In 1954, McKinley Morganfield bought his first house, located at 4339 S. Lake Park Avenue in Kenwood. Better known as Muddy Waters, the Father of Chicago Blues shared the south-side house with his wife Geneva, Geneva’s son Charles, his granddaughter Amelia “Cookie” Cooper, and his great-granddaughter Chandra “Peaches” Cooper. 

Quite a few people came and went over the nearly two decades Muddy lived there. Pianist Otis Spann and harmonica player Paul Oscher, members of Muddy’s band, were among the musicians who stayed in the basement. The basement also hosted legendary jam sessions and rehearsals with some of the greatest blues artists on earth. During his years in Kenwood, Muddy recorded some of his best-known and most enduring songs, including “Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Got My Mojo Working,” and “Mannish Boy.” 

Muddy Waters and his band at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960

Today the house is owned by Muddy’s great-granddaughter Chandra, who is the president of the nonprofit that’s working to turn it into the Muddy Waters Mojo Museum. The city designated the house a Chicago landmark last October, and this spring the nonprofit received $250,000 from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks for exterior renovations and another $116,152 from the city for interior renovations. The house has been unoccupied for more than a decade, so it needs plenty of work. The Mojo Museum eventually plans to open exhibit space on the first floor and a recording studio and music room in the basement.

I first saw Chandra in 2017, during the dedication of the Muddy Waters mural downtown on State Street. She was looking up at the mural, and she had tears running down her face. Little did I know that in a couple of years I’d be a board member for the Mojo Museum, along with Chandra’s mother, Amelia. 

Most of the coverage of the museum project has focused on the process of securing landmark status and raising funds, and on underlining Muddy’s huge importance in the worlds of blues and rock ’n’ roll. I wanted to tell a more personal story, so I talked to Amelia, who grew up in the Kenwood house, and to Chandra, who was born in 1970, a few years before the family moved out. I asked both ladies what it was like to live with Muddy Waters.

Amelia “Cookie” Cooper

My mother was his first child. Her name was Azelene Morganfield. I was his first grandchild. I was told she was having some personal relationship problems, so I ended up living at Muddy’s house. Looking back, I always considered myself having a normal childhood. I didn’t really realize the fame and who he really was until I was much older. 

When you grow up in a house like that, you have all different types of people. I was about eight or nine years old when I noticed the different colors. Honestly, there were so many Caucasian and different people coming in and out of our house. As I got older, when I’d walk with these musicians and people to the store, the kids in the neighborhood would ask, “Why you with this white man?” I mean, this is the south side of Chicago, the Low End, that they now call Bronzeville. That’s when it dawned on me, this ain’t normal [laughs].

I never thought it was abnormal, but as young as I was, I felt my sleep schedule was kind of messed up. In our household Muddy’s wife Geneva was there, and Muddy would do his gigs. At one and two in the morning, we’re waking up. It would be loud with the musicians coming in. Then Geneva would start cooking. Cooking food in a small house, you’re going to smell it. Making eggs and homemade biscuits. When they’d come in, Geneva would get up and ask if anybody was hungry and did they need anything. I would get up and try to help her. Little Walter and Otis Spann were like uncles. Otis stayed there. 

Bluesman John Primer onstage outside the Muddy Waters home on July 16 Credit: Andrew Burke-Stevenson for Chicago Reader

If they’d had a good set and they were a little tipsy, they might go in the basement and start playing again. I had to go to school, but it was always that early morning wake-up. That was my normal life. I didn’t know any different. As I got older some of that toned down, but not in the early years. It was always him and the band and somebody staying there.

Someone was always staying with us. On the first floor he basically kept it for the primary family, but in the basement we always had somebody staying with us.

I wasn’t raised to cook quick food. I was raised to cook hard-core southern food from scratch. Muddy was a very good cook, and Geneva was an excellent cook. Muddy cooked very spicy food. He liked his food well seasoned. So I picked up the way he cooked. I picked up the way he cooked his greens. I cut up tomatoes, green onions, and peppers for garnishment.

A lot of people don’t put garnishment in their greens, but that’s the way I was taught. He had a specialty he called “wine chicken.” So I learned how to do that, and the crowder peas. Muddy would make homemade lemonade, and I still do that. Certain things that you grew up with you can never get rid of. Just in the last eight or nine years I cut down on my spices. 

When I first got married, my husband couldn’t eat nothing that I cooked. He said, “Why do your food be so hot?” [Laughs.] I really have calmed down with that. For a long time, I would set you on fire [laughs]. 

I used to spend a lot of time with Otis Spann. He was going to teach me how to play the piano. I was just amazed with the piano. I started with him, but then I said I wasn’t going to do it. Now I regret that I didn’t. He was excellent. I loved him.

