Performances and crossover, 1958–1970
Muddy toured England with Spann in 1958, where they were backed by local Dixieland-style or “trad jazz” musicians, including members of Chris Barber’s band. At the time, English audiences had only been exposed to acoustic folk blues, as performed by artists such as Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, and Big Bill Broonzy. Both the musicians and audiences were unprepared for Muddy Waters’ performance, which included his electric slide guitar playing. He recalled:
They thought I was a Big Bill Broonzy [but] I wasn’t. I had my amplifier and Spann and I was going to do a Chicago thing. We opened up in Leeds, England. I was definitely too loud for them. The next morning we were in the headlines of the paper, ‘Screaming Guitar and Howling Piano’.
Although his performances alienated the old guard, some younger musicians, including Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies from Barber’s band, were inspired to go in the more modern, electric blues direction. Korner and Davies’ own groups included musicians who would later form the Rolling Stones (named after Muddy’s 1950 hit “Rollin’ Stone”), Cream, and the original Fleetwood Mac.
In the 1960s, Muddy Waters’ performances continued to introduce a new generation to Chicago blues. At the Newport Jazz Festival, he recorded one of the first live blues albums, At Newport 1960, and his performance of “Got My Mojo Working” was nominated for a Grammy award. In September 1963, in Chess’ attempt to connect with folk music audiences, Muddy Waters recorded Folk Singer, which replaced his trademark electric guitar sound with an acoustic band, including a then-unknown Buddy Guy on acoustic guitar. Folk Singer was not a commercial success, but it was lauded by critics, and in 2003 Rolling Stone magazine placed it at number 280 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In October 1963, Muddy Waters participated in the first of several annual European tours, organized as the American Folk Blues Festival, during which he also performed more acoustic-oriented numbers.
In 1967, he re-recorded several blues standards with Bo Diddley, Little Walter, and Howlin’ Wolf, which were marketed as Super Blues and The Super Super Blues Band albums in Chess’ attempt to reach a rock audience. The Super Super Blues Band, bringing together both Wolf and Waters, who had a long standing rivalry, was, as Ken Chang wrote in his AllMusic review, flooded with “contentious studio banter […] more entertaining than the otherwise unmemorable music from this stylistic train wreck”. In 1968, at the instigation of Marshall Chess, Muddy Waters recorded Electric Mud, an album intended to revive his career by backing him with Rotary Connection, a psychedelic soul band that Chess had put together. The album proved controversial; although it reached number 127 on the Billboard 200 album chart, it was scorned by many critics, and eventually disowned by Muddy himself:
That Electric Mud record I did, that one was dogshit. But when it first came out, it started selling like wild, and then they started sending them back. They said, “This can’t be Muddy Waters with all this shit going on – all this wow-wow and fuzztone.”
Nonetheless, six months later Muddy Waters recorded a follow-up album, After the Rain, which had a similar sound and featured many of the same musicians.
Later in 1969, Muddy Waters recorded and released the album Fathers and Sons, which featured a return to his classic Chicago blues sound. Fathers and Sons had an all-star backing band that included Michael Bloomfield and Paul Butterfield, longtime fans whose desire to play with him was the impetus for the album. It was the most successful album of Muddy Waters’ career, reaching number 70 on the Billboard 200.