Muddy Waters ‘Hard Again’ Album Review: An Essential Blues Classic

“Blues means what milk does to a baby. Blues is what the spirit is to the minister. We sing the blues because our hearts have been hurt, our souls have been disturbed.” ~ Alberta Hunter

Although the above statement can be debated, Muddy Waters was no stranger to the suffering that Alberta Hunter described. Born McKinley Morganfield in the Mississippi Delta, he was given the nickname Muddy when he was child by his maternal grandmother who raised him from an early age after his mother died. Muddy’s father was a farmer and a blues guitar player who separated from the family shortly after Muddy was born. The Delta region nurtured a tradition of blues singing and playing reflecting the severely brutal life there. Waters began playing a harmonica at a young age, and received his first guitar at seventeen. He worked long hard hours as a sharecropper on a cotton plantation, but soon was entertaining folks at parties, picnics, and country dances in his off-time. His music, even then, contained a raw stark power filled with the agonized tension and bitterness of a life steeped in frustration and pent-up rage. Two of his early influences, blues artists Son House and Robert Johnson, were masters of the “bottleneck” style guitar and were hugely popular in that region of the South. Within a year, Waters had mastered this style of guitar playing, as well as emulating Robert Johnson’s dark and brooding vocal style with its spellbinding intensity and powerful raw force that grabs you in the gut.

After an earlier visitation to the bright city lights of Chicago, Muddy made the move there for good in 1943, leaving the Delta behind with the intention of becoming a professional entertainer. As the legendary guitarist Robert Johnson put it, Chicago was “sweet home” for the blues, and Muddy was ripe to make his mark. He worked as a truck driver, factory worker, and in the paper mills by day and performed at the city’s clubs at night. Big Bill Broonzy was a significant figure on the Chicago scene, having founded the small group blues (guitar, piano, bass drums, singer) sound that typified the Chicago Blues of the 1930s. Big Bill allowed Muddy to open for him in the loud rowdy clubs. When Muddy’s uncle furnished him with an electric guitar in 1945 (some historians report that he purchased it himself) it permitted him to be heard above the noisy crowds in the clubs and he was able to develop his legendary style with the loud amplified guitars and the big beat. Muddy transformed the rustic Delta country blues by adding an urban big city vibe that caught on in a big way.

“It was Muddy Waters who took the Delta blues north to Chicago, electrified the sound, and changed the course of popular music as we know it. That’s pretty much the judgment of history, and it is mine as well. ” – Tim Cahill

Waters began recording for various big label record companies before signing a deal with Aristocrat Records with the help of another Delta artist, pianist Sunnyland Slim. Aristocrat was a new label that would eventually come to be operated by Leonard Chess and his brother Phil. The Chess brothers were Jewish immigrants who had come to Chicago from Poland at the start of the Great Depression. They became involved in the liquor business, and by the 1940s they owned several bars on the south side of Chicago. Some of these bars/clubs that they owned featured live entertainment provided primarily by blues artists who had migrated there from the Delta. Comprehending that these great live performers were not being properly recorded, they made the decision to get involved at Aristocrat to correct the situation.

Muddy’s first few recordings with Sunnyland Slim and bassist “Big” Crawford for the label didn’t create a big impact with the record-buying public; but he would soon score his first minor hit in December 1947 with the Aristocrat release of “I Can’t Be Satisfied” with the b-side “Feel Like Goin’ Home.” This recording marks where most historians pinpoint the beginning of the modern era of Chicago Blues, an era epitomized by Waters’ deeply dark-hued vocals chanting the Mississippi Delta blues over the swelling rhythmic momentum gained by the amplification of his instrumentation.

