Bob Margolin on Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy,” “Blues for Bartenders,” others: Gimme Five

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Bob Margolin, a long-time sideman with Blues and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Muddy Waters and a respected band leader in his own right, discusses his role in Waters’ final recording sessions, takes on an early side from musical hero Chuck Berry, and then disagrees on one of our favorite deep cuts from his solo career. …

“MANNISH BOY,” with Muddy Waters (HARD AGAIN, 1977): A raw, first take-sounding update of the original 1955 side with Jimmy Rogers and Junior Wells, this time in Blue Sky sessions produced by Johnny Winter. Waters remade “Mannish Boy” with Margolin along with pianist Pinetop Perkins and drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith from his then-current touring band. James Cotton played harmonica, with Charles Calmese on bass. Together, they fashioned some of the most vital music Waters had issued in years.

Bob Margolin: That song represents the renaissance at that point of Muddy’s career. It used to be a showstopper for him in the ‘50s, but he didn’t perform it much in the ‘70s, only once or twice that I remember, until he recorded it with Johnny Winter for Hard Again. Muddy sure got the crowds excited, delivering so much manly showmanship. It got to be as big a song as “Mojo” for him.

“WEE WEE HOURS,” solo (DOWN IN THE ALLEY, 1993): Margolin returned to one of his most important early influences, and it became a highlight of a celebrated first album for Alligator Records. Roomful of Blues’ Ronnie Earl then added a memorably soulful turn on guitar. Originally Chuck Berry’s first B-side, “Wee Wee Hours” was recorded with Willie Dixon for Chess Records in the mid-1950s.

BOB MARGOLIN: Ronnie Earl, the guitar genius, is a deep friend to me and would not accept money for playing on that album. Instead, I bought him a small-bodied Guild acoustic guitar from the ‘50s. We played our acoustic guitars together getting to that place where it’s one soul with four hands, total collaboration, the opposite of competition. The song is a blues song that Chuck Berry had played and sang soulfully as a B side to one of his rock ’n’ roll hits.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Bob Margolin offers his thoughts on working with Muddy Waters and Pinetop Perkins, appearing with the Band, and going it alone with ‘In North Carolina.’]

“BLUES FOR BARTENDERS,” solo (UP AND IN, 1997): Part of a winking, determinedly upbeat release from Margolin — who famously introduced the album, this third for Alligator, by saying: “Enough down and out; it’s time for up and in.” Other highlights include “Alien’s Blues” (“I may be green but I love these blues …”), but none matches this one for wacked-out humor and husky picking brilliance.

BOB MARGOLIN: That song has gotten more airplay than any I’ve done. It’s a novelty song, telling a bunch of “this guy walks into a bar…” jokes over a blues shuffle with stops. Sometimes people comment to the radio station, “Hey, there’s oral sex in that song!” But they rarely seem to complain that sometimes it’s oral sex with animals. It was meant for laughing, and mostly that’s what it accomplishes. I haven’t played the song in more than 10 years. I don’t think I’d remember all the words now, and like a Chuck Berry song with lots of lyrics, if you miss one line the whole song falls apart.

“I’M A KING BEE,” with Muddy Waters (KING BEE, 1981): Margolin also appeared on the final recording by Waters, a unfortunately uneven, patchwork effort featuring songs from a May 1980 session and outtakes from 1977’s Hard Again. The title track is a highlight. Working once more with producer Johnny Winters, Waters reconstructs this Slim Harpo tune into a boastfully muscular stomper. By the time is was issued, however, Margolin, Luther Johnson, Jerry Portnoy and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith had already left to form the Legendary Blues Band. Margolin has since helped oversee a terrific remaster of the album, adding two additional bonus tracks.

Margolin: That was probably the best song from that mediocre album, at least compared to the three Blue Sky albums from Muddy before that. Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson, the other guitarist besides Muddy and me, used to sing that Slim Harpo song to open shows sometimes. Muddy decided to sing it himself for that album. He did a good job and the band played it well, I think.

“BORN AT THE RIGHT TIME,” solo (CHICAGO BLUES, 1990) A favorite deep cut from an album that has somehow gone out of print, featuring everybody from the old Muddy Waters touring band except the Old Man himself — among them, Pinetop Perkins and Willie Smith — as well as Kim Wilson, Jimmy Rogers, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones, Kaz Kazanoff and others. As much as we liked it, though, Margolin himself remembers things differently …

BOB MARGOLIN: Sometimes I listen to my old songs, or recordings of old performances and am proud of them. I think I was on the right track. Other songs make me wonder what I was thinking. This is one of the latter. Yes, it’s kind of a personal and social commentary, the opposite of “My Favorite Things,” about shit that I didn’t like in the ‘80s from business to loud lawnmowers. For a long time now, I think that while it may have a clever line or two, it’s not the kind of song I want to do again unless I can make it a lot deeper. I have it on my mind to write a song of broken-hearted patriotism for the way things are going these days. But when I tried to write one, even with all the life and musical experience I hope I acquired, it didn’t come out to me any better than self-righteous whining. So, I’m reaching for song ideas within myself, and I want to keep my standards very high. I don’t seem to find that as easily as I’d like to and I can’t force “deep.” It’s something I find later that I’ve done if I’ve really felt a powerful original song and put it over with passion. I’d like to make the best music of my life next time I play live and record. In the middle of living in today’s challenging world and all it’s obstacles, that’s how I’d like to prevail.

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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