The Blues That Got Away: The WHAT In Funk?!

Muddy Waters is a man who needs no introduction...but in case you're fairly new to the blues, I'll provide one anyway. Born McKinley Morganfield circa 1915, Muddy Waters is considered by many to be one of the godfathers of the electrified Chicago blues sound that grew out of the acoustic sounds of the Mississippi Delta and later spawned rhythm & blues, rock 'n' roll, and many other musical descendants. Muddy wrote and recorded many classic sides for the legendary Chess Record label in the '50s and early '60s, including "Rollin' Stone" (which later lent its name to a British rock band you might have heard of that idolized Muddy Waters), "Mannish Boy", and "I Just Want To Make Love To You". He also enjoyed a late-career comeback in the late '70s with several excellent records produced by Texas blues guitarist Johnny Winter (also a huge Muddy Waters fan himself) before Muddy's passing in 1983.

But what happened between Muddy's last chart hits in the late '50s and his comeback in the '70s? Well, he continued to record and tour extensively (even a car accident in 1969 was not enough to completely stop the godfather of Chicago Blues), but his commercial appeal dwindled in the face of rock 'n' roll, the British Invasion, and other trends in popular music (most of which his music, ironically, paved the way for). Meanwhile, Chess Records was sold to General Recorded Tape (GRT) and later All Platinum Records before becoming defunct in 1975. Some say that Muddy's recorded output during this extended commercial lull was a shadow of its former glory and weaker compared to his later Winter-produced recordings. Certainly, his late '60s records Electric Mud and After The Rain, on which he and his band emulated the psychedelic sounds du jour (a la Jimi Hendrix) at the behest of Marshall Chess to gain wider exposure and commercial success, were considered by most blues fans to be an embarrassment and an insult to Muddy's reputation as a blues giant. While a case can certainly be made for the assertion that much of this lesser-known mid-period material lacked the passion and fire of both his earlier and later material, it wasn't for a lack of trying, and indeed there is some excellent Chicago blues material from this era as performed by one of its all-time greatest practitioners. His early '70s records, in particular, showed promise and hinted at his later comeback.

My personal favourite among Muddy's early '70s recordings is Unk In Funk. Released in 1974, it was his penultimate Chess album and featured his touring band, including Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson and "Steady Rollin'" Bob Margolin on guitars, Calvin "Fuzz" Jones on bass, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith on drums, Pinetop Perkins on piano, and harmonica players Carey Bell, George "Mojo" Buford, and Paul Oscher (on different tracks). The overall sound is considerably subdued in texture compared to his classic '50s recordings, especially since it sounds like the majority of the electric instruments were plugged directly into the mixing board via direct input (D.I.), resulting in a cleaner, almost brittle sound, compared to the more common practice of plugging into and mic-ing an amplifier; however, the playing is spirited throughout, and the passion of each of the players and their overall chemistry as a band transcend the quasi-clinical-sounding studio environment.

The album begins with a 9-minute remake of a Muddy Waters classic, "Rollin' and Tumblin'". In fact, it's actually two entire run-throughs of the same song, with Muddy instructing the band to keep playing after the first take ends somewhat chaotically. Interestingly, it's the only song on the album that features Muddy's distinctive slide guitar, but it shows how crucial his guitar playing was to the overall sound and feel of his music. The next song is my favourite track on the album, a remake of "Just To Be With You", which has a slower and slinkier feel compared to the first version that Muddy recorded in the '50s and features Carey Bell's haunting harmonica punctuations throughout (almost sounding like the ghost of a horse whinnying at times!). Other standouts for me include a remake of "Trouble No More" (which has a darker sound, compared to the original '50s recording), "Katie" (written about one of Muddy's then-contemporary girlfriends, and featuring a very crystal-like lead guitar sound from Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson), and "Drive My Blues Away", on which Pinetop Perkins leads the way with his authoritative piano playing and Bob Margolin contributes a solo that seems to channel Robert Johnson but on a '50s Stratocaster. The remainder of the songs are solid, albeit somewhat generic when considered in the context of Muddy Waters' overall outstanding discography. However, the title track is entertaining and amusing, with its boastful lyrics over a slow, grinding Chicago blues track.

Despite some flaws, I still love Unk In Funk and frequently listen to it. That it pales somewhat in comparison to his earlier '50s and later '70s recordings only reflects on the superbly high quality of Muddy's recorded output overall.

Tune in to CJSR's Señor Blues every other Saturday to hear tracks from Unk In Funk and other similarly underrated, rare, or lesser known blues gems as part of the semi-regular segment, "The Blues That Got Away".