Standard bearers for the blues come in many forms, but no one has been more steadfast in carrying the cyan banner than Bob Margolin, the guitarist extraordinaire who spent seven years on the road with Muddy Waters and has been paying the blessings he received forward ever since. But Margolin’s far more than a musician. He is a songwriter with a deep social conscience, he’s an educator, author and label owner, too, who works tirelessly to to keep the music by promoting up-and-coming talent for future generations.
Blues Blast caught up to Bob by phone recently as he was relaxing on the porch of his home in High Point, N.C. He was bundled in multiple layers of clothing and enjoying Mother Nature at her finest, accompanied by his beloved border collies, Calvin and Ruby, and family cat in his happy place on a brisk winter afternoon.
It’s a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Chicago, where Muddy plied his trade, or metropolitan Boston, where he was raised, knowing pretty much from the jump that he wanted to be a musician. “I started playin’ guitar because of Chuck Berry,” he says, quickly adding: “But later on, I realized that Muddy Waters was real important to him, and I kinda followed the path of his inspiration.
Bob was still in high school when he heard Waters for the first time. He’d tuned in to WBUR, the AM station operated by Boston University, and the deejay, Uncle T, initially caught his ear by spinning Albert King’s tune, “I Love Lucy,” a paean to his Flying V guitar, a friendly rival to B.B. King’s Lucille.
“It was a pretty cool song,” Margolin recalls. “But the next thing he played was a Muddy Waters slow blues, ‘Long Distance Call’ or something like that – one of the early versions with Little Walter on harp. I was first struck by Muddy’s voice.
“And then, as it went on, I said to myself: ‘Wow! What a great slide guitar player he’s got there!’
“I quickly found out that it was the same person: Muddy. That was it – I was all the way in. He was my favorite musician from that moment on.”
Bob picked up the guitar for the first time at age 15 and almost immediately started playing out in local rock and blues bands. He was in his late teens and a student at BU when he made his first recordings with The Freeborne, a band that carved out its own niche in music history.
The group went through multiple lineups and musical styles in its decade-long run, but is best known as one of the top psychedelic rock bands to emerge from what’s known as the Bosstown Sound era. Along with Ultimate Spinach, Beacon Street Union and Orpheus, they served as the East Coast’s competition with the better known San Francisco Sound that produced Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and others.
“There were a few different bands (incarnations) by that name, including the psychedelic one – which had blues as one of 20 other genres,” Margolin remembers. “They were some young, creative people who wanted to mix everything together,” he says, “which I thought was very educational.”
Formed when two separate garage bands – The Missing Links and The Indigos — merged in a desire to produce original material, The Freeborne were a five-piece ensemble ranging in age from 17 to 19 at the height of its popularity. Fronted by Nick Carstoiu on vocals, keyboards and rhythm guitar with Mike Spiros on keys and trumpet, Lew Lipson on drums, Dave Codd on bass and Margolin on lead, their music – psychedelic, but with blues elements — caught the ear of Barry Richards, a Bostonian music impresario, who used his connections to hook them up with Monitor Records, an esoteric New York-based label that recorded Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Paul Robeson, but is best known for its classical and international folk releases. Bob’s band was the only rock group ever signed to its roster.
Partially recorded at CBS Studio in Manhattan, their only album, Peak Impressions, was released in 1968 to moderate success, something that was limited by the fact that three members were still in high school and weren’t able to tour. But they did share bookings with three of the biggest names of the era — Tim Hardin, Velvet Underground and Canned Heat – on local club dates.
Despite their initial success, the band shifted toward the blues after changing managers and their record deal – two more albums were planned – fell through. But their LP has been in distribution ever since through several unauthorized releases before being reissued in a remastered, extended format by Arf! Arf! Records on CD in 2014.
While none of his bandmates enjoyed further musical success, Margolin – who earned a degree in public relations that he terms a “50-year-old virgin” – has been in the belly of the blues ever since.
Bob’s first exposure to Muddy in the flesh came at the Jazz Workshop or Paul’s Mall in Boston, where Waters played frequently in the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s, noting: “I still have pictures I took with an Instamatic at that time with him, Paul Oscher, Sammy Lawhorn, Pee Wee Madison, Pinetop (Perkins), Willie (‘Big Eyes’) Smith and I think Calvin (‘Fuzz’) Jones on bass, too.
“And I was in some bands that opened up for him…one with Luther ‘Georgia Boy/Snake’ Johnson.”
