Friday, October 7, 2016
#61 Paul Butterfield on The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album
McKinley Morganfield A.K.A. Muddy Waters is a member of a select group of artists who are responsible for so many important contributions to post-war American popular music that the books, periodicals, and personal testimonials should easily occupy its own section of a music library. Most people are unaware that Waters music is often found embedded in the soundtrack of our lives by way of big budget movies, television soundtracks. In addition, his songs are regularly sampled to promote everything from jeans, and trucks, to soft drinks. It is surprising someone hasn't used to use his Mannish Boy to promote erectile disfunction medication.
In addition, there are more subtle signs of his influence. Listen for the host of references to his memory in songs like Come Together by the Beatles to Led Zeppelin's borrowing of You Need Love to compose Whole Lotta Love, or Van Morrison's Cleaning Windows, and then Bob Dylan's adaptation of Rollin' and Tumblin'. Even in 2016 there are many mainstream artists who employ a Waters song in their concert setlist. One of the originators of the genre of music we now call Americana music, Robbie Robertson, calls Waters as a cornerstone in Rock and Roll History.
So, what is the attraction of Muddy Waters to so many people who create the soundtrack of our lives? When you dig deeper and listen to these artists describe their first experiences with Waters' music it is often like listening to someone tell you about their first fleeting glance of a naked woman, or a bloody automobile accident where there were too frightened to stare, but too transfixed to look away. Yes, the experience seems to be that powerful.
However, this type of legacy is never the product of just the artist. There is always a fraternity of the devoted who feel compelled to keep the memories active. While the facts of Waters contributions are documented, the people he is beholden to that are not always as obvious.
Let's briefly look at the facts of Waters contributions. The most creative part of his more than three decade long career is the ten years starting in the late forties. During this period he writes, and performs a string of top ten blues hits that established him as the reigning king of postwar Chicago Blues. However, by the end of the fifties, the growth of his mostly African-American audience has stagnating, and the children of his fan base are rejecting the antiquated music of their parents in favor of young artists such as Ray Charles and Charles Brown. This dynamic should be a signal for Waters to exit centre stage, and accept a slow descent into obscurity, but it doesn't happen. Instead. there are a series of unforeseen events will keep his profile alive for the rest of his life.
The first is the American Folk Revival of the 1950s. The revival begins during the second world war in Greenwich Village, and over the next ten years spreads throughout the United States, up into Canada, and across the Atlantic to Britain. In 1958, promoters attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the revival by hosting a tour of Britain with American blues artists, one of whom is Waters. Unfortunately, his set does not win many accolades by critics, or many fans who seem to have a limited knowledge of the progressive nature of Chicago blues. Many of them cling to an archaic, racist image of aging, undereducated, Negroes who wear dirty overalls, and strum a worn acoustic guitar while they sing their songs of hardship. (They can thank John Hammond sr. for that image) Now contrast this image with an immaculately dressed Muddy Waters, boasting carefully coiffed processed hair, and using only electric instrumentation. He is being sincere, but his audience doesn't want truth, they demand fiction. Consequently, many of his performances become like victims of a shallow cultural tourism cruise ruined because of a food poisoning outbreak. It is a devastating tour for the great bluesman and returns to Chicago feeling the pinch of frustration from the unfair rejection.
However, the British tour isn't a complete failure. Ironically, even though his performances seem to annoy the stuffy older audiences, they do capture the imaginations of many young people. The new music of these people is the electric blues based Rock and Roll, which old people consider loud, unruly, just like Waters' music. Many of these young males are so transfixed by the music of the Muddy Waters that they begin to develop a life long relationship with his music.
Two members of this growing gang of young Waters converts are adolescents Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. They are mesmerized with the back beat, the searing slide guitar, and primal vocal performances. In fact, during the late fifties, Jagger and Richards are becoming members of an exclusive brotherhood of British blues fans who fall in love Chicago blues produced on the Chess label, and their favorite isMuddy Waters. They collect imported blues records, congregate in each other's houses, and learn each song - lick for lick. Then form a rock combo, christening with a Muddy Waters song, Rollin' Stone. By the early sixties, their fresh faced brand of blues becomes so popular in Britain that record labels offer them contracts, albums are recorded, and promoters decide to export the new music back to the United States. It seems like an odd dynamic, but as Irish singer and actor Maureen O'Hara says... that's showbiz.
