Bob Margolin, Muddy Waters guitarist: Something Else! Interview

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Boston-native Bob Margolin has spent his life around blues music’s most recognizable figures, famously working as a member of the late Muddy Waters’ band from 1973-80. He’s also played with Pinetop Perkins, Jerry Portnoy, Carey Bell and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, appeared with Waters during the Band’s legendary “Last Waltz” concert film on Thanksgiving Day 1976, and performed at the White House in 1978. Now a respected band leader in his own right, Margolin went on to produce a series of well-received solo albums that combine mid-century urban blues, the humor and insight of composing legends like Willie Dixon and the propulsive rock of Chuck Berry.

Margolin shared some memories with us from his time with Waters and Perkins, traces the blues back to Berry, and provides insight into some of his most memorable musical moments — from playing with the Band to solo projects like Down in the Alley and In North Carolina

NICK DeRISO: Muddy Waters’ place in music history is set. What was his impact on you personally?
BOB MARGOLIN: I had the opportunity to learn like an apprentice to a master for playing blues, unlike more modern forms of education. I learned a lot from being around Muddy and the other older players in his band socially as well as musically. One of the big lessons was letting go of anger after expressing it, then moving on — “forgive and forget.” Muddy wanted to treat me well and give me a valuable opportunity to learn. I wanted to learn as much as I could and use it both to give him what he wanted on the bandstand as well as for myself.

NICK DeRISO: It must have meant a lot to help preserve that legacy by working on the reissue projects for Waters’ records on Blue Sky, including selecting previously unheard tracks?
BOB MARGOLIN: That was a dream-come-true situation, working on modern reissues of the music I played on after having acquired some producing experience. My friend Steve Berkowitz, who was head of Sony/Legacy, which produced reissues of old Columbia Records music, thought I would be good for the job. I’m eternally grateful to Steve and working on that music and the liner notes for those CD’s was a labor of love. I remember the excitement of hearing “That’s Alright” from the I’m Ready reissue. I had played bass on the song but didn’t remember it specifically because it hadn’t been on the original LP. But it had Muddy and Jimmy Rogers’ singing Jimmy’s signature song and showing how much they loved each other as friends as they jammed. I’m glad I was able to help get that heard by people who would appreciate it. Of course in modern times, CD sales are way down compared to where they used to be. I doubt if even these historic augmented reissues of Muddy Waters’ late-‘70s music sold enough to pay for their cost. We live in very weird times.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Bob Margolin talks about key tracks from both his solo career and his time as a sideman with blues legend Muddy Waters.]

NICK DeRISO: You were both a bandmate and a friend with Pinetop Perkins, who recently passed. Describe what he meant to the blues legacy.
BOB MARGOLIN: Pinetop was a blues star — a legend, maybe even an icon. But though he was from the same place and time as Muddy and B.B. King and John Lee Hooker, they had hits in the 1950s. Pinetop was noticed when he was in Muddy’s very visible blues band in the ’70s, and was respected and valued in the years after. But when he got with his manager Pat Morgan, she conceived and did the work for him to stay healthy, play often, be paid well, win Grammy Awards, and the Pinetop Perkins Foundation will teach blues workshops to young or young-at-heart blues lovers. Pinetop’s recordings are easily available and there are thousands of photos and videos floating around in cyberspace. Pinetop was not a surviving star — but came by most of his fame very late in life. He made his name in today’s scene with his fine music, old school style, and by surviving to an improbably ancient age. What a treasure. And a role model: This year, he won a Grammy and died peacefully in his sleep at 97.

NICK DeRISO: In the days when you both played for Muddy, you used to perform with Perkins on one side and Waters on the other. That must have been an almost religious experience.
BOB MARGOLIN: Yes, it was. Blues rained down on me and I’m still soaked. And as wonderful as some of today’s musicians are, players like Pinetop and Muddy come from a different time and they take their blues with them when they go. I carry their guidance inside me and I feel their ghosts standing next to me whenever I play now.

NICK DeRISO: Perkins gave you a special guitar, something you’ve pulled out on rare occasions. Are there any plans to use it on the current tour — as a tribute to your musical bond?
BOB MARGOLIN: The guitar is an acoustic National steel guitar. Very good in acoustic situations, which I rarely do live. On a tour I generally just travel with one guitar, because I have to carry it around myself. It has to be an electric that will sound good on whatever I decide to play. The National that Pinetop gave me doesn’t even have a pickup on it, it wouldn’t be practical to use it except for a number or two. And I won’t carry it around myself in addition to an electric guitar and a suitcase. I used to have roadies, but they ran off with my groupies.

