Half the reviews “Steady Rollin’” Bob Margolin is getting on his new album My Road mention Muddy Waters’ name before it does his.
“It will be on my obituary, too.” He says. After all, Margolin was Muddy Waters’ lead guitarist from 1973 to 1980. He’s featured prominently playing with Muddy in The Martin Scorsese film The Last Waltz. He’s on all four of the Muddy Waters albums produced by Johnny Winter. Margolin also produced and consulted on the Blues Sky Muddy Waters releases for Sony/Legacy, and as a Keeping The Blue Alive in Journalism recipient he has written for a couple of decades on Muddy’s legacy.
Asked if that association is both a blessing and a curse, he doesn’t hesitate a moment to say that it is. “Absolutely it is! I learned a lot from Muddy. I loved his music more than anyone. He was the one for me. He was the one who inspired me the most before I met him, and I have those credentials, and people come to me and hope to hear something about Muddy both musically and in my writing and in person and in conversations, and I’m thrilled to do it. I know it would make Muddy happy. Sometimes you can do something for somebody even after they’re gone, and it’s the right thing to do.
“I know Muddy would love that I’m telling stories about him that they wouldn’t hear in other ways that carry on the spirit of his music. He’s so heavy. He truly is. He was one of the greatest at his profession ever in the world, and because he’s that strong, people tend to associate me with him before they associate me with myself.
“It’s a blessing and a curse, and there’s nothing you can do but deal with the duality of it. I’m not going to stop or abandon the incredible gift that Muddy gave me, and I’m not going to deny people who want to know about it. I really want to do that, but at the same time, and especially on this album, there are plenty of songs that have nothing to do with it.”
The new album he refers to is My Road. Thirty-three years after Muddy’s death, Margolin is at the second tipping point of his post-Muddy career. The first came in 1989 when he decided to first record his own albums. Now, he’s poured his soul into My Road to the point of selling two priceless guitars to pay for the CD. Of course, everything has its price, and he got $35,000 for the two guitars, but that’s when his problems began.
“Recording today often combines the best of the old and the new. I’ve done a lot of different kinds of recording now. On the album I just did I spared no expense and no amount of time. I spent a lot of time writing the songs and making the demos. I got a producer. I used a studio and a golden-eared engineer and did not skimp on it for money.
“I actually sold a couple of my oldest guitars that mean a lot to me to make the album. They were two guitars from 1956 that I used when I was in Muddy’s band. One was a Stratocaster, and that one brought a lot of money, and then the other one was a Gibson Archtop. I never played them anywhere, and maybe the reason is I bought a guitar in 1991, a Telecaster, that just in the last few years has become like a monogamous love relationship.
“It’s the first guitar I’ve had that actually cares if I spend the night with another one. If I try to play another one, it goes, ‘Me, me, me!’ It’s true. So I use it on just about everything like in situations where people would normally use an acoustic guitar like the song, “Goodnight” on my album where I just played by myself. But that guitar has such a beautiful sound, and I feel so at home on it I use that, and I felt like it was ok to do it.
“I got like $35,000 for the two guitars, and I intended to use it for the album and to pay off some credit card debt and just make life a little bit clearer as well as do this album with no compromise at all. Then it turned out the weekend I started recording in the studio, my wife’s car died, so I had to buy her a new old car, and then afterwards when we were mixing and everything, I went to the Notodden Festival in Norway, and I called home, and my wife sad, ‘It’s raining ……in the living room.’ And I had to have a new roof put on my house, and that was $13,500.”
His investment was worth it. Of all the albums Margolin has recorded for Powerhouse, Alligator, Blind Pig, Telarc and VizzTone since leaving Muddy, My Road differentiates him from his work with Muddy without denying that incredible legacy. And that’s not an easy trick bag.
One year I brought a friend, Bill Graham, down to King Biscuit Blues Festival. Graham had written for me in BluesWax. We were running around as we do, and he’d never been to a festival before. I said, “Now, look. You gotta see Bob Margolin. The band he has and what the does is as close to Muddy Waters 1954 in Chicago as anything you’re ever going to hear.”
On that album Margolin captures the tone and simplicity of Muddy, but he does it with his own voice. That’s a tightrope to walk and he’s done it very adroitly.
