They traveled different paths in life and their choice of vocations were polar opposites, but at various points in time, Al Capone and Muddy Waters were two of the most powerful and influential people in the storied city of Chicago.
Capone’s reach in the Windy City is well known and shall not be recited here, but as far as Muddy’s benevolent pull was concerned?
Guitarist extraordinaire – and one-time member of Muddy’s band – Rick “Junior” Kreher explains just how much power the big man wielded back in the day.
“Muddy told me that he wanted me to play guitar with him and he asked me if I had a passport. I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘We’re leaving next week for England. Go down to the passport place and tell them that you play with me and they’ll give you one,’” Kreher said. “This was pre-911, of course. But I went down to the federal building in Chicago and said, ‘I need a passport; I’m going overseas with Muddy Waters.’ And they said, ‘Muddy Waters! OK, OK.’ So I literally got a passport in like an hour. That was all it took. Yeah, I play with Muddy, and in an hour, I had a passport.”
No doubt that could never happen in these days and times – first, because of the heightened security and tightened restrictions of the 21st century; and two, because as sad as it is to say, Muddy’s name doesn’t carry the same weight these days as it did back in the early 1980s.
“That not only shows you how the blues have changed, but also how society has changed over the last 30 years or so,” said Kreher. “To get a passport with no questions asked would just not happen today.”
Kreher had been playing the guitar and gigging around Chicago for a long time before hooking up with Muddy in what turned out to be the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Famer’s last real working band, playing with him right up until his death in 1983 (Kreher was a pallbearer at the legend’s funeral service). To say that his head was spinning in a thousand different directions upon joining Muddy’s band might be a bit of an understatement.
“Yeah, I didn’t know what the Hell was going on … I mean, all of a sudden you’re playing with Muddy Waters? One night you’re playing a little gig somewhere and the next week you’re playing in England,” he said. “To go from playing these little holes-in-the-wall to playing with Muddy Waters over in England … who would ever have thought that? There’s no way I ever thought I’d have the chance to play with Muddy Waters. And when I did get that chance, it took a little while for that to settle in.”
The last couple of years of Muddy’s life were not particularly upbeat ones for the iconic bluesman. There was disputes with former bandmates, the changing musical trends of the early 1980s, plus the battle with the cancer that would ultimately claim his life. All that turbulence was swirling around when Kreher entered into Muddy’s band as rhythm guitarist.
“It wasn’t a bad situation when I was with him; he was still at full-throttle. He’s one of those guys that every time he took the stage, he gave it all he could,” Kreher said. “I was with him for a little over three years and I never heard a bad night from him. He was always at the top of his game. It was great playing with him, because Muddy was one of the first blues guys that I saw back in the ’60s in Chicago and I always loved the guy. Every time I had the chance to see him back then, I would.”
Kreher’s portal into Muddy’s world was through the great Mojo Buford. At the time, Buford was gigging between Chicago and Minneapolis and Kreher was playing guitar for him.
“I heard rumblings through the grapevine in Chicago that Muddy was having problems with his band and when his band did leave, Muddy asked Mojo to get some guys together, and so I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “So he recruited me and John Primer (guitar) and Earnest Johnson (bass) and Lovie Lee (piano) and Ray Allison (drums) and we ended up being his last band.”
Not only was Kreher familiar with Buford, he was also well-versed in all things related to John Primer before the two became Muddy’s newest guitar tandem.
“Yeah, I had met John prior to playing with Muddy. I knew John from Theresa’s Lounge (where Primer held a steady gig). So I knew him pretty well before we even started playing together,” he said. “But it was great. I always loved John. He was playing great back then and he still is today. His style has not changed much. He’s one of the few guys that’s still staying with the real blues tradition. He’s became one of the main guys now and he deserves it.”
He no doubt learned volumes from Muddy, but maybe the most important thing that Kreher took away from his stint playing with him was his sense of professionalism.
“He was a pro all the way. He kind of showed that the music is the business and whether you’re the front-man or a side-man, you need to show yourself in the best light you can for every situation,” he said.
Kreher played with practically everyone who is anyone over the ensuing years, including Little Arthur Duncan, Taildragger, Studebaker John, Willie Buck, Rockin’ Johnny and Muddy’s son – Mud Morganfield – to name-check just a few. Those different artists rightfully all have different personalities and different ideas on the sound they’re looking for, which might make it a bit of a chore for a guitarist to be constantly switching back-and-forth between bandleaders. But while they’re all different, Kreher says there is one common thread between the diverse set of bluesmen that he plays with; a common thread that makes his job much easier.
