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It hit him hard, the passing of a good friend. "I'm dead on my feet right now," says blues guitarist-singer-songwriter Bob Margolin in a weary drawl. Just the other day saxophonist Fats Jackson, best known for his work with Elmore James and Little Walter, had gone on to his final gig. "A lot of his friends got together at Club Blues Harbor in Atlanta last night, and we just played all night for him and kinda tried to honor him as well as raise some money for his funeral. I went down there [from his home in Greensboro, North Carolina] about 5:00 or 6:00 yesterday afternoon and got back about noon today. Aside from this interview and another one, I am in bed."
It's the price a younger man pays for being in an old man's business: watching the passing of friends and associates. But Margolin, whose most famous friend and associate, Muddy Waters, has been in the ground for more than a decade, is far from morose. His latest album, Down in the Alley, has been generating mostly positive ink -- he couldn't be happier with Alligator, his new record label. And he's got a trunkful of memories of a time when he worked alongside the man many consider to be the greatest blues player ever.
Margolin was first introduced to Muddy Waters by Luther "Georgia Boy Snake" Johnson (not to be confused with Luther Guitar Jr. Johnson or Luther Houserocker Johnson) when he was with Johnson's band. Muddy was impressed with the young guitarslinger who was staying true to the Chicago blues style he had dug from Delta soil in the late Forties and early Fifties. "I was attempting to learn how to play his style -- and really into it very deeply," says Margolin. "And then I had the opportunity to learn it first hand."
In 1973 Margolin officially joined Muddy's band, the unit the bandleader was to call his very best. Muddy literally kept his protege on his right hand so Margolin could watch the master at work. "When I first got in the band, his criticisms were harsh, but he was at the same time very patient. He gave me the opportunity to get it if I could." But Muddy was no Mel Bay, and there were no 'okay, you put your fingers here' sessions. "He really didn't show me too much at all. I was just put there, and he would kind of hope that I would pick it up. He really didn't want to teach, although he did want me to learn."
Margolin stayed on with Muddy until 1980, his notable bandmates including pianist Pinetop Perkins, drummer Willie Big Eyes Smith, and harpblower Jerry Portnoy. Not coincidentally, most of these players, as well as former Muddy disciples such as harmonicat James Cotton, went on to lead their own bands. "The musical part of it," Margolin pauses, searching for words to explain the wisdom Muddy had imparted, "there's a certain language of the Chicago blues, a certain way of cuing people, leading the band, what's going to happen when in a particular song, and his way of doing things became my way of doing things."
Until Portnoy joined Muddy's band, Margolin was the only white guy on the stage. "In the entire seven years I was in Muddy's band, the issue of race did not arise. And hangin' out with those guys musically and socially, in every kind of circumstance, it never came up. If you could play, that was it. If you couldn't play, that was it. And there are people of all colors who can do both." He and Perkins, now 80, bonded during late-night hellraising expeditions. "We were the ones that the next morning, after being out all night, we'd just barely get back to the hotel when the band was leaving. And he's still livin' that way. I try to call him at home. He's never home."
Margolin cherishes those years and values his colorblind brotherhood. "You know," he continues, "there's a big, big controversy in the blues world today about black versus white and whether the white players are legitimate, and people are entitled to their opinions, no matter how stupid they may be."
Margolin doesn't have to prove his legitimacy to anyone, but if doubters exist, they need to take a listen to Down in the Alley. A mixture of jump boogie, swing, and slow-grinders, Alley displays the depth and breadth of Margolin's skills, whether he's skinning frets with his steel slide or playing lean, clean lead lines. Margolin also displays a sense of humor with a blues about a lusty lady's large boyfriend ("Big Tree Blues," loosely based on real events), the awful drivers in his native Beantown ("Boston Driving Blues," definitely based on real events), and the naughty but self-explanatory "While You're Down There" (we were too polite to ask). But perhaps the most powerful cut is the title track, a stark slide blues featuring the grand pipes of Nappy Brown, who begins the tune a cappella. A departure for Brown, an R&B star of the Fifties usually heard with full backing band, "Down in the Alley" is nonetheless stunning in its stripped-down setting of buzzing steel on wood behind emotive and throaty vocals.