Let's not mince words: Muddy Waters was the greatest blues artist who ever lived. This CD proves it, with more than 20 tracks recorded over the eight-year period when Muddy almost single-handedly moved the blues from South to North, from countrified acoustic folk to electrified urban pre-rock, from a lonely holler to a proud, purposeful strut. It was an incredibly dynamic, fruitful period, captured here with admirable clarity and concision.
The first five songs are just Muddy and bassist Big Crawford: delta-blues laments of homesickness and upheaval recorded in '48 and '50, five and seven years after Muddy first left his native Mississippi to settle in Chicago. The words come in a torrent, with phrases lowed and hiccupped on "I Feel Like Going Home" and that classic moaner, "Rollin' and Tumblin'." Muddy's guitar thwacks out accents on "Rollin' Stone," darting notes cutting into strong, beseeching chords. On "Louisiana Blues" (a precursor of "Got My Mojo Workin'") Little Walter's harp is added, and one by one, other legendary bandmembers follow suit, originating the hard blues backbeat we know today: Jimmy Rogers on guitar, then pianist Otis Spann, followed by the great bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon. The scope of Muddy's vocals expand on the later cuts without losing their expressiveness. On "Honey Bee" he flutters and coos, even as his guitar stalks the beat with a crazy-legged wobble. He bum-rushes the phrasing on Dixon's "I Just Want To Make Love To You" so memorably that nobody has been able to effectively sing it any other way. By the time his own "Mannish Boy" is cut in 1955, his vocal is a confident roar. In fact, between "I Can't Be Satisfied" in 1948 and "Trouble No More" in 1955, Muddy Waters migrated into a new life, and found himself. It was a powerful discovery.