If the name sounds familiar, it should. One of two guitarists of the same name who played with Waters in the ‘60s, Snake was a fixture on the New England blues scene before passing in 1976. He’s often confused with Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson, who’s enjoyed a long recording career and is still active in Boston, or Atlanta-based Luther “Houserocker” Johnson, who never played with Muddy and died in 2019.
“Luther ran his band just like a minor league Muddy Waters Band,” Bob says fondly. “He just played in the African-American clubs in Boston, and I learned a lot in his band. It was a very intensive course. We’d play six sets a night, five nights a week, a three-set matinee on Sunday. I made $80 a week.
“I said: ‘Well that’s it! I’ll quit my $100-a-week day job in a parking lot, and now I’m a professional musician’ – which did not leave me something to fall back on in 2020 because most of my income was from live performing.
“But I was lucky back then. He always paid me. He didn’t always pay everyone.”
Margolin’s frequently recounted his hiring by Muddy in the past, but went into more detail than usual when asked to retell it this time around.
“I’d opened for Muddy in the past with a group called Boston Blues Band after I’d left Luther,” he says. “We were just smart enough not to play Muddy Waters songs on a Muddy Waters show. But we were playing a lot of Chicago blues…Jimmy Rogers, Jimmy Reed and Elmore James.
“He heard me playing those things, and was very nice to me — and encouraging. When his band would be opening with three songs before he came up to the bandstand, I’d sit in the dressing room — alone with him — and talk about music, which was just amazing to me ‘cause he was my favorite musician. It was like Moses talking to God or something!
“He was a good band leader and a good person who wanted to treat his band fairly,” Bob remembers. “I went down to see him at the Jazz Workshop for the first night of what was to be a week long gig in August 1973, and the first person I saw was his harmonica player that I already knew, Mojo Buford.
“We were the only two people in the room, and he asked me the fateful question: ‘Got any reefer?’
“Knowing how things worked in those days…bands traveling on the road, I did. I’d bought some and brought it. Then he said: ‘Oh, Muddy fired Sammy last night. Wait here!’”
The band had just played a show at Tanglewood, an outdoor venue that’s still a fixture in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, and Lawhorn was a sensational guitarist who’d been at Waters’ side for 12 years. A heavy drinker with other health issues, however, he’d apparently messed up on stage once too often.
“A minute later,” Bob says, “Muddy came out of the dressing room, saw me and said: ‘Oh good! Come to my hotel room tomorrow and bring a guitar’ – completely assuming that I’d drop anything in my life and go do that.
“But he was right. I did it.”
Margolin had studied Waters intently every chance he could, something that paid off in spades the next day, when showed up with his electric guitar and a small Fender Deluxe Tweed amp in hand and the master said: “Play it!”
“I plugged in and we played softly ‘cause we were in a hotel…a slow blues in E kinda generic in Chicago blues style – somewhere between Muddy and Jimmy Rogers,” Bob recalls. “I played an introduction just as basic as you can be, and Muddy started singing along…sang a whole verse, and he liked that.
“I don’t think he thought I was as great a guitar player as Sammy was, but he could see that I wanted to learn it and was into the style, and he decided to give it a try. It was a real crossroads moment.
“I knew then that if I did it – to give him what he wanted on the bandstand for as long as I could — it would be the foundation for the rest of my life. And if I was lucky enough, I’d be able to go past it if he ever decided to retire, quit playing or pass away…’cause he was ‘really old’ then…he was 59!
“And that’s exactly what happened.”
For Margolin, it was a marriage made in heaven – a Middle Ages-style master-apprentice relationship in which he was learning on stage by accompanying his knight in shining armor rather than through formal lessons and picking up pointers here and there in occasional illuminating conversations.
“Most of the time, though, I had to learn it right there on the bandstand and receive a dirty look if it was something he didn’t want to hear,” Bob says. “And I didn’t want those dirty looks!”
Margolin spent the better part of the next seven years in Waters’ band and also served as the sole foundation for his sound when Muddy made infrequently solo guest appearances, performances that included The Band’s legendary The Last Waltz concert in San Francisco, which included everyone from Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr and Paul Butterfield to Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell and Dr. John.
“I tried to make myself useful to him on and off the bandstand,” Bob says, “’cause I really loved him personally as well as his music. If he was going to play with musicians he didn’t know as well as he knew some, he’d bring me along to kinda tell them what he wanted – to be the translator so he could just get on stage and have someone familiar behind him.
“I tried to use that opportunity to do something for him. And, of course, it did an incredible thing for me – especially with the Muddy Waters Woodstock Album in 1975.”
