Previously unreleased recordings of the electric blues landing in Manchester shatter the myth that Muddy Waters shocked little old England.
Not so loud: Muddy Waters
It was a seminal moment in British rock and blues history when Muddy Waters first toured in 1958, but not because his "screaming" electric guitar horrified the staid, malnourished audience.
Apparently, each time Muddy touched the knobs on his electric instrument, the volume got louder, forcing one critic further back in the audience until he was out of the door. The Chicago bluesman, humbled by James Asman's chastising review, told Melody Maker: "Now I know that the people in England like soft guitar and old blues, next time I come I'll learn some old songs first."
But now we know this is a load of hokum: shocking new proof has emerged that Muddy wasn't, in fact, all that shocking. To date, one man alone has railed against the prevailing myth that British audiences were blown away in horror by his electric blast - perpetuated in interviews by Muddy himself.
Chris Barber ought to know how loud or quiet he was: he brought Muddy and pianist Otis Spann over here and accompanied him with his band. And that he played electric was no surprise, at least not to Paul Oliver who wrote the programme notes.
The truth may not be as alluring, but a triple-CD set of previously unreleased live recordings from Manchester's Free Trade Hall featuring American guests with the Chris Barber Jazz Band has Muddy's guitar sounding distinctly, er, muddy: it can hardly be heard over Spann's boogie-woogie triplets and the ecstatic Dixieland jazz of the band. And unlike the infamous 1966 incident at that venue, there wasn't a Judas shout to be heard or even a rumble of disapproval from the crowd.
Muddy appears on the second disc of this chronologically organised historical document. The first volume shows Sister Rosetta Tharpe had already plugged in her guitar on British stages in 1957 and you can hear it ringing as clear as a battered bell as she goes solo for Rock Me (in which her enraptured, soulful self almost seems to be asking for sexual favours from Jesus). And is the audience's embarrassed-sounding laughter during This Train provoked by the gospel-singer slugging great draughts of whiskey mid-song and gyrating, which she was prone to doing?
Her duets with the sorely underrated Irish blues singer Ottilie Patterson along with Barber's exuberant band dispel the notion that Brits didn't have what it took to get into the spirit of the blues until the Rolling Stones came along.
Britain's only first-hand experience of bluesmen until the start of this amazing Barber chronicle was from acoustic blues tours by Josh White, Lonnie Johnson and Big Bill Broonzy from 1950 onwards. Less well documented is that, although the masses of skifflers didn't amp up their DIY appropriations of Leadbelly, electric blues arrived as early as 1955 with the formation of the London Blues & Barrelhouse Club at Soho's Roundhouse pub. Club founders, Hofner-wielding Alexis Korner and metal-worker and harp-player Cyril Davies had recorded an electric set and released a run of 100 Blues At The Roundhouse LPs on Doug Dobell's 77 indie label in 1957. The liner notes applaud the players for playing "Negro blues not merely with competence but also with sympathy and understanding".
The Manchester audiences may sit in a reverent hush when Barber makes his awkward, overlong introductions, but they become noticeably fired up as each show progresses. The experience turned Muddy Waters and Rosetta Tharpe into Anglophiles and regular visitors - they'd gained major acceptance by the time the Blues & Gospel Train, broadcast from Manchester, hit TV screens in 1963.
Though Muddy Waters might have played softly, his impact was sufficiently loud to reverberate through the annals of rock for the next 50 years. His enduring popularity in Britain resurrected his faltering career in the 60s when the figureheads of the British Invasion alerted white America to what it had missed.
These recordings put the myth to rest that Brits were backward and not ready to rock in the 50s, from the perspective of both the musicians and the audiences. The transatlantic exchanges represent the cornerstone of rock music, the font from which the Stones, Hendrix and Led Zeppelin owe their existence. Another piece of the jigsaw has been found, and it's a crucial one.