Boy Meets Blues: Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Little Walter, Chess Records

Most of us were not born with musical tastes intact. Tastes develop over time as we learn and experience new music and other things. An open mind, an ear attuned to songs and sound, and a procession of mentors and musical guides make for a musical life that's rich and full. To my way of thinking, the best life has a soundtrack that's varied and constantly expanding.

Which is not to say there aren't transformative events. Prior to my lightning-strike moment—about which, more in a minute—the blues were all around me, as they always are around all of us. As a kid attuned to rock'n'roll, growing up in the suburbs with a full FM dial, I was exposed to blues-based music current and past, from Elvis on the oldies stations to Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.

One day late in high school, I went to visit an old friend. I'll call him Rick. We had become buds in third grade, and we were tight until he went away to boarding school in ninth grade. Before the end of high school, he had been ejected from private education and deposited, resentful and unapologetic, in our public school midst. Our friendship resumed, centered on music, audio gear, and mind-bending things now mostly legal but not then. It was all typical suburban high school boy stuff except my friend had advanced musical tastes.

Lightning struck when Rick pulled out an album he had just bought: Wizards from the Southside, an anthology of electrified Chicago blues from Chess Records. Chess had gone bankrupt years before, its assets eventually acquired, appropriately, by hip-hop pioneer label Sugar Hill Records. New anthologies were created to highlight the singles-heavy catalog and introduce Chicago electric blues to a new generation of fans. Rick and I had lucked into one of these musical gateways. Our copy was a 1984 pressing, with the sides reversed, so that is how I learned the music (footnote 1).

From the first seconds of Little Walter's "Hate to See You Go," the music of Wizards consumed me. This was a whole other level of intensity—of menace—different from the British blues covers I knew. Yes, Mick Jagger had sympathy for the devil, but Little Walter might well be the devil, singing and blowing his virtuoso harp out at me from inside those grooves. The experience was intense: exciting, invigorating, unsettling. Those men—they were all men of course—were conjuring something dark, far removed from my safe, sheltered life. Howlin' Wolf plainly related tales of "Evil." Muddy Waters in "Mannish Boy" and Bo Diddley in "I'm a Man" declared their virility in the starkest terms, staring down anyone who would deny it. Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller) performed the original version of "Bring It On Home"; the Led Zeppelin cover is cool, but Sonny Boy II will always own that tune.

I made a cassette copy, on the spot. Then Rick pulled out another Chess/Sugar Hill anthology, Muddy & The Wolf (footnote 2), which combined parts of the classic, later-era Muddy Waters album Fathers and Sons with The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions. For a rock'n'roll kid, this was an important bridge to older blues. Muddy played with Paul Butterfield, whom I knew from the movie The Last Waltz, which my older brother had taken me to see for my 11th birthday. Muddy was in that movie.

The Howlin' Wolf side was new to me and a revelation. Here was the most intense and threatening singer I had ever heard, backed up by British rock royalty: Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts—even Ringo Starr. In the studio chatter, the Brits seem deferential, intimidated. Muddy & The Wolf became side 2 of that cassette, which I still own.

MCA acquired Chess's master recordings in the mid-1980s. Most of the Chess master tapes burned up in the Universal vault fire of 2008, if the New York Times and other sources are to be believed.

The summer before college, on my brother's bookshelf, I found Deep Blues by the late music critic Robert Palmer. He evoked in words the music that so excited me. His description of Wolf climbing up the stage curtains in a frenzied performance is one of many images that stick in my mind. Palmer's book mapped my musical explorations, especially older blues from Robert Johnson, Son House, and Charley Patton, the forefathers of the Chicago electric blues I love so much.

When I went to college, I met people from the Windy City, some of them blues fans. They hipped me to the local labels, particularly Alligator, and to the nascent blues revival that was picking up steam. One of them had seen Hound Dog Taylor and the HouseRockers play at a frat party. My own brush with blues incarnate was hanging out while Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble set up and sound-checked prior to my senior-year spring party weekend.

In my early working years, I spent some time in Ithaca, New York. There, I discovered a club called The Haunt. In this tight space, I got to hear some of my blues heroes live and discover some new titans. Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Cary Bell, The Holmes Brothers, and many others played that little bar. I heard a very young Joe Bonamassa, backed by his father's Utica bar band.

To this day, my ears perk up when I hear a blues-ish chord or riff. There's less menace in it for me now than there used to be, but I await another lightning strike.

Eternal gratitude to my blues mentors and guides. As for the blues, I just can't quit you, baby.

Footnote 1: See JZVj0. The original 1982 release is sequenced as described on the back cover; see I recreated the album as a Qobuz playlist, at

Footnote 2: See The album is streaming on Qobuz here: