Featured Interview – Mike Morgan

Cover photo © 2024 Bob Kieser

imageBack in the 1990s, Mike Morgan and the Crawl were riding high. Morgan was another fine Texas bred guitar player, instantly recognizable with a black patch covering his right eye, damaged in a freak accident during a motorcycle race when he was 13 years old. The band was signed to the famed Black Top Record label, releasing eight albums of tough Texas blues, with the great Lee McBee on vocals and harmonica. Since then, Morgan has experienced some twists and turns on the road of life.

Born in Dallas, Texas in 1959, Morgan’s family lived there until he was five years old. His mother remarried, and his stepfather, Robert Morgan, moved the family to Hillsboro, about 65 miles south on I-35. In 1986, Morgan returned to Dallas as he became more serious about his career in music.

“I didn’t have a lot of musical influence. My parents liked listening to music and they would play a lot of soul stuff is what I remember. As a kid, I really liked Otis Redding. They also had Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave and all that stuff. And I remember they had a Lightnin’ Hopkins record, and a John Lee Hooker record that I listened to. That was as a pretty small kid. Then as I was growing up, I was listening to a real big radio station here in Dallas, KZEW, the Zoo, and it was the big, playing anything from the Carpenters to Led Zeppelin to Frank Zappa, pretty much all across the board back then.

“I didn’t get a guitar until about the third grade. I don’t remember why I wanted a guitar, but I remember wanting one. My parents bought me one out of the Sears catalog. It was a big hollow body plastic guitar, a big giant toy guitar. And the strings were, God, you know, an inch off the neck. I kept trying to play it. So I guess they saw that I was serious about at least wanting to try to play it, so they bought me what I think was a Kingston guitar at the Ben Franklin dime store. If my memory serves me, it was a little Alamo amplifier and a Kingston guitar.

“Next I took a couple of lessons. There was a guy up at the place my dad worked, a college kid who came over and wrote down the chords for “House of the Rising Sun”. That was the first song I learned how to play. So really it started in about the third grade, but I never really got serious. I wasn’t in a place with a big community of people playing music. I was more into sports and riding dirt bikes. That was my big love as a kid and even as an adult. I did that more than playing guitar. But we had little garage bands in high school, get together and jam. We didn’t really know a whole song, but we’d get out there and play what we knew.

Living out in the country, Morgan was somewhat isolated. Fortunately, he had several people who really kick-started his passion for blues music.

“There was a guy that was a few years older than me. He was a big jock in high school and he was kind of a hero. I’d go down there to hang out with him and he played this song for me. It was on ZZ Top’s first record. It was kind of a ballad called “Old Man”. It had this great guitar solo in it. When I heard it, that was one of my big wow moments. Then about 1983, this friend of mine, Matt Sessions, a drummer in town, and the first drummer in my band, the Crawl, had me listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s first record, and that was my second big wow moment.

image“I had just got laid off this place I was working at, a sales job at a big mobile home factory that had come to Hillsboro. I was making quite a bit of money for a kid. I think it was 1983 when they shut down. That led me to get together with four guys in Hillsboro that I had jammed with over the years. We said, let’s do it, and we booked a gig. It was a place down in West Texas where we used to go drink beer. It was a place called Wolf’s. We worked up about 40 songs, mostly ZZ Top, or Stevie Ray, the Thunderbirds, and managed to get it together enough to get through the gig.

“Pretty much everybody we’d ever known our whole lives showed up. And I think they charged. $2 or $3 at the door. We made $800 bucks. And I went, maybe we ought to do this again. Music up to that point had been something to have a little fun with. Before I went back to work doing something else, that gig kind of got the wheels rolling for me, making me wonder if we could do more with this. As I got more serious, the other guys weren’t quite as into it.

“When I moved back to Dallas, this guy took a liking to us. He was friends with the singer Daryl Nulisch, who had been working with Anson Funderburgh & the Rockets. I was a real big Anson fan, had his first two records that I listened to over and over. Daryl and Anson had split up, so this guy told Daryl about me. Daryl was looking for some work. He was light years ahead of where I was at at that point. I mean, when I first met Daryl, I thought all those songs were originals that he and Anson wrote. We started talking and I said, man, y’all wrote all those songs and Daryl looked at me like I had three heads and went, are you serious?

