Battle of the Blues: Muddy vs. Wolf
This is just a cheap excuse to feature two artists I’ve sampled many times on this site. But I wouldn’t say the basic concept is a complete fraud.
Although “cutting contests” were fairly common among jazz and early R&B artists (especially horn players), competition wasn’t quite as intense in the blues community – that is, until Muddy Waters and his red-hot band started hitting Chicago’s blues clubs in the late-40s. Here’s Muddy (from Robert Gordon’s Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters): “We used to go around calling ourselves the Headhunters. We’d go from club to club and look for bands that are playing and cut their heads [engage in a musical duel].” For added measure, Muddy would announce from the stage where his band would be playing that weekend.
When Howlin’ Wolf arrived in Chicago in 1952, Muddy gave him a warm welcome and even let him stay in his house. But they soon became rivals, largely due to Wolf’s highly competitive and jealous nature. In 1955, Wolf even filed a grievance with Chicago’s African American chapter of the American Federation of Musicians claiming Muddy had stiffed him out of some gigs at a local club. The two men also kept a close eye on each other’s bands, with Muddy stealing away Wolf’s great guitarist Hubert Sumlin at one point and Wolf returning the favor by snatching sax player Eddie Shaw from Muddy (although on recordings, they often shared the brilliant Otis Spann on piano).
Since Wolf was good at taking care of business (he even offered his band members health insurance), he took a dim view of Muddy’s skills as a band leader. “Musicians who played for Wolf were expected to carry themselves professionally just as he did, which meant being on time, dressing properly and not smoking or drinking onstage” (from Moanin’ at Midnight: The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf, by James Segrest and Mark Hoffman). In contrast, Muddy’s band hit it hard, onstage and off. Here’s Jimmie Lee Morris, who occasionally played bass with Muddy (also from Moanin’): “All of us was drinking. Everybody would be drunk. They’d call us the Muddy Waters Drunken Ass Band. Shit man, when you’re playing the blues all night long, that’s life man.”
Of course the only legacy that really matters is the music, and I have no intention of playing favorites with this post. Some days I need Wolf to soothe my soul… other days, Muddy’s the man. I might be a little biased toward Muddy because I saw him live, which means I have that life-altering experience hard-wired into my cranium for the rest of my days. But if you can’t make room for both artists in your collection of stolen digital assets, I encourage you to exit this site now and pleasure yourselves over here.
Brief introductions are in order, so let’s start with Chester Arthur Burnett and a song that served as his calling card. “You know I’m the wolf, babe, you know I stays in the woods… Well, when you get in trouble, you call the wolf out the woods.” Seems counterintuitive, but Howlin’ Wolf sells it like a mayonnaise vendor at a Mormon picnic. This 1954 session was his first in Chicago and one of the first that featured Wolf with Sumlin (but Spann’s piano steals the show). I’m the Wolf
Muddy introduced himself by confessing “I’m just as restless as the deep blue sea” – which seems both poetic and autobiographical. The song is from one of the earliest sessions that brought Muddy together with the amazingly talented Little Walter on harp (before Leonard Chess allowed him to use his amp in the studio). Anything that has Muddy and Walter on it is a keeper. They Call Me Muddy Waters
What line does a respectable blues legend like Wolf use to pick up women? “I want you to ride with daddy, honey, while the moon is shining bright.” Seems kind of innocent (unless you take the car out of the equation). Ridin’ in the Moonlight
Muddy gets right down to business: “I don’t want you to be true… I just want to make love to you.” So many levels of greatness in this Willie Dixon-penned song. Little Walter’s harp solo is a wondrous thing – definitely like nothing else recorded at the time. It’s menacing, mysterious, almost otherworldly… makes an already tense song seem nearly unbearable. I was fairly young when Foghat’s version came out, so I probably wasn’t aware of Muddy’s original at the time. But when I finally made it to the source, I quickly forgot about those wankers. Never ask the kids to do a man’s job. I Just Want to Make Love to You
It’s a shame that many people are only aware of this song because of Viagra… It’s one of Chess Studios’ crowning achievements. By the time Wolf arrived in Chicago, he’d already established his reputation based on his powerful Memphis recordings, and he even performed with the legendary Charlie Patton in the early-30s. This smoldering, one-chord workout has its roots in those early years with Patton and borrowed its name from a train. But, as Segrest and Hoffman rightfully point out, “saying Smokestack Lightnin’ was a song about a train is like saying Citizen Kane was a movie about a sled.” Thankfully, the Chess brothers captured this one for posterity back in 1956 (in 2009, the U.S. Library of Congress selected it for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry). Smokestack Lightning
Here’s the song they should’ve used to shill Viagra (also features another great harp solo by Walter). I’m Ready
“Evil is goin’ on wrong… I am warnin’ ya brother, you better watch your happy home.” I’m sure this dire warning seemed very real to those who had the good fortune to witness one of Wolf’s shamanistic performances in the Fifties and Sixties. Written by Dixon, Evil apparently resonated with Wolf, who often worried if someone was using the back door of his happy home to steal a little love with his loyal wife, Lillie. Evil
Muddy wrote his own version of Evil and recorded it in ’57 with James Cotton on harp and the explosive Pat Hare on guitar. In his liner notes to the Muddy Waters Chess Box, Robert Palmer notes that the song borrows “expressive devices from sacred singing and preaching to evoke a smoldering sexuality and the powers of darkness.” Interesting side note: Hare wrote a song called I’m Gonna Murder My Baby and then actually followed through on it, spending his last 16 years in prison. Now that’s evil! (Another aside: he joined AA in prison, played in the jailhouse band and was expecting a medical pardon when he died of lung cancer in 1980… for more on Hare, check here.) Evil
We’ll close with a couple of rare, stripped-down recordings by both artists. Ironically, this tune by Wolf was recorded in ’68 as part of a promo for The Howlin’ Wolf Album, a psychedelic throwaway for Chess that he famously described as “birdshit” (although the album’s typographic cover inspired the Grammy-winning artwork for The Black Keys’ Brothers). This also marked the only time that Chess recorded Wolf solo and supports the argument that he was an underrated guitarist. Ain’t Going Down That Dirt Road
This track features Muddy with longtime Little Walter foil Louis Myers on guitar and George “Mojo” Buford on harp. European blues promoter Willy Leiser set up the taping of the trio for a radio show in Lausanne, Switzerland (Muddy and band were there to perform at the 1972 Montreux Jazz Festival). Muddy’s guitar takes a back seat in many of his late-era recordings, so it’s great to hear his steady-rolling rhythm on this one. Rock Me
I should point out that a few of the stories around the Muddy-Wolf rivalry might be a little overblown, and that things warmed up considerably between the two artists in their later years. Here’s a final note from Moanin’: “Onstage, Wolf and Muddy played up their rivalry; offstage, they sometimes drank and dined together. Muddy came over to the Burnetts’ house several times for dinner during the late 1960s and early 1970s. By then, both men had mellowed and could commiserate over their common fate as aging bluesmen.” Which probably explains the photo up front.
As this clip demonstrates, Wolf was more of a showman than Muddy and could hold his own with virtually every Chicago-based harp player (with the possible exception of Little Walter and Big Walter Horton):
Muddy Waters live in Germany, 1976… probably the same lineup I saw at the Cleveland Agora: Jerry Portnoy on harp, Pinetop Perkins on piano, Bob Margolin and Luther “Guitar Jr” Johnson on guitars, Calvin Jones on bass and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums. Arguably his last great band.