“Even though they’re all different, they’re all Chicago blues musicians and I play the Chicago blues,” he said. “Most of the guys that I play with have – now they call it ‘old school’ – the ensemble style, where the whole band plays together to back people up. That’s what I’ve done since day one and that’s how I’m able to fit into different situations. All those front-men bring something different to the table, but at the end of the day, it’s all Chicago blues.”
The temptation to strike out under his own name has never really gnawed at Kreher. He really does dig being part of a group and not having to lead his own band on a full-time basis.
“I really do enjoy playing with a bunch of different people, plus, I’m not much of a singer. I sing some background, but that’s about it. In fact, even to this day – I’m in my 60s – I’m shy about singing,” he said. “So at this point I don’t think it’s (starting his own band) ever going to happen. I’m really happy backing everybody up. For me, it’s a compliment when at the end of the night somebody goes up to Rockin’ Johnny or Studebaker John and says, ‘Man, you guys sound the best I’ve ever heard you.’ That’s a compliment for me, too, because that means I did my job backing them up good.”
Kreher had an opportunity to help pay tribute to his old bandleader at this summer’s Chicago Blues Festival as a part of the Muddy Waters Centennial Tribute, a musical salute that featured Mud and Big Bill Morganfield, along with Bob Margolin, Bob Stroger, Kenny ‘Beedy Eyes’ Smith, E.G. McDaniel, Barrelhouse Chuck, Paul Oscher, Jerry Portnoy and his old running partner in Muddy’s band – John Primer.
“It was great. That’s really been the highlight of my summer, so far,” he said. “It was on the main (Petrillo) stage and the last time (before this summer) that I was on the main stage was with Muddy Waters. He performed there in ’82 at the jazz festival. At that time, there was no Chicago Blues Festival. Muddy was there as the featured blues artist at the jazz festival. The following year, when the Chicago Blues Festival started, Muddy was supposed to be the first headliner, but unfortunately, he passed away a couple of months before.”
Any year is most definitely a good time to celebrate and honor Muddy Waters, but the occasion of his 100th birthday is extra-special. Even if it may or may not really be the centennial year of his birth.
“It is disputed, some people say (Muddy was born in) 1913 and some say 1915, but the city of Chicago recognizes 1915, so they held the celebration this year,” he said. “His tombstone and his estate say 1915, so that’s the official un-official date, I guess.”
One of the most surreal moments of Kreher’s long and illustrious career of playing the blues has, naturally, a connection to Muddy Waters. It occurred on the evening of Nov. 22, 1981 while The Rolling Stones were in Chicago on their then-current Tattoo You world tour. That’s the evening that The Stones somehow manged to shoe-horn themselves into Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Lounge and jam with Muddy, Buddy and Lefty Dizz.
“It was supposed to have been a big secret, but everyone put two and two together. Muddy was in town, The Stones were in town to play three nights at the Rosemont Horizon, so everybody figured something was going on,” said Kreher. “I found out about it a week before. We met (the night of the jam) over at Muddy’s house on Lake Park Avenue and we drove together to Buddy Guy’s club.”
And what was the first giveaway that the cat had gotten out of the bag?
“I remember going down 43rd Street and we got about a block away from the place and they had the street blocked off and there had to be a thousand people outside the club,” he said. “It wasn’t a very well-kept secret, to say the least. Everybody was trying to get in. It was quite a scene. The place only held about 50 or 60 people to begin with and when we first started playing, there weren’t that many people in there. But when The Stones arrived, their entourage filled the place up.”
Much like The Stones were (and still are), Kreher has long been a champion of the authentic Chicago blues and as such – and considering his ties with Muddy Waters – it’s no shock that he’s been spending considerable time recording and playing with Mud Morganfield the past few years. Morganfield has turned quite a few heads and perked up ears of blues lovers everywhere with his take on the music of his father. Sonically and visually, Mud Morganfield is his father personified.
“Well, of course he’s going to sound like his dad, after all he is Muddy’s son and he does look a lot like him, too,” Kreher said. “But he’s really got the goods. I’ve been doing a lot of work with him over here in the states. He’s really popular overseas and when he goes over there, he uses a band that’s based over there.”
It should be noted that while he does cover a number of his father’s tunes – and he looks and sounds an awful like Muddy – Mud is by no means a karaoke performer stuck in a strictly Muddy Waters vein.
