Seeing and hearing BIG BILL MORGANFIELD play is like being in a room with a ghost. The son of the late, pivotal blues figure Muddy Waters (ne McKinley Morganfield) has inherited so much of his pater's regal physical bearing, guttural vocal timbre and stinging guitar tone that the resemblances are enough to creep out Hans Holzer. Morganfield even tours intermittently with members of Muddy's old backing band, guitarist Bob Margolin, keyboardist "Pinetop" Perkins and drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith.
The 43-year-old's dedication to a father he barely knew is downright touching. One of six Waters offspring, he feels duty-bound to carry on the legacy, even if it didn't exactly come naturally at first. Morganfield grew up in Fort Lauderdale, not a Mississippi sharecropper's plantation. He attended Tuskeegee University in Alabama, earning a degree in English, as well as Alabama's Auburn University, where he earned a degree in communications. He was a DJ and teacher before deciding to become a musician—not exactly the origins of the noble, primitive country bluesman like Waters. And while Morganfield thus far seems to lack the innate, brilliant instincts that made his father an acknowledged genius in the blues, his debut album, Rising Son on Blind Pig Records, is among the most talked-about blues albums in years.
Morganfield plays Saturday night at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach. We spoke on the phone recently from his current home in Atlanta.
OC Weekly: What's really interesting about your record is that one assumes you grew up steeped in the blues, your father's blues in particular. But it turns out that like most kids growing up in the '60s, you were listening to Motown and other contemporary pop music. So what brought you back to the blues? Big Bill Morganfield: Well, when he died in 1983, I felt compelled to . . . I've always tinkered around with the guitar and stuff, so I felt compelled to do some kind of tribute to him, you know? It all started from there. It has taken me years to get my skills up to where they needed to be. That's how the journey started, back in '83. So when you came back to the blues, it was specifically the blues of your father?
That's right. I wanted to do a tribute to him. That's how it all started out. It just took me a little longer than I guess I wanted it to because I had to really learn how to play the blues, you know? [laughs] I don't know how to play 'em all that well now, but I'm better now than I was years ago, that's for sure.
Were you close with your dad?
I wasn't as close as I wanted to be, that's for sure. I didn't see a lot of him.
Was that a painful thing in your life?
[laughs] Awww . . . painful things, painful things. It's something that, uh, I wouldn't want for my kids, as far as our relationship.
How does your mother [Mary Brown] feel about your career? Does she get chills when you play?
I dunno. She always says I remind her of my dad, you know. She's very supportive of my career, absolutely.
When you were growing up, were you conscious of this legendary figure being your dad?
I was conscious of my daddy being McKinley Morganfield more so than Muddy Waters. He was just my dad. I didn't understand the legend part of it. Well, I guess I did understand it later because all the teachers at the schools and university would talk about him.
And it wasn't until your dad passed away that you felt any need at all to follow his footsteps?
I was hurt, very hurt. When I found out [he died], it was just like somebody pulled my whole skeleton out of my body, you know? It was really strange, because even though we wasn't as close as I wanted us to be, it felt like somebody de-boned me. Or like a part of me had died, in a sense. I was really hurt, hurt for a while there. I wanted to do something as his son. He always wanted one of his kids to play, and I was the only one out of six children who did. It's strange that the one kid who was furthest away from him would actually be the closest one to him after his death, as far as the music and stuff.
Well, his genes are pretty deeply in there. The physical resemblance between the two of you is eerie. . . .
Well, my daddy always had a saying: if he had any kids, they better look like him! [laughs]
The timbre of your singing is very close, too, although there's a lot of difference in the phrasing.
I hope so. I try not to duplicate him. I try to stay away from that and get into my own soul. But I can't help it. I guess sometimes certain phrases come out like his phrases. But that's because I've been listening to his music for so long.
So who are some of your favorite musicians other than your dad?
The people that helped me learn. Eric Clapton was a big influence on me because he had a book, that Unplugged thing. And I had the video. I was really able to learn a whole bunch from that. And Elmore James . . . Bob Margolin, of course, taught me a lot of things about the guitar. B.B. King. I love B.B. King's music because to me, it's closer to R&B than the rootsy blues stuff. I like Long John Hunter, Jimmy Reed, Junior Wells, on and on. You name it. I like all those guys that had those good hit songs.
Do you still listen to the old Motown stuff, too?
No! [laughs] It's weird; it's like I made a transformation. I hear it, but I don't seek it out like I used to. I was a DJ, and I had probably every R&B album of that era that came out. I don't really listen to it anymore.
Is it weird trying to make that cultural transformation? I mean, here's your dad, a guy who grew up on a plantation in Mississippi who wasn't an educated man. And then here's his son who grew up in a big city and earned two college degrees. Is it hard to relate to the cultural aspect of what he was doing?
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Not at all because that is my culture. If I trace my roots, those are my roots. I think it's important for a man to understand where he came from.
When you're playing with your dad's old backup band, what's their reaction to you like? Is there a sense of dj vu to them?A: Oh, absolutely. I think they can speak to that better than I can. They played with him, and they play with me. We were playing in South Carolina last weekend, and for some reason, my slide guitar playing got really, really hot that night. I was throwing out some notes I'd never even done before, and Bob looked at me and pointed up to the heavens, like it was coming from my dad. At what point does Big Bill Morganfield turn into Julian Lennon and start getting pissed off and bitter about the constant comparisons to your father?
[laughs] Yeah, well, you know, I'm completely proud of my dad and the things that he accomplished. So I decided when I put my first blues album out that it would be as a dedication to him. Then from there, I think he'll be proud for me to take it and go a little bit further. That's what I'm trying to do now. I'm writing tunes for my next album. I want this album to be like Saturday night in the Delta. I want to do some Delta blues, but I want it to be original Delta blues. I think that will really say something, if I can take that music and put my own spin to it, take it a little bit further.
Big Bill Morganfield performs with Bob Margolin at the Blue Cafe, 210 The Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111; www.thebluecafe.com. Sat., 9 p.m. $8. 21+.