Sonny Boy Lee's "Ain't nothin' but the blues!"

sonny boy lee on muddy waters

Muddy Waters Although I grew up only 425 miles from Chicago, and I sang and played guitar in my own rockabilly band in Minneapolis from the age of 16, I was 19 years old before I learned about the blues.


The first time I remember hearing blues was a day in 1962 when a friend brought a Muddy Waters album over to my apartment. The rawness and simplicity of Muddy's music captured me. It made me want to hear more, to hear the blues performed live.

When I read the album liner notes, I found out Muddy lived in Chicago. Several months later another friend and I took a Greyhound bus there, and scoured newspaper ads to find out where he was playing, but didn't see Muddy's name anywhere.

So I looked in the phone book and was surprised to find a McKinley Morganfield listed. I was even more surprised by his genuine friendliness when I called him. I told him my name and said we had come down from Minneapolis to hear him and asked where he would be that night. Muddy said he was playing at Pepper's Lounge on Chicago's South Side, and gave me the address.

A lot of young guys who wanted to be blues players, including several who later became legends themselves, such as Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield, hung out back then in the South Side clubs where everybody who was anybody in the blues in Chicago played. But calling most of those places clubs was a stretch. They were mostly funky holes-in-the-wall. Musicians would set up on the floor and play in a corner of the club or right by the door. You could hear the music coming out of the clubs as you walked down the street.

Pepper's Lounge had a stage, but it was nothing to write home about. Walking in you would never expect to find Muddy Waters playing there for $8 a night.

We went to hear Muddy several times. His music was even more dynamic live. I knew then that I wanted to play the blues. I can't explain why, it was an undefinable thing. It just touched me somehow. It still does.

A couple of times after his gigs Muddy invited me and my friend and some other kids hanging around the club to his apartment on Lake Park Drive South.

We sat around his living room, listened to the phonograph, passed bottles around and talked about music. There was always somebody picking on a guitar, or blowing a harmonica, or tapping out rhythms on a table or chair.

One early morning after a gig a kid picked up a guitar, intent on impressing Muddy, and ripped off a bunch of rapid-fire, run-together, stock blues riffs. When he got done, he was quite pleased with himself and glanced at Muddy and around the room with a "I'm really slick and aren't you impressed" look on his face.

Muddy just sat in his chair taking it all in. After a moment of silence, he said: "You white boys play too many notes."

That was the best advice anybody ever gave me on how to play the blues.

-- Sonny Boy Lee 

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