The setting for Muddy Waters’ first UK gig may have been relatively sedate – the Odeon Theatre, Leeds – and the occasion polite and rather formal as part of the mainly classical Leeds Centenary Music Festival. But on 16 October 1958, when the Chicago bluesman hit the stage as part of a series of jazz concerts, you could say the earth shook in more ways than one.
The man born McKinley Morganfield had an uninhibited sexual charisma. It wasn’t just the way he moved his body or the thinly-veiled suggestive lyrics; it was the volume emanating from his electric Fender Telecaster guitar. Nothing like it had ever been heard on stage before in the UK. This was the blues – raw, visceral and literally electrifying.
A “living link to the Deep South”
Lawrence Davies’s dissertation British Encounters with Blues and Jazz in Transatlantic Circulation has shed quite a bit of light on this performance. The programme notes, for instance, didn’t set up expectations well: highlighting Waters’ rural background, declaring his music a “living link to the folk tradition of the Deep South”. That might have been true of his early career before leaving the Mississippi Delta, when he was 30, after being discovered by noted folk and blues archivist Alan Lomax. He had moved on since then, however; updated his life and his sound. Now that he was in his early 40s he had more of a swagger singing of the gritty urban experience of poor blacks who had migrated to Chicago.
The jazz concerts at the Leeds Odeon were an attempt to recognise contemporary musical trends. It was the misfortune of Waters, and his pianist and friend Otis Spann, to follow a performance by The Jazz Today Unit, an “all-star” improvisational band whose performance Davies writes was “lacklustre”. According to Melody Maker, “many members of the audience staged a walk-out”. Those that remained were clearly not going to have their expectations further disrupted.
A critic quoted in Roberta Schwartz’s How Britain Got the Blues described Waters’ performance as “coarse and repetitive”. The noted blues historian Paul Oliver, also quoted in Schwartz’s book, wrote at the time, “Anyone who had heard Muddy Waters would have heard him playing acoustic. When he played electric, it was a surprise… a lot of people still thought of blues as part of jazz, so it didn’t quite match their expectations.”
A confused and humbled Waters seems to have blamed himself, later telling Melody Maker, “I don’t think that British audiences are used to my type of singing. I can’t think what went wrong on opening night.”
“The world’s greatest living blues singer”
The Leeds festival was not the main purpose of Waters’ visit. He had been invited over by trombonist Chris Barber to join a ten-date tour. The Chris Barber Band was one of Britain’s most popular acts in the 50s. Barber liked traditional rather than hip modern jazz, but was a man with an open mind and ears.
Born in Welwyn Garden City, Barber had, as a young man, aspired to become an actuary; he and Waters, the illiterate former sharecropper and bootlegger, were to become firm friends.
After the Leeds debacle, Waters and Spann must have dreaded what lay before them when they set off for Newcastle-upon-Tyne to meet up with the Chris Barber Band. In the tour programme, presented by the National Jazz Federation, Waters is billed as “the world’s greatest living blues singer”.
Plans for Waters and Spann to rehearse with Barber’s band never materialised. They simply agreed what number to open with – ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ – the correct key and at what point Waters was due on in the second part of Barber’s set. Waters and Spann can’t have been reassured standing backstage listening to Barber’s band play the first set of New Orleans-based traditional jazz before they were due to become Waters and Spann’s rhythm section.
“I announced them and as they came on stage we played the opening riff,” said Barber. “Their faces lit up. They knew at once we were on their wavelength.”
“Preaching the blues chorus upon hypnotic chorus”
A couple of days after Newcastle, on Monday, 20 October, the tour reached St Pancras Town Hall, London. Melody Maker jazz critic Max Jones gave Waters a favourable review, later quoted by Roberta Schwartz in How Britain Got the Blues. “Remarkable… it was tough, unpolite, strongly rhythmic, often very loud but with some light and shade in each number… the repertoire was pure blues, and the style was vital, uninhibited, and decidedly ‘Down-South’.”
Waters’ tour with the Chris Barber Band had zigzagged the country from Bournemouth to Glasgow, where it finished on Monday, 27 October. Three days later, Waters and Spann accepted an invitation from Alexis Korner to appear at his and harmonica player Cyril Davies’ Barrelhouse And Blues Club above the Round House pub in Soho. Here, Waters let loose and gave the type of performance he’d give at his own club, Smitty’s Corner, on Chicago’s South Side.
Tony Standish was there to report on it for Jazz Journal: “Muddy mopped his perspiring brow and laid aside his guitar. And suddenly there was another Muddy, a Muddy who sang as he must for his own people, in another world than ours… He sang with this whole body – gyrating, twisting, shouting – preaching the blues chorus upon hypnotic chorus, weaving a pattern of quivering tension around and over an enthralled audience.”
Within a couple of days, Waters was on a plane back to Chicago. How much direct influence his visit had is hard to pinpoint; there was no hit record causing an immediate reaction, and there is no account of any of the soon-to-be future British blues boom heroes having attended these shows. The ripples of his visit were, however, infinite. In 1958, countless 10- to 15-year-olds were listening in their bedrooms to hard-to-come-by blues records they might have owned or borrowed.
Both jazz and rock’n’roll owed their roots to the blues. Those schoolboys – Jagger and Richards, Plant and Page, Townsend and Daltrey, Ray and Dave Davies, Eric Burdon, Clapton, Beck, Peter Green and Mick Fleetwood, Van Morrison and more – were, to varying degrees, influenced by Waters.
Discerning young music fans could relate to the grittiness of the electric blues more than watered-down British rock’n’roll. And Muddy Waters was its prime mover. “I have become responsible for the Chicago blues,” he said in 1972. “I think I’m the man that set Chicago up for the real blues.”
Waters was the real thing.