“He explained that they didn’t write any of them, they were written by Magic Sam, Little Walter, Little Milton, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Elmore James. And I was like, huh? He said, don’t you know who those guys are? Are you serious? I said, yeah, I just thought they were y’all songs. So he gave me giant stacks of albums, just handed them to me, saying you need to listen to these. Me, I thought those guys were like Led Zeppelin or something.”

Nulisch was already a seasoned veteran, looking to make a little bit of money, and Morgan was glad to start working with him. It went well until just before the band was going to head out for California for a tour, including a date at the Fillmore. Guitarist Ronnie Earl came through town, invited Nulisch up to sing a few songs, and then offered him a job. The singer bailed out on Morgan.

After managing to get through the tour, Morgan came home to begin the hunt for a new lead vocalist. One name kept popping up.

“I got Lee McBee’s number from somebody, gave him a call, and we exchanged cassette tapes of stuff we had been doing. Lee wasn’t sure that things would work out as he lived in Lawrence, Kansas, which is a long ways from Dallas. The band had an upcoming date at the Grand Emporium Saloon In Kansas City, so I invited Lee to come out to hear us. After the show, he told me that as soon as he heard us do Magic Sam’s “Easy Baby,” he knew he wanted to join up.

“That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me in my career, hooking up with Lee. We made a pretty good little team. Then Anson helped us out, talking to Hammond Scott at Black Top about the band, Hammond came to hear us one night in Jackson, Mississippi at the George Street Grocery. He stayed till the end, came over to the hotel and hung out with us afterwards. He said he wanted to record us. I’m like, you do? He goes, yeah, let’s do a record. So that’s the way that happened. I think that first record, Raw And Ready, came out in 1990. Then we basically did a record every year through 1999.”

imageThe last record that Black Top put out, I Like The Way You Work It!, was the last record Morgan and McBee did together.

“I hated to see that label go. But I saw, what’s the word I’m looking for, the hip factor for the blues was already waning by the late 1990s. Part of my success was being at the right place at the right time.  I think most people would agree that Stevie Ray made blues cool with the commercial success that he had. And it was young people who were asking, Hey, what do you want to do tonight? And often, the answer was, let’s go see a blues band. Now, the music doesn’t have that cool factor, and it really hasn’t for a while. Hopefully something will bring that back around at some point. I’ve been fortunate in that I don’t take any of that for granted. Without good people around me, I’m just another guy with a guitar strapped on.

“I’m proud of my songwriting. We got a lot of pretty good tunes recorded. I was blessed to have met up with Lee and had such a great, great vocalist. We had a period where we split up for a while and I did a record in 1996 with a vocalist that was living in Austin that played with me for about a year. Chris Whynaught sang on the record, Looky Here. He was really good. He was different than me, but he was like Lee and Daryl. You know, they were both great singers. I’ve always had vocalists that played harmonica, except for Chris . He was a really good sax player, so it changed things up a little bit”

In 1999, after the final Black Top album, Morgan and McBee came to the end of their time together. Like two people in a marriage, it was time to go their separate ways. It was decision time for the guitar player and band leader.

“The thing about singers is they kind of define your band to some degree. I didn’t want to find another really great singer and have it go south in a year. I was not interested in reinventing myself every time. So I said, I’m just going to try to sing. I never sang,  but I guess I’m just dumb enough or hard headed enough to say, I can figure out how to do it. I just plowed ahead, going from being on autopilot playing with a singer to doing my own thing. It was terrifying, a painful, painful ordeal for me and probably for whoever was listening to us to some degree.”

Morgan went back to work in 2000 as the sales manager for a motorcycle shop. He was playing part-time, enjoying a steady income, holding that position for 18 years. He had three releases on Severn Records, Texas Man, Live In Dallas, and Stronger Every Day, released in 2008. Those albums featured Morgan as the vocalist. When the shop closed its doors, he was ready to give music another try. Then Covid hit.

