Photo by Peter M. Hurley
A Number One Son Who's Also A Blues Original
Interview by Jason Gross
Having a famous dad can be a blessing and a curse- you start off with an advantage and a great heritage but you also live in their shadow. When the dad happens to be Muddy Waters, one of the most towering figures in the blues, and all of 20th century music, that can be an additional challenge.
Luckily, Mud Morganfield, his first son, was up for the challenge. Originally a soul fan growing up in the '50's and '60's, young Mud wasn't really enamored of his dad's style intially and it was only after Waters' death in 1983 that he finally decided to follow the same path. Morganfield paid his dues similar to the way that he dad did, gigging in Chicago clubs, as his step brother Big Bill did likewise. Starting his recording career in 2008, Morganfield put out albums on several smaller labels and crafted a style that was indebted to his dad but also his own, mixing in soul and rock into the mix, including a 2014 tribute album to his father that he did with Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds (For Pops- A Tribute to Muddy Waters). Now on the legendary Delmark label, Morganfield may have put out his most impressive record yet, Portrait, which starts with a gospel number and even includes a song about health. Here, he talks how he's forged his own path and what he learned from his famous dad.
PSF: When you were younger, why did you decide not be a blues singer like your dad?
MM: Because I believe that you can't just do that. You can't just get up and go outside say you're a bluesman just because you can play the blues- you gotta get the blues. So when you didn't see me, I was getting the blues. I was born on the West side of Chicago and when I came out of my house, I saw crime, drug sales, prostitution. So, you have to get some blues. So that's what I had to identify with and that's what I did- I was getting my blues. You just don't get the blues- you gotta go through something. Counseling, survival, alcoholism, drugs. If you're saying you're a blues person and you ain't been through nothing, you're faking. [laughs]
PSF: What made you change your mind and decide to pursue music?
MM: Well, particularly, it was my dad because... I'll never forget it. I was sitting around my house in Chicago and a special came on [the TV] and it was after my dad has passed. And they had Buddy Guy there and quite a few big artists celebrating dad. And my brother was there and my step brother, Big Bill, too. And they never mentioned me, dad's first born son. And I looked over and I saw my mother tearing up and I thought something was wrong. She's 91 now. And I went to her side and asked her what was wrong and she looked up at my face and she said, "they didn't mention my son." And I made a decision then that they would know her, and they would know me.
And I used to always see dad in my dreams and he was performing and I would try to talk with him and he never would- he just kept performing. All of that, it pushed me over the edge.
PSF: You've made it clear that you wanted to be your own person as a performer- how did you set out to do that?
MM: Well, I had to start somewhere, so dad, or God I would say, would bless me to be able to vocal[ize] like my father and sing baritone so close, and I started off there. And I went from there to songwriting for myself and singing my own stuff and trying to mix it up with me and my dad's stuff. And whatever I did on my own, people would still yell out, "hey, do 'Mojo!'" [laughs] It was because I was so comfortable doing it, being Muddy's son, so it was no problem. So it's a double-edge sword sometimes, but it's OK, man. Long as the world knows that I am the first born of Muddy Waters. I ain't just some guy running around saying, "hey, listen to me- I can sound like Muddy Waters!"
PSF: Do you find it an uneasy balance sometimes to maintain your own individuality as a performer and your ties to your father and his work?
MM: Yeah, it is but I'll tell you, man, there is such a great love for my dad on this planet. And I mean from Moscow to Brazil. There's a bunch of people who only know the history of dad, and I think that when I go stage, it gives them a glimpse of what it would have been like if dad was still here. And I'll throw my stuff in there too and cut loose.
PSF: Your style is definitely rooted in Chicago blues but there's also more of an upbeat style and it has some rock and roll to it and shades of Howlin' Wolf and Bobby Bland. How did you decide to land there?
MM: Well, I can tell you that even though I am Muddy's oldest son, I didn't come up in the fields of Mississippi, picking cotton. I came up in the Motown era. I came up around Tyrone Davis, Mary Wilson and Barry White, who is my favorite artist of all time. I came up on these people here- this is what we listened to back in the day. So I came up in Motown and Stax, so that's what I identified with. It was a great time when people were falling in love and some babies were born. You know, Barry White was responsible for several of my children! [laughs]
But I just keep swinging and putting out albums until I get where I fit in. And I can't get away from it. I tried, I ran and then after I got my blues in the streets of Chicago, I had to go where my calling was.
PSF: I think I hear a bit of B.B. King in some of your more recent stuff. Was he an influence on you too?
MM: I think it's just me being a musician. That's all it is. Just doing what I do is what signifies what comes out of me. Especially with my own stuff, it's just me being a musician.
You check out the first song on the new album, the gospel song on there ("Praise Him")- I wrote that as a small testament for myself. I also put bass on that- that's me on the bass.
PSF: Where do you come up with ideas for your songs?
MM: Life. I'm almost 70 now. I was here when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I saw my town burnt down. So I got a lot to write about and that's what I do. You might write about something that you did.
PSF: One of your extraordinary songs is "Health"- something I couldn't imagine any of the original Chess performers ever singing about. How did you come up with that?
