“It’s kinda like I’m walking in a fog,” says Big Bill Morganfield. “I’m right in the midst of things. My whole career has been just kinda surreal. Things just keep unfolding.”
Perhaps the single most telling fact about Morganfield’s career is that he did not take the stage name Muddy Waters Jr. As most blues fans know, Muddy Waters’ real name was McKinley Morganfield. When the late Paul Butterfield inducted Muddy into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, he called him one of the great musical treasures of this century.“Aside from Robert Johnson, no single figure is more important in the history and development of the blues than Waters. The real question as regards his lasting impact on popular music isn’t ‘Who did he influence?’ but – as Goldmine magazine asked in 2001 – ‘Who didn’t he influence?’”
One of six children born to the iconic Delta blues legend, Big Bill Morganfield most certainly was influenced by his father, but he didn’t seriously take up guitar until he was 27 and his father had just died. Big Bill took six years to woodshed before he took his performances public and 16 years before he released his first album Rising Son in 1999. His yet-to-be released seventh album sounds authentically Muddy-like with his barbed wire in Vaseline guitar and vocals that are downright eerie in their similarity to Muddy’s regal baritone. But even in 1999 Big Bill had no concept that he would still be recording and performing in 2016.
“I had no idea I would still be on the road. In reality, all I wanted to do was that Rising Son record and dedicate that to my father, and I would have been good. I coulda walked away and gone back to teaching and doing whatever else I was doing, and I could’ve been a happy soul, but it just didn’t happen that way, but I had no idea. I just knew that I really wanted to make my dad proud. I wanted to be respectable and be respected and just didn’t want to be thought of as somebody who is trying to take a free ride per se.”
Even today, he looks at trying to fill his father’s shoes as “almost like being in the Olympics.”
The sad irony of Big Bill’s life is that Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin, Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and other artists that have performed both with him and his father, knew Muddy Waters better than he did because his dad was always on the road.
“Oh, man. Bob (Margolin, Muddy’s guitarist from 1973 to 1980), has been instrumental to me. He taught me a lot. My daddy, if he was living today, he would probably run up to Bob and hug him and say, ‘Thank you so much’ ’cause Bob has been like a big brother to me, not just recording. Every record I ever recorded, he’s on. Most people don’t know that. There hasn’t been a record I made that Bob hasn’t been on except maybe Blues in the Blood(2003), but he’s been like a big brother.
“When I first came out, and we were playing over at the Kennedy Center, everybody (else) was known. You got Phoebe Snow, you got Keb Mo, you got Greg Allman, you got Koko Taylor, you got Buddy Guy, you got Robert Junior Lockwood and on and on. I was the only guy that wasn’t known. Only connecting thing was that I was Muddy Waters’ son, and I was nervous, really nervous, and Bob would call me. I remember him saying, ‘Let’s do this for the old man.’ I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it for him.’
“That kinda calmed me down, and he was right there next to me on stage, and he kinda helped me with that walk like a big brother, and I don’t know. Bob has been instrumental to my career, and I love him. He’s been very instrumental. He’s been like a brother to me.”
In many ways, Big Bill knows his father more through his music than he does from the little time he got to spend with him. “I don’t talk about that very much, but there is a certain amount of sadness because I my daddy spent more time with the world than he did with me, and when I say that, I’m only saying that he gave more of himself to the world than he actually did to me and some of the other kids because he was always gone, always gone.
“As I have gone through my journey, I’ve gotten to know my father really well. I’ve gotten to understand the reason why a lot of things were the way they were. It’s been more like therapy, me being a blues musician has been therapy, and me being a musician has been therapy, and it’s answered a lot of my questions that I wasn’t able to ever sit down and talk to him about certain things, and a lot of things were answered as I went through my blues journey about my father, and why this was like this and why that was like that.
“It’s a place I don’t like to go to much. It makes me kinda sad, but it has to do with a young man being close to his father and wanting to be close to his father in more ways than everybody. Everybody wants to know their father, and they want to know their mother. And you want your mother and father to be there, to be around. And when they’re not, you ask yourself a lot of questions. First, you ask why. To sum it up in a short brief saying, why he wasn’t around is answered for me, not by him, but by my blues journey, that journey that I sought through the blues. A lot of those questions got answered for me hands on, I saw why, and I understood why things were like they were.”
One of the songs on Big Bill’s debut album was “Dead Ass Broke.” When he first wrote the song, he called his mother and sang it to her. “She felt so bad,” he told me in 1999, “that she sent me a check. I was like, ‘Oh, ma. It’s alright. It’s just that I don’t have as much money as I want right now. I’m ok.’ I sent the check back to her, but I just felt like here I am. I’m not teaching right now. (He had been an English teacher in Atlanta). I was making a pretty good living there. My wife and I’m doing this music thing here, and now I’m having to wait here, and I’m not playing as much, and I’m really kind of feeling broke.”
On his about-to-be-released CD, Morganfield has a song called “When You Lose Someone You Love” that he sings about the death of his mother: “Called me to her bedside and I began to cry/It hurt me real bad to have to see my mother die.”
Sometimes, we as blues fans forget that the catharsis we experience vicariously through the music of our favorite artists comes from real life experiences. And in the case of somebody like Big Bill who is the offspring of an icon whose very existence seems beyond our concept of reality, it is almost jarring to realize that each of them has gone through very real pain that is the inspiration for these songs.
“There are certain expectations,” explains Big Bill. “People expect you to know what you’re doing and to know it good, and do it real good because you’re always going to be compared to him. And let’s face it, how many blues guys get compared to Muddy Waters?