“That put a damper on playing full-time. As bad as it hit the music industry, anything that had to do with outdoors like motorcycles, bicycles, camping, it was boom time. A guy that I worked with at the motorcycle shop called me. He was the controller over at a different shop. He told me there’s an opportunity here and you need to come up here. So for the last two and a half years, I’ve been playing while working full time over there as a finance director.

“Then in September, I got laid off. Business took a pretty big downturn, and they downsized the shop. So, I’m back to pretty much playing full time again now, trying to get booked, to get back out there. You know, I’ve been out of the scene for probably as long as I’ve played full time. So to some degree, there’s a lot of people that don’t even know who I am now. There’s probably a lot of people that remember me, but don’t know what happened.

image“It’s a lot tougher than it used to be. Getting into this at the time I did, you could have a cassette tape and send it to somebody and they’d go, yeah, that sounds great, we’ll hire you for three nights. Now I’ve got 13, 14 records and it’s harder than it was back then. I’ve started getting more help now from the Tina Terry Agency. We’re starting to work together some. I’ve never even met her, but we’ve talked on the phone and she’s been real good to work with. There’s not as big of an audience as you know, and it’s an aging audience. And it’s been a while since I’ve been out there doing it, so I’ve got to ease back into it.

“Mark Carpentieri at M.C. Records has been an angel. He’ released my last record, The Lights Went Out In Dallas, two years ago. When we put this thing out, I said I’m not going to be able to go tour behind it. I can go play some gigs, but I can’t be out touring and really promoting it. He said, well, we’ll just get your name back out there. He really liked the record quite a bit.

“I’ve got another side project with Anson, and another good friend, Shawn Pittman. I had an idea one day, called them both up and said, ‘Hey, would you guys want to do some gigs together occasionally and, you know, call it something?’ They both liked the idea. So we put a thing together. We’ve gone to Europe a couple of times and done a little bit around here. We call it the Texas Blues Guitar Summit. It’s the three guitar players with my band, Kevin Schermerhorn on drums, and Drew Allain on bass. Me and Shawn both sing. That’s been a whole lot of fun.

As far as his instruments go, Morgan has a few favorites.

“I’ve got a bunch of guitars, but it’s funny because with all the ones I have, two of them is basically all I ever play. I’ve got my ’82 Fender Stratocaster that is a reissue of the 1957 model. And then I’ve got a 1967 or ’68, I’m not sure which year it is, Epiphone Riviera. I’ve also got a Danelectro guitar from somewhere around 1999 or something, when they came out with a reissue. Anyway, I bought one of those and I’ve got that set up for slide. But those other two guitars have been my main ones my whole career.”

When it comes to amplifiers, Morgan spent many a year with a 1959 Fender Bassman along with a Fender reverb tank. Once he got going, it was not unusual to find him using two Fender Super Reverbs

“God only knows how loud that was! Then I went through a little phase where I got a couple of ’60s Fender Blackface Deluxe Reverbs. I played two of those wide open together for a while. But most of my touring career, it was my ’59 Bassman. Right now I’ve got a house full of amps. I’ve got an endorsement deal with Victoria Amps and a couple of great amps that Mark Baier at Victoria’s made.

“But lately, I think it’s more from being lazy or maybe it’s getting older, not wanting to pick up something that weighs too much, I got one of those little Fender Blues Juniors. For a cheap amp, it’s really amazing how good those little things sound. They got a gain channel and a master channel, so you can make it dirty, or you can make it clean, or you can make it in between. The reverb is isn’t much, so I carry a reverb pedal with me.”

Looking back, Morgan acknowledges that he has had a great run, even though music took a backseat for much of the last two decades. He has plenty of good times and great friends to remember as he embarks on what he hopes will be another successful phase of his remarkable career.

“I don’t take any of this for granted. I really appreciate it and I’m thankful God gave me the opportunity to get out and do something that I really enjoy. And I never thought I would be able to have done what I’ve done up to this point. It all just just started off that one gig in Hillsboro.”

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