Featured Interview – Mud Morganfield

He’s not blaming anyone and he’s certainly not pointing any fingers or casting any ire in any one person’s direction.

Fact is, he doesn’t have one jealous or vengeful bone in his body … he just wasn’t raised that way.

Heck, even if he did want to take it out on someone, so much time has passed since then that those wounds would have healed by now.

Despite that, he does want it known that this is what launched his career.

A television program.

Not just any television program, however, this was The Kennedy Center Presents: A Tribute To Muddy Waters: King Of The Blues, broadcast on PBS back in the very late 1990s.

To say that Mildred McGhee and her son, Larry ‘Mud’ Morganfield, were excited when they sat down to watch the program would be an understatement.

To say that they were disappointed at the program’s conclusion, would be an understatement, too.

“We watched it until the end, until all the credits had rolled and the show went off the air, and I looked over at my mom and she was sitting there crying. I rushed to her side and said, ‘Mother, what’s wrong? Are you hurt; why are you crying?’ She said, ‘I’m alright.’ So I said, ‘What’s wrong, then?’ And she said, ‘They didn’t mention my boy, not one time,” Morganfield recently said. “Buddy Guy was there and my younger brother, Bill, was there and Koko Taylor and Keb’ Mo was there … everybody that was anybody was there. Everybody but me … I felt so outcast. Did you see me there? No. Did you hear my name mentioned? No. Did you see my name in the credits? No. We sat there hoping that someone would mention this poor little boy on the west side of Chicago, and they didn’t. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After that, I said, ‘That’s it. I’m going out there.’ I’m not bitter and I’m over all that now, but that is what started me singing the blues.”

As most know by now, 61-year-old Mud Morganfield is the son of Mildred McGhee and Muddy Waters (“Some people say the oldest (child), but my dad was a rollin’ stone, so I’m a little afraid to say that,” laughed Morganfield).

As most also know by now, Mud Morganfield has rapidly ascended to become one of the hottest blues singers currently on the scene and he specializes in the kind of classic, old-school Chicago blues that used to rule the Windy City back in the day.

Morganfield’s latest long-player – For Pops: A Tribute to Muddy Waters (Severn Records) – was a collaboration with the great Kim Wilson and it landed on almost everyone’s ‘best of’ list and certainly captured its share of accolades and compliments from blues lovers across the globe.

“Yeah, it’s been unbelievable. I won a Blues Blast Award and a Blues Music Award (for Best Traditional Blues Album at both ceremonies). That was very, very gratifying. Before that, I was nominated in three or four categories for my album Son of the Seventh Son and was fortunate enough to pick one up for that (2012 Blues Blast Award for Best Traditional Blues Album). Getting one this year, man, I just want to thank everyone involved with the album,” he said. “Guys like Kim Wilson and Barrelhouse Chuck, Billy Flynn, Rusty Zinn, Steve Gomes and Robb Stupka … everyone that played on the album. It was great to receive a BMA … it’s like the ultimate thing for me. I’m still looking to one day hopefully, before I get old and die, to get nominated for a Grammy and maybe even win one of those around here.”

Kim Wilson makes no bones about his love and respect for Muddy Waters. Wilson even had the chance on many occasions to open up for and even jam with the big man and his band back in the 1970s. That makes the pairing between Wilson and Mud seem like a real no-brainer, which it was.

“That was because of David Earl (the visionary behind Severn Records. He also helped produce and record For Pops). Kim has done a lot of work with David and that’s how the idea for us to do an album together came to be,” Morganfield said. “I was getting ready to do an album and got a call from David and he was telling me about this fantastic idea, which it was. But, hey man, anything to do with my dad, the least I can do is to pay homage to him. That’s the way it should be, you know?”

For Pops found a place on the blues charts the same year that Muddy’s 100th anniversary celebration was also being held all over the world. There were several other compact discs released last year celebrating Muddy’s centennial, while the annual Chicago Blues Fest also placed special emphasis on the man’s music (as it also did for Howlin’ Wolf) last summer. Muddy’s popularity with long-time blues fans is well-documented and shows no signs of fading away. What does continue to impress about Muddy’s music, however, is the way that it relentlessly keeps finding a home in the collection of young music fans who were not even born when Muddy was doing his thing. Put it this way; Muddy’s music is every bit as popular today -if not more so – as it was in the ’60s and ’70s.

“I think that’s because it’s roots music. Really, the root of all music. Pop was listening to guys like Son House and Robert Johnson and then taking that music farther. That connected with people back then and it continues to connect with people,” Morganfield said. “According to my dad, there were hard times back then on the plantations and working in the fields and along the Mississippi River. It was pretty rough. Even though people may not do that kind of work these days, times are still hard and people can still relate to the messages in my pop’s songs. That will never change. I think maybe – perhaps – that I can give some of these younger fans a glimpse of what it may have been like if they had gotten the chance to see my dad.”

