Muddy Waters was born April 4, 1915 in Rolling Fork, Mississippi by the name of McKinley Morganfield. His mother died when he was just three years old, and his father shipped him off to Clarksdale, MI to be raised by his grandmother. Where McKinley grew up, poverty was the way of life, and gospel or blues was one way to deal with it. Subsequently, he was out working in the fields at a very young age. He didn’t become interested in music until later in his youth. Luckily, Clarksdale was a hotbed of blues development, and McKinley was exposed to many of the greats while he was still learning. He was also exposed to the local flavor both in the field, and at after hours socials and get-togethers. He earned his stage name during these years, when his grandmother used to chastise him for playing in the dirty water when he was little. She started calling him "Muddy." "Waters" was added by the local kids as a playful slang insult later. Muddy Waters was born.
Like Robert Johnson, Muddy Water’s first instrument was the harmonica. He claims to have learned it by thirteen, and the guitar by seventeen, but these could be highly exaggerated. Muddy was known to be a bit of a braggart, and these stories were never told the same way twice. We do know for certain that he had mastered these instruments and could play them wickedly well by the age of twenty-two.
By the start of the 1940s, word of Muddy’s talent began to circulate throughout the area, and filtered into the academic folk circuit. He was recorded first by Alan and John Lomax and John Work at Stovall’s Plantation in 1941 and 1942 for the Library of Congress and the Testament Label. Muddy Waters’ discovery was unintentional, as the Lomax brothers had intended to come south and record Robert Johnson, only to find that he had been fatally poisoned two years earlier. Lucky for him. The thrill of hearing himself recorded proved to Muddy that he had what it took to become a professional musician, and he set out for Chicago in 1943 to make this a reality. He quickly landed a job in a paper mill to pay the bills and tried to make a name for himself as a musician in the evenings. He recorded three sides for Columbia Records in 1946, but they were never released. While he was struggling in Chicago, he hung out with Memphis Slim, Sunnyland Slim and Sonny Boy Williamson. It was this association with Sunnyland Slim that led Muddy Waters to Aristocrat Records which recorded and released his first hit, "I Can’t Be Satisfied," in 1947. This release proved to be an incredible hit, bringing the amplified Chicago Blues onto the scene.
Muddy Waters went electric in 1944, combining his Mississippi rural sound with the intense roar of the city. He probably started playing electric because, "couldn’t nobody hear you with an acoustic" in the south side clubs. This amplification and big beat sound, mixed with the traditional style and then layered with Muddy’s earthy vocals and bottleneck guitar style proved to be a wickedly successful mix. Muddy broke out of Chicago in 1951 with this sound, quickly earning the title, ‘Grand Ole’ Man’ of the blues. His career continued on strong until his death. He was one of our most influential artists in almost every genre of music (excepting the classics), including traditional, blues, R & B, folk, country, jazz, and rock. He recorded dozens of albums and earned shelfuls of awards. Muddy Waters died in Chicago, April 30, 1984.