June 20, 2018 / 8:48 PM

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5 Ways Muddy Waters Changed Music: Amplified Blues, Chuck Berry and More (A 100th Birthday Tribute)


Today marks what would've been the 100th birthday of blues legend McKinley "Muddy Waters" Morganfeld. Kind of. Different sources have indicated different birth dates and years for the music icon. The guitarist himself claimed in interviews that he was born during 1915 and his tombstone bears the same date. Other sources, such as his application for a social security card and his marriage license, suggest that the true date was during 1913. Although the latter is generally considered to be the correct date, this site didn't exist during 2013 to celebrate it, and we'll take any chance we can get to celebrate one of the most influential performers of all time. Still waters run deep, but Muddy Waters runs deeper. Here are 5 ways modern music would be different without the legend:

01) Guitar amplification

Muddy Waters did not invent the electric guitar or the amplifier. His use of those products however, would alter the face of the music industry. The blues had a tremendous influence on rock 'n' roll of course, however it wasn't until after the rock revolution of the mid-'50s that the blues finally got loud. If you want to categorize the genre as loosley as possible, the blues can be separated into the Delta blues and Chicago blues eras: The former, from the birth of the genre on, featured acoustic instruments. The latter variety, more familiar to modern listeners, emphasized the electric guitar and raucous playing that would influence every genre from psychedelia to heavy metal. The birthplace of electric blues is suggested to be Waters' 1958 English tour. No records suggest how crowds reacted to the sound, but considering the bedlam Bob Dylan's adoption of the electric instrument caused, it must have upset purists greatly. Billy Gibbons—guitarist for ZZ Top—explained the thought process while writing an essay on Waters for Rolling Stone when it ranked the bluesman the no. 17 greatest artist of all time: "People call his sound raw and dirty and gritty, but it wasn't particularly loud. It just sounded that way. A guitar amplifier in the Fifties was maybe the size of a tabletop radio. To be heard over a party, you had to crank that thing as loud as it would go. And then you left behind all semblance of circuit design and entered the elegant field of distortion that made everything so much deeper. If you didn't have a big band with 20 guys, you had 20 watts." Blues would never be the same.

02) Chuck Berry

So Waters began amplifying his guitar after the advent of rock 'n' roll...that's not to say that he didn't have a dramatic impact on its history as we know it. Waters was ranked the no. 17 greatest artist of all time on Rolling Stone's list, but if it weren't for his influence then perhaps the no. 5 artist on that same list may have never come to the attention of the rock-hungry nation. Chuck Berry was a talented, lightning-rod performer—he didn't need any help learning how to handle the instrument. He needed a record label to find him however. He travelled to Chicago, then the capital of blues, during 1955 and met Waters. The icon thought Berry had what it took, and he put the young guitarist in touch with Leonard Chess of Chess Records. Interestingly, Chess liked Berry's country covers more, and the guitarist recorded a cover of Bob Wills' "Ira Red," which would be titled "Maybellene," now considered to be in the Top 100 songs of the 20th Century. Again, Berry had the talent by himself, but it takes good fortune to land a record deal. Without Waters, who knows how this story might have changed?

03) Oh, and all the other greatest guitarists of all time

Berry felt the direct impact of assistance from Waters, but many of the best felt his influence in their own style. Although Gibbons hinted that Waters was not intentionally attempting to create the amplified, distorted monster that he did, that sound became something desirable, that future guitarists would actively seek out. One such guitarist was Jimi Hendrix, now regarded by most to be the greatest in the history of the instrument for both his talent and experimentation. He famously described his first encounter with Waters' music: "The first guitar player I was aware of was Muddy Waters. I first heard him as a little boy and it scared me to death." Eric Clapton professed that "all [he] ever wanted to do was play like Muddy Waters. The blues legend played his last show ever with Clapton, who had also served as his best man at his wedding in 1979. "It's going to be years and years before most people realize how greatly he contributed to American music," B.B. King said, following Waters' death. It may not have taken as long as he thought.

04) The Rolling Stone lore

Perhaps you've noticed how rife the history of rock 'n' roll is with references to a certain boulder-in-motion. Waters didn't come up with the traditional wisdom that a "rolling stone gathers no moss," but he did record the 1950 single "Rollin' Stone," a song that inspired a group of young, British rockers to adopt the name during the early '60s, and that would also inspire journalist Jann Wenner to name his new music magazine the same thing during 1967. It's tough to argue that the imagery of the "Rolling Stone" didn't play a role in influencing Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone," especially considering how heavy it was in comparison to the folk performer's previous work (like Waters did on his '58 tour). The same applies to the 1971 Temptations classic "Papa Was A Rollin' Stone."

05) Dozens of songs you already know

Plenty of Waters' hits (some of which were written with Willie Dixon) have become standards for rockers, as is to be expected: The Allman Brothers made a new hit out of "Hoochie Coochie Man," Etta James made a hit out of "I Just Want To Make Love To You" and Cream introduced itself to the world with "Rollin' and Tumblin'." The biggest songs that have a hint of Waters within aren't obvious covers however. Led Zeppelin is notorious for making "new" hits out of old subject matter, and indeed "Whole Lotta Love" derives from "You Need Love." AC/DC has been a tad more forthright in acknowledging that its own "You Shook Me All Night Long" was inspired by Waters' "You Shook Me."

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