How Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf Gave England the Blues

Wolf and Waters enjoy a refreshing beverage.
Wolf and Waters enjoy a refreshing beverage.

The American blues sound overtook England in the 1960s like no other. Limey guitar slingers like John Mayall, Peter Green and Jimmy Page worked up their tolerance to whiskey, mastered the blues scale and made more money than every American blues musician that came before them. In the early 1970s, two of those American bluesmen-- Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters--came to London separately to record a couple of albums with a studio full of high-profile British appreciators. The results were worth considerably less than their parts.

It's a story you're not likely to hear when it comes to the myths of both of these guitar gods, who are both being celebrated at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall tomorrow during Blues at the Crossroads 2. Anchored by Grammy-nominated blues band the Fabulous Thunderbirds--the backing band for the night--revered blues artists will take turns riffing on the best of Howling' Wolf and Muddy Waters. With every bent note and lighting fast riff, masters like James Cotton, Jody Williams, Bob Margolin and Tinsley Ellis will show their appreciation to these blues giants. Though there's no shortage of American players indebted to the sound these men left behind, they did have quite a hand in lighting a fire under the asses of some legendary UK musicians while they were alive.

Howlin' Wolf, born Chester Burnett, and Muddy Waters, born McKinley Morganfield, were both raised in Mississippi in the early 1910s but found success with their guttural blues in Chicago with the famed Chess Records. Between the two of them, the standard repertoire for nearly every blues band was written and recorded. Wolf wrote "Killing Floor" and "How Many More Years" while Waters, with the pen of Willie Dixon, had success in the late 1950s with "I Just Want to Make Love to You," "Mannish Boy" and "Hoochie Coochie Man."

Waters is credited with helping usher in the blues craze in England with a visit to London in 1958, inspiring thousands of bar bands, resulting in groups like the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. Long-haired bluesmen were the opposition to baroque pop bands like the Beatles and the Hollies, but they shared plenty of airplay in America and the UK. By the 1970s, second and third generation bluesmen were bigger draws than the originators of the sound. Thankfully, they knew their obligation to the masters.

Howlin' Wolf was the first to cross the pond and he was paired with the cream of the crop: Guitarist Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones' pianist Ian Stewart, bassist Bill Wyman, drummer Charlie Watts and a Beatle, Ringo Starr. They recorded a set of blues standards from the Chess catalog that found the Wolf not so much howlin' as groanin'. The band is eager but not nearly wizened enough for the task, resulting in a overall sound that is lacking in confidence and direction. Stewart's constant trilling piano notes can drive a man insane but American teenaged harmonica player Jeffrey Carp lends a weight far beyond his years.

 

Waters followed a year later. He was paired with keyboardists Steve Winwood and Georgie Fame plus drummer Mitch Mitchell. Chess stuck with the same formula and got the same results. Waters was healthier and a little more playful but most of the retreads don't add anything new to the originals. Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher shines on "Walkin' Blues" mostly because it is a stripped-down duet with Waters.

There are better places to start with all of the artists involved. Howlin' Wolf's self-titled 1962 release is a masterwork that provided three of the songs for his London sessions. Waters' 1960 set at the Newport Jazz Festival is one of the best live albums ever recorded in any genre. Even Waters' psychedelic blues experiment Electric Mud, recorded in Chicago in 1967, managed to take Waters to a new place including an amusing cover of the Rolling Stones "Let's Spend the Night Together."

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Regardless of the quality of the UK experiments, both records sold well, placing in the Billboard charts and introducing many rockheads, both British and American, to the roots of the blues sound. Hopefully once listeners were introduced, they sought out the real deal.

Blues at the Crossroads featuring the Fabulous Thunderbirds appears Wednesday at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. 8 p.m. $25, all ages.

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Segerstrom Center for the Arts

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