Muddy Waters is hands down one of the greatest blues musicians to ever live. Born McKinley Morganfield, he was influenced early by the delta blues movement in his home state of Mississippi. He’d go on to take the intense, soulful genre with him to Chicago, where he’d become a pioneering force in the Chicago blues movement alongside other legends like Howlin’ Wolf.
Though he’d ultimately electrify the genre, he kept delta elements in the core of his sound, and his stage name paid permanent homage to his roots. He became one of the genre’s genius arrangers, taking historic and marginal blues numbers and turning them into bonafide standards.
From signature singles like ‘Mannish Boy,’ to lesser-known but equally as powerful tunes like ‘I Can’t Be Satisfied,’ here is our ranked list of the best Muddy Waters songs.
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10. I Can’t Be Satisfied
It’s hard to rank Muddy Waters’ songs because everything he released was passionately performed and meticulously produced. Listeners are hard-pressed to find a Muddy track that’s, well… muddy. His entire discography represented a new, smoother path for the blues.
This earlier single from the late ’40s has a sound you feel you can almost touch while listening to it. The bluesman’s playful yet confident attitude slips out of the lyrics as he jokingly repeats the hook, “I just can’t be satisfied.” His baritone voice once again transports you to the banks of the Mississippi, near where he was born outside of Clarksdale.
This was a breakout hit for Waters, and a formative work that positioned him as a serious musician in the blues game. His future records embodied the living legend that was Muddy Waters, but this 1948 release has stood the test of time.
9. Champagne and Reefer
A Muddy Waters original, he played ‘Champagne and Reefer’ at countless live shows throughout the ’70s before releasing it as a recorded single in 1980. One of his later tracks, Waters once again sings unapologetically about his lifestyle, saying his vices of choice are harmless and help him quiet his mind and induce rest.
A song ahead of its time, it resonated with fans across genres, appealing to both blues listeners, and rock and roll audiences who recognized him as one of the genre’s “founding fathers.”
Years later, another blues great, Buddy Guy, performed a live cover of this bad boy classic with The Rolling Stones.
8. I Love the Life I Live (I Live the Life I Love)
An authoritative blues anthem, songwriter Willie Dixon first wrote this number before Muddy Waters released it in the ’50s. This effort proved Muddy Waters’ talents spanned genres as he effortlessly combined early rock and roll elements with the strut-worthy blues story about living fiercely and unapologetically. Behind Waters’ melodic, gospel-tinged, sometimes-screamed vocal lines, barroom piano, electric guitar, and harmonica fill space.
One of several spiritually anthemic arrangements Muddy released during his heyday, ‘I Love the Life I Live (I Live the Life I Love)’ comes in towards the end of our list at number 8.
7. You Need Love
Muddy Waters covered many Willie Dixon tunes over the years. Dixon, a masterful songwriter, was a visionary for the genre throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and worked with many Chicago blues musicians. A former boxer, he had a towering form when it came to the music industry as well, proving himself to be both a heavyweight when it came to fighting and when it came to creating.
By the time Waters recorded ‘You Need Love,’ he had solidified his signature electric blues sound. Just a few vocal overdubs and Chess Records was on their way to releasing Muddy’s new single.
Dixon’s wife, Marie, has spoken before about the song, telling interviewers the tone of Dixon’s voice and specific use of language in the original recording suggested he wrote it specifically for her.
6. Rollin’ Stone
Here’s a little Rock n’ Roll trivia question for you: What legendary rock band named their group after this Muddy Waters track? Answer… The Rolling Stones. The bad boys of the Stones had a long, close relationship with the blues artist, and Mick Jagger has even mentioned before that the first record he ever purchased was a Waters live concert album.
‘Rollin’ Stone’ is atypical of Muddy Waters often-utilized big band sound. Steeped in delta blues myth, the song is closely associated with ‘Catfish Blues,’ a ghostly Mississippian song so old no one really knows who wrote it first. The song’s title refers to an ancient saying, “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” and it was rumored to be oen of Muddy’s favorite tracks and one of the original tunes he learned on the guitar.
While playing the recording, the listener is immediately struck by the stripped down production, only Muddy’s fire-and-brimstone-laden voice and lone electric guitar waft out from the speakers.