“It is (a landmark album) for me. I hope the rest of the world might enjoy it that much. I very deliberately tried to write songs that were from deep inside of me, but tht other people could enjoy the stories, too. People like it when you tell a story, and I try to play some hot guitar on it. I have good arrangements, make it swing. I’m working with musicians I’ve worked with a lot in the past 20 years, and we don’t ever have to talk about music. They just know how I’m going to do any time we’re on stage together. That would Be Chuck Cotton on drums and Tad Walters. On this album he’s on either guitar or harmonica.”
Ironically, the best cut on the album is the last, and the liner notes mistakenly neglect to give Margolin co-writing credits. “My friend Terry Abrahamson and I co-wrote that. I’m not sure if this was written anywhere, but he’d written that song and asked me to do a demo for B. B. King’s single-string playing and another that was reminiscent of Muddy’s Delta blues slide guitar.
“I liked the song so much, and it tragically became obvious that B. B. was not going to record again, and this was more than a year before he passed, but I knew that he was not doing well, and I said, ‘The whole concept of the song is something that I could change the word to and do myself.’
“So I kinda rewrote the lyrics pretty drastically from what (Abrahamson) wrote, but it was still his idea of Muddy suddenly appearing when I was sleeping. There’s a lot of personal things in it. (In the song) Muddy’s taking me to his house in Clarksdale, and it’s not clear if it’s happening now, and that really is where heaven is. At least it would be for me.
“But Muddy told me a story living in Clarksdale when he was 17 and having a wedding in his house, his first wedding and a big party, and he said people were dancing so hard, he thought the floor of the cabin was going to break, and it was Robert Nighthawk playing.”
My Road is the third tipping point in Margolin’s career. The first was joining Muddy Waters’ band. The second came in 1989 when he decided that recording would afford him the necessary added visibility and cache needed to keep his career from faltering as a regional musician in North Carolina where he still lives today.
“We were mostly regional except for sometimes I would end up with a gig that came through my Muddy connections, or else somebody would just like my music a lot, give us a good festival or something, but mostly I was riding around leisurely in the south and having a good time doing it. It’s not as crazy as things are today where everybody is connected all the time, and you have a gigantic opportunity to take a lot in, but everybody I know these days you say, ‘How are you?’ They say, busy whether they’re doing well or not.
“I was starting to realize the musical world was changing a little bit whereas clubs in the ’60s and ’70s used to hire a band like Muddy’s or other people for a week at a time. The gigs even during the time I was with Muddy there were less of those week-long gigs which were fun and easy and more two-day gigs and then by the end of the ’80s there were hardly any nights where you played two nights in a club and just had to find concerts, festivals and one-nighters.
“I was opening a show for George Thorogood, and his manager Mike Donahue who became a friend of mine – Mike stopped working on them just a couple years ago retired from managing George but a real, real nice guy, and I see him in Memphis almost every year at the Blues Music Awards, but he said to me, ‘You really need to record.’ I went, ‘Oh, yeah, I guess I do.’ Get out beyond these little clubs in a regional scene that was tightening up a little more and get back out on the world scene and do it.
“So I started doing that, recorded that and recorded a couple of albums for Powerhouse Records, Tom Principato’s label. I did three for Alligator, one for Blind Pig, one for Telarc, and then since 2006 been doing them on my own. Then I did one working with Rosie Rosenblatt. He used to have the ToneCool label, but we put that one out, and it worked so well that we decided to form the VizzTone label group, and be able to do it for other artists, too, with a whole different business model from regular record label, and we got about 50 releases out, and this new one is the latest one, and I guess I’ve done two more for the label, but that works pretty well for me in the middle of all that.”
One of the most notable advances in Margolin’s work is in his voice. Twenty years ago, he tended to slur his words like an old Delta singer. Today, he articulates so clearly that every word is understandable.
“I don’t think I’m naturally as good a singer as a lot of other people I know. I’ve had to try to unlearn some bad habits and try to learn from listening to people that I really like, but I believe in this one and especially with the help of producer Michael Freeman that I’ve definitely done my best recorded vocal performances on this album.
