U.S. Route 45 which runs the length of Illinois has been named one of the deadliest highways in America. On Oct. 26, 1969, it nearly took the life of the world’s most famous blues musician McKinley Morganfield, who always referred to himself as Muddy Water (with no added letter “s”).
The two-car wreck did claim the life of his part time tour driver, James E. (John) Warren, 38. Also hurt in the accident from Muddy’s band were guitar player James “Pee Wee” Madison and piano player Joe “Pinetop” Perkins. Muddy, at age 54, had injuries so severe that he remained in the Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana for nearly three months.
Pee Wee, 33, and Pinetop, 56, were released two days later from Jarman Hospital in Tuscola.
Tragically, a young couple engaged to be married two weeks later were both killed in the wreck. David W. Clapp, 23, of Oakland, Ill., was the driver, and his fiancé beside him was Judith Ann Swiger, 18, of Champaign.
An October 27, 1969, newspaper article in Champaign-Urbana’s The News-Gazette reported details obtained from the State police. [Two miles south of Pesotum] “Clapp had been driving south-bound on Route 45 when he ran off the road and lost control of his auto. The vehicle swerved back onto the road and ran head-on into the northbound auto driven by Warren, according to state police.”
Another account adds, “Muddy’s brand-new Chevy station wagon had skidded 63 feet [trying to avoid the collision] when the careening Pontiac struck it head-on.” This additional information is found in a 2002 book by author Robert Gordon, “Can’t Be Satisfied – The Life and Times of Muddy Waters.”
Serious bues fans read on for a summary of the account from “Can’t Be Satisfied – The Life and Times of Muddy Waters” by Robert Gordon
In October 1969 Muddy and his band had been on a tour as far north as Canada, then back through New York and down to Tennessee. The last show of the tour was Saturday night, October 25, 1969, in Covington Tenn. The entourage traveled in two vehicles, Muddy’s new station wagon and a Jeep van. Warren drove Muddy’s car, and friend Andrew “Bo” Bolton drove the Jeep.
Following that final show, pre-arranged hotel rooms were waiting, but, since they had been sleeping in the cars a lot during the tour, the decision was made to drive on back to Chicago to all the comforts and companionships of home. In the lead car, Warren and Pee Wee were in the front seat, and Muddy and Pinetop were in the back seat. Driver Bo, drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, harp player Paul Oscher, and guitarist Sammy Lawhorn were in the trailing van.
The police report said the conditions were bright and clear, and the road was dry. The crash happened around 11 a.m. and was witnessed by Bo, driving the second car. Stopping to the right of the wreck in a field, Bo and his passengers ran to help.
They pulled the three survivors out of the wreckage, all of them conscious. Pee Wee had hit the windshield and was worse off than Pinetop who had badly banged up knees.
Muddy suffered three broken ribs, a shattered hip and broken pelvis, and a sprained back. Surgery for repairs lasted three hours leaving him unable to move much or feed himself. Carle Hospital initially listed him in “fair” condition and upgraded him to “satisfactory” a couple of days later.
During many weeks of recovery, Muddy’s childhood friend “Bo” Bolton drove family members and others back and forth from Chicago to visit him.
Muddy’s injuries left him with ailments that lasted until his death from a heart attack and congestive heart failure on April 30, 1983, in Downers Grove. He was 70 years old.