In the history of rock and roll, Muddy Waters represented the tide that brought the Southern blues traditions to the north and amplified them. Along the way, he inspired the name of among the biggest rock and roll bands of all time – the Rolling Stones – and countless other artists who emerged in his wake.
Muddy Waters was born McKinley Morganfield on April 4, 1913, in Issaquena County, Mississippi. Following his mother’s death in 1918, McKinley, the son of a farmer, was raised by his grandmother who lovingly gave him the nickname “Muddy” after his fondness for fishing and playing in a muddy creek. Being a pioneer of the Delta blues, Waters eventually took his talents on the road and landed at Chess Records in Chicago, Illinois. Many of the songs that Waters recorded have become blues landmarks, including “Honey Bee,” “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man,” “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” and “Got My Mojo Working.”
In the Sixties, Waters played a large role in the blues revival that took American blues “across the pond.” A youthful group of Brits who formed a band in 1962 – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, Ian Stewart and Bill Wyman – were among those paying attention. Their fledgling band spent every waking moment learning the songs of American rock and roll and blues artists such as Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. They shared a run-down apartment, which Richards later referred to as a “beautiful dump,” at 102 Edith Grove in Chelsea, central London. After booking their first gig, this band without an official name was on the phone with a local news rag called the Jazz News, and the reporter asked them what they call themselves. According to Keith Richards: “Muddy Waters to the rescue! First track on The Best of Muddy Waters is ‘Rollin’ Stone.’ The cover is on the floor. Desperate, Brian, Mick and I take the dive. ‘The Rolling Stones.’”
The Rolling Stones didn’t meet Waters until 1964, when the group arrived at Chess Records for a recording session. "It is certainly possible that Muddy [Waters] might have helped the Stones lug some equipment from the parking lot into the studios, because he was that kind of a guy," wrote Marshall Chess in According to the Rolling Stones. During their visit, the Stones cut more than a dozen tracks, including Muddy Waters' "I Can't Be Satisfied," and crossed paths with the likes of Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy. [pictured, left: Muddy Waters' 1958 Fender Telecaster, on exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum]
In 1972, Guy and business partner L.C. Thurman opened the Checkerboard Lounge, a juke-joint blues mecca at 423 E. 43rd Street in Chicago. The venue became a legendary blues hotspot and has attracted artists such as Eric Clapton and Robert Plant to sit in with a variety of blues performers over the years. On November 22, 1981, the Rolling Stones were in Illinois on a leg of their 1981 American Tour promoting Tattoo You. By this time, the group had defined and re-defined the concert touring experience and were playing massive arenas and stadiums. While in Chicago, however, they couldn’t pass up a chance to revisit their roots and share the stage with their heroes.
“I had a birthday party planned for my barmaid Aretta that Sunday night," recalled Checkerboard owner Thurman in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun Times."On Saturday, the Stones sent somebody to check out the place. I said, ‘I got a big party, I can’t treat my barmaid like that.’ He offered me $500. At that time it was good money. They didn’t charge anyone to get in.” As part of their tour, the Stones were playing the nearby Rosemount Horizon Arena, now the Allstate Arena, and announced that Muddy Waters was the headliner at the Checkerboard, though he was not scheduled to play. The word got out, the phone began to ring off the hook, and the city was forced to block off the streets surrounding the club.
In the end, Waters did play the Checkerboard that night, and the Stones rushed the club “unannounced.” They sat in front of the stage as Waters played, eventually climbing up and jamming with their idol. At one point, Thurman called the cops: “I called the police for help. I said, ‘the Rolling Stones are here.’ They said, ‘what the hell you talking about?’ They did send a lieutenant, but he stayed outside.” What ensued that night in the Checkerboard was a magical moment in music history and luckily, the whole gig was caught on tape. Released as a DVD and CD set in 2012, Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones Live at the Checkerboard Lounge, 1981 is a perfect example of a rock and roll mirror – father and progeny, blues and rock and roll blending together seamlessly.