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This week in history: Muddy Waters plays Mister Kelly’s

The blues legend, who died April 30, 1983, recorded a live album in June 1971 at Mister Kelly’s in Chicago. A Chicago Sun-Times reporter wrote a profile of Waters at the time of the recording.

Muddy Waters performs at Mister Kelly’s nightclub on Rush Street in Chicago, 1971.
Muddy Waters performs at Mister Kelly’s nightclub on Rush Street in Chicago, 1971. The prolific bluesman died on April 30, 1983.
Photo by Bob Black/Chicago Sun-Times

As published in sister publications Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times:

Without blues legend Muddy Waters, musicology would be without rock and roll. Without Waters, blues singers would miss the legend who influenced them. Without Waters, Chicago might never have become the hometown of the blues.

Waters, who died April 30, 1983, remains one of the city’s most famous icons. His concerts in town drew massive crowds — and write-ups in both the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times.

On June 1, 1971, Waters opened at Mister Kelly’s, 1028 N. Rush St., and he “laid the heavy sorrow of the blues” across the venue, a Daily News reporter wrote. Unfortunately, the audience seemed “slow,” lacking the excitement a Waters concert should demand.

“Muddy fans should rally around the master,” the reporter said.

Several days later, the paper reported that Waters would be taping a record that weekend called “Mister Waters at Mister Kelly’s.” The Sun-Times sent reporter Sam Washington to profile the blues singer before he recorded the album.

“Muddy Waters walked slowly up the stairs to the second-floor dressing room above the main room in Mr. Kelly’s,” Washington observed in his June 13 profile. “He strained at each stair as if every move brought him pain.”

By 1971, Waters received the recognition he deserved as the father of the blues. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones “started telling people how much they owed to Muddy’s style of blues singing,” Washington wrote.

“People, mostly young people, started looking me up in record stores and buying my records and things got a lot better financially,” Waters told him.

But even as Ralph Bass, Waters’ manager and Chess Records executive, gushed about the upcoming album, Waters had little enthusiasm.

“Let me feel a little better,” he said. The singer had caught a cold. His wife lay in bed sick. His hip, which had been shattered in a car crash in 1969, caused him pain whenever he walked.

After sipping champagne — “I started drinking this stuff four years ago when I ran into some high blood pressure from hard liquor,” Waters told Washington — the artist was ready when the emcee announced: “Mr. Kelly’s now presents the boss man of the blues. The one and only Mr. Muddy Waters.”

“He sang it all,” the Sun-Times reporter wrote of his performance, “from ‘Call It Stormy Monday,’ which he first recorded in 1946, to his big seller, ‘Got My Mojo Working.’ He sang of love, hard times, death and bad luck. But always there was in his voice that joy that comes from understanding some of what life is all about.”

When he finished, Waters walked back through the crowd, shaking hands and accepting congratulations, Washington wrote. Once again, the singer faced the stairs back up to his dressing room.

“He hesitated for only a moment and started to climb,” he said, “moving slowly but knowing that the top is never so high that it can’t be reached if you try hard enough and give as much as you can.”