Big Bill Morganfield

Bob Margolin

Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on June 23, 1999. All rights reserved.

A Bluesman, Not Far from Muddy Waters

The late, legendary guitarist and singer Muddy Waters,

whose real name was McKinley Morganfield, influenced countless rock

‘n’ roll groups. And toward the end of his life, he often expressed

concern about the future of the blues.

Waters died in 1983 at his home in suburban Chicago. His concern,

a valid one, was that not enough African-Americans were paying

attention

to their own musical heritage, blues music. The fact that "these

white kids" — a group that included England’s Rolling Stones

— were carrying on the musical form pleased Muddy enormously.

But at the same time, it was upsetting to a man, whom Irish guitarist

Rory Gallagher once described as "the Buddha of the blues,"

that he wasn’t hearing a lot of African-American blues.

Muddy — who influenced everyone from Eric Burdon and the Animals,

Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, and most prominently, the mega-star

Rolling

Stones — must surely be smiling now from his place in blues

heaven.

That’s because his son, Big Bill Morganfield, has recently quit his

day job as a teacher in the Atlanta public schools to pursue a

full-time

career as a blues musician.

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Big Bill Morganfield

Morganfield appears at the Old Bay Restaurant in New Brunswick, on

Saturday, June 26, at 10 p.m. to sing the blues, including cuts from

his debut album, "Rising Son," on San Francisco’s Blind Pig

label.

Critical reaction to "Rising Son" has been glowing. As

accomplished

a songwriter as he is a singer, Morganfield pays homage to his dad

on "Rising Son," but he doesn’t overdo it. There are fresh

arrangements of some Muddy Waters classics like "Screamin’ and

Cryin’" and "Champagne and Reefer," but the rest of the

tunes are Morganfield’s originals. "Dead Ass Broke" and

"Rising

Son" are two of the more memorable Morganfield originals from

the recording, the former for its humor and the latter for its

soul-felt

serious tone. Morganfield has first-class accompaniment on his debut

as well, from longtime Muddy Waters Band sidemen: 89-year-old pianist

PineTop Perkins, harmonica player Paul Oscher, and drummer Willie

"Big Eyes" Smith.

Morganfield was raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida,

by his grandparents. Although his dad was based in Chicago when he

wasn’t on the road, Morganfield says he saw a good deal of him while

he was growing up. "He would get down to Florida from time and

time and I’d go up to Chicago from time to time," the 43-year-old

Morganfield recalls. "Actually, I kind of tinkered around with

the guitar from age 12. But I got serious after my dad died in 1984,

and bought me a guitar and decided I wanted to play some blues."

By 1984, Morganfield, who graduated with degrees in English from

Tuskegee

University and communications from Auburn University, was working

as a junior high school teacher.

"Daddy always wished that one of his kids would follow him and

play music," says Morganfield, who made his earliest attempts

at playing the blues when he was in his late 20s. Although you

wouldn’t

know it from listening to the guitar playing on his debut album,

Morganfield

recalls it was difficult at first. His father and other great blues

guitarists have always been of the opinion that good blues is very

difficult to play.

"It was real slow going at first. Some people can pick up the

blues faster than anything. My dad used to say there are two types

of guitar players, one type it was almost natural, and they could

do with without a lot of work, and the other type was `one nail at

a time, one step at a time.’ I’m very much the second kind," he

says.

The elder Morganfield learned to play guitar while still driving a

tractor at Stovall’s Plantation in the Mississippi Delta. In his early

20s, he took off for the more comfortable working conditions available

in Chicago, and adopted the stage name Muddy Waters. In the late

1940s,

he was among the first to use electric amplifiers in the blues clubs

of Chicago, in order to be heard over noisy club patrons and the

clinking

and clattering of dinnerware. The electrification of rural blues forms

led to another genre, urban blues, which evolved rhythm and blues

and rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis and other Southern cities in the early

1950s.

The elder Morganfield took an active interest in seeing that his

children

get a good education, something he never had.

"When I was in college, I talked to him every chance I got,"

Morganfield recalls, "he would talk about how he made his money,

and how hard the road was, and he’d point out that he didn’t have

very much education, but he did pretty good with his hands. I do

recall

one time he said it might not be such a bad thing to learn to play

the blues. I know he was a little disappointed that not many young

blacks were taking up this kind of music."

In Atlanta, while in his late 20s, Morganfield formed his first small

group. After sharing a stage with Indiana-based guitarist Lonnie Mack

in front of 1,000, he says the performing bug bit him pretty hard.

Asked who he would credit as influences on his development as a

performer,

Morganfield says he felt completely on his own for the first few

years.

But he said the blues club owners in Atlanta, like the owners of Blind

Willie’s, were helpful, as was "Steady Rollin’" Bob Margolin,

who toured and recorded with the Muddy Waters Band for seven years.

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Bob Margolin

"Bob Margolin has been a huge help and he and I go back a

ways,"

Morganfield notes, "and Bob has said the deepest music he every

played was working with my dad."

So how has Morganfield, who is married and has two children back home

in Atlanta, adjusted to the rigors of the road as a full-time

bluesman?

More importantly, how has he handled the pressures — interviews,

radio, and television appearances — of being a rising star in

the blues world?

"I look at things like I try not to get too excited about

them,"

he says. "I try not to get too sad about too many things either.

I try to keep myself in the middle of the road, emotionally. Believe

me, I’m excited and thrilled about all the good things that are being

said about the record and me, but I’m not letting it get to my head

too much," he adds.

He says high points of his performing career so far have been playing

the Montreal Jazz Festival last July, and another festival for the

Toronto Blues Society. Last spring, the Kennedy Center hosted "A

Tribute to Muddy Waters" that included Morganfield, Margolin,

Koko Taylor, Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, Phoebe Snow, Charlie

Musselwhite, Keb’ Mo’, Buddy Guy, and John Hiatt, among others. The

results are now available on a CD and home video from Hybrid

Recordings

of New York.

Now into his second year as a full-time blues musician, Morganfield

says letting go of his comfortable middle class income — his

teaching

job in Atlanta public schools for a life of catch-as-catch can as

an up-and-coming bluesman — was not easy.

"It was a scary experience. I have two kids, and over the years

I’ve purchased myself a couple of nice pieces of property and a nice

automobile," he says. "I was really used to having money

there.

Bob Margolin and I were just talking last night, there aren’t many

blues musicians out there who are making it rich, because your

expenses

are so high. All of the blues musicians out there love what they’re

doing, and you’ve got to," he says.

"I had a 21-hour day yesterday, and got three hours sleep, and

in an hour we’re taking off to the next gig," he adds.

"I’ve got a long way to go, and this is only the first record.

Music is a long road, and as long as I live and stay healthy, this

is what I want to be doing. I don’t want to be a `here today, gone

tomorrow’ type, I’m just trying to stay focused and work hard at

getting

better and better."

— Richard J. Skelly

Big Bill Morganfield, Old Bay Restaurant, 61-63 Church

Street, New Brunswick, 732-246-3111. $5 cover. Saturday, June 26,

10 p.m.


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