Tag Archives: Muddy Waters

The Jazz-Soul of Chess Records

chess checker

Chicago’s Chess Records may be best known for its blues artists such as Howlin Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Little Walter. But in the 1960s, they also had a wealth of hip Jazz and Soul artists, many of whom recorded for Chess’ Cadet subsidiary. On this installment of Reclaimed Soul, host Ayana Contreras featured the Jazz-Soul side of Chess, with music from artists including Clea Bradford, The Dells, McKinley Mitchell, Dorothy Ashby, Ahmad Jamal, The Soulful Strings, and much more.

Catch fresh installments of Reclaimed Soul Thursdays at 8pm (CST) on vocalo.org or over the air in Chicagoland on 89.5fm (NWI) and 90.7fm (CHI)


A bit about Black Rock Bands out of Detroit.

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This weekend at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, I caught a documentary about Death, a 1970s all-black proto-punk band out of Detroit. The documentary, titled “A Band Called Death” chronicled the group’s forming, brush with success, and descent into obscurity. The master tapes of their sole album, recorded under Don Davis’ Groovesville productions languished in an attic for over thirty years. That is until a perfect storm of record collectors resurrected the work, resulting in a New York Times article, a reissue, and a tour.

It was interesting that one refrain in particular was repeated throughout the documentary:

black people in Detroit just weren’t doing rock.

Sure, it wasn’t the norm; but I think that the idea that black people weren’t doing rock is an over-generalization. I would argue that early Funkadelic (especially the album “Maggot Brain“) is as much Rock as it is Funk. The wailing guitars melded seamlessly with gospel-tinged organs and sizzling drums into something quite some distance from Motown. Oh yes, and Eddie Hazel is a totally under-appreciated face-melting guitarist.

Besides, it’s worth noting that most classic “rock” idioms come from some sort of “black” music (from the earliest Rock and Roll to the Blues).

The other refrain heard in the documentary “A Band Called Death” was that the name “Death” was a huge stumbling block in the way of their success.

Interestingly, an all-black rock group called  Black Merda came out of Detroit and recorded an album here in Chicago for Chess Records in 1970. They worked with another Detroit-based rock artist called Fugi (who also released some singles on Chess). It was by no accident that these folks found their way to Chess.

By 1969, Chess had released some unbelievable psychedelic Blues records featuring the label’s biggest stars, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. The backing bands were, for the most part, black (featuring Chicago session artists Morris Jennings, Pete Cosey, and more).

Below is a picture of Anthony Hawkins of Black Merda (with “Mary”) circa 1969. They are proudly holding copies of the two psychedelic blues records by Muddy Waters: After the Rain (1969) and Electric Mud (1968). More on those albums can be found here.

Mary, Anthony 1968 Photos from Black Merda

Black Merda’s album was released; but didn’t sell many copies. But, I’d credit their obscurity to the subsequent sale and implosion of Chess Records, rather than their death-related name.

Jive on.


Howlin’ Wolf: getting in the mood with a psychedelic “Spoonful”

An absolutely beastly rendition of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful” by… Howlin’ Wolf. I feel like playing this cut tomorrow night.

Part of a push at Chess Records in the late 1960s (spearheaded by Gene Barge and Marshall Chess) to rerecord both Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters in the then contemporary Psychedelic Blues style featuring awe-inspiring session work by Morris Jennings, Phil Upchurch, and more. Read more about this groovy situation here.


Electric Mud: Electrified Delta Blues got a New Jolt

muddy rain

(“Tom Cat” by Muddy Waters)

The late sixties in Chicago was a wild time.  The Democratic National Convention and the Riots in 1968 labeled us as unruly, Serial Killer Richard Speck in 1966 labeled us as unsafe, and Martin Luther King, Jr.,  (marching in North Lawndale for equal housing in 1966), labeled us as a place that “The people of Mississippi ought to come to….to learn how to hate”. And yet we created such sweet music…

  Roaring blues, sophisticated jazz, gritty garage rock, smoothed out vocal pop, and shimmering soul (among other genres) all “jus grew” here.  Chess Records (based near 22nd and Michigan) was, in fact, the epicenter of the Electrified Delta Blues that changed the sound of popular American music FOREVER.  That was the music that served as rock-and-roll’s bassinet.  So it was no surprise that Chess Records, nearing the end of the 1960s and reinvigorated with fresh young talent (producer/arranger Charles Stepney, drummer Morris Jennings, and guitarist Phil Upchurch among them), decided to have their living legend artists (i.e. Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf) re-record their groundbreaking 1950s work in an updated funky psychedelic blues style. 

 White psychedelic rock artists had been ripping off their artists’ work for years.  Now they were, in effect, reworking their own art.  Muddy and Wolf weren’t feeling it.  Critics of the day panned the works. Yet, today, the albums born out of this time (including “Electric Mud”) have an almost cultish following.  Produced by Marshall Chess and the legendary Gene Barge, this body of work is just another example of good old Chicago invention….. For a sample of Howlin Wolf’s psychedelic blues tryst, click here.

Drummer Morris Jennings discusses Muddy Waters’ album “Electric Mud” with Ethnologist Jeff Thomas.

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