This week in history: Muddy Waters meets his neighbors

In January 1978, Westmont residents got to know their neighbor, blues legend Muddy Water – who was born this week in 1913 – through a Chicago Daily News series.

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Muddy Waters closeup in Chicago.

Muddy Waters on Aug. 12, 1978 in Chicago.

Paul Natkin, Getty Images

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

In the waning days of its existence, the Chicago Daily News ran a series called “Meet Your Neighbor,” which profiled famous Chicagoans who lived somewhat under the radar in ordinary neighborhoods and suburbs. 

Out in Westmont, Daily News reporter Michael Huber asked diners at Bishop’s beer-and-chili joint if they knew Muddy Waters.

“Oh yeah, Muddy Waters — he lives in town somewhere. He’s a singer or something in Chicago, isn’t he?” a waitress said in the January 28, 1978 article. She then called to other patrons around the bar to see if they knew where he lived.

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“Yeah, Muddy Waters, he lives on the south side of the Burlington tracks,” a regular chimed in. “He lives in a big old house with a swimming pool. Just look for the pool, it’s the only one in town.”

Within just three blocks of his home, Waters, who was born this week on April 4, 1913, remained practically unknown — and that’s the way he liked it.

“I love it, I just love it,” he told Huber, “repeating himself like a call-and-response blues chorus.”

Waters had just returned after a tour of Texas with ZZ Top and some time spent in the studio working on his latest album, “I’m Ready,” Huber wrote. His called his “modest frame house” a retreat where he could rest and recover after being on the road for 40 weeks out of the year. In addition to presiding over three generations of his family, he could pursue his hobbies at home: “Drinking champagne and, in the summer, sitting out in the yard swatting skeeters.”

Some readers might have been surprised to learn Waters had moved out of the city. For 30 years, he’d lived on the South Side but decided to relocate in 1973 because, as he said, “the city was just getting too rough. At my age — I’m 62 — you just can’t handle all that roughness.”

Waters knew a thing or two about roughness. He boarded a train for Chicago in 1943 and left his life as a farm laborer in the Mississippi River delta, where he was born, behind after a dispute with his boss. “Back then,” he told Huber, “Mississippi was a bad place for a Black boy to be on the wrong side of his white boss man.”

For the first few years in the city, Waters struggled and played gigs for as little as 50 cents, “a fish sandwich and a half-pint of moonshine.” In 1944, he switched from an acoustic to electric guitar, making his sound more distinct and easier to hear in clubs where “it would get real loud when everyone got drunk.” By 1949, his music took off.

“I made Chicago the blues headquarters,” he said. “The other delta bluesmen — Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and all the rest — heard about what I was doing up here and decided to come up and get a little of the gravy. That’s how Chicago became the blues capital.”

But the bluesman’s influence stretched far beyond the city limits. His song, “Rollin’ Stone,” inspired the name of a well-known rock band a decade after its release and, a few years after that, a Bob Dylan song. In November 1967, a musical publication adopted the title as its name. Waters also won industry acclaim with two Grammy wins and six nominations.

Now after all of that, Waters vows to never retire “as long as my health holds out,” he said. He still strummed his guitar, but only on stage and never in practice. “I’ve gone as far as I can go,” he reasoned.

“I play nothin’ but the blues. Yeah, nothin’ but the blues. The blues is all I know.”

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