Muddy’s final Chess LP, it won a Grammy with a lineup that included Paul Butterfield and The Band’s Levon Helm and Garth Hudson.
Waters enjoyed a major resurgence in his career after moving to the Blue Sky imprint, where Johnny Winter served as the producer for what would be his final four albums: Hard Again and I’m Ready – two more Grammy winners — as well as Muddy “Mississippi” Waters Live and King Bee, his last album. Bob’s licks are deep in the grooves of all of them. And, in recent years, he served as both consultant and producer when Blue Sky/Sony reissued them on CD.
Margolin’s run with Muddy came to an end in June 1980, when the other members of the band – Pinetop, Portnoy, Smith and Jones – parted company with Waters to form the Legendary Blues Band after a long-simmering dispute. Their final gigs took place in Japan.
The impending break-up is written all over the faces of the group in a black-and-white photo Bob found on the internet and shared with this writer. Muddy’s seated alongside his 19-year-old bride, Marva, and they’re surrounded by six of the most miserable looking musicians you’ll ever see, all of whom appeared to be wishing to be anywhere else than where they were at the time.
“All of us knew this was going to be the end,” Margolin says, adding a line from an old blues tune: “You can tell that ‘our time ain’t long.’ The looks on everybody’s faces – especially mine – really showed it.”
Fortunately, he also sent along another image captured from CNN’s Rock ‘n’ Roll President documentary in which Jimmy Carter is beaming ear-to-ear as watches him and Muddy in action on the White House lawn.
Back in America, Waters quickly assembled a new band with guitarists John Primer and Rich Kreher, keyboard player Lovie Lee, bassist Earnest Johnson and drummer Ray “Killer” Allison, but died in his sleep of heart failure at age 70 in 1983 without recording another album while Legendary — featuring a revolving lineup anchored by Smith — released seven LPs and CDs before disbanding in the early ’90s.
Meanwhile, Bob launched a solo career, billing himself as “Steady Rollin’” Bob Margolin – a nickname he adopted after a deejay from a radio station operated by Emerson College in Boston pinned it on him during an introduction of Waters’ ensemble a few months prior to their disbandment.
Somewhat of a musical nomad for a few years, he relocated to the Washington, D.C., area, where he shared a house with great friend and guitarist Tom Principato and then Blacksburg, Va., before putting down permanent roots in North Carolina in 1989. He made a comfortable living fronting his own band in clubs across the Southeast, served as the opening act for shows by Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Thorogood & the Destroyers, Winter and the Fabulous Thunderbirds and played occasional major events, including a Muddy tribute with the T-Birds, Etta James and Taj Mahal at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
As the ‘80s came to a close, however, the once-bourgeoning club scene began to dry up, and he came to the realization that he needed to expand touring and start a recording career of his own to insure his own economic survival – something that pales in comparison today with what everyone in the industry, himself included is having to endure.
His first two solo albums – The Old School and Chicago Blues – came out on Principato’s Powerhouse Records, and a subsequent switch to Alligator for three more in the ‘90s helped him reconnect with the international fan base he’d acquired during his travels with Muddy.
He’s a five-time winner of the W.C. Handy Award/Blues Music Award and an eight-time nominee who’s appeared as a guest artist on recordings by several of the biggest names in the industry across all musical spectrums. His 2020 release, This Guitar and Tonight – an intimate, all-original, all-acoustic set aided only by guest appearances by harp player Bob Corritore and former Conan O’Brien bandleader Jimmy Vivino on second guitar — is the reigning BMA acoustic album of the year. And he’s also the reigning Blues Blast Music Awards honoree as male artist of the year, too.
Before COVID struck, he and Jimmy were enjoying touring together in an acoustic setting, trading licks in what Muddy used to term “filling in the cracks” and swapping stories about their experiences with blues legends in a relaxed, unstructured format – something that they yearn to continue once the world situation allows.
Margolin has consistently kept Waters’ memory and music alive in any way he’s been able through the years, touring as part of The Muddy Waters Tribute Band, recording the Grammy-nominated homage You’re Gonna Miss Me (When I’m Dead and Gone) with B.B. King, Dr. John and Little Feat and appearing at a Kennedy Center Tribute in his honor — just to name a few. Since leaving Alligator, he’s released about ten additional albums for Blind Pig, Telarc and his own Steady Rollin’ and VizzTone Label Group.
He co-founded VizzTone pretty much by chance in 2006 with longtime friend and fellow Bostonian Richard “Rosy” Rosenblatt, former president of Tone-Cool Records, and Chip Eagle, former publisher of BluesWax magazine – where Bob penned a column, earning a Blues Foundation Keeping the Blues Alive honor in the process. He continues to pen the column today for Blues Music Magazine.
