The blues guitarists of Muddy Waters
Muddy Water’s first sides for Aristocrat not only put him on the map for the hungry blues audience in Chicago, but showed that his guitar playing was complete and self-contained, accompanied only by Big Crawford on bass. But over the course of a forty year career, his bands and his sound got bigger and bigger.
By the 70s, he was delegating most of the guitar work and just putting in some bass lines for emphasis, as well as his spine-tingling patented slide guitar solos and song intros. Always a gritty, Delta player, he relied on great musicians to urbanize his music and to keep it contemporary.
Looking at the way Muddy built his band is a great way to see how Muddy changed the times as well as changed with them.
I’d like to thank Stefan Wirz, whose great Muddy Waters discography is invaluable and fascinating resource that covers so many important blues artists. I’d also like to thank Rick Kreher for providing some key insights and details. Rick played rhythm guitar in Muddy’s last band, which also iincluded John Primer, Mojo Buford, Ray Allison, Lovie Lee and Earnest Johnson and can be seen on the Live at the Checkerboard 1981 DVD)
James Rooney in the book Bossmen: Bill Monroe and Muddy Waters by James Rooney suggests that both men showed consistent long-term leadership qualities. These attributes not only attracted the best players to play to Muddy’s band, but helped propelled many of them into their own successful solo careers.
For example, Little Walter, James Cotton, Jimmy Rogers, Pinetop Perkins, Luther Guitar Jr Johnson, Carey Bell and Bob Margolin all went on to become stars in the blues field or at least well-known in their own right after long stints in the Muddy band.
This article is not as concerned with “occasional” players with Muddy, such as Buddy Guy (who’s on the one-off “Folk Singer” record) or Hubert Sumlin who is on several Muddy 45s (kinda like Michael Jordan playing baseball!), Luther Tucker who’s on LOTS of Muddy material but was never in his band, Michael Bloomfield (who’s on the “Fathers and Son” concert LP) or even Hollywood Fats, who was in the band briefly with Bob Margolin before Luther Guitar Jr joined.
You can learn more about the Muddy story by looking at the sequence of actual long-term members of the Muddy band who are on several recordings or travelled with him consistently. From the late 40s to the mid 60s, he played a lot more guitar himself and had only one guitarist with him: Baby Face Leroy, Jimmy Rogers, then Pat Hare.
These folks were almost always the only guitarist in the Muddy band along with Muddy, unless Pat Hare was with a pretty much inaudible Hubert Sumlin.
After Pat Hare left, Muddy appeared live and on records with two guitar teams for the rest of his career. Muddy was showing his status as a successful artist with a bigger band, and just adding in his famous guitar solo as a climactic moment in a song.
Those teams were: Sammy Lawhorn with Luther Snake Boy Johnson; Sammy Lawhorn with Pee Wee Madison; Bob Margolin with Luther Guitar Jr Johnson; Rick Kreher and John Primer. Each guitarist or guitar team created a different musical situation and was a response to a different musical climate, so I’ll address each below:
Baby Face Leroy
The ten or so sides he did with Baby Face Leroy is truly music from another era: the almost orchestral Muddy band sound is far in the future. Muddy’s mostly in open G during this time if his guitar is in the forefront, or he’s backing Leroy with bass lines in standard tuning.
Muddy’s overdriven guitar was slammin’ on the bass lines on Bad Acting Woman, which is a great primer for learning some heavy Muddy bass string stylings because you can hear each note easily in the bare-bones setting of two guitars and drums. Leroy’s solo shows that he was a wild and aggressive player by the standards of the time.
The must-hear track from this era (besides ALL of them!) is Rollin’ and Tumblin’ on Parkway under Baby Face’s name, where he’s playing drums with Little Walter on harp and Muddy moaning while playing the open G delta themes with lots of fire. You can see the ingredients of Muddy’s future style here, they’re cut up on the kitchen counter but haven’t been put in the pot yet!