MM: Very easy. My mom had a boyfriend and she had been with this guy for at least 35 years. And this guy worked for General Motors- he was a welder. And he was supposed to retire in 30 years. And the man wouldn't retire- he stayed five more years, just to get more money. And he got that. But guess what else he got? A triple bypass. He also got high cholesterol. You name it. So he worked all these years and these extra years and now you're dying, and you can't enjoy the fruits of your labor. How sad is that? So I wrote a song about that, about him. His name was Leon Robinson.
PSF: When I visited Chicago in 2010, I was impressed by how active the blues club scene was there. What's it like nowadays, from your perspective?
MM: There's a lot of blues in there but there's a lot of these guys not being able to get around and share their music. And it's really sad because some of these guys, they don't get to go to work here in Chicago. And they're great players but blues is the lowest thing on the food chain. [laughs] It's the smallest piece of pie. And you know, sometimes I think I should have been a rapper. Maybe I could have bought my girlfriend a house like Jay Z did for Beyonce for her birthday. [laughs]
PSF: Maybe but you have integrity and it's great you stayed with your music.
MM: Oh well, I'm not hating on him- I'm just saying. I was born poor and I'll probably end up leaving poor. That's what happened with [soul singer] Johnny Taylor too, man. All those gold records he had. The man ended up with nothing but his jewelry and his family was fighting over that. It's just... bad for us, man. It's really bad.
PSF: That's really sad, but for yourself, you stayed with the music you love so that's gotta count for something, right?
MM: Oh it does! For me though, I just... It's easy to do something bad. You can go out and do some crazy shit. But it's hard to do something good and I just want to leave something. When they open up the book of my dad, down at the bottom of the page, you'll see 'Mud Morganfield.'
PSF: Who are some of your favorite artists now, in blues or otherwise?
MM: Well... I got so many, man. I'll tell you that I really like R&B but for blues, I'll take Robert Cray. I like his rhythm and blues kind of blues sound because people come out and have a good time, you know? They don't come out and be sad with their head all hung down. And we still got Billy Branch in Chicago. Bobby Rush, I love him. And I like Ronnie Baker Brooks.
Photo by Peter M. Hurley
PSF: I'd like to go back with you and talk about growing up with your father. What do you remember the most about him?
MM: Not seeing as much as I'd like to of him. I mean, I never went hungry, thank God, and I never went without stuff. I used to get a truck load of stuff from Sears that dad used to send and not all the time he'd bring it to me. But anything I asked for, dad was a good man about it, and always got it.
But the one thing I needed the most... he didn't have time to give to me. He didn't have time to throw that ball back and forth with me or teach me how to tackle. As a matter of fact, it was my mom who taught me how to ride a bike without training wheels. She was the one who held me up.
So, dad was always busy and again, I didn't want for nothing but I didn't have him around the house for a while. He was there for a few years and then him and my mom broke up and he... well, you know what bluesmen do. He went out and played.
PSF: When did they break up?
MM: I must have been about 8 or 9 because he used to always buy me a set of drums every Christmas. I started off as a drummer.
PSF: So this was the early '60's?
MM: Yeah, around then.
PSF: Did you see much of him after that and before he died?
MM: Well, I'll tell you what... I knew where he was and we'd always talk over the phone. I had begun to act out in school, when I was 12, 13, 14 years old. My mom would call and threaten and say to me, "I'm going to bring him to you." And he would get on the phone and he would, you know, run the murder game down to me and what he would do to me. [laughs] "I'm gonna tie you up" and "don't make me come down there" and woo, woo, woo, woo... And my dad whipped me twice. You know how he wupped me? With a towel! [laughs] He's whip me with an open dry towel! And I went to the woods, I screamed and I kicked. It was quite different with my mom and my grandma- they had belts. Oh, you brought back some memories, man...
PSF: Where you aware when you were younger how much of a legend he was?
MM: No. To be honest, like I told you, I was into Motown and Stax Records. And there would be dad and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith playing in the basement. They would just be down there and I'd be saying "what is that stuff that they be playing? I don't like that!" [laughs] I had no idea that these guys were legends. There would be James Cotton there and he was my godfather. And there was Pinetop [Perkins]. Otis Spann was there. We also stayed at the Chess Building on 47th Street. But I had no idea that dad was making such a big influence.
PSF: So you were saying that these guys were jamming with your dad in the basement of your home?
MM: I was kind of young but I remember that the guys would be playing at 43rd and Park, and they would be in the basement playing. Dad would be on the porch and an ice cream truck would come down the street and he would buy all the kids on the block an ice cream. And I was on the porch, jealous! "C'mon dad, get me that one!" [laughs] I had two hands but you know how kids are.
PSF: So what were the jam sessions at the house like?
MM: Well, dad love wine and especially champagne. And they would just sip on this clear corn whiskey. And they got their playing on, they'd get numb and they'd get to playing! [laughs] They'd have a jamboree.
PSF: You must have seen him perform live too.
MM: Oh yeah, several times.
PSF: What did you think of his live shows?
MM: I just knew that this man out there was somebody special from the reaction that the audience would give him. Remember too that I was kind of young and I was into Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye kind of thing. So when I went to one of dad's shows, the audience would just be blown away by him. And I would just say, "wow, my dad is somebody..."
PSF: Do you have any particular favorite songs of his?
MM: "Same Thing" is one of my favorite songs of my dad's. I think of some of the lines are so iconic. I mean, " Hoochie Coochie Man" is OK but if you listen to "Same Thing," you know that it's some recording there. Only Muddy Waters could think of something like that.
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