Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard Skelly was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 11,
1998. All rights reserved.
Rollin’ on with Bob Margolin
Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin can dispel all the popular
stereotyped notions of blues as sad, down-and-out music. When Margolin
and band take the stage to play his brand of blues, it’s an uptown,
upbeat roadhouse party. Working with just a trio at his live shows,
he regularly raises the roof wherever he goes.
With each new album, guitarist, singer and songwriter Margolin continues
to expand the boundaries of modern blues. Take his latest outing for
Alligator Records of Chicago, "Up and In." The album is a
shining example of how far the blues form has evolved since Johnny
Winter’s heyday in the early 1970s. The listener is compelled to listen
up and pay attention to sometimes funny, often insight-filled lyrics
like "Blues For Bartenders," "Up & In," "Just
Because." and "Not What You Said Last Night." Margolin’s
music — particularly his own songs — is foreground music.
Long associated with the Muddy Waters Blues Band, Margolin grew up
in Brookline, Massachusetts. He began playing out professionally in
the early 1970s while still in high school. He became enamored with
the recordings of Chuck Berry, and he credits supportive parents with
helping to develop his career as an amateur musician.
"In the early 1970s, there were a lot of good musicians around
Boston," he recalls, in a phone interview from his home in Greensboro,
North Carolina, where he’s lived since 1990. "There were a lot
of national acts coming through, so there was a good scene for learning
how to play blues. In 1971 I got in the band of a fellow who had played
with Muddy Waters in the 1950s, a guitarist named Luther `Georgia
Boy’ Johnson. He ran his band the same way Muddy did and he was pretty
influential on me."
Working with a variety of Boston area blues bands, including one called
the Boston Blues Band, he found himself at a crossroads while attending
"When I was about 19 or so, I was in college and somebody that
I was in a band with who was a little older and more experienced than
me, told me: between college and the music, I seemed to be working
against myself," he recalls. "He pointed out that my life
would be a lot easier if I decided which was my priority. And so at
an age when a lot of people are trying to figure out who they are,
that statement just kind of lit a path for me for the rest of my life."
Margolin, who also writes a column for the West Virginia-based magazine,
Blues Revue, adds he has no regrets about his decision.
His first big break was joining Muddy Waters’ Band. He stayed with
the legendary singer, guitarist and bandleader for seven years, from
1973 to 1980. Margolin freely admits his next big break came about
in 1993, when he signed with Alligator, a growing, very hard-working
independent record company that distributes blues worldwide.
Asked to recall how the master of electric blues guitar
told him he was hired, he says the late Waters was always very direct,
whether he was angry or happy. Waters’ Chicago-based blues band was
making another stop at Paul’s Mall, a Boston blues club. Waters, himself
a stellar player of slide guitar, had just parted ways with his previous
guitarist the night before.
"He told me right then and there. He asked me to come to his hotel
the next day and bring my guitar. He said, `Play it,’ and I tried
to play some of the nasty old stuff the way he would play it, and
he was impressed. He was kind of impressed the way you would with
a puppy doing a trick, like: `Look at this kid playing my stuff here!’"
Margolin recalls that Waters had mellowed by the time he began working
with him in 1973. "But I’d heard from other people who’ve played
with him that it was not the same kind of scene a few years before
that. Let’s face it, while it’s not as tough as it is for a lot of
jazz musicians, the life of a bluesman — even someone of Waters’
status — is a tough one. When I joined up with him in the ’70s,
everybody was happy and friendly, and there weren’t any bad attitudes
going around." Waters died in April, 1983.
In a sense, Margolin got all the college education he wanted through
the 1970s by playing side by side with the master night after night.
"He put me on the right hand side of him on stage and I tried
to use what I learned to give him what he wanted on the bandstand,"
he says. "He really ran a band well on stage and gave everybody
a chance to be a fulfilled musician. He used to say, `If you’ve got
a star in the band you’ve got give him a chance to shine!’ He’d give
you a chance to look good up there rather than being an anonymous
"I was also much much younger than anyone else in the band, they
were all these older, much more experienced men, and I used to just
love to listen to all of them speak socially. Every time they’d see
me all love sick, they used to laugh because they’d been through it
a million times and they knew what was going to happen next, even
though I didn’t. It was a great opportunity to be around these experienced,
seasoned musicians, both musically and socially."