“The way I look at it is, Muddy’s been long gone, but Mud is actually keeping that ensemble sound going, hopefully. You know on the Seventh Son CD, he wrote all but just a couple of songs on there,” Kreher said. “And now, he’s getting ready to record another one. He’ll always throw some of his dad’s songs on there, but he writes a bunch of killer songs and they’re not all confined to the straight blues formats. He’s got some great ideas. He’s a guy to look for in the future. If anybody’s going to carry on the real Chicago sound, he’s the guy to do it.”
If it seemed like every corner of every town had a band playing on it back in the ’60s, that’s because most of them certainly did … or at least the garages in the houses on those corners of the street did and that scene rubbed off on a young Rick Kreher.
“Back in the ’60s, everybody played some (guitar). You had the garage band syndrome going on when The Beatles and The Stones and all that started happening,” he said. “Everybody picked up guitars. And me and some of my cousins got a little garage band together and kind of played around with that. Then I got hooked on the blues and started going to all these clubs and stuff. I was really shy back then and wouldn’t sit in. Plus, I wasn’t good enough to sit in with those guys, anyway. But I’d try to soak everything in and then go home and try to emulate them when I got home. It took me a few years to be brave enough to go and sit in with some of those guys.”
Kreher had no shortage of killer guitarists to draw inspiration from back in the 1960s and ’70s, which was a good thing. However, that could have been a bad thing once he decided it was time to start playing out in the public – trying to find some space for himself in a city jam-packed with a who’s-who of six string slingers. Turns out, he didn’t make a big deal out of the crowded competition.
“My thing was, I was into the ensemble, back-up rhythm kind of sound. That’s how I found my niche. I wasn’t in there trying to be the next Luther Allison or anything like that,” he said. “I was in there to be a supporting character. That made it all a lot easier for me to fit in, because everybody wanted a decent rhythm guitar player and I got a lot of calls. I was never too much into being the front-man and jumping around playing; that’s just not my personality.”
From the first time he heard them, Kreher has been deeply into the blues. That love for the music as a young man even prompted him to blaze a trail that only a few others besides him were willing to travel – to venues on the south and west sides of the Windy City.
“When I first started going out to clubs, there were very few white people going out to the clubs on the south and west sides. Then after awhile, most of us that went down there became friends,” he said. “Guys like Dick Shurman, Bruce Iglauer and Bob and Sue Koester. When I first started going out to clubs, those were the first people I ran into and palled around with them. We’d get together and go to different clubs. Then as the blues started to get more popular in the late ’60s and early ’70s, things started to change and a lot of clubs started to pop up on the north side of Chicago and all that.”
Those heady days of club-hopping at blues clubs in Chicago didn’t last forever and Kreher says that the scene in town these days looks vastly different from what it did back then.
“It’s changed a lot, because when I first started going out, there were no white blues clubs – they were all pretty much on the south and west sides. Then, the demographics changed and the younger people in those areas became not so interested in the blues and the older people were dying off or moving out to the suburbs,” he said. “But what really changed it was when the narcotics got really bad on the south and west sides, like crack and all that junk. When that came on the scene, people became scared to go out, so they stopped going to the clubs. You can probably count on one hand the number of clubs on the south and west sides now. Before, you could go from club to club to club … for hours. That’s all over with now.”
Blues music has managed to stubbornly move at its own pace for centuries now and that has long been a lovely charm of the genre. But with the way society moves today – along with the way that technology has a speed several light years faster than anything else – it sure seems like the speed limit of the blues may be facing its biggest challenge to either move on, or to get ran over.
“It’s not only for the blues, it’s for everything. Things are moving so fast right now. You’ve got YouTube and all this stuff these days … you can click and click and bounce around between all this different stuff,” Kreher said. “People’s attention spans are really, really short right now. I have teenagers at home and they listen to the blues because I’m involved in it, but if I wasn’t involved, they wouldn’t listen to the blues. It’s (blues) just not that accessible right now. They’ve got all these other kinds of music right in front of them and they go a mile a minute looking at it. But blues is just not on the radar of most young people. It’s kind of sad.”
To see a video of the 1981 gig of the Rolling Stones with Muddy at the Checkerboard Lounge CLICK HERE.
(NOTE: Rick is on the the right hand side and John Primer is on the left. Rick gives up his spot to Keith Richards when the Stones descend onto the stage in the middle of the song!)
Photos by Michael Kurgansky © 2015