Danny Zelisko on Today and Tomorrow in Scottsdale
September 7, 2023
Chapter 16: Muddy Waters – Hard Again!
I started booking Muddy Waters in the ’70s through the Paragon Agency out of Georgia. He got $3,500 to do two shows a night.
When it comes to legends, there aren’t many bigger than Muddy Waters. This guy has been responsible/credited for much of the sound of great modern blues rock that we hear today. He made a huge impact on the entire music world. The Rolling Stones even named themselves after his song “Rollin’ Stone.”
The Rolling Stones loved Muddy Waters and all those classic blues musicians, going all the way back to Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Freddie King, John Lee Hooker and Albert King. These great American blues players along with others, had a huge impact on the music that came out of England. Guys like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck were all fans of these bluesmen, and if you listen to their records, it becomes pretty obvious. Just think about it, all these British kids listening to this stuff coming from America and then crossing the pond, playing what they’d learned from the original styles, sparking a music revolution.
But this was a tricky time. It was before people started to properly revere Muddy Waters the way they should have all along. Honestly, he has never gotten nearly enough credit. People today don’t realize how much of what he’s recorded matters. Many people know nothing about how music came to be or how rock and roll emerged from the blues and R&B back in the day. It wasn’t until these English bands gained popularity, covering old blues songs while name-dropping the original artists in interviews and even bringing them on tours. It is when these blues greats started getting the recognition (and some cash) they deserved and should have received from the very beginning.
Bill Graham was big on that. Putting eclectic and influential artists and their younger rock descendants on the same tour. I have a poster on my wall advertising a show in which Miles Davis, of all people, opened for the Grateful Dead. The Dead revered Miles Davis. At that time, it seemed unusual. Why would this bunch of hippies, this acid-rock band, have Miles Davis opening for them? When it came to experimentation and musical exploration, Miles was even more out there than the Dead. He was a genius and a lot of that jam-band sound came from musicians like him. I mean, who was doing the jamming originally? The jazz artists, that’s who. That’s another way Bill really had an impact, by bringing these different acts together. He really changed the game, and other promoters all over the country started doing the same.
I admired Muddy Waters, and we got along really well. He wasn’t even that old then; in fact, he was younger than I am right now.
One day I was just sitting in my office on another call, during a meeting with my feet up on the desk. I was working out of my home in Scottsdale at that point. This was when there was an intercom function on phones so your assistant could let you know, over the speaker, that you had another call. The intercom came on and someone said, “Danny, Muddy Waters is on line one.”
I fell off the chair. Muddy Waters was calling me on the phone! Before I got carried away, I thought to myself, I hope this isn’t some wise guy trying to pull a prank call. Muddy did have a show coming up with me in a week or two so maybe it was possible. I was currently on the phone and in a meeting and the person sitting across from me was very impressed, so I picked up the call.
“Muddy?” I asked. “Is that you?”
There was that deep, powerful but happy voice: “Well, I’m coming to see you. Can’t wait! Looking forward to another show with you. This time I’m bringing the new Mrs. Waters with me.”
“Yes, I am. I wonder if I could ask you a personal favor?”
“Well, what would that be?”
“I was wondering if you couldn’t get me a little bit of the hoochie cooch?”
“The what now?”
“Hoochie cooch, Mary Jane, marijuana. You know what I’m talking about.” he answered.
“Absolutely.” I assured him.
“Oh, Mrs. Waters, she loves the hoochie cooch. You know why my new album is called Hard Again? Because Mrs. Waters, she likes the hoochie cooch and then she goes crazy on ol’ Muddy. If I can get crazy, you know I’m gonna appreciate it, being as old as I am and everything. She does shit I can’t tell you about, but if you could just get that for me, I’d consider it a personal favor.”
So naturally, I got it for him. There’s another level of friendship you can develop with somebody over something like that and when you get right down to it, it’s more or less innocent. It’s medicinal and spiritual all at the same time!
Another time, in 1981, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers came to play for me at the University Activity Center at Arizona State University. I was the main promoter for the venue throughout the ’80s. We’d do about six to ten shows a year there. We’d get acts like Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. This was when these acts were fairly new, not the established veterans as they are now. It was very exciting to be a part of their careers as they were unfolding, not knowing what came next for them.
Tom and I got to be friends too and it all came together when he came to town the night of the big Sugar Ray Leonard fight against Thomas “The Hit Man” Hearns. My partner at the time, Bill Niblick, rented one of those big-screen TVs and we all stayed at this upscale hotel called the Pointe Resort located in Phoenix. We had a great night watching the fight with the whole band. Magic.
The next night, Muddy Waters and his band were playing at Dooley’s and Tom Petty and the ‘original’ Heartbreakers were all coming to the show. At the show we had these great seats right below the sound mixer and afterwards, I brought Tom and the whole band backstage so they could meet Muddy.
“Well, young man,” Muddy said, “how was that one?”
“It was great!” I replied then added, “Actually, I got this guy here who wants to meet you. He’s a rock singer.”
Now, Muddy would never tell you if he knew who someone was. Usually he didn’t know or really care. He didn’t pay too much attention to contemporary pop or rock music. He was too busy thinking about his own band, working and staying on the road, just keeping his life going—and at $3,500 a night, he wasn’t making all that much.
Tom was telling him how great he was and absolutely gushing, but Muddy wasn’t acting all that impressed.
So, Tom said, “Muddy, it would mean the world to us if you would play some more.”
Muddy answered, “You want me to go out on that stage again and play some more? Fuck you. I’m too old! Tell you what,” he winks at me, “you guys come out and play with us, we’ll play some more music.”
At this point, the staff was cleaning up the venue, moving tables, stacking chairs and all of that. The crowd had mostly cleared out except for the ones still at the bar, so we’re talking about a hundred people. I got onstage and told the people still in the club to come back down to the stage.
“Hey, everyone,” I announced, “we’ve got something cool for you.” Everyone came out on stage: Muddy, Tom, and both bands for a total of sixteen people! It was just unbelievable. Muddy let Tom do most of the singing, but he was right there with him as both bands played (the Heartbreakers and the Muddy Waters Blues Band). That was an awesome night!
The last fight I got into at a show was when Tom Rush opened for Muddy Waters at Dooley’s. Tom is a legendary folkie from the Northeast. Muddy wanted to open the second show rather than close because he didn’t want to have to tear all the equipment down and then set up again.
So, Muddy opened the second show. Then Tom Rush came on to perform and a gang of bikers showed up looking to see the headliner. People were screaming because Muddy had already played. A lot of times, people will show up late for a show when they know there’s an opener and all they want to see is the main act.
A fight started by the sound booth. One biker was beating up the soundman. I jumped off the stairway that was right by the booth and landed on the biker’s back. This guy was so big that he flung me off of him, I heard him say, “A mosquito hit me.” I went flying and that ladies and gentlemen, was the last time I ever joined in a bar fight.
Muddy always seemed casual, happy and relatively carefree, but there was a darkness in him as well. He’d get bitter sometimes and rightfully so. I’d think about how he never got the credit or the money the bands that came after him got. After all, he was a pioneer in electric-guitar music and he basically gave birth to the blues sound of guys like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Hendrix, and Eric Clapton. He influenced all these great musicians, but he never had the success they had.
Needless to say, Muddy Waters made a huge impact on my life. Even though he lived to be seventy, he died young for a guy who seemed like he was going to go on forever. There will never be another like him.
Chapter 16 Photo Gallery