Highlights of his time in Waters’ band included playing for President
Jimmy Carter on the White House lawn in 1978 and taping Martin Scorcese’s
ground-breaking concert documentary, "The Last Waltz." The
film documents The Band’s last concert at Winterland ballroom in San
Francisco on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Van
Morrison, Ronnie Hawkins, Waters, and other legendary performers are
featured. "There were a lot of musicians around and virtually
everyone there was fairly famous except me," says Margolin.
"As a rule, older people like Muddy didn’t keep up with pop culture
any more than somebody who is in their 60s keeps up with what’s happening
in the alternative rock scene today. The thing with Muddy was a lot
of these people knew who he was, but he didn’t know who they were,"
Margolin recalls. "He was in there hanging out and keeping to
himself and people who were very famous like Joni Mitchell and others
would come up and introduce themselves to him, but he really didn’t
know who they were. He hadn’t the slightest idea who they were, any
more than your grandmother would be familiar with the Spice Girls."
In 1980 Margolin struck out on his own, leading a band under his own
name. Since the days with Waters’ band and even before, Margolin has
played and recorded with nearly all of the significant post-World
War II blues musicians: Junior Wells, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker,
Koko Taylor, Albert King, Hound Dog Taylor, Big Walter Horton, Etta
James, Lonnie Mack, and more recently, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny
Winter, the Allman Brothers, and the Rolling Stones.
Despite leading his own band for the next nine years, he didn’t record
his first album under his own name until 1989, when he recorded two
albums for Powerhouse Records, a small Washington, D.C., label run
by his friend and fellow guitarist Tom Principato. Since then, Margolin
has recorded three critically-praised albums for Alligator, "Down
In The Alley" (1993), "My Blues and My Guitar" (1995),
and his latest "Up & In" (1997).
Margolin says he gets inspiration for songs like "Maybe The Hippies
Were Right," "Boston Driving Blues," and "Movin’ South"
from the great songwriters of the idiom, artists like Percy Mayfield,
Willie Dixon, and Louis Jordan. "Those three are the ones I’ve
admired quite a bit over the years. For contemporary writers I really
admire what Rick Estrin is doing," he says. Estrin leads a West
Coast swing blues ensemble, Little Charlie and The Nightcats.
Asked how he gets ideas for funny songs like "Boston Driving Blues,"
Margolin says he often writes songs on the road, and in the last year,
he’s begun traveling with a laptop computer, to both write songs and
check his E-mail. When writing humorous blues songs, one isn’t going
for depth, you’re just trying to be amusing, he explains.
In "Boston Driving Blues" Margolin sings:
When you see a yellow light in Boston, speed up, and
get on through
If you linger you’ll get the finger, and the car behind will honk
all the other drivers think he’s crazy. The lyrics are perfectly framed
by Margolin’s rhythmic guitar playing and Mark `Kaz’ Kazanoff’s wailing,
urgent saxophone treatments. "Boston Driving Blues" is not
a slow tempo song.
"It’s the voice of experience," says Margolin. "I wrote
that song in Alabama, knowing that I was going up to Boston the next
week and thinking about it. I took out a pad and wrote the song while
we were traveling in the van."
They call him "Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin" because of his
reputation for being a hard working bandleader. At the Old Bay Restaurant
in New Brunswick, he’ll be accompanied by Wes Johnson on drums and
Tad Walters, a very busy young man, just 22, who plays bass, some
harmonica, guitar, and sings a bit, too. "You don’t just get a
static three pieces," says Margolin, "we change around the
styles and the instruments quite a bit. There’s quite a few flavors
on the menu."
Now 48, Margolin says he averages about 170 shows a year — about
half the days in the year.
"I try to strike a balance between having a career and having
a life at home off the road, and having them work for each other instead
of against each other," he says, before he catches himself and
adds: "It’s a nice theory, anyway."
— Richard J. Skelly
In addition to the music, the Old Bay will be serving
up loads of ‘gator meat — alligator bites, alligator chili, alligator
picante, grilled alligator sausage, and alligator gumbo — no joke.
Alligator meat, it turns out, has graced the Old Bay menu, along with
catfish, crawfish, and gumbo for years. Here’s the complete lineup
of performers at the Alligator Festival:
New Brunswick, 732-246-3111.. Zydeco. Thursday, March 12, 9:30
Copeland. Friday, March 13, 9:30 p.m.
14, 9:30 p.m.
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