Then, The Rolling Stones make their first tour of the United States with throngs of screaming adolescent girls and rebellious boys greeting them at the airport. It is exciting for the young rock and rollers, but it will also be an opportunity for them to visit the birth place of the music they love so much. When they arrive in Chicago, they make a point of touring the Chess studios, and meeting some labels stars, many of whom are not familiar with the white foreigners with long hair. The music press pepper the group with questions about their musical influences, but they don't get answers they expect. Instead, they are shocked to hear the boys, lead by Jagger, passionately regale the influences of homegrown talent like Muddy Waters. It will be the first time that Muddy Waters' name and music are promoted to a young mainstream pop audience. However, there is a sad postscript to this development in the great bluesman's career. Years later, he will confide that attention by Jagger boosted the profile of his name into the mainstream, but did little to enhance his back account, He stole my music, but gave me my name.
There is an interesting irony in this corner of the Muddy Waters story. While many in middle class white America are surprised, maybe even a little bewildered that the main influence on this wild rock music that their children are listening to is rooted in African-American folk music, this fact it is not lost on a fraternity of young American folkies who have been listening to Waters for years. Actually, there is a growing brotherhood of these young white American kids who love post war blues, and in particular Muddy Waters. In fact they are just as passionate Jagger and Richards, and liver right in the city of Chicago. It is a relatively small group of converts who not only know of Muddy Waters' records, they regularly attend his shows in local bars.
The middle income, mostly white neighborhood of Hyde Park is an oddity in Chicago because it also rests in the middle of Chicago's south side ghetto neighborhoods where most of the postwar urban blues is born, nurtured and and is part of the fabric of the community. There are several artists who routinely hold court in these south side bars, but the king is Muddy Waters. Two of the first members of young coterie who cross over from Hyde Park into these dangerous ghetto blues bars is Nick Nick the Greek Gravenites, and his younger side kick Paul Butterfield. Like so many other young whites who have a front row seat, they too are transfixed by the grandmaster.
It is important to note here that the experiences Gravenites, and Butterfield and others in their circle have with blues, in particular, Muddy Waters, is distinct from blues converts like Jagger and Richards. While those Britons sit in the safety of their bedrooms, listening to professionally produced recording sessions of Waters, Butterfield and his gang are hearing and watching real blues in its natural habitat.
The now familiar story is that Gravenites takes Butterfield to see Muddy Waters for the first time at Smitty's Corner on 35th and Indiana. For 18 year old Butterfield, it's as though he is entering into the temple of carnal knowledge, and unwittingly locks eyes with the grand shaman as he stands on a stage unrepentantly boasting of his secret powers. It's an event which changes Butterfield's life forever, and will benefit Waters a decade later. In November of '73, Butterfield remembers that night when he tells Rolling Stone's Josh Mills: The best blues singer I ever saw live was Muddy Waters, and he had 'em dancin' on the tables, he was doing Mannish Boy. I don't know why I remember that, but he knocked me out. He just killed me. It was all over..... the music really got to me, he said with a sigh. Butterfield's experience is similar to many other young men in Chicago who witness Waters live, but there is a difference. Butterfield is in fact a gifted musician and knows the value of a great teacher. After seeing Waters perform, he makes it his goal to learn to recreate the magic of the blues from some of the masters of the art form.
Among the growing entourage of young men who are frequent the south side clubs to see Muddy is a gifted physics student from the University of Chicago. Like his new friend, Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop has fallen under the spell of Muddy Waters too. He remembers some of those performances with Muddy life for their spectacle , ... you know sometimes before the show, he'd go back in the bench room, and stick a coke bottle down his pants... He would be up there and sweating profusely. and Spann was playing that great piano, and Pat Hare played guitar, and they would just get worked up to a pitch, and people would be crowded around the front.... it was mostly women, and they would be going nuts. He worked them into a lather.... For these young men in their sexual prime, it isn't just the music, but the performances that are so captivating too. Similar to Butterfield, Bishop's life will change after seeing Waters ply his craft in the local bars. He too will choose to become a bluesman, and evolve into a very skilled composer of blues songs.
