What we know as the “classic” Chicago blues sound developed during the 1940s and 50s on the back of the great migration of African Americans from the rural Southern states to the industrial cities of the north. Along with the huge numbers of agricultural workers who came to Chicago in search of a better life and steady work, this veritable river of people enticed a number of pioneering blues performers to the city such as Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie and unarguably the Chicago blues most influential figure, Muddy Waters, who arrived in 1943.
Having already been recorded by Alan Lomax on Stovall’s plantation in Mississippi two years earlier, Muddy Waters was part of a new breed of blues musician who were all for modernizing the sound of the blues by switching to electric guitars and employing small combos that included both drums and an amplified harmonica, which in effect operated as a pocket brass section. Remaining true to his musical roots Muddy Waters’ pioneering sound still retained the deep, rough-and-tumble Delta spirit of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and the bottleneck guitar. Just listen to the featured 1950 recording of ‘Rollin' And Tumblin’ (Part 1)’ by Muddy and his band featuring the singing of his drummer Leroy Foster aka Baby Face Leroy, to whom the recording is credited, and you’re transported back to the music’s Mississippi birthplace.
Fittingly the album kicks off with the classic ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’ which sees Muddy Waters singing in a rich Mississippi drawl and playing whining, amplified bottleneck guitar with Big Crawford on rocking bass. Recorded in December 1947, this was part of the Aristocrat Records, soon to become the legendary Chess Records, session that was to change the sound of the blues forever, as sales soared for his new and souped-up brand of blues. Waters was soon recording with other brilliant players such as Jimmy Rogers on second guitar, Otis Spann on piano, drummer Fred Bellow and Willie Dixon on bass. It was this line-up that created the template for the modern electric blues band.
The towering influence of Waters is evidenced by the sheer number of remarkable musicians who passed through his band or played on his records and duly went on to cut their own successful solo material, including harpists Little Walter, Junior Wells and Walter Horton as well as guitar virtuosos Earl Hooker, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. Also, the undisputed heavyweight champ of post-war Chicago blues piano, Otis Spann, recorded solo albums and songs under his own name such as the classic ‘Take A Little Walk With Me’ where he teamed up with Robert Lockwood Junior, a guitarist and singer who learned to play from his legendary stepfather Robert Johnson.
Chess Records has become a name synonymous with the Chicago blues, helped in no small part by the song writing prowess of the label’s “Mr Fix-It” Willie Dixon, who penned such standards as ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘Little Red Rooster’, ‘Spoonful’, and the featured ‘Back Door Man’, performed here by Chess Records’ other main attraction, Howlin’ Wolf, a six-feet-tall, three-hundred-pound giant who was a dominating figure in the post-war Chicago blues scene in every way. A ferocious live performer whose sheer physical stature dramatically enhanced the emotional intensity of his singing, Howlin’ Wolf developed a deep and perfectly healthy rivalry with Muddy Waters. Both competed for Dixon's best songs, each seemingly driving the other on to fresh heights, and between them they came to define the sound of the post-war electric Chicago blues.
Surprisingly, the dominance of Muddy and the Wolf, along with others from the new breed of electric Chicago blues, was surprisingly brief. The arrival of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry reflected a sea change in black musical tastes that had a profound impact on the blues, as they took the raw elements of the Chicago sound and gave it an injection of their own black rock and roll. It is fitting that Bo Diddley’s classic ‘I’m A Man’ brings the album to a close, a song heavily influenced by Muddy Waters’ 1954 standard "Hoochie Coochie Man", written by Willie Dixon.