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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.
"Muddy was close friends with [Nappy] in the Fifties," Margolin recounts. "He really liked his music quite a bit." Nappy also corroborated a story Margolin heard from Muddy. The blues legend was up on stage, putting his unique treatment on "Mannish Boy" A with his fly wide open. "Everybody from the side of the stage was trying to point it out to him and the crowd was going nuts," says Margolin. "He was rather exposed from what I heard. Muddy was singin' 'I'm a mannnn, I'm a mannn...' and then he looks down and goes 'I'm a man!'"
Another hero Margolin pays tribute to on the album is Chuck Berry (with an understated "Wee Wee Hours"), the man he says is the reason he picked up a guitar in the first place. "Chuck really idolized Muddy, and I remember the first time we did a show together. I remember seeing my two heroes sitting there in the dressing room, but Chuck Berry was kind of idolizing Muddy the way I would idolize either of them. He'd be sittin' there tunin' up his guitar and go, 'Hey, Muddy, listen to this.' And he'd play a little snatch of a Robert Johnson song and it would sound exactly like Robert Johnson meets Chuck Berry."
Unlike his two previous outings for the Powerhouse label, Alley goes beyond what amounts to a Muddy tribute, something Margolin says he had to get out of his system. But not completely out of his system. Two songs Muddy was known for, "Lonesome Bedroom Blues" and "Look What You Done," also appear on the disc. "Neither of them is really in his classic style," says Margolin. "Although on the song 'Tough Times' that I did with John Brim, I kinda went after a Muddy Waters-style guitar solo." You'll also note that Margolin's publishing company is called Delay Time, one of the cornerstones to Muddy's, and consequently Chicago blues's, distinctive sound. "It's kind of his own term for playing a little behind the beat, not having a straight 1-2-3-4 like country music does, but there's a delay. You don't quite hit the beat right where you would expect it to be, but a split second later. You're really waiting for the next beat to come, and it's not there when you expect it. But when it finally gets there, oh yeah, it feels so good, it's more valuable. If you listen to Muddy's songs, or it's really obvious in Jimmy Reed records, that's the sound. That's why they feel so good. They're very simple but they feel so good because of the timing."
These are the lessons and memories Bob Margolin draws on for inspiration A when he's playing 200-plus club dates a year, when he's giving interviews although he's bone-tired, when he's dealing with naysayers who claim he's breaking no new ground by playing traditional blues. He can look back with satisfaction. He was there for Muddy Waters's resurrection in the late Seventies, for the Blue Sky albums such as Hard Again, and the Band's infamous Last Waltz performance, which was to introduce the great man of the blues to an even wider rock audience. Invited to help the Band say goodbye to their fans at San Francisco's Winterland in November of 1976, Muddy wouldn't have dreamed of doing that show without Margolin behind him. "Wasn't that a man?" an awestruck Robbie Robertson exhorted the adoring Thanksgiving crowd. Bob Margolin will tell you.
Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin performs Saturday at the Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Tickets cost $10.