Bob Margolin has serious Blues cred from his time as a guitarist in blues legend Muddy Waters’ band from 1973 until 1980, appearing on various albums including 1977’s Hard Again, which was produced by Johnny Winter. With Waters, Margolin was also part of the concert documented in the movie The Last Waltz. After his time with Waters, he has released various acclaimed albums as a solo artist, most recently “My Road” which came out earlier this year.
This interview was done for a preview article for Margolin’s 3/12/16 concert at the Carrillo Recreation Center in Santa Barbara. It was done by email, with answers received on 2/23/16.
Jeff Moehlis: What can people look forward to at your upcoming concert in Santa Barbara?
Bob Margolin: I will feature songs from my new album, “My Road”, now receiving strong airplay and good reviews. I wrote new original songs from my own life and experiences and mixed it with co-written songs and some written by friends I admire. The audiences have been responding to the new songs and I meet nice folks on the breaks and after the show who let me know they enjoy it.
I also honor my time and the music I made with Muddy Waters when I played with him in the 1970s. I share some stories and play some of his songs. All the music will feature the interplay of my guitar with the responsive collaboration featuring Bob Corritore, one of today’s finest Blues harmonica players. We’ll have Marty Dodson on drums. Opening the show will be my friend Alastair Greene and his band. I’m sure we’ll conspire to jam together.
JM: I saw you perform here a couple years ago as part of the Blues at the Crossroads Two tour. Was it fun for you to revisit the songs of Muddy Waters in this context?
BM: Yes, we had great musicians on that tour and it was exciting to play the Muddy songs we love together. It was harmonica heaven with James Cotton and Kim Wilson, two of the best. Kim’s singing was appreciated as much as his playing. We all knew and loved Muddy and Wolf’s songs and love to celebrate them together. I really enjoyed the time and playing with fine guitarist Tinsley Ellis. We did a workshop together at the college.
JM: How did you first get the gig playing with Muddy Waters?
BM: He had seen me play what he called “Old School Chicago Blues” in bands that opened shows for him. He was very supportive of me playing his style. I’m from Boston and went early to the first night of a Muddy nightclub gig there. Muddy had fired a guitar player the night before. Muddy gave me a chance that put me on the road I still ride. I use what I learned from him to give him what he wanted onstage as well as a foundation for my own music.
JM: When you played with him, what kind of direction did Muddy Waters give you and the rest of the band?
BM: Not much direction at all, but there was a language and traditions within his music. The band had to listen closely to Muddy’s nuances of singing and guitar playing and back him responsively, not just grind out the song the same way each night. At the time I was in the band we didn’t talk about music offstage, just played it as well as we could at gigs and in the moment. Muddy would show his pleasure or displeasure with the band or an individual player onstage. And if he played a wrong note himself, he’d look at his guitar like it had betrayed him.
BM: It remember thinking it was like walking through a living Rolling Stone magazine, familiar rock stars all around. Muddy brought Pinetop Perkins and me to the concert. They went back to their hotel rooms after the show, but there was an all night party back at the hotel afterwards. Around dawn, the Blues-loving rock stars took over the jam instruments. Bob Dylan sang Robert Johnson songs and he and I and Eric Clapton played guitars. Dr. John was on piano, Paul Butterfield on harp, Levon Helm on drums and Ron Wood played bass. It sounded like a Blues jam at dawn, but it was fun to look around and enjoy that once-in-a-lifetime moment.
BM: That particular album, released in early 1977, introduced a younger audience to Muddy’s music. That was precisely producer Johnny Winter’s deliberate intention. “Hard Again” is notable for the fun and enjoyment that came through the music, and Johnny wanted us to sound live in the studio, which we were. When I co-produced a reissue of that album in 2003, I did not change the mix that so many people loved. Johnny Winter went on to produce and occasionally have Muddy tour with him for three more albums and I think it’s notable that even though Johnny had the fame of a rock star, he played Blue on his shows and albums for the rest of his life. That’s the opposite of a profitable career direction. He used his rock star fame to shine a light on Blues music.
JM: You also played and hung out with Pinetop Perkins. What was he like?
BM: Pinetop was young-at-heart and lived to be 97. He passed gently, three weeks after he had won his second Grammy Award. He was friendly, loved to joke and have fun, and his gift for singing and playing deep Blues on piano are a gift to us. I smile every time I think of Pinetop.
JM: What lessons did you learn from Muddy Waters, Pinetop Perkins, and other blues legends that you’ve brought to your own recordings and concerts?
BM: Those musicians did not choose their parts on a song and execute them. They listened to each other for inspiration and direction and played what seems like primitive music with mindful creativity, and the mature creativity of thousands of shows and recordings. They were in their 60s when I was playing with them, but before I was old enough to hear their music they were great entertainers as well as musicians. Even though they often appeared to be dignified older artists, I value the playful spirit that was in their music before I was old enough to hear it. They left a rich legacy.
JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise, for the near future?
BM: I worked for a long time last year to conceive, compose, and record “My Road”. Now I want to bring these new songs, my originals of the last 30 years, and favorites from Muddy and other musicians who are important to me, to my audience. I’ll bring as much fire, originality, and friendliness as I can each night. I look forward to my own shows and special collaborations like this one with Bob Corritore. I love playing with my North Carolina band, Chuck Cotton on drums and Tad Walters on harp and guitar. They played on “My Road” and we have a special chemistry together. I enjoy being musically promiscuous and nobody gets hurt.
JM: What are your thoughts on the future of The Blues?
BM: Many Blues fans worry that with the older generation I learned from mostly gone now, the Blues will die out. I’m reassured by the talented young people I meet, with old souls and new creativity, at the Pinetop Perkins Foundation Masterclass Workshops in Clarksdale, Mississippi each summer. I’m the musical director and try and add what I can to the workshops, the jamming, and the club gig at Ground Zero that we play together. I’m inspired by these fine young musicians in a similar way that the legends used to inspire me. With both I gave or give my best music and friendship, and I’m deeply grateful to all of them. Taken together, in my lifetime experience, we conquer time.