In 1977 Johnny Winter convinced his label, Blue Sky, to sign Muddy, the beginning of a fruitful partnership. His “comeback” LP, Hard Again, was recorded in just two days and was a return to the original Chicago sound he had created 25 years earlier, thanks to Winter’s production. Former sideman James Cotton contributed harmonica on the Grammy Award winning album and a brief tour followed.
The Muddy Waters Blues Band at the time included guitarists Sammy Lawhorn, Bob Margolin and Luther “Snake Boy” Johnson, pianist Pinetop Perkins, harmonica player Jerry Portnoy, bassist Calvin “Fuzz” Jones and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. On “Hard Again”, Winter played guitar in addition to producing; Muddy asked James Cotton to play harp on the session, and Cotton brought his own bassist Charles Calmese. According to Margolin’s liner notes, Muddy did not play guitar during these sessions.
The album covers a broad spectrum of styles, from the opening of “Mannish Boy”, with shouts and hollers throughout, to the old-style Delta blues of “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, with a National Steel solo by Winter, to Cotton’s screeching intro to “The Blues Had a Baby”, to the moaning closer “Little Girl”.
Its live feel harks back to the Chess Records days, and it evokes a feeling of intimacy and cooperative musicianship. The expanded reissue includes one bonus track, a remake of the 1950s single “Walking Through the Park”. The other outtakes from the album sessions appear on King Bee.
Margolin’s notes state that the reissued album was remastered but that remixing was not considered to be necessary. Hard Again was the first studio collaboration between Muddy and Winter, who produced his final four albums, the others being I’m Ready, King Bee, and Muddy “Mississippi” Waters – Live, for Blue Sky, a Columbia Records subsidiary.
In 1978, Winter recruited two of Muddy’s cohorts from the early 1950s, Big Walter Horton and Jimmy Rogers, and brought in the rest of his touring band at the time (harmonica player Jerry Portnoy, guitarist Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson, and bassist Calvin “Fuzz” Jones) to record I’m Ready, which came close to the critical and commercial success of Hard Again.
The comeback continued in 1979 with the lauded LP Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live. “Muddy was loose for this one,” wrote Jas Obrecht in Guitar Player, “and the result is the next best thing to being ringside at one of his foot-thumping, head-nodding, downhome blues shows.”
On the album, Muddy is accompanied by his touring band, augmented by Johnny Winter on guitar. The set list contains most of his biggest hits, and the album has an energetic feel. King Bee the following year concluded Waters’ reign at Blue Sky, and these last four LPs turned out to be his biggest-selling albums ever.
King Bee was the last album Muddy Waters recorded. Coming last in a trio of studio outings produced by Johnny Winter, it is also a mixed bag. During the sessions for King Bee, Muddy, his manager and his band were involved in a dispute over money.
According to the liner notes by Bob Margolin, the conflict arose from Muddy’s health being on the wane and consequently playing fewer engagements. The bandmembers wanted more money for each of the fewer gigs they did play in order to make ends meet. Ultimately a split occurred and the entire band quit.
Because of the tensions in the studio preceding the split, Winter felt the sessions had not produced enough solid material to yield an entire album, and filled out King Bee with outtakes from earlier Blue Sky sessions. The cover photograph is by David Michael Kennedy. For the listener, King Bee is a leaner and meaner record.
Less of the good-time exuberance present on the previous two outings is present here. The title track, “Mean Old Frisco”, “Sad Sad Day”, and “I Feel Like Going Home”, are all blues with ensemble work. The Sony Legacy issue features completely remastered sound and Margolin’s notes, and also hosts two bonus tracks from the King Bee sessions that Winter did not see fit to release the first time.
In 1981, Muddy Waters was invited to perform at ChicagoFest, the city’s top outdoor music festival. He was joined onstage by Johnny Winter—who had successfully produced his most recent albums—and played classics like “Mannish Boy,” “Trouble No More” and “Mojo Working” to a new generation of fans.
This historic performance was made available on DVD in 2009 by Shout! Factory. Later that year, Waters performed live with the Rolling Stones at the Checkerboard Lounge, with a DVD version of the concert released in 2012.
In 1982, declining health dramatically curtailed Muddy’s performance schedule. His last public performance took place when he sat in with Eric Clapton’s band at a Clapton concert in Florida in autumn of 1982.
On April 30, 1983, Muddy Waters died in his sleep from heart failure, at his home in Westmont, Illinois. At his funeral at Restvale Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, throngs of blues musicians and fans showed up to pay tribute to one of the true originals of the art form. “Muddy was a master of just the right notes,” John P. Hammond, told Guitar World magazine.
“It was profound guitar playing, deep and simple… more country blues transposed to the electric guitar, the kind of playing that enhanced the lyrics, gave profundity to the words themselves.”
Two years after his death, Chicago honored him by designating the one-block section between 900 and 1000 E. 43rd Street near his former home on the south side “Honorary Muddy Waters Drive”.
The Chicago suburb of Westmont, where Muddy lived the last decade of his life, named a section of Cass Avenue near his home “Honorary Muddy Waters Way”.
Following his death, fellow blues musician B.B. King told Guitar World, “It’s going to be years and years before most people realize how greatly he contributed to American music”. A Mississippi Blues Trail marker has been placed in Clarksdale, Mississippi, by the Mississippi Blues Commission designating the site of Muddy Waters’ cabin.
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