either. It numbers blues legends who directly worked with Waters (harmonica man James Cotton, guitarists Bob Margolin and Johnny Winter), or are among his musical progeny (Derek Trucks, Shemekia Copeland, Keb’ Mo’, Gary Clark Jr.).
In fact Winter – who produced and performed on several of Waters’ last records and helped to revitalize his career – laid down his slide guitar part on “I’m Ready” just five weeks before he died in 2014. It was the last time Johnny Winter stepped into a studio.
“Johnny came in and did the overdub just before he passed. We were so lucky that he was able to do this and pay tribute Muddy before he left us,” Primer continues. “He came in knocked it out of the park, too! Muddy meant a lot to Johnny, you know.”
The tribute CD is the brainchild of producer Larry Skoller, and is authorized by Waters’ estate. He and Primer had already worked together on two other blues records. For Skoller, it was also important that the versions of songs here run the gamut from the traditional sounds of the original recordings to more modern takes, showing both what made Waters great then as well as his influence now.
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The hardbound book-type CD also features liner notes, rare photos, and a history of it subject’s life and career by Robert Gordon, who wrote the definitive Waters bio, Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters.
Though Muddy Waters 100 is a one-off project, and no tour is planned to support it, Primer still keeps busy recording and performing with his band, The Real Deal. He is also working on a tribute CD for another blues artist for possible release next year, but is mum on its honoree. Still, it would be hard to top this effort, an ultimate musical tribute from one bluesman to another. Something the younger one feels on two levels.
“Musically, Muddy taught me how to be a great band leader and a teacher. I also learned how to play the slide,” Primer offers. “Personally, he taught how important it is to be a good father figure or role model to the younger generation of the blues musicians. He also taught me that the blues is important — and you have to play it with real feeling.”