Label from a 78 RPM copy of "Mannish Boy" Note the misspelling of "Mannish" on the label.
McKinley Morganfield (a.k.a. Muddy Waters) was born April 4, 1913 in Issaquena County, Mississippi. His grandmother raised him when his mother died shortly after his birth. His fondness for playing in the mud earned him the nickname “Muddy” at a young age, which he eventually changed to “Muddy Water” and “Muddy Waters”. He took up the harmonica, and started playing the guitar at age seventeen, emulating two popular blues artists of the day, Son House and Robert Johnson. In 1940, Muddy moved to Chicago; a year later, he returned to Mississippi, where he ran a juke joint, complete with gambling, moonshine, and a jukebox. In the summer of 1941, musicologist Alan Lomax came to Stovall, Mississippi to record various country blues musicians; he recorded Muddy in his house. Lomax would return and record Muddy a second time. In 1943, Morganfield returned to Chicago with the hopes of becoming a full-time musician. Big Bill Broonzy became an early supporter, allowing Muddy to open for him in rowdy clubs. In 1945, Muddy got his first electric guitar; in 1946, he recorded some tracks for Mayo Williams of Columbia, but these tracks went unreleased at the time. Later that year, he started recording for Aristocrat, a label formed by two brothers, Leonard and Phil Chess. In 1947, he played guitar on two tracks he recorded with Sunnyland Slim: “Gypsy Woman” and “Little Annie Mae”. These were shelved, but in 1948, “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home” were released became hits, and Muddy’s popularity began to rise. Soon afterward, Aristocrat changed its name to Chess, and Muddy’s signature tune “Rollin’ Stone” became a hit.
At first, the Chess brothers did not allow Muddy to have his own band, but by 1953, they relented, and soon he had assembled a band consisting of Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Elga Edmonds on drums, Otis Spann on piano, and Big Crawford on bass. Soon the band recorded a series of blues classics, many penned by bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon. Not all of them were; however, and his hit “Mannish Boy” (with “Young Fashioned Ways” on the flip) was written by Morganfield, Mel London, and Elias McDaniel (a.k.a. Bo Diddley). This is today’s featured single.
“Mannish Boy” takes the classic stop-time riff from Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man”, employed with even greater effect here, distilled and refined and augmented with some catchy hooks. From the “whoa, yeah” opening, the song commands the listener’s attention, and soon we have a song that epitomizes male braggadocio as Muddy unleashes his chorus of “I’m a man…I spell M-A-child-N” accompanied by a chorus of “yeah”. Morganfield even invokes the title of his previous hit when he sings “I’m a rolling stone”. The lyrics are more explicit than in the Willie Dixon song, with Muddy singing “[t]he line I shoot/Will never miss/When I make love to a woman/She can’t resist”. And just when you’re getting into the song, it ends, clocking in at a modest 2 minutes and 56 seconds. This song is a classic, and has been covered by artists as diverse as The Band, Junior Wells, Hank Williams, Jr. and the Rolling Stones. Bo Diddley would rework it into “I’m A Man”, which appeared on the flipside of “Bo Diddley”, which sounds comparatively restrained, with McDaniel exhibiting more of a quiet cool on the track.
The B-side, “Young Fashioned Ways”, is an upbeat blues tune, punctuated by Spann’s piano. Think of this as Muddy Waters’ manifesto for the aging: “I may be getting old/But I have young fashioned ways”. Years before songs like The Who’s “They’re All In Love”, Morganfield made it clear that age isn’t going to condemn him to irrelevance, at least when it comes to women. The song contains a great sexual innuendo: “There may be snow on top of the mountain/But there’s a thaw down under the hill”. And let’s not forget an excellent harmonica solo about 1 minute and 20 seconds into the song. “Young Fashioned Ways” may not be the classic that “Mannish Boy” is, but it stands out as a great song about the wisdom that comes with age, released in 1955 – the year of rock and roll, a genre that was strongly identified with youth, at least in its early days. In its own way, I like to think it presages songs that contain an “aging rocker is still relevant” theme.
The single (catalog #: 1602) was released on Chess Records in April 1955. It featured the classic blue and white Chess label (solid blue on the top, white on the bottom). Since this was the era when 78 RPM records were still being issued, this single was released as both a 10-inch 78 RPM record and a 7-inch 45 RPM record. [This practice would continue for a number of years, with the last Chess 78 RPM release apparently being Chuck Berry’s “Too Pooped To Pop” in February 1960.] Muddy Waters would reach the peak of his success in the years 1952 to 1956; after his last major hit, “I’m Ready” in 1956, he was put on the back shelf by Chess Records. He went to the U.K. in 1958, where he exposed audiences to electric blues for the first time. In 1960, he played the Newport Jazz Festival and enjoyed a revival in popularity. Yet for most of the next two decades (1956-76), he largely kept a low profile. This would change with his appearance onstage with The Band at their final concert at Winterland, where he performed “Mannish Boy” with The Band. Johnny Winter convinced his label, Blue Sky, to sign him in 1977, and Morganfield released a comeback album, “Hard Again”. The comeback continued with a live album in 1979, and Muddy continued to perform live until declining health in 1982 caused him to cut back his touring schedule. He died in his sleep on April 30, 1983 at his home in Westmont, Illinois.