Aristocrat would change the label’s name to Chess Records in 1950 and Muddy Water’s career really began to prosper. Smash hits “Rolling and Tumbling”, “Rollin’ Stone,” and “Louisiana Blues” followed in 1950. Then in 1951 Muddy had three top-ten charting U.S. hits: “Long Distance Call,” “Honey Bee,” and “Still A Fool.” Many other hits came in the 50’s, quite a few containing the sensual lyrics that proved hugely popular with the young crowds and cemented Muddy’s place in the history of the blues. “Got My Mojo Working,” “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Mannish Boy,” “I’m Ready,” “Trouble No More,” “Forty Days and Forty Nights,” “Sugar Sweet,” “Don’t Go No Further” and “She’s Nineteen Years Old” were some examples of the many Chess hits that Muddy enjoyed. During this time he had assembled an all-star band that included bassist/songwriter Willie Dixon, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Otis Spann on piano, and Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica. Elgin Evans and, then later, Fred Below would be the drummers who provided the booming, rhythmic foundations and the archetypical backbeat that gave Muddy’s sound a broadened urgent power. Muddy Waters’ dynamic bluesman image was further enhanced by his charismatic performances featuring his repertoire of attention-grabbing show stopping songs which impeccably showcased himself and his mighty ensemble and led to national notoriety.

The great success of Muddy and his ensemble cleared the decks for others in his group to break away and have solo success of their own. Still, it remained Waters at the forefront of the Chicago blues movement, paving the way for countless others who emulated the bluntly raw sound and unrefined forceful vigor that thrilled listeners. Many major players would serve their apprenticeship at Muddy’s knee, learning the master’s lessons well and adding their own stylistic spice to the idiom. Muddy helped lay the foundation for the permutations of the musical framework that occurred in the sixties with the rise of rock and roll and blues/rock.

“Did Muddy Waters play an acoustic? Well of course he did. But did he turn his back on being able to plug it in and play louder? No, he plugged in and turned it up and got miles and miles ahead of the game in one fateful act of just plugging in.” – Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top

Chess Records began experimenting with its blues artists, Muddy Waters included, by presenting them in different musical contexts in the hope of broadening their commercial appeal and acceptance to even greater heights. These recorded efforts resulted in a mixed bag with varying degrees of success in Muddy’s case. Most refer to his earlier or his later period work as much more satisfying. Folk Singer (1964) , a nice acoustic release with Waters backed by guitarist Buddy Guy, bass player Willie Dixon and drummer Clifton James, Brass and the Blues (1966), Electric Mud (1968), and After the Rain (1969) were the titles of a few of these attempts.

Two other Waters efforts were met with more critical acceptance, pairing Muddy with some of his musical protégés from both sides of the Atlantic. 1969’s Fathers and Sons was the superior of the two. It featured a concert setting with Waters and Otis Spann being the “fatherly figures” while Michael Bloomfield, Buddy Miles, Duck Dunn, Elvin Bishop and Paul Butterfield took the role of the “sons;” performing some of Muddy’s greatest classics with a deep reverence. On the 1972 London Sessions studio release Muddy and Chicago harmonica legend Carey Bell paired with some of England’s (Steve Winwood, Mitch Mitchell, Ric Gretch, Georgie Fame) and Ireland’s (Rory Gallagher) young talent on a release that was bogged down by a misplaced horn section and less than inspired contributions from all involved. It is not a terrible LP by any means, but other than a few good Gallagher guitar solos the sidemen didn’t quite measure up and the recording falls short of most of Muddy’s highly distinguished catalog.

After his many years at Chess, in 1977 Muddy signed with the Blue Sky Records subsidiary of Columbia Records that was created by Steve Paul, the manager of one of Waters’ protégé guitarists, the great Johnny Winter. The resulting Hard Again was a true revelation, containing 100% of Muddy’s trademark blues with all its raw-edged energy, wailing vocals, and powerful blues brawn. Brilliantly produced by Johnny Winter, the assembled band was incredibly superb and sensitive to all the intricacies involved in re-creating the legendary Muddy Waters and traditional Chicago blues sound. This amazing group consisted of Waters on vocals, and three members of his band at the time: Bob “Steady Rollin” Margolin on guitar, Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins on piano, and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith on drums. Johnny Winter, in addition to his production duties played scintillating lead guitar. Muddy called on James Cotton for his incendiary harmonica wizardry. Starting in the mid-fifties Cotton had played previously with Muddy’s group, alternating with Little Walter, around his work for Howlin’ Wolf and his own band. James Cotton also had assisted Muddy on his critically acclaimed live recording from the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960. Cotton aided in fulfilling the final piece of the puzzle by bringing the bass player from his group, Charles Calmese, to the sessions. The collective experience, knowledge, and understanding of the blues that these men possessed can only be termed as simply awe-inspiring staggering.