As the sixties begin Butterfield is now frequenting several of the south side bars, networking with musicians, and soaking up the atmosphere the music generates. He regularly does face time with masters like Little Walter, Otis Rush, James Cotton, and the grandmaster Muddy Waters. On one of these nights a nervous, but determined Butterfield accepts a dare from friends, and asks Waters if he can sit in with his band. Always looking for new ways to keep his audience interested, he invites the young white boy up to share his stage. As Butterfield recalls, When I couldn't even play, y'know, I was just blowin' on the harp tryin' to hit things. I was singin' and having a good time doin' it, but I wasn't too good. Muddy use to let me come up and play when I was just 16 or 17 years old. He would let me come up and play, just a really nice thing y'know. That'll really teach you, that'll really get you playin'. Keep in mind that Butterfield has a few years of formal training on classical flute, something most bluesmen do not possess, so he isn't intimidated by the music. So, probably one of lessons that leaves the deepest impression Butterfield is the gracious generosity a teacher gives to his student, something he too will model later in his career.
Almost a decade after these nights Butterfield has become a respected bluesman with following larger than anything Waters ever experiences. As an act of gratitude toward Waters, he and guitar hero Mike Bloomfield approach Chess Records owner Marshall Chess with the idea of recording a concept album with Waters called Fathers and Sons. The album will be an attempt to recreate the excitement the two younger blues men remember from their first experiences with Muddy in the late fifties. The project idea is accepted, the album is recorded over a couple days in April of '69, then a promotional concert is performed. Chess releases the double album in August and Waters watches it catapult up the mainstream charts to peak at #70. The critically acclaimed album is Waters' biggest selling album to date, and exposes his music to an even wider audience than Jagger and Richards do in 1964. Keep in mind that Blues has not been a big seller since the early decade of the century and neither is Muddy Waters for that matter. So, the fact that two stars of Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield's magnitude take time from their career to record with the bluesman is a testament to their respect for him.
You don't read too many negative opinions or anecdotes about Muddy Waters from any of the largely white musicians who get to know him. He is a frequently identified to as being regal, stately, intelligent, generous with his time, and generally a kind soul. His reputation is repeated enough times that even musicians who have never meet him want to get close to him.
One of these people is Levon Helm. His performances as a drummer and singer with the rock band, the Band earn him the love and respect of fans, as well as many of the greatest artists of the latter half of the twentieth century. Artists such as George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, and so many more sing the praises of Helm. In the seventies, Paul Butterfield counts him as a friend, and neighbor in Woodstock, and also points to him as the best drummer I have every played with. However, Helm is a humble about his talents, preferring to see himself as an artisan rather than artist. This attitude will serve him well when the Band begins to dissolve in 1975, and he is faced with the prospect of a grueling life on the road as a former rock star. Instead, he decides to go into the music production business with a former colleague, the successful songwriter, producer and record executive, Henry Glover.
It is a good partnership coupling as both have skills which can complement each other's goal. Helm will contribute his knowledge and contacts in the music industry of the 1970s, and Glover will serve up his experience in studio and boardroom. During the 50s Glover writes, arranges, produces some of the biggest hits of the decade. Artists such as James Brown (I Love You, Yes I Do ) Merle Haggard (Blues Stay Away From Me) and Ray Charles' fourth number one hit, 1956s Drown in My Own Tears, owe much of their success to Henry Glover. (He will also the first black record executives in the U.S.) Helm and Glover will call their production company RCO (Our Company), and on Glover's recommendation, their first project will be an attempt to recapture the excitement 1950s Muddy Waters era. They will call the album The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album.
There is an unforeseen hurdle though. Waters' label, Chess Records is in the process of going out of business, they also consider the 62 year old blues singer well past his better earning years, so they reluctantly offer RCO a very small advance for the project. Helm remembers, I got a 12 thousand dollar advance (about 50k in 2016 dollars) from the record company in early '75. which helped pay the plumbing bill for my barn. Muddy came to Woodstock in February. He brought along Pinetop Perkins and his regular guitarist Bob Margolin. Money is always a problem for recording artists, and it usually deepens as their career ages. The fact is that even if they make a lot of money for managers, and record labels in their heyday, once the audience begins to dwindle, so does the monetary support. By 1975, Muddy Waters commands a lot of respect from critics and artists alike, but very little from the industry. So, while the idea of an album with Muddy Waters might seem a sure bet to a 2016 reader, in 1975, it is a project most people are unwilling accept.
Since the central goal of the album is to recreate the excitement Waters creates two decades earlier, they duplicate as much as possible. It will be a live-in-the studio experience found on the Chess recordings, but recorded inside the converted chestnut-timbered barn on the Turtle Creek Farm which has become Bearsville Studios. As Helm recalls, they even use a transistorized German mike. After we made sure he had a big Norman microphone to sing in, so we had his voice covered. Of, then there is the issue of the harmonica. Remember, every important blues harmonica player of the fifties and sixties comes out of a Waters band, so Butterfield using a Green Bullet microphone is the obvious choice for this role.
The personnel on the album will be special too. The studio band will be made up of a combination of the musicians who know Waters' music intimately such as his longtime friend and piano player Willie 'Pinetop' Perkins plus guitarist Sammy Lawhorn, andthen his touring guitarist Bob Margolin. However, there will also be some serious star power brought in with a very accomplished frontline made up of the best in Americana music. The Band's Garth Hudson will handle keyboards, saxophone & accordion, while Nashville's complete guitarist Fred Carter will there with Howard Johnson on saxophone. The principal soloist for these sessions is someone who knows Muddy's music intimately, and in 1975 is the reigning king of blues harmonica, Paul Butterfield.
Excuse this minor digression here but, an often overlooked contribution of Muddy Waters to postwar urban blues is the electric harmonica. Many think his consistent use of the instrument is mainly because of the success Walter Jacobs earns in while in his band, but there is another reason too. He is an accomplished harmonica player himself so using the instrument as identifying feature of his music is understandable. In addition, it should be noted that not only is Paul Butterfield an important member of the studio band, but he really does shine on every track. However, he does some really exceptional work on Goin' Down Main Street and the Let the Good Times Roll. You will hear Butterfield at his absolute best as a blues harmonica player. There is no other blues harp player who out shines him in the mid-seventies, and yes, that even includes Magic Dick. Do I sound biased?
Unlike the music of the Band or Better Days this set of tunes is The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album is not diverse enough to for a listener to consider it as roots music in its purest form. It is a collection of mostly Chicago blues with five songs composed by Waters, a couple of Louis Jordan R&B classics, Let the Good Times Roll, Caldonia and then a cover Wilbert Harrison's version of Kansas City. The only new song which fits into the roots genre is Bobby Charles' Why Do People Act Like That? (Butterfield will make it part of his concert set list in the 80s, and in '85 perform it on Late Night with David Letterman.)
The recording sessions only take two days which is unusual for blues album, (Sonny Boy Williamson often records a whole album in less than a day), but the town of Woodstock does not want visiting blues royalty to leave without some appropriate ceremony. Two hundred of the locals show up in the town square, on that Valentine's Day in 1975 to show their love for the visiting dignitary. Then the mayor pronounces it Muddy Waters Day, and the 62 year old bluesman, looking very dignified in his fashionable overcoat accepts the keys to the town. It is a memorable experience for everyone associated with the event.
In the end, the first RCO project is a success because it wins favorable reviews from most critics, and then a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording, but it is not a financial success. There are few reasons for this unfortunate outcome, Muddy has given 27 years to Chess Records, but by the time the album is on store shelves, the label is collapsing, so the crucial promotional campaign is a failure. Another factor is that Waters cannot afford to sustain a tour with the high profile principals from the studio band. It would bring him much needed recognition and money, but they all have other commitments, and cannot afford to tour the smaller clubs.
Probably the most high profile promotion that Waters receives for his album is when he is asked by Levon Helm to appear in the Band's rockumentary The Last Waltz. Concert producer Robbie Robertson asks Waters to perform his 1956 hit Forty Days, Forty Nights in addition to Caldonia, but Butterfield interjects, emphatically insisting that Muddy Waters performing Mannish Boy is an experience everyone will remember. The great bluesman does not disappoint either. He mesmerizes the crowd for an impressive six minutes with his one chord opus. It is still a highlight of the film.
There is a bright postscript to this story. While Waters is creating his magic at Chess during the fifties, there is young albino teen down in Texas who becomes transfixed by Waters music pouring out of his little radio. He goes to bed at night dreaming of playing the grandmaster in his future. The dream comes true for bluesman Johnny Winter when he negotiates a contract on behalf of Muddy with Steve Paul's label Blues Sky in the mid seventies. Like so many producers before him, Winter will attempt to recapture the Muddy Waters sound of the 1950s. When listening to the playback of the first album Winter produces, Hard Again Waters announces to everyone that he likes it so much, it makes my pee-pee hard again. Winter will produce two more albums for the master, all of which win Grammys, bringing Muddy Waters his most financial success, and critical acclaim that the cornerstone of Rock and Roll deserves.