Rant ‘N’ Roll: A Muddy History

The release of the exquisite and essential two-disc You Shook Me: The Chess Masters Volume #3 1958-1963 (Geffen Select/Universal Music Enterprises) by legendary Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters (1913-1983) is a good time to revisit the plagiarism lawsuit Muddy leveled against Led Zeppelin. It’s a fascinating circuitous tale that also involves British rocker Steve Marriott (1947-1991) who, before he formed Humble Pie with Peter Frampton in 1969, sang lead for Small Faces.

The song in question is “You Need Love,” written by Willie Dixon for Muddy Waters in 1962 (included on disc number one). Small Faces totally copied it four years later as “You Need Loving” on their 1966 self-titled debut as an original. Three years later, in 1969, Led Zeppelin led off their second album, Led Zeppelin II, with a little something called “Whole Lotta Love.” The song was huge—especially in America—and it certainly caught Muddy’s attention. Lead singer Robert Plant copied Marriott’s vocal phrasing almost exactly. Muddy, who ignored or never heard the Small Faces copy, did not ignore Zep’s copy of a copy. He sued and the two parties settled out of court in Muddy’s favor. Listening to all three versions of what is essentially the same song is fascinating. (Plant was quoted as saying, “You only get caught when you’re successful… That’s the game.”)

There are 48 other songs on You Shook Me with nary a clinker in the bunch. Muddy was a star by the time he laid most of these tracks down in late ‘58/early ’59, having just returned from the first of his many British tours (where some aspiring would-be rockers saw him and named their own band after one of his songs, “Rollin’ Stone”). It had been 16 years since Muddy (real name: McKinley Morganfield) first sang for folklorist Alan Lomax in rural acoustic folk fashion in Clarksdale, Mississippi, near the plantation he grew up on. The thought of the electric urban blues which he pioneered—a sound that would go on to directly influence the birth of rock ‘n’ roll—wasn’t even a twinkle in his eye in 1942, but by the mid-‘50s, he was one badass cat. Sharkskin suits. Pompadour hair. Chicago was his town. He’d cut four or five songs at a time and spread ‘em out as singles—almost all of them Top 10 R&B hits. Then he’d go out on the road tearing it up playing guitar and singing up a storm in his own band, one of the best blues groups of all time. (Check out Darnell Martin’s brilliant 2008 Cadillac Records film where Jeffrey Wright captures Muddy’s prime swagger.)

The session that forms the heart and soul of this collection was different. This time he was making an album—not just a collection of singles. Muddy Waters Sings Big Bill was his tribute to a previous blues legend, Big Bill Broonzy, who had just died at 65. Session complete, Muddy then performed one of the most iconic sets ever recorded at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival, Muddy Waters At Newport (of which a nice healthy chunk is included here).

You Shook Me represents a master at the top of his game. Sure, Muddy, like any artist, suffered peaks and valleys. Years later, especially right before Chess Records went out of business in 1977, he would briefly fall out of favor, only to be resuscitated musically and culturally by another acolyte, Johnny Winter (who always dreamed of playing with Muddy). Johnny formed a whole new band around Muddy, played lead guitar and produced four successful albums for his hero: Hard Again (1977), I’m Ready (1978), Muddy Mississippi Waters Live (1979) and King Bee (1981). It was to be the last great hurrah for one of America’s most cherished icons. With his health failing, his last public appearance was when Eric Clapton invited him on stage at a 1982 Florida concert for a few songs. On April 30, 1983, Muddy Waters died in his sleep from heart failure at his home in a Chicago suburb.