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Muddy Waters: From household name to household story

Try to think of a famous American inventor whose home and workplace are museums. Henry Ford? Yup. Thomas Edison? Of course.

That pantheon of famous inventors will gain a new member in the next year or two, if Chandra Cooper meets her ambitious goals.

4339 South Lake Park Avenue, the Chicago home Muddy Waters owned and lived in for around 20 years (photo by Frank Luby, August 2021)

You see, her great-grandfather was also an influential American inventor. Like Ford and Edison, he merged and transformed ideas – some existing, some new – in ways that changed the course of an industry forever. The difference, though, is that her great-grandfather’s legacy doesn’t live on in massive multinational companies such as Ford Motor or General Electric.

It lives on the music we enjoy every day.

That’s the legacy of an inventor who was born as McKinley Morganfield near Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1913. Morganfield’s professional stage name – Muddy Waters – has long been a household name in blues music. Ms. Cooper is spearheading the effort to convert a distressed house on Chicago’s south side into a destination, one that could transform Muddy Waters from a household name to a household story on a scale that reaches far beyond blues music.

The Muddy Waters mural in Chicago's Loop. (Photo by Frank Luby)

Her project is the Mojo Museum. The distressed house is a Chicago “two-flat” at 4339 South Lake Park Ave., just east of the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Waters owned that house and lived there from 1954 to 1973. It served as the nexus of the Chicago blues scene: a home, a rehearsal studio, and a guest house where a veritable Who’s Who of blues legends stayed at one time or another.

In November 2021, the City of Chicago earmarked a $250,000 grant for the Mojo Museum project under its Adopt-A-Landmark program. Rehab work is underway inside the building. When the museum opens – and that date is still tbd – it will become Chicago’s second free-standing museum dedicated to blues music. The first one is Willie Dixon's Blues Heaven, located in the former Chess Records studio at 2120 South Michigan Ave, a short drive from the Waters’ house.

Why should Muddy Waters be a household story and not merely a household name? Let’s look at what he invented, and then look at why it mattered and still matters.

Crank it up!

Many people have offered compelling and convincing answers over the years to the question of what Muddy Waters invented. I’ll quote a few here.

Robert Palmer, who wrote the authoritative book Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta, described it this way: “[Muddy Waters] was the first popular bandleader to assemble and lead a truly electric band, a band that used amplification to make the music more ferociously physical instead of simply making it a little louder.” That comment is cited in the exhaustive and illuminating report about the Muddy Waters house on the city of Chicago’s website. If you would like to make a deeper exploration on Muddy Waters as a household story, I highly recommend reading that report.

Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, one of the countless musicians that Muddy Waters inspired, wrote in an essay on his own website that “[t]he slide guitar got the nuance of the human voice better than any other instrument. Basically, it was a Robert Johnson thing, and Muddy took it to Chicago, electrified it, added a bass player and a harp with a good backbeat, and you had a party. His bands were always powerhouses, and his voice had an amazing depth.”

How important was that amplification? Gibbons noted that “[t]o 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 twenty guys, you had twenty watts.”

The page dedicated to Muddy Waters on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website is more succinct: “He electrified the blues—literally and figuratively. You could call his the guitar that launched a thousand bands. Muddy Waters’ playing was revelatory, his singing unrivaled. He has inspired such icons as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton to take up rock’s legacy.”

Muddy Waters at home and at work

Think about what transpired in music during the time that Muddy Waters lived in that house on Lake Park Ave. He moved in the year that the rock-and-roll era unofficially began, and one year before a young musician from St. Louis named Chuck Berry recorded a million-selling single called “Maybellene” on the Chess label. Berry stayed at Waters’ house during the time he visited Chicago to record that song, according to the city’s report cited above.

Waters had already lived in that house for 10 years before a relatively unknown gang of British musicians – the ones who borrowed their name from his song “Rollin’ Stone” – showed up at his workplace and introduced themselves. That workplace was that very same Chess Records Studio that how houses the Blues Heaven Museum. Waters recorded for Chess Records from 1947 to 1975.

By the time Waters moved to the Chicago suburbs in the early 1970’s, many of the rock musicians inspired by his music had become global superstars and household names themselves.

Museum destinations matter

Museums are ideal ways to draw attention bring stories to life. The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi houses Muddy Waters’ cabin from the nearby Stovall Plantation, where he worked as a sharecropper and tractor driver.

The Muddy Waters mural in Clarksdale, MS, on the exterior wall of the Ground Zero Blues Club (Photo by Frank Luby)

When the Rolling Stones performed in Detroit in late 2021, the media covered Ronnie Wood's visit to the Motown studio with other members of the Stones’ entourage. The museum in the old Sun Studio in Memphis remains a popular tourist attraction, and Memphis is also home to the Stax Museum.

That’s what needs to happen in Chicago.

When the Mojo Museum opens, Chicago has a unique opportunity to market not one but two prime destinations to teach the world about blues music and the evolution of rock and roll. What better way to honor the legacy of an American inventor who has directly or indirectly brought so much pleasure to the world.

Would you like to learn more or help? Please visit the Mojo Museum site by clicking here.

Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of BluesBackroadsBaseball LLC. His book "Blues Flashbacks", available on Amazon, includes full-length interviews with blues greats such as Willie Dixon, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Albert Collins, Koko Taylor. It also includes a story about a celebration of Muddy Waters’ life, held in Chicago shortly after he passed away in 1983.

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