Monthly Archives: July 2009

Cadillac Records

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Cadillac records is the Hollywood treatment of the story of the Chess record label.  The film centers on the founder of Chess Records – Leonard Chess and the labels first star Muddy Waters.  Although the film is not a complete disappointment, its your basic Hollywood over-simplification / over-dramatization of the true events.  Granted the film is “based on a true story”, they omit and make up connections that weren’t there to enhance the dramatic effect and dumb it down for the audience.  I had similar issues with the Johnny Cash /June Carter romance “Walk The Line”.

Here is a quick list of my disagreements with this movie:

  • Very early on they portray Leonard Chess as being the underdog with a ridiculous exchange between him and some girls father.  Additionally they play up his death as if it happened on the way out from his last session with Etta James.  In reality he died a few months after he sold Chess Records.
  • The relationship between Leonard and Etta James is completely fictitious.  Many other relationships and conflicts in the movie are also embellished including the scene in which Little Walter hits on Geneva.  Also Muddy’s conflict with Leonard about his pay (in truth he cheated Chuck Berry more in that he was using his earnings to pay Muddy during hard times) was played up quite a bit.
  • The story completely omits Muddy’s trusty pianist/band leader Otis Spann and doesn’t lend any focus on his guitarist Jimmy Rogers.  Also almost completely passed over save for one scene in which Etta James is introduced is Leonard’s brother Phil who was part owner of the label/studio.  There was also no mention of the fact that Leonard & Phil got their start in the record business when they bought stake in Aristocrat Records where they recorded a lot of Muddy’s original hits.
  • Even though I think Jeffrey Wright (Muddy Waters) is a very talented actor I did not feel him in this role and thought they could have casted someone more fitting.

In the interest of being fair & balanced here is a list of things I enjoyed or thought the film did well:

  • Casting in the film overall is right on.  The choices of Mos Def as Chuck Berry, Eamonn Walker as Howlin Wolf, and Columbus Short as Little Walter were perfect.  I even found myself enjoying Beyonce as Etta James and I usually find her unbelievably blank.
  • One relationship they hit right on was the tension between Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.  I think in later years they chilled out but early on there was a rivalry between the two blues singers.
  • The film does a wonderful job remaking the music with the actors doing the vocals for the most part.  I thought Jeffrey Wright was a little weak, but the others did a great job.  The song picks were also well done.  Leonard’s son Marshall acted as the Executive Music Producer on the film.
  • Included are quite a few important moments and characters for which the film does a passable job at blending them in.  For example the introduction of Muddy Waters getting recorded by Alan Lomax & John Work which was true.

Overall not the worst movie, but what things the film does well are ruined by the film bending the truth to make it more interesting to common movie goers.

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The Music of Muddy Waters

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Take a moment to realize the huge influence this man has had on Rock N Roll and popular music as a whole.  In 1962 The Rolling Stones formed in England taking their name from his 1950 song “Rollin’ Stone”.  In 1967 Jann Wenner created Rolling Stone Magazine after that same song.  Along the way he has influenced countless British and American Rock & Blues musicians, not to mention his direct involvement in turning up the volume of blues with the introduction of electronically amplified instruments.

When you think of Muddy Waters you probably think of his Chess Records hits.  Most people don’t realize that Muddy first recording was in 1941 while living on cotton farm in Mississippi way before the guitar had been amplified electronically – he was playing good old acoustic country blues from the Mississippi Delta.  He was recorded by none other than Alan Lomax (& John Work III) the famous American field recordist for the Library of Congress.  Once Muddy moved to Chicago in the mid 40s his first records were with the Chess brothers original record label, Aristocrat records.  Muddy didn’t officially record for Chess Records until 1950 when the label was born.  From 1950 – 1975 Muddy records many sides and albums for Chess but the majority of his best songs come from the years 50′ – 58′.  After Chess was sold to a few different companies in the 70s Muddy recorded a few albums for CBS/Sony, most notable are Hard Again and I’m Ready.

I put together a playlist of my favorite Muddy Waters tracks spanning his whole career.  Keep in mind you will be unable to find an official release that compiles all his best songs spanning his whole career because of licensing issues.  The best compilation of Muddy’s overlooked original Lomax recording is called The Complete Plantation Recordings.  The best career retrospective compilation (believe me there are many) that I could find is called The Anthology released in 2001 by MCA Records.  This 2 CD set features Muddy’s best tracks from his Aristocrat recording in the late 40s and all his best stuff from his many years at Chess Records.  Lastly a few songs from his best CBS/Sony recordings which I mentioned above are also included.  Navigate to the playlist via Grooveshark.com here.

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Can’t Be Satisfied – The Life and Times of Muddy Waters

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Published in 2002 and written by author Robert Gordon, Can’t Be Satified is a biography of Muddy Waters.  The book is a loose chronological telling of Muddy’s life which is broken up into 15 chapters, each featuring a set number of years.  Gordon does a great job piecing together the history of a man for which there wasn’t many living subjects or decent records.  The author does his best with what remained which included old news paper & magazine articles, recordings, video, and interviews with any and every living relative, friend or business colleague.  The book is mostly given in story form but breaks from this quite a bit to include references to other related notes, or excerpts from actual interviews or sources.

Through out the book Gordon takes time to flesh out many of the supporting cast including his influences and Delta Blues founders like Son House, Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Sonny Boy Williamson.  You get a little closer look at the many musicians that made up Muddy’s band members and fellow Chess Records artists including Willie Dixon, Son Simms, Otis Spann, Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, Howlin’ Wolf… just to name a few.  Gordon takes a lot of time exploring Muddy’s career as a recording artist and performer but also takes time to flesh out his family life.  He documents what he could of his relationship with all his wives and what childern that he claimed from those marriages and from other affairs.

At first glance the book is fairly thick and unless you page through the end you will be surprised to find out the last quarter is actually just notes, acknowledgements and an index.  Included are a detailed bibliography, chapter by chapter notes, guide to Muddy’s recordings, and a few other interesing tidbits.

Here are some interesting facts about Muddy Waters:

  • His real name is Mckinley Morganfield which he changed to Muddy Water later in life and then finally to Muddy Waters after a record company misprinted his name on one of his early recordings.
  • It was not a secret that Muddy was a womanizer.  Through Muddy’s life he married 3 times and had many children with his wives and other women (I could not find an exact number).  One of his children is Blues musician Big Bill Morganfield.
  • Obviously Muddy’s Chicago shows were highly sexually charged, so much so that its said that Muddy would frequently expose himself to the audience after being goaded into it by the ladies in audience.
  • One New Years Eve, Muddy obviously getting a little out of control partying it up accidentally shot his friend and employee Bo (Andrew Bolton) in the leg.
  • Shortly after the death of Leonard Chess in 1969, while on tour in 1970, Muddy got into a bad car accident in which left 3 people dead including tour mate John Warren.   Muddy suffered 3 broken ribs, a broken pelvis, sprained back and a shattered hip; he was bed ridden for months.

Check out more about Muddy Waters at the following links.

Muddy Waters Allmusic.com page

Muddy Waters Wikipedia page

www.muddywaters.com

There is also a companion video to this book called Muddy Waters – Can’t Be Satisfied released in 2003 on DVD.  It’s not great but it does the trick if you want to see footage of Muddy or if you just want a quick overview of his life.  There was also supposed to be a companion CD released which would compile the authors favorite tracks across Muddy’s whole career but I don’t think he was ever able to work out all the licensing.  If you are interesting in hearing Muddy’s best, check out my related post about Muddy’s music featuring a embedded playlist with all of Muddy’s best stuff (career spanning) here.

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