The one thing that did change in Muddy’s orbit, was the players that were in and out of his band over the years. Sure, there were a few long-time members (Pinetop Perkins and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith immediately come to mind), but the door always seemed to revolve in the Muddy Waters Blues Band. That being the case, Muddy never once failed to surround himself with the best of the best players – that made the product top-flight, no matter who played on his records or who shared the bandstand with him.

“When you’re a great player by yourself, can you imagine having a bunch of other great players around you? It’s like having an all-star band. Pop was a great guitar player and singer and performer … you name it, pop did it. But then you look behind you and there’s Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith sitting there, who was a superb blues drummer. Then you’ve got Calvin ‘Fuzz’ Jones on bass to hold the bottom. Then there’s Bob Margolin on one side and Luther ‘Guitar Junior’ Johnson on the other, then there would be Otis Spann or Pinetop on keys. That’s amazing, man,” said Morganfield. “That’s the product of what you get when you have great players around you. And for me, I also try to keep some of the best-of-the-best players around me. The guys that play with me are not show-boaters; they don’t need to walk across the piano, but they get in there and they kick out a groove, man.”

In a relatively short amount of time, Morganfield has developed a loyal and rabid fan base in England. They count down the days to his next appearance and can’t wait to fill up venues like London’s Boisdale of Canary Wharf, where Morganfield held court last June.

“I guess it’s just the luck of the Irish (the reason for his popularity in England),” he laughed. “But you know, I do think about the times that my dad and Willie Dixon went over to England when I was still a snotty-nose kid and that country really embraced them. But don’t forget, the Rolling Stones are from there and they named themselves after a line in a tune that my dad did. And they had so much respect for pop over there, so it wasn’t hard for me to develop a fan base there, too. They tell me I have the persona and sound of pops, and I’m OK with that. I’m only saddened by one thing – that’s that America still doesn’t love its own artists like other countries do.”

Like the old saying goes – sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees and there certainly has been numerous times on several occasions, when music enthusiasts in the United States have had to wait for other parts of the world to point out what we have going on in our own backyard.

“That really does break my heart. We’ve got a bunch of great talent over here, man, and people don’t seem to really pay it that much attention,” he said. “It’s like it’s passé and they say, ‘Yeah, we know that, we’ve heard that.’ That can make it hard for an entertainer who works hard to establish themselves as an artist and a bluesman.”

That lack of instant recognition in the States has not caused Morganfield to waver for one micro-second. From day one, he’s rolled up his sleeves and worked hard at what he feels he was born to do, which is to play the authentic blues. His sound, attitude, work ethic and devotion to his craft could only be labeled as ‘old school.’ But yet Morganfield is fully aware of the days and times that we live in here in the 21st Century and he has embraced the technology of today – like Facebook and Twitter – to go along with his throw-back ways.

“It’s just social media, man, and you have to use it. You may be somewhere (playing a show) and have people say, ‘I didn’t know he was here in town, right under my nose.’ With social media, you can let people know where you’re going to be and how much tickets are and all that stuff,” he said. “Maybe that way, more people can come out to your show and have a great time. That’s turned into a big thing.”

Facebook followers and social media mavens are one thing in 2016, but it’s also fun to stop and think about what Muddy or The Wolf might have Tweeted about back in their day.

“My dad was such a humble man, that I don’t think he would have done that (used Facebook or Twitter), but I do think he definitely would have had someone working on that kind of stuff for him,” said Morganfield. “But for me, I’m a different person. I am Muddy’s son, but I’m more of a personable person and I love people. I like people to like me and that’s probably one of my biggest hang-ups. I’m a people-pleaser and want them to say good things about me, while I’m alive and after I’m dead. I do try to be humble with people and I hope they give me the same thing.”

Last year was a huge celebration year for Muddy, but it also basically marked the 10th anniversary of Mud’s devotion to fully concentrating on playing the blues on a full-time basis. Although his profile rose like a moon-bound rocket when Son of the Seventh Son hit the streets back in 2012, that doesn’t mean that Morganfield found himself suddenly on Easy Street, with no cares in the world.

“I’m still a struggling musician, just like everyone else. I still struggle to pay my bills, man, just like everyone else. The popularity is fine, but I don’t get no huge amounts of money. Don’t get me wrong, I still love it, but I’m still grinding and still hustling and am still trying to line up shows and get to those shows and enjoy myself,” he said. “I’m finding this to be a fantastic journey and I just hope my health holds up so I can put out more great albums.”

It looks like late this spring might be an exciting time for Morganfield, as plans are in the works for him to hook up with St. Louis legend Big George Brock to play a show on May 8.