He’s also self-published a book, Steady Rollin’, a digital-only volume that includes true-life stories and personality snapshots from the road as well as what he terms “intentional blues fiction” based on actual events. Published in 2011, it’s an interesting read that’s still available as a download.
“Chip said: ‘I’d like to help you make your next album,’” Bob recalls. “As we started to talk about it, we realized that neither one of us knew anything about how to be a record company…that we’d make really dumb first-timer mistakes if it was just the two of us doing it.
“Right at that time, I got an email from Rosy, who’d just sold Tone-Cool, but didn’t want to get out of the business altogether. He said: ‘Anybody need a harp player or a used record company executive?’ That’s just what we needed!”
Eagle eventually became less involved in the operation, but their first release — Bob’s self-recorded In North Carolina — earned him guitarist of the year honors at the subsequent BMAs.
The company they started has proven successful despite operating as a collective that takes a smaller cut of revenue produced than a full-service label would. Artists produce and record their music and submit it for consideration. If accepted, a partnership arrangement with VizzTone provides pressing, distribution and promotion services. Chicago-based publicist Amy Brat has been handling that end of the operation since coming on board in 2009.
“After the first album,” Bob says, “we realized we could do that for other people, and we’ve been doing it ever since. We’re friendly, collaborative, and I’m thankful to have Rosy and Amy’s advice. One thing we don’t do is advise anybody about making music. We either like what we hear or we don’t. And a lot of the time, we do!”
With almost 100 releases to its credit, the VizzTone roster includes albums by several name – former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Rick Vito, late soul and gospel giant Otis Clay and Phantom Blues Band – as well as dozens of rising stars.
Amy planted the seed for This Guitar and Tonight, Margolin notes. “I was talking to her and Rosy, mentioned that I had time to do a new album and wondered if they had any suggestions. She said I ‘should do something I hadn’t done before to distinguish it from the others…how ‘bout an acoustic album?’
“Bingo! A little blue light goes on over my head!
“’That sounds fine,’ I said, especially since earlier in 2019, I had this really beautiful 1930s Gibson L-00 guitar that had fallen into disrepair – the headstock was cracking and it was pretty fragile – rebuilt by an excellent luthier who lives only a half-hour away from me.
“He had it two months and said: ‘You’re not gonna believe this guitar when I get it back to you.’ He was right. It was a great guitar before. But now, it’s even better. The guitar has no highs and no lows, but it’s angel sweet in the middle – and records well.”
The six-string features prominently in his follow-up, the EP Star of Stage and Screens, an intimate acoustic six-song set that picks up where the last one left off. It also is something of a milestone effort because Bob did all of it at home and sent off files unmastered rather than taking them to a friend for finishing work at Studio B in Charlotte – primarily because, like everybody else in the industry today, he didn’t have any money.
It’s a brief, but powerful mix of thought-provoking observations about life during coronavirus as well as remembrances of performing with Muddy at the White House and other events. And it comes across with an updated feel that’s highly reminiscent of the work of first-generation blues men both in the simplicity of recording and depth of the message.
“I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to hear you say that,” Margolin said when confronted with that observation. “I was trying to live up to that standard – it was something to aim for generally.
“In the past, I’ve recorded my share of songs that make me cringe when I hear them now. But on these, I was trying to do something I thought would be of musical value to the world – and to be the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Away from the stage, he spent most of the summer collaborating with co-author Dave Rubin on a follow-up to their well-received instructional book and accompanying DVD, Chicago Blues Rhythm Guitar: The Complete Guide, which was released by Hal Leonard LLC in 2015.
Entitled Chicago Blues Slide Guitar, this one will be accompanied by 58 videos that Bob shot himself with his iPhone, and it goes beyond the licks that old-school masters perfected. “I put in everything I know and some things I had to learn,” he says. “We go into different players’ styles, including some of the younger ones…Billy Flynn, Bernard Allison and others.”
And he’s eager to resume his responsibilities as musical director of the Pinetop Perkins Foundation. Created with a mission to support young musicians at the start of their careers through annual masterclass workshops in Clarksdale, Miss., and to assist elderly artists at the end of theirs.
Bob’s been active with it from the beginning in 2010 at the suggestion of Pat Morgan, Pinetop’s longtime manager, because the keyboard giant wanted to create a lasting legacy before his passing.
