I know, I know. There has been a lot of Blues related songs and topics on the blog in the last few weeks, but you have to humor me for another week. I haven’t been able to shake these Blues from me yet, but for good reasons.
As I alluded to in last week’s entry I had the good fortune to spend the better part of a week in Chicago this past week. Given my musical leanings one location I made sure to visit during my stay in town was 2120 South Michigan Avenue; the address of the legendary music studio and label Chess Records.
The music label is unfortunately not active anymore, but we remember and hold this label and studio at that Chicago address so dearly because of it’s importance in Blues and popular music history. During the 1950s and -60s this label and studio was the home of so many of the most revered Blues and early Rock & Roll musicians of the time period. To name drop a few; Howlin’ Wolf, Wille Dixon, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker, Little Walter, Buddy Guy, and Chuck Berry. Therefore the label and the people behind it, the Chess brothers, are rightfully to be credited for spreading these musicians and their music around all corners of the world and in the process turning the cogs and wheels in the machinery that gave us the boom in Rock music in the 1960s and continuous to this day shape popular music as we know it.
A keen reader and/or Blues fans may have noticed that I left out a certain name in that name drop. Rest assured it’s was completely intentional because he’s our the star of the hour. Whenever I think about the Blues one of the names I find the hardest to not think about is the eminent and venerable Muddy Waters.
I’ll get back to Muddy Waters, or McKinley Morganfield which was his real name, in a second. First I want to offer a few more words on my visit to Chess Records or to be more specific the Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation who are today the trustees of the building and the legacy of Chess Records.
For someone who likes music and music history, and in particularly the Blues, as much as I do touring the old Chess studio building at Near South Side of Chicago was an absolute treat. I badly wanted to take a few snaps from within the building but there was no photography allowed from within the building. I fully respect why but I can’t help be a little disappointed about that. Therefore I’m struggling a bit to explain what’s in there and what the fuzz is all about.
On the surface there isn’t a ton of stuff within the walls to see but on the other hand there’s a ton of atmosphere and history to sip in. The guided tour was great and unexpectedly personal; a lot of tidbits and pieces of history about the place and people was shared with us that you would struggle to find just researching online. Even if you are just a teensy bit more interested in music beyond listening on whatever is on the radio at any given time I absolutely recommend you to the 2120 South Michigan Avenue a visit. A big kudos to the people of the Blues Heaven Foundation the work they do and the legacy they are managing.
So, Muddy Waters. What’s about this bluesman that despite the pantheon of peers he has still manage to stand out to me? Of course there’s the stupendous charisma, the griping voice and stage presence and just masterfully artistry on the guitar we could talk about but for me the real fulcrum behind my particular admiration of Muddy Waters lies with how his sound to me really straddled stylistically the Blues the was before him and the Blues (and eventual Rock music) that came after him.
You see Morganfield was one of the early bluesman that migrated north from the what now most consider the heartland of Blues music, the Mississippi Delta region in the southern United States, as part of the Great Migration that took place in the first half of the 20th century. He like many of his peers left the cotton fields for a hope of a better life and ended up in Chicago.
The city of Chicago, facilitated by people like the Chess brothers, became the melting pot where an industrious city and modern world met with the Delta Blues music these musician brought with them from the South. And that’s, very crudely put, what the Chicago Blues sound is. It’s at its core the Delta Blues turned electric, and eventually let the electrification of the style and sound to expand beyond yonder.
If I had to point to a single artist to name as the “missing link” between the Delta Blues and the Chicago Blues I would point to Mr. Waters. This is so endearing to me because I really dig the Delta Blues sound and while I have much praise and admiration for the Chicago bluesmen, many of my favorite Blues artist are actually among those that stayed behind in the South and kept “truer” (whatever that means in this context) to roots of the Delta Blues sound, like Mississippi Fred McDowell and R.L. Burnside.
To wrap up for today, what are we digging? I choose a bit of a deep cut among Muddy Waters fantastic back catalogue. It’s definitely nothing wrong with his more famous work like the quintessential “Mannish Boy” or the eventual Led Zeppelin song “You Need Love”, but even among these works Waters’ “Still a Fool” from 1951 is yet one of my favorite songs by him.
What I really dig about the song is that it’s has a very rambly, stripped down Delta Blues vibe to it with the sparse instrumentals yet so captivating with the gripping voice of Muddy Waters lamenting his fate in the story that is told throughout the song.
Secondly the main riff and linchpin of the song is this riff which to me is like the most Muddy Waters thing ever. To be precise for you guitarist and other folks that know some basic music theory, it’s the string bend of the IV to the V which is then released to the I while letting the IV and the bIII quickly yet distinctively sounding out during the move via a few quick series of pull offs on the same string. By today it’s such a classic Blues guitar move, either as a distinctive riff or just as a sweet fill. It’s all over Muddy Waters discography and many, many, many guitarist since Waters up to the present day have used this move in their own playing and their own music. The most unabashedly example of this I can think of the top of my head is Lenny Kravitz’s 1993 smash hit “Are You Gonna Go My Way“, which uses this move as part of the signature riff of the song, not too far removed from how Waters’ uses it in “Still a Fool”.
The move, or lick if you are into that kind of lingo, is a bit of a trope as far as the Blues goes. But it just sound sooo good. It’s so quintessential Blues that I wouldn’t be surprised it will stick with us until the end of human consciousness.
So yeah, I’m still a fool for all this. And I’m happy that I’m.