Muddy was stuck between the medium tempo Bluebird beat and sensibility of Big Bill Broonzy and John Lee Williamson on the one hand, and the open G songs that were straight out of the Delta such as Train Fare Home and Kind Hearted Woman on the other hand. Baby Face Leroy was replaced by Jimmy Rogers in 1950 and died at the age of 35 in 1958.
The combination of Muddy, Little Walter and Jimmy Rogers (later augmented by Otis Spann and Elgin Evans) became the classic one that set the standard for what was then considered modern Chicago blues ensemble music. Separately, they’d each progressed from being acoustic players in Mississippi to becoming seasoned, electric ensemble players. Then they’d taken the Bluebird sound and Delta-fied and electrified it, changing to a more propulsive rhythm and a heavier sound.
Jimmy Roger’s simple-yet-elegant chording, along with Little Walter’s total mastery of these starting new amplified harp sounds were the new ingredients that made it all come together. Louisiana Blues shows Muddy at his best with the almost-telepathic connection between the three. The next single Jimmy Rogers was on was Still a Fool, which shows his amazing sense of counterpoint on the lower guitar strings and his ability to follow Muddy’s every move with just the right thing.
Please Have Mercy has a beautiful chordal guitar similar to Dave Myer’s playing in the Aces, and since the harp is kind of back in the mix it’s a great example of how full the two guitars can sound together. All Muddy’s periods are worth listening to but the string of hits that Jimmy Rogers played on-- familiar to all blues fans-- formed the basis of his fame: Standing Around Crying, Gone to Main Street, Baby Please Don’t Go, I’m Ready, I Just Want to Make Love to You, I Want to Be Loved, Blow Wind Blow, Mannish Boy, Young Fashioned Ways, Sugar Sweet, Trouble No More.
There are times it’s hard to hear Jimmy, but if he wasn’t there, the songs would feel hollow. He added a great rhythm and a poignant, empathic chordal counterpoint to flesh out the middle of the song. Muddy and Jimmy as a guitar team were also on Little Walter’s big hit “Juke” b/w “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer in 1952. Jimmy Rogers was a great singer who had a hit, “That’s Allright” and in 1955 he left the Muddy band to pursue his own career.
Muddy added Pat Hare-- which changed the sound a lot-- and continued to enjoy some hits in the late 50s and early 60s . Hare had more of an acidic, tense and distorted sound and stuck out rather than blended in. Even if Pat Hare had never played with Muddy he would have been famous for his work with Junior Parker and James Cotton at Memphis’s Sun Studios, which any blues guitar student should listen to carefully.
Hare’s trebly single note leads and fills in “Forty Days and Forty Nights”, Walkin’ Through the Park, and “Close to You” present a new element in Muddy’s music. Overall during this time there’s a gradual switch from the hollow body style guitars to solid body electrics, amps with more headroom, and more refined recording techniques for a more roomy sound. Muddy was still playing a lot of guitar and often you hear Pat Hare on some distorted bass line work such as “Muddy at Newport” while Muddy took the lead.In 1963 Pat Hare shot his girlfriend and a police officer and went to prison where he died of lung cancer in 1980. There’s a great video of Pat playing in prison here.
Pee Wee Madison and Sammy Lawhorn
In 1964 Muddy started using two guitarists: Pee Wee Madison and Sammy Lawhorn. Pee Wee was a South Sider like Muddy and was a shy person onstage. He had some soulful leads here and there and a nice way of filling out the chords, on the Can’t Get no Grindin’ LP often just “chonking” on the 2 and 4, or sliding 6th and 9th chords.
Sammy was a truly special lead guitarist with an instantly recognizable vibrola arm technique that made people’ hairs stand on end. He had a unique sense of melody and is very easy to recognize.
He’s on several Muddy records and you can also see his style used to great effect on Junior Well’s On Tap and Koko Taylor’s I Got What It Takes Sammy’s playing on Live at Mr Kelly’s is a elegant counterpoint to Muddy’s slide and Paul Oscher’s harp and shows how different he made Muddy’s band sound when he stepped forward.
