Willie Smith started out as a harmonica player, but when harp gigs vanished he
took up drums, eventually playing in Muddy Waters, band. Muddy was finding
it difficult getting work. Even B.B. King wasn't getting the work.
B.B. used to have almost an orchestra but he had to cut it down to three or
four pieces. It got so bad, Willie finally quit in 1964 and took a job driving a
taxi cab. He was not the only one to give up the blues as a bad job.
Carey Bell worked in a car-wash. Buster Benton as a car mechanic.
Labels that once supported the blues turned to soul, as Motown and Stax set
a new agenda for black music. Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf were yesterday's
men beside Otis Redding, James Brown or Marvin Gaye. Yet by the end of the
Sixties Muddy, Wolf and many of their peers were internationally famous.
They had made overseas tours, appeared at pop festivals and in vast rock
auditoriums, got back into recording again. Their audiences were no longer
black and tending towards middle age but white and young.
What earned them this born again career, apart from talent and persistence,
was the discovery of the blues by white musicians half their age, many of them
not even American.
Paul Butterfield, Mike Bloomfield, Canned Heat and their British counterparts
John Mayall, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, by introducing the blues to
new listeners, also revalidated it for the old players.
"Before the Rolling Stones", said Muddy Waters, "people didn't know anything
about me and didn't want to know anything. I was making records that were
called 'race records'. I'll tell you what the old folks would have said to kids
who'd bought my records. They'd have said, 'What's that? Take off that nigger music!'
Then the Rolling Stones and all those other English bands came along, playing
this music, and now the kids are buying my records and listening to them."
What was the attraction? "The romance of it", says Rod Stewart in a Mojo article.
"Just the name, Muddy Waters' Chicago Blues Band, sounds so romantic.
It's funny, you think you're the only one who's listening to it and then ten years
later you realise that everyone was listening to it at the same time - the Stones,
the Yardbirds. Everybody in their own little corner. . . . Long John Baldry had
this one album [The Best Of Muddy Waters] and I borrowed it, and he said,
'You must bring it back in two days because Mick Jagger wants to borrow it."'
"The Rolling Stones", according to Keith Richards, "were a white London
imitation of South Side Chicago blues, It all starts there."
Before the Sixties were out, imitators and masters would be playing side by
side on Muddy's and Wolf's London Sessions albums.
Even the Beatles claimed "the sort of numbers we like doing best are the
rhythm-and-bluesy things." During the "beat group" boom you could throw
a stone at random in London or Liverpool clubland and bet on hitting a band
doing 'Hoochie Coochie Man".
But though Chicago needed an infusion of respect, blues activity elsewhere
could support itself, at least for a while, like the big-band blues of Junior Parker
and Bobby Bland, or South Louisiana's "swamp blues" clique of Lightnin' Slim
and Slim Harpo, who dismantled the styles of Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed
and rebuilt them to sound more rural and archaic. Then there was New Orleans,
where music lives in the street, the home turf of parade bands and Mardi Gras
dancers, echoing to horns and drums. New Orleans had a wonderful time in the
early Sixties, turning out witty, weightless R&B classics like Lee Dorsey's 'Ya Ya'
and Chris Kenner's infectious 'I Like It Like That'.
The blues' main territorial gain in the decade was its friendly invasion of foreign parts,
Under the banner of the American Folk Blues Festival (AFBE), a concert party
annually visited Europe. It was something to witness Otis Rush or Junior Wells,
but the older artists could be even more mesmerising. In 1967 fans had the opportunity,
never repeated, to see and hear Son House, Skip James and Booker White - on the same bill.