“You learn what pain is. And then you go about trying to treat people right which is important to me. Be like this and try to do the right thing, not for money, not for this and not for that, but only because it’s the right thing to do, and that’s an important part of my character ’cause I try to pass along things to my kids, and I touch other lives out there, and I say to myself, the high and mighty didn’t put me down for self-gratification to come down and just enjoy this and enjoy that, but hopefully I was put here to be just like my father did, to do like a lot of people have done, and to make a difference in other people’s lives.
“I remember one of my favorite movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life” and that kind of puts it in perspective how we are here, and we make a difference in other’s lives, and to me that’s one of the most important things that I can represent or that I can stand for and that is touching others, making a difference in other’s lives.”
Today Morganfield may sound like his daddy, and his guitar style certainly shows his influence, but the emotions he bleeds out are his, and his music translates his unique and singular pain into joy in its catharsis from that pain,
“That’s right. That’s what it does, and I say a little prayer before every performance. I bow my head and I ask that the Lord let me touch the people I’m about to perform for. If only for five minutes let me make ’em forget about a certain amount of pain that they got or forget about this and to be just soulfully their soul, their spirit, to administer to their spirit just like a Baptist preacher or any kind of preacher would do on Sunday.
“You go in and he puts into words and says things, and you walk out feeling good, or you walk out feeling better. The problem’s still there, but you walk out feeling better, and that’s really powerful thing that we face the trials and tribulations of the slings and arrows of our lives. It’s important to be able to be able to be in touch sometimes.
“That’s what music does for a lot of us. I mean, it’s the healing effect. I don’t know. I’ll just leave it at that. Music is very important not just to me but to millions and millions and millions of people. I wrote a song called “The Devil at My Door,” and our slogan was the devil ain’t got no music. So, music is so important to us as we live our daily lives, such a big part of it.”
Morganfield has given me and you, my readers, an amazing gift in his openness concerning the pain of knowing his father more through his band members than from his own time spent with Muddy. I can remember how reticent Robert Junior Lockwood was in talking to journalists about his life because he was so bitter that most interviews would be about his relationship with his stepfather, Robert Johnson, rather than his own music. I asked Morganfield if he and Lockwood ever discussed this issue.
“Well, we talked about a lot of things. We talked about music in general. We didn’t talk a whole lot about his ties with Robert Johnson. I remember he talked about he went on tour with my daddy, and he said, ‘I’m the guy they used to bring all the money to because they would spend all their money, and they would give it to me to keep it for them,’ and he had some really great stories.
“That’s another guy that I miss sorely that I was able to go to his house and was able to sit down with him, and one of the things that struck me was that he had the guitar plugged in and the amps on standby. I saw the red light on.
“I said, ‘Robert, you keep that thing on?’ He said, ‘I keep that on all the time.’ He said, ‘I play every day,’ and that kind of stood in my mind that here is an old guy that probably knows how to play that stuff backwards and forwards, but he still has his hands on it every single day, and I just thought that was – I don’t know. It just stood out in my mind, and soon after that visit I lost him. We lost him, the blues world lost him, but he was one of the guys that as always tied to Robert Johnson, and that’s going far back.
“I think Honeyboy Edwards was tied to him, too, in some ways, but I mean that’s just kinda cool ’cause my daddy respected Robert Johnson. We all respect him, and he’s been gone for a long time, and we still have a tremendous amount of respect for him, and his name is still brought up in different circles always.”
The most successful offspring of iconic cultural trailblazers use their parents’ success and renown as a jumping off point to find their own identity and use their good genes to advance their own muse. Big Bill Morganfield is a great example. His CDs Rising Son (1999), Ramblin’ Mood (2001), Blues in the Blood (2003), Born Lover (2009) and Blues With A Mood (2013) have each featured tenured players often with a Muddy Waters connection. Each has earned rave reviews, and each has advanced the Delta-by-way-of-Chicago legacy of his father while digging deep into his own views of life.
Big Bill has also had some side show experiences that add to his self-proclaimed surreal existence. He played himself in a Season three eighth episode eight of the Cinemax program Banshee, a kind of modern day serial with testosterone that included two of his songs, “Evil” and “Strange Love.”
He’s performed “Chicago” with Tom Waits on a 2012 David Letterman show, and he toured Russia and Syria with Stephen Segal.
“That was strange. I mean it was good, but for me it was strange because I had been in Syria for a week, and I realized that I hadn’t seen a black person for a whole week, and I was like – it was like, ‘Bill, let’s go downtown. I need some luggage.’
“So I went downtown and went to some shops and bought some luggage, and I went walking back, and it was all white guys, and I said, ‘I’m gonna go back to the hotel,’ and I went back to the hotel dragging this piece of luggage, and I had people looking at me and some guy starts speaking this language to me, and I was like, ‘I don’t understand,’ but they were looking at me like, I don’t know ,man. They were nice, but it was really strange, and I looked strange to them.
“I guess they might have grabbed me up, but I said, it’s gonna be a little bit of a fight ’cause I’m not gonna let you take me where you want to take me. Anyway, I had no problems, but it was just kinda surreal walking through the streets of Syria. That’s all I can tell ya about it. It was just surreal, surreal.”
It’s been 33 years since Muddy died. “Thirty-three years, but again, time is going by. In that period of time we lost great guys, but they were like my best friends, Pinetop, Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. These were guys that connected me musically to my father. They would tell me these stories. They would share all these things with me, and now all of a sudden, these guys are gone, and I’m like, ‘Wow, man.’ It seems like so surreal. It’s like my feet sometimes are not even on the ground.
“I know I didn’t want to be thought of as someone who is Muddy’s son. I just didn’t want to be thought of as somebody taking a free ride, and that’s why my whole career would have been to mark him, to imitate him. That would have been easy, because I kinda sound like him naturally. That would have been the easy way, and I said, ‘I don’t want to go that route.’”
Visit Bill’s website at: www.bigbillmorganfield.org/
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2016