Pee Wee was in the band from 64-73, but he was replaced for a while in 68-69 by Luther Snake Boy Johnson. This is an odd period, because Pee Wee is still being used in the Chess records of the time (Live at Mr Kelly’s, Can’t Get No Grindin’. Conversely, Snake Boy was traveling with Muddy and recorded two great records of the Muddy band minus Muddy’s vocals: Chicken Shack and Mud in Your Ear as the main featured vocalist.
Luther Snake Boy (or Georgia Boy) was the most loose and firey of Muddy’s players, he wore wild clothes, shades, and his intense leads matched the times. You could tell he really wanted to make it in the music business. He reminds me of Lowell Fulson, Magic Sam, and John Lee Hooker because of his intensity.
There are times you’ll see Pee Wee and Snake Boy, and times you’ll see Sammy and Luther Johnson together (such as in John Lee Hooker’s Live at the Cafe Au Go Go where Muddy’s band backed John Lee). These Spivey records and the other “Muddy Band” records are great records of opportunity-- the band was on the road and the sessions were hastily arranged and it sounds like they just went in and blasted through it-- no “concepts” or fancy production here-- just straight up real blues that now are really interesting documents of the Muddy band sound of the time.
By the early 70s, Luther Snake Boy Johnson had settled in Boston and was pursuing a solo career-- check out Down to the Nitty Gritty and Born in Georgia for a wild ride! By this time he’s just using his fingers and has a truly mean right hand attack. If he hadn’t suffered from poor health and died young (76 in his mid 30s) he could have enjoyed the kind of career Luther Allison had.
Bob Margolin and Luther “Guitar Jr” Johnson
In 1973 Bob Margolin was hired and stayed til 1980. For a brief time West Coast cult-figure guitarist Hollywood Fats was in the band, but he left quickly and was replaced by Luther “Guitar Jr” Johnson. I have always felt like Luther Johnson truly blossomed after he left the Muddy band, into a more modern Magic Sam styled artist with a stinging, hard-boiled lead style.
The leads were mostly handled by Jerry Portnoy on harp and Pinetop Perkins on piano. While neither of the guitarists had the character of Sammy or the funky gritty mean-ness of Luther Snake Boy-- who does?-- they were consistent and provided a bedrock rhythm and most importantly, a big sound for Muddy to sing over.
After years and years of hard work, Muddy was finally crossing over to a large white audience with the help of Johnny Winter, who idolized Muddy and produced a series of Grammy-winning, critically and commercially successful recordings: Hard Again, I’m Ready and Mississippi Muddy Waters Live and King Bee.
Johnny’s fiery playing just fit right over this long-lasting, well-oiled machine of Muddy’s band. The only constant in life is change however, and this guitar team, along with the whole band, left in 1980. The story is that some members, seeing all this success, wanted a raise, and they were all let go at the same time.
Rick Kreher and John Primer
The last band enjoyed the best years of Muddy’s career. Rick Kreher and John Primer kept the same formula that the previous band had perfected. The only official release of Rick and John in Muddy’s last touring band is Live at the Checkerboard Chicago 1981. Muddy passed in 1983.
The only surviving members of that band are Rick and John, who both still live close to Chicago-- Rick’s played with Studebaker John and put out Chicago Blues Harmonica Project, Diamonds In The Rough in 2005. John played a long stint with Magic Slim, and now he enjoys a successful solo career. He was nominated for Best Traditional Male Artist of 2021-- yes I voted for him!
One thing you can say about all the players discussed is that they all played GREAT rhythm guitar consistently, at just the right volume and put parts in just the right places. e guitar teams just divided it into different registers-- but they all were very groove oriented, consistent, and not flashy.
The best lead guitarist in town probably wouldn’t have been the right fit for the Muddy band of any era: it was a meat-and-potatoes groove that focused on the singer and the harmonica as well as the whole group sound. Yes, by the 70s it was predictable, but it was predictably great.