As a teenager I became enthralled with the blues. First it was the bits of blues material I heard from British rock bands – the Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones, and others. Then it was discovering young white American harp players such as Charlie Musselwhite and Paul Butterfield. Then the whole vista of modern blues opened up – Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, the King guitar triumvirate of B. B., Albert, and Freddie; Johnny Shines, Otis Spann, Little Milton, Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, Jimmy Reed, and so many more!
When any of these guys actually came to town it was as if legendary beings had descended to Earth and graced us with their presence. In those days, touring performers often played weeklong club dates that gave them a deeper exposure to local audiences, and offered the true fanatics the chance to show up every night and develop familiarity both with the legends’ performing styles and with their (sometimes not-so-godlike) personalities.
One legend who lost no luster with exposure was Muddy Waters. As a young man, during my travels I’d meet harp players who would claim to have sat in with Muddy. I never doubted them, even the ones who were perfectly awful players. I believed them because of my own experience with Muddy.
Muddy had a great history of hatching new talent. Just look at the influential harp players whose careers were launched or furthered in his band – Little Walter Jacobs, Big Walter Horton, Junior Wells, George “Harmonica” Smith, James Cotton, Mojo Buford, Paul Oscher, Jerry Portnoy. Even the also-rans who for one reason or another didn’t make it into the band were illustrious, such as Paul deLay and Rod Piazza. It seemed like Muddy was a cultivator of developing talent and his band was the incubator.
So when Muddy started a weeklong engagement in my hometown, I approached him on the Monday night and asked to sit in. I’d made this request to other touring performers with names big and small and usually received the brush-off, sometimes gently and sometimes less so. Now, Muddy had no idea who I was or whether I knew which side of the harp was up (I did) or even if I could follow a 12-bar blues progression (I could). But without hesitation, he advised me, “Choose a Little Walter song, come back on the last night of the gig, and I’ll put you up.”
I showed up as directed, and before going on Muddy asked me what I’d chosen. I informed him that I wanted to play “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer.” He replied, “Oh that’s in the key of E natural.” Little Walter recorded it in the key of G, but I wasn’t about to gainsay the master, so I got an A-harp at the ready. Then he asked my name. When I said, “Winslow Yerxa,” his face flickered with a look of consternation (or maybe the look that some folks call “flustration”) and he remarked, “I can’t say that.” When the time came to announce my appearance, he simply referred to me as a young man but in a glowing tone of voice as if he knew and valued my playing.
I made it (a bit stiffly) through my slow-blues feature number, and suddenly Muddy launched into a mid-tempo shuffle, indicating for me to play along. I vamped along gamely for a few verses, when suddenly I realized what was going on – Muddy launched into the descending stop-time riff that comes in the middle of “Juke,” Little Walter’s most famous number! OK, now I knew what to do – why hadn’t I caught on before? We made it through to the end of the number and Muddy grabbed my arm, holding it up like he was announcing a victorious prizefighter and shouted, “Let’s hear it for a real harp player!”
Muddy Waters is one of the very greatest and most revered names in the blues, and behind that name is a man who was gracious and generous in encouraging talent. Some of lesser stature didn’t exhibit that spirit, and I sometimes wonder whether there’s a connection. Either way, it was certainly a thrill for me to receive such wonderful treatment from one of my heroes.