Johnny Winter had begun as a true bluesman on his first recordings, but then made a smooth transition into a rock and roll guitar slinger. This album represented a return to his beloved roots with the ecstatic and exultant happiness that he and the others expressed being manifested into a record for the ages; a true blues classic if there ever was one. The sessions lasted only two or three days and the resultant album Hard Again won a Grammy and led to a small tour.

Hard Again opens with perhaps Muddy’s most identifiable song, “Mannish Boy.” Muddy sings with all the intimidating intensity and rugged fire of old and drummer Smith is pounding the drum skins like his life depended on it. At the beginning Muddy says “everything is gonna be alright,” and truer words were never spoken. The song moves with a pulsating power that is raw, raucous and exciting. There is good reason that this is a song identified with Muddy — he completely owns it like nobody else ever could. You better believe he’s a man (spelled M – A chile – N!). Muddy Waters was a complete bluesman; heart, body and soul. In my opinion, all three songs included on Hard Again from Muddy’s past Chess catalog have their finest ever renditions on these sessions. Johnny Winter is heard throughout the song exhorting Muddy with shouts of “yeah,” and is credited on the LP for “miscellaneous screaming.”

“Bus Driver” is a song co-written by Waters with famous Blues songwriter, photographer, playwright and story teller Terry Abrahamson. It is a classic blues jam that allows each member of the band to thrive. Muddy sings the first verse majestically, then hands it over with an uttered growl of “Johnny,” and Winters solos over top of the steady-flowing rhythm with some vigorous slashing slide guitar. Another verse is followed by an even more impressive guitar display as the song chugs right along. After the third verse there is a spring-in-your-step Cotton blues harp followed by Pinetop Perkins taking his turn in the spotlight. The lyrics convey a classic blues theme; losing a woman to another man. In this instance, the other man is a bus driver. The lucid lyrics read as follows: “My baby run off with a bus driver/And you know that don’t seem right/He used to give her rides in the daytime/Now she gives him rides at night.”

The second song from Muddy’s Chess days to be redone is Willie Dixon’s “I Want To Be Loved.” It has a house-on-fire vital intensity. It is the shortest song on Hard Again, but it packs a major wallop with what it lacks in length being compensated for by its raw power fueled in equal parts by Muddy’s matter of fact vocal, Cotton’s firm magic harp, and Pinetop’s hard pounding piano. Upon the song’s conclusion, Muddy approvingly states “that’s it.”

“Jealous Hearted Man” is another great song that reaffirms that this music is meant to be played LOUD!! Wake the neighbors, “Earschplittenloudenboomer” volume. The collaborative effort on this song is just too strong. Muddy boasts an authoritative vitalized gruff growl vocal, Cotton’s mouth-harp unrelentingly yowls and moans, and the twin guitars loudly ring the bell. Winters and Margolin truly complement each other superbly on this one. All the while “Big Eyes” and Calmese form a canyon-deep rhythm pocket.

The third Chess cover is the incredible “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” which features Johnny Winter on bottleneck slide on a National Vintage Steel Tricone (a metal body resonator guitar) that is sweet as molasses. The familiar inescapably down-home resonance of tightly wound guitar strings scratching up against a smooth slide is universally recognized as the sound of authentic blues, and let me tell you children this is as authentic as it gets. The studio chatter displays the camaraderie, gives a feeling of intimacy, and makes it apparent that everyone is having one hell of a good time.

A James Cotton shrieking locomotive harmonica and sledgehammer drum-work by “Big Eyes” Smith drives the rousing “The Blues Had A Baby and They Named It Rock And Roll.” Intertwining guitars by Winter and Margolin slice through the song as Muddy narrates the story with a joyous glee. The song’s title pretty much tells the story while truly outstanding rolling piano work by Perkins adds to the song’s rolling effect.