“I was coached not to over-sing sometimes. On one hand, blues is supposed to have a lot of passion in it, and it should be expressed in the singing. On the other hand, you have to pick and choose your spots because if everything is just yelled or screamed or growled, it gets old real fast even on one song to use a lot of vocal chops as spice rather than the main ingredient. I once produced an artist and tried to tell him in a nice way the way he was singing was too much frosting and not enough cake. He understood.
“(Michael) said to me at the beginning of the recording, ‘If I make a suggestion to you, instead of discussing it, please just try it and see what happens. I think it will take a lot less time, and we can figure out whether it was a good suggestion or not later.’ And I said, ‘That’s a good suggestion, and I’ll do that.’
“I give him the respect to do the job that I hired him to do, and we didn’t always agree on everything, and actually the vocal on “Heaven Mississippi” he really worked me very hard on that line by line and at the end of it I said, ‘Thank you very much. I think we got a good performance. I’m too close to it to judge, but I never want to hear that f**king song again.’
One of Margolin’s originals on the album is “Young and Old Blues” about looking at the age issue in blues from both side of the time line. Margolin is 66. “Fortunately, I’m healthy and I don’t seem to be suffering physically. I’m still learning things on guitar and think I deliver better performances than I ever did. I think I’m an entertainer, a better entertainer than I ever was and seem to be from the response I’m getting, and there’s plenty of people older and younger than me that kick my ass of course, and I sure wouldn’t want to try and kick Buddy Guy’s ass – ever.”
Who else does he look up to in that way?
“Well, I did with Otis Clay that we just lost, but I was pretty close to Nappy Brown. We met in about 1985 or so when I was playing at a roadhouse where I live, and the club owner said, ‘You know, Nappy Brown was just here. Do you mind if I put him with your band sometime?’
“And It began a real friendship and plenty of recordings and a lot of gigs until his death in 2008, and he was somebody who was an entertainer that would do whatever to drive a crowd crazy all the while he was singing as good as humans sing, and he was also an entertainer that would do whatever it took to drive the crowd crazy whether walking out into the audience or rolling around on the ground. He would get their attention.
“He had come from that scene in the 1960s where he had 20 minutes to do a show with Sam Cooker and James Brown and Muddy and lots of other great people and Chuck Berry. And he had to prove himself that way. So he was very inspiring to me and great stories and just what he did on the bandstand gave me a window back into that time that Muddy didn’t have so much. By the time I was with him, he was sitting on a stool and playing every night.
“The first word everybody uses about Muddy was dignity, but Jimmy Rogers told me a lot of stories about when they were playing in the ’50s in Chicago with Little Walter that they used to do all kinds of wild things. Jimmy used to tell me they used to walk through the crowd with Muddy sitting on his shoulders, and both of them playing guitar.”
I reminded Margolin of the stories about Muddy taking a beer bottle and shaking it up and putting it through his pants so it looked like he was ejaculating in the crowd.
“I have heard that story, but there is another story that I heard from Nappy about Muddy and B. B. King. The way B. B. told it is the other people playing on the show were backstage at the Paramount Theatre when they heard the crowd going completely insane, and he looked out to see what Muddy was doing, and apparently he was doing “Mannish Boy” with his dick out.
“Nappy told me the same story except I guess he kind of play acted it or something. He kinda showed what it looked like swaying in the breeze, but Muddy said, ‘I didn’t realize my pants opened up when I was doing that song, and I went, “I’m a man, I’m a man,” and I looked down and saw I’m a man.’
Bob Margolin keeps more than the Muddy Waters legacy alive. His performances and the album My Road almost bring Muddy back. It’s almost as if he weren’t gone. I can’t think of another artist who’s done that any better for a postwar legacy artist. He has done more to continue that feeling, that emotion, that wonder, that joy of Muddy than any other artist I can think of. And he’s done it in his songwriting and his music journalism, too.
“It would be very easy for me to say, ‘Deliberately, don’t put anything on here that will remind anyone of Muddy,’” explains Margoilin. “I felt it would be dishonest to do that. At the same time I wanted to go beyond what I’ve done before singing and playing and songwriting with depth and telling my own stories.
Visit Bob’s website at bobmargolin.com
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2016
Writer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.