Like the Bear Family sets that include every available recording of an artist, this two-disc collection finally presents every known track Muddy Waters recorded for the Aristocrat and Chess labels from 1947 to 1952. Since Waters was such a vital architect of the Chicago blues sound, it's an indispensable historical and educational document, as well as a wonderful listening experience. The mono sound, remastered in 2000, is clean, crisp, and remarkably vibrant considering the age of these masters, and the liner notes, pictures, and track documentation in the 16-page booklet are enlightening, professional, and complete. Brought to Aristocrat's attention by Sunnyland Slim who accompanies Waters on the earliest sides here, Muddy quickly established himself as an important and talented artist in his own right. Even the first recordings from 1947 show the guitarist/vocalist/songwriter as confident, mature, and, above all, driven, with his songs focused and tightly constructed. The majority of the tracks on disc one feature Waters with accompaniment from only bassist Earnest "Big" Crawford and prove what an astonishingly inventive slide guitarist Muddy was, even at this fresh-faced stage in his career. Little Walter adds his distinctive harp to increase the band to a trio, but percussion doesn't appear until about three-quarters through this album when Leonard Chess beats a rudimentary bass drum on four songs recorded in July 1951.
Although many of Waters' signature tunes including "Got My Mojo Workin'," "Hootchie Cootchie Man," and "I'm Ready" were recorded after the five years covered on these discs, this set is not for completists only. The bluesman's work here is as vital as on those hits, and even the most obscure tracks trace the formation of the Chicago sound that revolutionized blues and even pop music. Muddy's version of "All Night Long" was a blueprint for B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby" and classics like "Honey Bee," "Rollin' and Tumblin'," and "I Can't Be Satisfied" are essential to any blues collection. Those unfamiliar with Muddy Waters' work should still start with the crucial three-disc Chess Box, but this double album shouldn't be far behind. Not just an essential historical record of an artist and genre, these are some of the most seminal and inspired blues performances ever recorded.