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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
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
Stones — must surely be smiling now from his place in blues
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
career as a blues musician.
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
Critical reaction to "Rising Son" has been glowing. As
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
Son" are two of the more memorable Morganfield originals from
the recording, the former for its humor and the latter for its
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
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
know it from listening to the guitar playing on his debut album,
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
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
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
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
The elder Morganfield took an active interest in seeing that his
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
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
Morganfield says he felt completely on his own for the first few
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.
"Bob Margolin has been a huge help and he and I go back a
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
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
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
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
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
Bob Margolin and I were just talking last night, there aren’t many
blues musicians out there who are making it rich, because your
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
better and better."
— Richard J. Skelly
Street, New Brunswick, 732-246-3111. $5 cover. Saturday, June 26,
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