This was recorded with one of the most acclaimed blues groups in history: Little Walter Jacobs on harmonica, Jimmy Rogers on guitar, Elga Edmonds (also known as Elgin Evans) on drums, and Otis Spann on piano. The band recorded a series of blues classics during the early 1950s, some with the help of the bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon.
Known as the “father of modern Chicago blues”, Muddy Waters’ influence was tremendous, not just on blues and rhythm and blues but on rock and roll, hard rock, folk music, jazz, and country music. His use of amplification is often cited as the link between Delta blues and rock and roll. He is one of the legends of the Blues, having known and played with other artists revered by Blues fans ever since.
As his history is well-documented, I will just give an overview of his life and encourage all to search out the details.
Born McKinley Morganfield in a cabin on the Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi around 1913 -1915, by age 17 was playing the guitar and the harmonica, emulating the local blues artists Son House and Robert Johnson. His grandmother, Della Grant, raised him after his mother died shortly after his birth. Grant gave him the nickname “Muddy” at an early age because he loved to play in the muddy water of nearby Deer Creek. “Waters” was added years later, as he began to play harmonica and perform locally in his early teens.
He had his first introduction to music in church:
I used to belong to church. I was a good Baptist, singing in the church. So I got all of my good moaning and trembling going on for me right out of church.
By the time he was 17, he had purchased his first guitar.
I sold the last horse that we had. Made about fifteen dollars for him, gave my grandmother seven dollars and fifty cents, I kept seven-fifty and paid about two-fifty for that guitar. It was a Stella. The people ordered them from Sears-Roebuck in Chicago.
His first known recording was in 1941 when Alan Lomax went to Stovall, Mississippi, on behalf of the Library of Congress to record various country blues musicians.
He brought his stuff down and recorded me right in my house, and when he played back the first song I sounded just like anybody’s records. Man, you don’t know how I felt that Saturday afternoon when I heard that voice and it was my own voice. Later on he sent me two copies of the pressing and a check for twenty bucks, and I carried that record up to the corner and put it on the jukebox. Just played it and played it and said, ‘I can do it, I can do it.’
In 1943, Muddy Waters headed to Chicago with the hope of becoming a full-time professional musician. Big Bill Broonzy, then one of the leading bluesmen in Chicago, had Muddy Waters open his shows in the rowdy clubs where Broonzy played. This gave Muddy Waters the opportunity to play in front of a large audience.
In 1944, he bought his first electric guitar and then formed his first electric combo. He felt obliged to electrify his sound in Chicago because, he said:
When I went into the clubs, the first thing I wanted was an amplifier. Couldn’t nobody hear you with an acoustic.
Two years later, in 1946, he recorded some songs for Columbia Records, with an old-fashioned combo consisting of clarinet, saxophone and piano; Muddy Waters’ name was not mentioned on the label. Later that year, he began recording for Aristocrat Records, a newly formed label run by the brothers Leonard and Phil Chess, which later became Chess Records. By 1948, his first recordings “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home” became hits, and his popularity in clubs began to take off.
The rest, as is said, is history. His discography is extensive and represents his pioneering of bringing the Delta Blues to his new brand of electric Chicago Blues.
Now, back to “I’m A Man”.
“I’m a Man” was released as the B-side of “Bo Diddley”, his first single in April 1955. The single became a two-sided hit and reached number one in the Billboard R&B chart. It was inspired by Muddy Waters’ 1954 song “Hoochie Coochie Man”, also written by Willie Dixon.
The song makes reference to hoodoo folk magic elements and makes novel use of a stop-time musical arrangement. This musical device is commonly heard in New Orleans jazz, when the instrumentation briefly stops, allowing for a short instrumental or vocal solo before resuming. It became one of Waters’ most popular and identifiable songs and helped secure Dixon’s role as Chess Records’ chief songwriter. The stop-time riff was “soon absorbed into the lingua franca of blues, R&B, jazz, and rock and roll”, according to musicologist Robert Palmer, and is used in several popular songs. When Bo Diddley adapted it for “I’m a Man”, it became one of the most recognizable musical phrases in blues.
Bo Diddley modified the song’s signature riff for his March 1955 song “I’m a Man”. He reworked it as a four-note figure, which is repeated for the entire song without a progression to other chords. Music critic and writer Cub Koda calls it “the most recognizable blues lick in the world”.
Muddy Waters, not to be outdone, responded two months later with an answer song to “I’m a Man”, titled “Mannish Boy”, partly as a jab at Diddley as he was younger and had “borrowed” his riff. Waters recalled:
Bo Diddley, he was tracking me down with my beat when he made ‘I’m a Man’. That’s from ‘Hoochie Coochie Man.’ Then I got on it with ‘Mannish Boy’ and just drove him out of my way.
Emphasizing the origin of Bo Diddley’s song, Waters sticks to the original first eight-bar phrase from “Hoochie Coochie Man” and includes some of the hoodoo references.
Many British bands have covered “I’m A Man”, including The Who, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and The Yardbirds, Jimmy Page and The Yardbirds, among many others.
Two of the more well known versions in the US were by the Spencer Davis Group and Chicago. This was the final Spencer Davis Group release to feature Steve Winwood, who left to form Traffic.
Chicago’s cover arrangement features an extended percussion and drum section with a total run time of 7 minutes and 40 seconds, and is based around the distortion-heavy blues-rock guitar of Terry Kath, the drumming of Danny Seraphine, the bass of Peter Cetera, the soaring Hammond organ of Robert Lamm and the horn players periodically switching over to auxiliary percussion instruments, such as claves, cowbell, maracas, and tambourine. Kath, Cetera and Lamm each sing a verse apiece (not singing the lyrics as they were originally written, but as they misheard and/or revised them).
Bo Diddley’s original “I’m a Man” is ranked number 369 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 2012 the song, along with the self-named A-side song “Bo Diddley”, was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” American sound recordings. In 2018, “I’m a Man” was inducted into the Blues Foundation Blues Hall of Fame as a “classic of blues recording”.