The music community is full of folks with big talent, big reputations, and sometimes, big egos. Often, the best reputations have been earned through hard work and talent. It’s funny how the people with the most talent are the most humble. They are so grateful to be doing what they love, and sharing their gifts with other music lovers. So it is with Big Bill Morganfield. As most blues lovers know, Morganfield is the son of McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters. A pedigree like that carries a lot of expectations, but Morganfield has forged his own path in the blues.
Starting later in life than most musicians, Morganfield didn’t begin to study and play music until he was 27 years old. “Well my father passed away in 1983, and even on his deathbed, he was a little disappointed that none of the kids, none of the offspring, wanted to touch the music. To tell you the truth, we all thought he was doing a fantastic job with it, and we didn’t see how we could do anything better.”
Even then, he took six years and used that time for intense study. “I thought it was gonna be easy. For some reason, when you listen to blues you say ‘Ah, piece of cake.’ But if you go ahead and try to duplicate what you hear, you be like ‘Wait a minute. Something is missing here. Mine sounds different from what theirs sound like.’ So I went through a little thing and I went out for a little while, and played around town, and really um, saw that I sucked. [Laughter] And I decided, um, back to the drawing board.
“I pulled myself off my little circuit and I said ‘Let’s start from the beginning.’ I started learning the Delta blues, and all the Robert Johnson, the stuff my daddy did. I just went from my learning process – right from the roots. I kept on. I started learning about Buddy Guy, Albert King, and all those cats – and Otis Rush. I went through the whole gamut of music and learning what I could from each one of those guys. Then I decided to come and do it again – try it again. And … lo and behold, hard work and and years of studying paid off.” Now mind you, while Morganfield was doing this, he was still working his day job as a teacher, and working nights as a car repo-man.
Morganfield could have spent his career trying to emulate or duplicate his father’s work, but instead, he has chosen to honor it. His own work has been recognized by his peers. Today, Morganfield is in the St. Louis Missouri Hall of Fame as Master Blues Artist, and a W.C. Handy Award Winner as Best New Artist (2000). “I decided to fulfill one of his wishes, and I put out Rising Sun on a Blind Pig album – Blind Pig Records, and the rest is history. I intended to come in and do a tribute to him, to satisfy that part of me, and satisfy that part of him, and um, I guess you could say the bug hit me. I don’t know. But it’s been 16 years now – 14, 15, 16, something like that; I’m still doing it, so um, that was the reason.”
Morganfield’s new album, Blues With A Mood is a revelation, and his best yet. This well crafted, well played album, has a very old school feel. When we mention this to Morganfield, he is appreciative. “Well, thank you so much. You know, I just wanted to do a good job with it, and I wouldn’t be satisfied, I mean, just copy what my daddy did, or just stay within that genre, ’cause there are so many genres that are so bad, so incredible. So, you know, I learned what I could from him, and I tried to extend my knowledge and my base, per se. I think I would have did what he would have done.
“He learned that old plantation stuff and he went to Chicago. He just expanded it. He worked on the Delta thing, to the Chicago thing, to worldwide, and everybody respected him, the British players trying to copy off him and all that. It was a movement that he started. But it is still going today. It’s amazing that he passed away in 1983, and it’s just absolutely amazing to me to see, I mean, I’m like ‘Wow.’
“What he did is still so fresh on our hearts and our minds. We can hear it – all these other young cats coming up – we can hear it. The influence, it’s just amazing! So I have so much respect for my daddy, and not only my daddy, those other cats, they all made the world go round. They gave us something that we are still enjoying today. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Blues With A Mood features top tier musicians including Eddie Taylor Jr., Colin Linden, and Bob Margolin, all on guitar. Morganfield is quick to praise all the musicians that played on the album. “Of course we all know that Bob Margolin played with my father, for years and you can still hear it through his playing, his Muddy Waters discipline. He comes from that school. He’ll tell you today that that changed his life, for the rest of his life, being onstage next to my daddy for that many years.
“Of course, Colin Linden. A lot of people are not familiar with Colin, he’s from Canada. He’s a, guitar, what you call ferocious. He’s one of those cats – he’s – I call him a musical genius. He’s a musical genius to me.” Eddie Taylor Jr., (son of Eddie Taylor, the guitarist behind the Jimmy Reed sound) also earns high praise from Morganfield. “He’s very talented. I think he’s one of the most underestimated guitar players on the planet today. Eddie is a really strong player. Augie Meyers (piano) is different from Pine [Top Perkins] and Otis [Spann], just rhythmly; he just plays these heavy rhythms! He’s so good! And [Tom] “Mookie” Brill was voted, I think at least twice, best bass instrumentalist at the BMA awards.
“Chuck Cotton plays kind of like Willie Smith, really rock-solid man! Tim Horn. He’s the most recorded sax player in the history of the music industry! He did a fine job with it (on this record). Steve Guyger, very accomplished harp player, kinda remind you of Little Walter. Then there’s another harp player, [Richard] “Doc” Malone, who did a fine job. So anyway, I was fortunate enough to round all these cats up, and get ‘em in the studio with me, ya know? Of course I own Black Shuck Records, so this was my dime I put this thing on. I was happy that I was able to pull it off, and to bring all this great talent together like that. It was just a really good experience for me.”
Blues With A Mood has an old school feel to it, but it is not dated by any means. The album breathes. Morganfield explains “It has a freshness to it. I thought it was very important not to, I call it a traffic jam. You know, you hear some music, you know, and you hear a traffic jam, and it don’t breathe. I try to be very careful and make sure we didn’t have a lot of traffic jams, and things breathe and create a little space, what I call ‘creating a mood,’ and you create a mood.”
Morganfield also wrote seven of the eleven songs on the album. “Yeah. That’s important to me. I wrote seven out of the eleven. It’s just important that I write. You know, it’s my own thing, and it’s my own spin on things. I always say that music should represent the time that it was written. And I try to write songs that represent the times that I live in.”
Over the course of our conversation, he offers two pieces of advice to younger players. First: “Younger musicians come to me, they ask my advice, I say ‘One of the things I can tell you is don’t be out there chasing dollars. Take pride in your work and the dollars will follow you. Don’t chase ‘em. Don’t shortcut it. Don’t put too much water on it. Don’t water it down; make it real, and try to make it strong, and people will respect you. Good things will come out of that kind of mindset.’” Second: “The old guys used to say ‘It ain’t about going fast. It’s about laying down a groove. If you can’t lay down a groove, you don’t know nothing.’ That’s how they taught me.”
Big Bill Morganfield honors the past. At the same time, in his own humble way, he is helping a new generation of musicians build the future of blues, and carry on that tradition in a fresh, new, exciting way. No one can ask for any more than that.