Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters by Robert Gordon
It's tough to overstate the importance of Muddy Waters in the pantheon of 20th century popular music. Armstrong, Ellington, Miles, Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, Stones and such get wider acclaim, but the one-time Mississippi sharecropper cum blues legend is as influential as any of them.
Southern black man leaves harsh workdays in the cotton fields for a better life making music in Chicago. His Delta blues style is influenced by urban life and industrialism, he plugs in his guitar, gets a band together and next you have Chicago blues. Muddy's the architect. Connect the dots and you get rock 'n' roll, R&B and hip-hop.
Robert Gordon's meticulously researched biography covers it all, from Muddy's early days as McKinley Morganfield, living in poverty on the Stovall Plantation six miles from the cradle of the blues, Clarksdale, to his death from cancer in 1980 at age 70. With a steady hand, the author lays out Muddy's improbable rise to prominence, capturing not only his particular brand of raw genius but the bluesman's humanity as well. He never learned to read, could barely write his name; he was a drinker and carouser; fathered children all over. He could be kind, could be selfish. Most important of all: The music poured from him.
Gordon repeatedly returns to the notion that Muddy never fully outgrew his sharecropper days. On the plantation, The Boss gave his workers what was known as a 'furnish," which amounted to just about enough to survive. For most of his career, Muddy received his furnish from the legendary Chicago-based Chess Records label, owned by two white immigrants. Instead of scrupulously accounted royalty payments, Waters went to the bosses for money when he needed it. The Chess brothers made sure he rode around in a recent model Cadillac. By comparative standards, Muddy was a wealthy guy, but, Gordon establishes, not nearly as rich as he could've been.
Can't Be Satisfied is more thorough than gripping. Gordon's prose is almost too sturdy; the book could use more emotion. A gifted hack like Albert Goldman could've turned this into a lurid page-turner — and we would've hardly believed half of it. Take this account of Muddy's life and times to the bank.