“We’re talking about playing there in St. Louis at B.B. King’s club. I look at this cat (Big George) the same way I look at Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith or Pinetop Perkins. All I see is my dad in those guys.” he said. “Those guys have dedicated some 40 or 50 years to us and to playing the blues. Those cats have put in a lot of years for us, giving us music to enjoy. I mean, what more can you ask them to do? They need to be appreciated and that’s what I do for any of my elders that I can. And don’t forget about guys like Eddy Clearwater. I was just at his birthday party and he’s such a sweetheart. He’s dedicated his whole life to giving us some good blues and I have great admiration for them all.”

The brilliant thing about the way that Morganfield presents his music – especially in a live setting – is that way that’s he’s not the least bit shy or hesitant to let all of his influences shine through. Of course, the fundamental center of all that is his father, but there’s also bits and pieces of R&B and even some old-school 1980’s pop music in there, as well. And according to Morganfield, that’s natural and just the way that it should be.

“Here’s the thing; I am the son of Muddy Waters – McKinley Morganfield – but by the same token, I wasn’t born at the same time my dad was. I didn’t have to experience the hardships that people of his age had to in the south. When I was born, stuff was a little bit better than it was when my dad was born. So, when my dad was young and listening to Robert Johnson and all those great artists, when I was young, I was into Motown,” he said. “I was listening to Hall & Oates – you know, “Maneater” and “I Can’t Go For That,” and of course I was listening to The Temptations and Michael Jackson. That was the stuff that was bangin’ in my ears and you can’t deny that was great music in the ’70s and ’80s. But you’re talking 20 or 30 years later on from pops. Not only that, some of that music is what I hear in my soul. I try to keep it bluesy, but when you listen to songs like “Midnight Lover” or “Blues in My Shoes” (both from Son of the Seventh Son), that’s the kind of stuff that I feel. Then you have Johnnie Taylor and Tyrone Davis and all that stuff.”

Morganfield acknowledges that while there’s nothing wrong with a case of the deep blues from time-to-time, hopefully there’s more to life than just woe and misery 24 hours a day and he’s trying to help celebrate some of those good times, as well.

“When my dad came up, there was plenty of suffering going on in the south. They saw the blues almost as praying in those days. That’s where the blues came from – people praying for a change in the cotton or corn fields … they were praying to be safe and to be saved. When those people would hear the blues, they would feel a little better about themselves. But I’m in a different era, you know what I mean?” asked Morganfield. “The suffering’s not so bad as it was back then in the south … there’s really no comparison. When my dad and them sang, they were sad. I have a lot of reasons to be sad, too, but I know that a lot of people don’t want to feel sad anymore. They want to dance the night away and have a few drinks and have a great time. They don’t want to all the time be crying about some love affair that went bad. I do have songs that will give you that feel, but I want people to come out and have a good time.”

His repertoire does feature plenty of Muddy’s songs – some well-known and some that are more obscure – but there are songs of his dad’s that Morganfield just cannot bring himself to sing.

“Yeah, “Long Distance Call” is one of his songs that I can’t do. That song is one of my dad’s signature songs and for somebody to get up and try to do that song … I just don’t think it comes out right. To do the (sings) ‘And then, and then, and then,’ somebody would have to really be putting on an act,” he said. “And I don’t want to be a marker; when I get on stage, I want the spirit to flow. I just do what I was naturally born to do. There’s no copying or anything like that. What I’ve got is between God, Muddy and my mother. I do 20 or 25 songs during a show and I guarantee that when I open my mouth, you’re going to hear my dad in there somewhere.”

Another of Muddy’s sons – Big Bill Morganfield – has also carved out a nice piece of turf for himself on the blues scene over the past couple of decades. That leads to the obvious question of whether or not Mud and Big Bill can find the time to hit the studio at the same time and issue a full-length album together.

“Well, anything’s possible. Bill was on the scene probably 10 or years before I got here,” he said. “My plan is to continue to put out great albums.”

Plans are underfoot for Morganfield to enter the studio sometime around the middle of this year to cut his newest compact disc. If the last two albums are any indication, fans can expect another heaping helping of the real-deal Chicago blues, served up with the style and attitude of Muddy Waters at their heart and center.

And the way that Morganfield sees it, that’s the plan from here on out.

“I’m just here until I move on, trying to keep that flame burning. You know, the flame of guys like my dad and Howlin’ Wolf and Lead Belly and Blind Boy Lemon and all them,” he said. “It’s important that we don’t forget where this music came from and that we keep it alive. That’s all I’m trying to do. I want to remain grounded, so I can still get respect from my dad. This was just a gift that’s been given to me and I’m just thankful that I can do it. You have to remember, I’m not some guy just running around and trying to look or sound like Muddy. I’m his son; I’m a progeny of Muddy.”

Photos by Roman Sobus © 2016

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