Red Devils were ‘Ready’ to transform this Muddy Waters classic

This post is one in a series marking the 30th anniversary of the release of “King King” in 1992. See more at #KingKingXXX

In a 1999 interview, Mississippi-born harmonica player Willie Foster told me of his role in the creation of the blues standard “I’m Ready”:

After jamming with Muddy Waters in Chicago, Foster was invited to come with Waters to Canada for a weekend’s worth of performances in 1953. Foster was supposed to meet Muddy in Chicago on a Saturday morning, but the anxious Foster showed up on Friday night.

“I knocked on the door, and he was shaving. … He said ‘You here? I told you to come tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I’m here today.’” Waters invited him in and the two, along with songwriter Willie Dixon, passed the time with some gin.

Waters picked on Foster for bringing a suitcase for a weekend.

“(Waters) said, ‘I mean you ready!’ And I said, ‘Ready as anybody can be!’ He popped his finger and turned to Willie Dixon and said, ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking? … That’s a record, man!’”

The three stayed up all night writing the Waters classic “I’m Ready,” with its immortal line, “Been drinkin’ gin like never before,” based on that night. Waters eventually took Foster to New York for a performance at Carnegie Hall.

“(Waters) taught me so much about how to love people, to share your love with people and people will love you, that’s God’s word,” Foster said.

It’s not unusual for bluesmen to forget names and dates, to conflate memories — or to overstate their own roles in musical history. Foster — born in 1921 in Leland, Mississippi — probably had a little from Column A, a little from Column B when he told that story some 23 years ago.

But while some of the specifics might be embellished, the basics are within the realm of possibility.

Foster in the early ‘50s was entrenched in the St. Louis blues scene. He did cross paths with Waters, performing on shows with him and sometimes sitting in on harp. It’s not unbelievable that Foster would have found himself at Muddy’s Chicago home with Willie Dixon. It’s not fantasy to think they might have been drinking gin.

“I’m Ready,” credited to Dixon, of course, was released in 1954, and became one of Waters’ biggest hits, reaching No. 4 on the Billboard R&B charts.

The stop-time song with the vivid, violent lyrics became a blues and blues-rock staple, having been covered by dozens if not hundreds of other artists.

The Red Devils took their pass on the cut on “King King” in 1992.

It was probably the most familiar title on the disc; at the same time, it is rarely held up as one of the highlights of “King King.” 

The band seldom played the song live, and it was again omitted on the 2017 “Return of The Red Devils” reunion tour of Europe.

Some might even argue that the better Red Devils version of the song is by the then-Blue Shadows in this 1991 performance clip.

Lester Butler and The Blue Shadows, 1991

The braggadocio lyrics can come off as cheesy in the wrong hands, with many substituting cartoon menace for Muddy’s nonchalant coolness. Plus, the Devils offer much more compelling tales on songs such as “Devil Woman” and “She’s Dangerous.” The words to “I’m Ready” might even seem old-fashioned next to the immediacy of the other offerings on “King King.”

LYRICS: “I’m Ready”

Where the band elevates the song is in marrying the words to the Slim Harpo swamp rhythm of “Baby, Scratch My Back.” That one topped the R&B charts for Harpo in 1965, and, likewise, became a classic. (Perhaps the strongest and most faithful adaptation of the tune was by The Fabulous Thunderbirds on their debut album.)

It’s not far-fetched to imagine Paul Size jamming on this groove — whether by way of Slim Harpo or Jimmie Vaughan — and the rest of the band jumping in. Lester Butler, of course, singing the words to a completely different song and making up something altogether different.

It’s a clever transformation that is greater than had the band traditionally covered “I’m Ready” or “Scratch My Back.”

Buried toward the back end of the “King King” album, between the exemplary “Mr. Highway Man” and “Quarter to Twelve,” “I’m Ready” is the band’s poppiest song, probably the least substantial of the 12-song pack. It might be easy to forget it’s there, until the familiar harp intro starts up.

At the same time, it’s uniquely Red Devils, and fits so well as cut No. 10, with a tongue-in-cheek presentation that acts as a respite from the doom/gloom of much of the rest of “King King.”

30 years of ‘King King’

Celebrate along with all year long at #KingKingXXX.

Published by J.J.

Drums and barbecue ribs. Blues music.

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