Little Walter was Geneva’s baby. He was always very sensitive towards Geneva, I think because she was such a mothering person. I think she was like a big sister to him. He was protective of her. She was always making sure he was OK and did he need anything. She used to say he had a rambling soul. He was a very attractive man.

Paul Oscher was my buddy. When he first came to live at the house, he was very quiet. I think he had to get used to living with Black people. When you live with Black people you’ve got to do something. Normally people would stay a week or two, so when Paul’s two weeks left, I had to put him in the system. He acted like he didn’t have much to do. At Black people’s house everybody’s got a dish schedule. Every time we eat, he eats. So that was my little joke with Paul, because I made him wash dishes [laughs]. Paul was like a brother. He stayed with us quite a while.

The neighborhood was very different than it is now. It was more family oriented. Everybody knew everybody. Kids playing up and down the street.

Now neighbors are so standoffish. Muddy never had any problems in the neighborhood. We never had any problems with Caucasians or any type people coming to the house. Nobody ever jumped them. Nobody ever intimidated them. When the gangs started coming in, the Blackstone Rangers versus the Disciples, that divided the neighborhood and really bothered us.

Muddy used to take me to James Cotton‘s house to play with his daughter for hours. I was also really close with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and his kids. I would go to the movies with them. Willie would pick me up because I was an only child, so I could be with his kids.

Geneva was an excellent mother. My mother came back and forth. I didn’t have any contact with my father. My mother passed when I was eight or nine years old. I had a lot of contact with my mother’s mother, my grandmother. But it was really Muddy and Geneva who raised me.

I was very young when I had Chandra. Geneva always wanted a girl. Muddy was very disappointed in me. Geneva was very supportive.

I was about to turn 14 years old. Geneva found a school I could go to for unwed mothers, and I never missed a day of school. I never missed a year of school. I appreciated them for being so strict. I had to go to school, come home, and take care of my baby. And for the record, I was not promiscuous. My first time, and I ended up pregnant. I had really thought about giving my baby up for adoption, but Geneva said, “No, we’ll make it.”

That’s all Geneva wanted, was a girl.

“We need a place of education and community resources,” says Chandra Cooper. “So we’ll not just have a static museum, but a museum that enriches, inspires, and transforms people.” Credit: Andrew Burke-Stevenson for Chicago Reader

Chandra “Peaches” Cooper

I don’t remember anything about the first three years of my life. But I can tell you this, I feel honored that when I came home from Illinois Masonic Hospital, I went to that house at 4339 S. Lake Park Avenue. I was there until I was three years old. I spent time with my great-grandfather and his wife Geneva in that house. And they gave me the nickname of Peaches that has stayed with me all these years. I have no memory of Geneva at all, but I will always honor her name and who she was in my great-grandfather’s life.

Geneva was very important to his life and legacy. I was told growing up that she acted as if I was her and Muddy’s baby. On her deathbed she made it clear to him that I was to be taken care of for the rest of my life. She put me in a place where I was in my great-grandfather’s will and his estate. 

So I take all of that seriously. I realize I wouldn’t be the woman that I am, the person that I am, if he was not the humble, loving man that he was. The patriarch of our family. I was a spoiled kid, and I wasn’t spoiled by anybody except him. The position I’m in is the preservationist to save and secure his house. To make sure the house becomes a museum.

I did not grow up with my biological father, but I was able to spend time with him. I looked at my great-grandfather Muddy as my daddy. I called him “daddy.” He was my father figure. When we moved from Lake Park to Westmont, I lived in that house as well. I watched him be the man of the house, and I watched him be a professional. I watched how he handled his friends and his musicians. 

I honor him, because in my lifetime I have never seen a man like him. He had a dream. He had what I’d call an American dream. Even though he picked cotton and lived on a plantation, he got up out of that situation. He moved to Chicago and he made himself something and somebody. If he can do it, I can do it. I run a successful nonprofit in the city of Milwaukee, where we house girls that have mental health issues and also victims of human trafficking since 2009.

Muddy died in 1983, and after he died we had the house in the estate. When I realized they were going to sell the house to somebody outside of the family, that’s the day I had to position myself to be able to buy the house.

This house is so significant, and it was so hard for me to understand why they wanted to sell it. I knew right away that the house should be a museum. Once I did get possession of it, I just kept it. I used a lot of funds to keep it. I didn’t know how I would get to this point, but I knew the significance of it.

I want the museum to be a place that recognizes who Muddy Waters was, as the King of Chicago Blues. But beyond that I have a call to make sure that generations to come be educated about the blues and other music. 

People say the blues had a baby and they call it rock ’n’ roll. Blues had a few babies. You can hear aspects of blues in hip-hop and all kinds of music. We need a place of education and community resources. We need to give back to the community. A place where there are performances. So we’ll not just have a static museum, but a museum that enriches, inspires, and transforms people.

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