Initially conceived for piano players only, the concept expanded immediately to include guitar and now includes harmonica, bass and drums, too, bringing in musicians from around the world, some of whom attend on scholarship. And, fortunately, Pinetop was able to share his smile and encouragement at the first event before leaving us the following March.
“It’s pretty exciting and fun for me,” Margolin says, noting that life’s come full circle. Instead of learning from Muddy, he’s now the one who’s passing the lessons along.
Bob was teaching the guitar class about ten years ago when he encountered Christone “Kingfish” Ingram – then age 11 — for the first time in Clarksdale. The setting included students much older and experienced than he was, Margolin remembers, “but even then, he had something particularly powerful going for him even as an unformed kid.
“I took him aside one time and said: ‘Have you ever heard of Freddie King?’ ‘No.’ So I showed him on YouTube some performances of Freddie, and said: ‘If that looks familiar to you, it’s because you step into your solos the same way he did.’
“The last time I saw him was last February at a B.B. King tribute in Westchester, N.Y., and it’s wonderful to see him doing so well – and not surprising to me at all. What an amazing person!”
Now an international superstar, Kingfish is just one of several outstanding talents to go through the Pinetop program. Others include pianist Ben Levin and guitarists David Julia and Austin Young, all of whom have released CDs through VizzTone, and the team of Joe Tellman and Jesse Black, who met in the workshops.
Bob’s yearning to get back out on the road, too, because playing for enthusiastic audiences transports him to a special place where none of the troubles of the world enter – especially The Last Waltz celebration tours that Robbie Robertson has been organizing through his company, Blackbird Presents, for the past few years.
“It’s one of the best gigs I’ve ever had,” he says, noting that the 2020 tour would have come to Charlotte – a little more than an hour from his home – in November and adding: “It’s still booked for November 2021, so it’s still possible.”
The most recent aggregation included Warren Haynes, Lucas Nelson, Don Was, Ivan and Cyrill Neville, members of Bonerama and Dirty Dozen Brass Band as well as surprise guests, and the tour was running strong when COVID-19 brought the world to a screeching halt.
“Those gigs have been spectacular for me,” Margolin says. “I hang out with these amazing musicians, all of whom are picking up the marquee value while I pick up the history part because I was at the original The Last Waltz.
“In 2017, we had Dr. John for some of them, apparently just before he stopped playing altogether. He was havin’ trouble gettin’ around, but he was always jolly. If you said anything to him, his response was a big smile and he’d say: ‘Fuckin’ a…!’ Garth Hudson was on some of those, and what an opportunity to spend time hanging out with him and just talking about music! Fortunately, he’s still with us, but he’s pretty frail at age 83.
“Those gigs are great opportunities. They pay well, and the gigs were easy. The tours aren’t very rigorous. The biggest challenge is to just step away from the catering table. Everybody puts on ten pounds during that tour.
“And I always had plenty of time to hang out with my friends because they always added anyone to the guest list that I asked for.”
Like everybody else in the music industry today, Margolin remains crippled by the absence of touring. But he’s a realist when his health is involved, noting: “Live music depends on as many people as possible getting together in relatively small places. It’s gonna be one of the last things to come back – if not the last thing.
“Some people are doing it (performing). But from what I hear from musicians who are, it’s dangerous because – guess what? – people are drinking. And once they do that, social distancing goes away.
“And, if they like your music, they want to hug you. The folks that don’t get intoxicated get emotional – something that normally has been a big perk when you’re hanging out between shows talking to people or you’re selling CDs.
“A long time ago, I used to think: ‘Oh, no!’ Back in the ‘70s, nobody used to sell records themselves. You just hoped people would like the music enough to go out and buy it. But those days are long gone.”
Today, he says, he understands how great opportunity those meet-and-greets are and what an important role they play in an artist’s ability to make a living. But in a world stricken with coronavirus, he realizes, they can also lead to not living at all.
So, like just about everybody else in the industry, he sits comfortably on his porch and waits – eternally grateful for all of the support he’s received through the years.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you for the incredible experience of playing blues and making friends with people who love the blues,” he says. It’s something he doesn’t take lightly because of his awareness of how small a piece of the music pie blues consumes.
Now that his work on his latest instructional book is winding down, Margolin’s thinking about resuming the Facebook Live and Can’t Stop the Blues shows he did early in the shutdown. Meanwhile, he’s offering up autographed copies of his most recent CDs from his website and sending out confirmation letters that offer up thanks and a little more because he accompanies his words with a few choice photos he’s taken in the “old days.”
Check out Bob’s albums, books and more by visiting his website: www.bobmargolin.com. You’ll be glad you did!