The swaying blues of “Deep Down In Florida” is performed with a restraint that belies the power that the song creates. The expressive lyrics “Yeah, I be goin’ down in Florida/Where the sun shines damn near every day” gives hope of escaping those fierce Chicago winters. You know the kind where people comment to each on the street “the Hawk is out tonight!” and Chicago lives up to its nickname of “the windy city.” Trash can drums and weeping slide guitar give the song a back alley feel, as Cotton’s stanch harp and Muddy’s strong rich tenor vocals sang with his distinctive drawl aid in releasing an intimate atmosphere.

Yet another powerhouse track is “Crosseyed Cat” with aggressive piercing guitars, blues harp blowing, and piano runs accompanying “Big Eyes” traditional Chicago Blues shuffle style drum work. Willie held the position of drummer in Muddy Waters band from 1961 to mid ’64, and then again from 1968 to 1980. A brief side note: Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Pinetop Perkins had a wonderful blues recording called Joined At The Hip a couple of years ago, released right before Perkins’ death. Willie shows off his harmonica and vocal expertise on it, another very highly recommended release.

The final song on the original LP is the slow blues simmer of “Little Girl,” a truly impressive ensemble effort. If you can resist tapping your feet to this swaying beat you have to turn in your “blues card.” Pinetop tickles the ivories invitingly as each band member in turn does their best midnight ramble. James Cotton’s moaning insistent harp, Pinetop’s honky-tonkin’ piano, and Johnny Winter’s searing guitar solo are perfect complements to Muddy’s passionate spotlighted plea to the little girl to “tell me where you get your sugar from.” At the point in the song when Johnny’s guitar starts its smoldering impassioned blues virtuosity lesson Muddy mutters “what I hear, what I hear?” To put it simply, “Little Girl” is pure blues of the finest caliber, just as is the rest of Hard Again.

On Hard Again James Cotton and Johnny Winter both soak each song with incredible blues riffs. And at sixty-plus, an age when most have retired to the rockin’ chair, Muddy’s vocals are as full of attitude and as saucily cool as at any time in his illustrious career. There’s simply not a less-than-stellar performance in the bunch; not a weak moment anywhere on the record. A good analogy might be made by comparing Muddy Waters to a super-talented ball-player (Larry Bird comes to mind, showing my age) who continually makes those around him better. Muddy inspires those around him to provide their tip-top performances, and a tip of the hat to Johnny Winter for convincingly capturing it so perfectly for posterity.

“So I went out and bought Hard Again by Muddy Waters. That was a big learning curve. I listened to that album again and again and again. James Cotton was the harmonica player on that album.” – Sonny Terry

There is a deluxe edition on audiophile vinyl that also includes the song “Walking Thru the Park” that was originally a Muddy Waters single on Chess Records in 1958. The song also was on Johnny Winter’s 1977 album Nothin’ But the Blues that featured the same performers as the Hard Again sessions. Vinyl is the preferred medium to enjoy these recordings with its added “presence” or “ambiance” offered by the higher fidelity and richer/warmer sound that vinyl records afford versus the digital medium. And in my opinion, it doesn’t have to be an audiophile record to better a CD for sound quality (of course the quality of stereo equipment makes a big difference).

The collaboration of Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter produced three more albums in the same heartwarming back-to-the blues basics as Hard Again. I’m Ready, Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live, and King Bee (which would end up being Muddy’s last recording) were the titles and they garnered Waters two more Grammys and much kudos and acclamation. Here’s what the collaboration meant to Winter:

“Playing with Muddy was excellent. I loved it. I loved him as a musician and I loved him as a person. It was the most fun I ever had. He was a big influence on me.” – Johnny Winter

The legacy that Muddy Waters left behind is the stuff of legend, making timeless music, universal in its power to touch and move us deeply. Hard Again is one of the bricks that built that formidable and legendary wall. If there ever were an essential blues record, this is it.

So if indeed “Blues means what milk does to a baby,” then Hard Again measures up to this criteria. It is as essential as any straight ahead no holds barred blues album ever recorded. Hard Again represents the greatest blues musicians making only the finest pure unadulterated blues ever heard. It is a verified landmark album in the career of a legend beloved by anyone with a genuine love and intense passionate feeling for the blues.