5. Baby, Please Do Don’t Go
This delta blues classic features a troubled relationship, with the man pleading with his girl not to leave him for the busy streets and bustling dives of New Orleans. This earlier Waters arrangement from the 1950s features blues harp player Little Walter Jacobs, and his scorching melodies set the tone right off the bat for this love-gone-wrong stinger. Rolling drums immediately get your body involved. Try not to sway to its infectious rhythm. ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’ was originally written by Mississippi musician Big Joe Williams, but the song has gone on to become one of the most covered blues standards of all time.
Though it’s not a Muddy original, his rearrangement work is second-to-none, and the single is a popular one among fans of both Chicago and delta blues. That’s why it comes in at a modest number 5 on our list.
4. Good Morning Little Schoolgirl
With a driving backbeat similar to the groove found in Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Smokestack Lightnin’,’ Muddy Waters’ ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl’ is another critically-acclaimed blues standard that has had a historic presence throughout different regions of America.
Written by Sonny Boy Williamson, a killer harmonica player and songwriting machine, it became widely popular among the early Chicago blues scene. Even though Waters wouldn’t put his signature touch on it until the ’60s, Williamson recorded it during the Great Depression in 1937. Perhaps harsh economic realities and Williamson’s own southern upbringing in Tennessee deeply influenced the languid, haunting essence of the track. While Williamson’s subtle vocal twang and fiery harmonica work are signature elements of the original piece, Waters transformed the track with thumping background bass and commanding baritone vocals.
After listening to Muddy’s soulful version, look up Williamson’s red-hot original and marvel at the differences between the two.
3. Got My Mojo Working
Though blues legend Muddy Waters didn’t write all of the songs he recorded, he was an expert at arrangements and often helped otherwise marginal blues songs reach “blues standard” recognition. Blues standards are the songs that are considered to be some of the genre’s most important work, and ‘Got My Mojo Working’ is one of them.
The original, written by Red Foster, had a lyrical focus on hoodoo magic elements. If you’ve ever listened to ‘I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,’ subtle hints at hoodoo traditions can be found in those lyrics as well. While the African spiritual tradition was important to many blues singers like Waters, when he reworked ‘Got My Mojo Working’ he transformed the phrase, taking it from a folk-magic reference to a mainstream cultural saying.
Another macho addition full of swagger and bravado, Muddy playfully proclaims in regards to the power of his mojo, “I’m gonna have all you women under my command.”
2. I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man
Many blues standards still popular today were written by musician and producer Willie Dixon. Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, he ultimately moved north and became a pioneering figure in the Chicago blues movement. Muddy Waters had the honor of recording his track ‘I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man’ in 1954.
The tune is another iconic addition to the blues songs of the ’50s which celebrated masculinity, especially in relation to attention from women. The lyrics read like a mythic tale, starting with the day a boy is born with the doctor declaring he’ll be a “son of a gun.” The song also includes elements from hoodoo traditions, a spiritual practice Dixon and many other blues artists grew up learning about and practicing in the southern states.
When Dixon pitched Waters the tune, Waters had a residency at a popular Chicago music club, and partly used his sets to perfect the tune before recording it. ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ is one of blues music’s most enduring tracks, but it isn’t Waters’ signature hit, so it comes in just behind ‘Mannish Boy’ on our list at number 2.
1. Mannish Boy
Muddy Waters is synonymous with the historic Chicago Blues scene, an American musical movement backed by singer-songwriters who traded in their acoustic guitars for electric axes and employed horn sections to back their 12-bar hits.
In 1955, Muddy visited the studio of the (at the time) modest recording label he was signed to, Chess Records. The execs were recording a new cat in town, Bo Diddley, and Waters was so struck by one of his tracks ‘I’m a Man,’ he ran with it himself. He slowed down the beat, gave it a classic delta blues spin, rewrote lyrics with unapologetic swagger, and thus ‘Mannish Boy’ was born. When the blues musician performed the powerful number for a scene in Scorcese film The Last Waltz, mainstream exposure ensured the tune would go down as one of the greatest blues songs ever recorded.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a blues or rock musician who hasn’t tried their best to cover this braggadocious number. Chances are, you’ve heard it in one of your favorite films or TV shows.
The signature anthem takes our top spot in this list of the best Muddy Waters songs.
We hope you’ve enjoyed checking out Muddy Water’s music. Here are some more songs that nearly made the list that are worth checking out:
- Long Distance Call
- I’m a King Bee
- Louisiana Blues
- I Just Want to Make Love to You