NICK DeRISO: Describe how Chuck Berry’s music led you to the blues.
BOB MARGOLIN: I followed the path of his inspiration back to blues. Chuck Berry was basically playing sped up blues and country and you can hear he’d listened to swing too. But playing it with a rock ’n’ roll beat and singing songs aimed at teenagers was very successful for him and he had the talent to do it really well. I mean he was and still is a great musician. Trying to play his licks when I was starting to play guitar in 1964 — I wanted to play like him — showed me the language of blues music in the arrangements and sounds. Chucks signature guitar licks often use what are called double-stops, which is playing two or three notes with one finger that harmonize because of where they fall on a standard tuning guitar. And if you only play one of those notes at a time, it’s kind of a standard blues solo. Chuck Berry pointed me to blues, but I still enjoy listening to and playing his guitar style. It’s not an original artistic statement, but it sure is fun.

NICK DeRISO: Are you proud of the way 2003’s Bob Margolin All-Star Blues Jam introduced a new generation to legends like Carey Bell and Hubert Sumlin?
BOB MARGOLIN: That would be attributing way too much significance to my CD. I don’t sell enough CDs and am not well-known enough to introduce young people to an older generation of blues musicians. That does describe what Johnny Winter did for Muddy with the Blue Sky albums of the late ‘70s. My effort just makes good music with my old and legendary friends, at best. A few people pointed out that I was like a sideman on my own album on that one. It’s what I wanted to do, help feature everyone and present them at their best. But having done that, I wanted to go the opposite way for my next CD a few years later, In North Carolina. I played every note on that CD myself.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Bob Margolin’s terrific ‘Down In the Alley’ displayed a mean slide scream, this cool head-back growl and, lastly, the duo and trio ideas that were so successful for his old boss, Muddy Waters.]

NICK DeRISO: One of my favorite albums with you and Muddy Waters was the Woodstock project, with Paul Butterfield as well as Levon Helm and Garth Hudson from the Band. To me, it showed how his influence ran through the 1960s era of rock. What are your memories of those sessions?
BOB MARGOLIN: It was a thrill for me to work with Levon and Paul and Garth and get to know them a little bit, because they were and still are musical heroes to me. We recorded that CD in ’75. Nine years before that, I had been in a blues band in Boston that worshipped Paul Butterfield. When The Band came out with their albums and their Americana style of music in the middle of more flighty psychedelia, they grounded and changed a lot of people. To play music with people like this — and of course Muddy and Pinetop, too — is a blessing I carry with me. The sessions were relaxed and friendly and fun and I think you can hear that in the music. There was a lot of rock star reefer around too, and I don’t remember much about the ends of the evenings.

NICK DeRISO: What was it like to become an overnight success all over again when you signed with Alligator Records and released Down in the Alley?
BOB MARGOLIN: I don’t think that description of me would be accurate. I don’t think I’m a big success yet, if indeed I ever will be. My “career goal” has always been just to make people happy with music and be respected by my peers and make a living at it. I’m only moderately successful at those goals. Alligator certainly helped me become more visible though. For the ‘80s and early ‘90s, I was mostly just playing in small clubs in the South, playing whatever I felt like for soulful audiences and having fun and not owing anyone any money. Life’s a lot more complicated now. Alligator is a wonderful Blues Record company and I’ve learned a lot through my friendship with the President, Bruce Iglauer. It was probably not a good career move for me to leave the label in ’98, but I was going a different way musically and it was the right thing to do at the time.

NICK DeRISO: You’ve continued to push your own art, memorably recording all alone on 2007’s In North Carolina. How did that different from projects with a wider array of voices?
BOB MARGOLIN: I had control of every note played, which has advantages and disadvantages. As I mentioned earlier, my previous CD The Bob Margolin All-Star Blues Jam was exactly the opposite, everything was collaboration. The idea for doing In North Carolina came from how much I enjoyed making demos of songs when I was with the Alligator and Blind Pig labels in the ‘90s. I would make a primitive demo of a new song, overdubbing parts myself, and develop it that way. I’d change the parts or start over, before the actual recording sessions. Sometimes I’d fall in love with my own demos. That’s what I tried to do with In North Carolina. With a few years’ perspective, sometimes I think I made my best music. Sometimes, not so much.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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