By 1960, though he’d scored 16 R&B chart hits and still enjoyed a steady performing schedule both in Chicago and on the road, Muddy Waters had just begun to gain recognition among hardcore white folk and blues fans.
Two years earlier, he’d embarked on his now-legendary first overseas tour, where reactions ranged from awestruck amazement to moldy-fig outrage at the “screaming guitar and howling piano” that had somehow replaced the pristine “folk” blues some aficionados had been expecting. In 1959, he’d been featured on a Carnegie Hall show called “Folksong ‘59,” produced by Alan Lomax (where the folkies apparently had bigger ears than some of their British counterparts); back home in Chicago, aspiring white musical aspirants like Paul Butterfield, Nick Gravenites and Elvin Bishop were beginning to show up at venues like Smitty’s Corner on 43rd Street or Silvio’s on Lake Street on the West Side, to catch the great man in action.
For the most part, though, Waters’ shows continued to be for all-Black audiences in urban jukes (and, down South, their small-town equivalent) patronized exclusively by hard-partying, working-class Black celebrants for whom the blues was an ongoing thematic soundtrack for everyday life, not an esoteric exercise in “authenticity” or cultural tourism.
One of his signature gimmicks was to shake up a bottle of beer or pop, stuff it into his pants, and then, at the appropriate moment in mid-song, unzip his fly, uncap the bottle, and spray the room.
In his prime, Waters conveyed a raw sexual power that might make some modern-day R&B and hip-hop artists look tame. One of his signature gimmicks was to shake up a bottle of beer or pop, stuff it into his pants, and then, at the appropriate moment in mid-song, unzip his fly, uncap the bottle, and spray the room.
Waters knew better than to try that one in front of a white audience; nonetheless, especially after the reaction of those appalled British critics, he certainly knew he would need to tone things down a little if he was going to succeed in “crossing over” to the new listenership he was beginning to realize might be out there waiting for him. (“I better watch out,” he is alleged to have said during this time. “I believe whitey’s pickin’ up on things that I’m doin’.”) Meanwhile, Waters hadn’t had a chart hit for nearly two years — “Close to You” had peaked at No. 9 after debuting on the R&B charts in October 1958 — and he would never hit the Top 100 again.
Then came the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival performance, where “the terms of Muddy’s personal acquaintance with white America were established,” Waters biographer Robert Gordon wrote. At the time, though, Waters himself was far from confident about it — the pay was far from generous; he knew nothing about the venue or the event itself; and he certainly had no reason to think that dilettantes attending a chi-chi jazz festival would have any appreciation, or even tolerance, for him or his music. But after learning that artists like John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Rushing and boogie-woogie pianist Sammy Price, to say nothing of Ray Charles, were on the bill, he agreed to sign on.
Waters’ band in 1960, usually billed as the Hoochie Coochie Boys, featured longtime stalwart Otis Spann on piano, along with Pat Hare on guitar, James Cotton on harmonica, Andrew Stephenson on bass and Francis Clay on drums. They almost didn’t get to play; the day before, drunken fans had marauded through town after Charles’ set, and Newport authorities immediately canceled the rest of the event. As it turned out, Sunday’s blues show was allowed to proceed, but there was still tension in the air when Waters and the band arrived on Sunday morning after driving all night from Chicago.
By 5 p.m., when Waters came on, his band had already played a set with Spann serving as leader and another backing up Hooker. This 14-minute film snippet shows three of the songs he performs, starting with “Hoochie Coochie Man,” absent the seething sexual charge that was Waters’ usual stock in trade.
On “Tiger in Your Tank,” things loosen up a bit, though again the double entendres, while obvious, are leavened by Waters’ ebulliently unthreatening delivery and the band’s subdued accompaniment. If this is the sound that purportedly drove British critics to apoplexy, it only shows more graphically how “mainstream” white tastes have changed and evolved over the years. Waters unfurls his slide on this number, and the deftness of his craftsmanship, the unforced ease with which he manipulates his tone and timbre, remains notable. The singer’s mastery of understatement conveys deep feeling with a minimum of histrionics.
The band, likewise, performs primarily as an ensemble. Solos are brief and to-the-point (even Waters’ own slide breaks are devoid of the kind of showmanship he adapted later on, after years performing for young white audiences shaped by psychedelia and rock ‘n’ roll). Drummer Clay, who’d been a jazz musician before joining Waters, throws in various fillips and rhythmic colorations that bring new depth and texture to the band’s usual deep-pocket drive.
As romanticized as that legend has become, there’s little doubt that most of the wine-sipping Newport audience is unprepared for what hit them.
“Got My Mojo Working” concludes the set. This is the moment, according to legend, when the apocalyptic power of the blues finally breaks through to white America for the first time. As romanticized as that legend has become, there’s little doubt that most of the wine-sipping Newport audience is unprepared for what hit them.
Waters shakes off his inhibitions and showcases the full range of his vocal mastery. Summoning skills he acquired coming of age in a rural culture that was still largely oral in nature, he ignites explosive emotional and erotic force simply by altering the contours of his instrument — skewing his mouth, repositioning his head, shaking his jowls, “swallowing” some words while projecting others forcefully, affecting a tongue-tied mumble at times and a stentorian clarity at others. Like the “full-grown lovin’ man” his lyrics proclaim him to be, he holds back and lets the tension build, teasingly relaxing and then ramping it up even more, before finally releasing it.
Even the audience has loosened up by this point, keeping time with their entire bodies (albeit still mostly sitting in their chairs) and engaging in lusty call-and-response on the song’s refrain. After the song is done, the band almost immediately kicks into it again, an apparently spontaneous encore that culminates in that now-legendary moment when Waters grabs Cotton and sashays around with him in a kind of bromantic fox-trot, then breaks free into a lively jitterbug soft-shoe before returning to the mic and — with a series of unabashedly carnal groin thrusts and knee splays — brings things to a final climax.
For many younger blues lovers (and not a few of their older counterparts), this will be a revealing, probably enlightening, opportunity to view a legendary moment in American popular music history. To appropriate Stanley Booth’s timeless phrase, this event, at least as much as the goings-on in Memphis six or seven years earlier, was among those indelible cultural moments that “made up the rest of the 20th century.”