Bob Margolin Reflects on Blues Lessons Learned from Muddy Waters
Steady Rollin', Muddy Waters-backing Bob Margolin
Courtesy of Bob Margolin
Claiming blues legend Muddy Waters as a teacher is something few musicians can do with a straight face. "Steady Rollin" Bob Margolin is one such musician. Already showing promise as an upstart blues musician following a short-lived foray into the psychedelic rock world with Boston's Freeborne (the band's lone album now fetches big bucks), Margolin was lucky enough to have Waters draw him under his wing in 1973. Margolin calls it a "crossroads" moment in his career.
"I was completely aware of the significance as it was happening," Margolin explains via email. "I knew I had to do it if I could, that I had a lot to learn, and I had to prove myself to keep the job and go farther with it. Muddy knew that too, and he gave me a chance. I owe him forever."
The ensuing seven years provided Margolin the tools to sustain a lengthy music career. Leaving Waters in 1980, Margolin became a staple on the east coast blues circuit before succumbing to the realities of needing to make albums to "get back out on the world's blues scene." Margolin, now a blues master in his own right, has been racking up awards and accolades ever since.
You can catch Margolin at Rhythm Room on Friday, December 5.
Up on the Sun: You started playing guitar at a time when the Beatles were sweeping the nation and Surf rock was also popular. You played with a psychedelic rock band, Freeborne, for a time. What led you out of rock and into the blues?
Bob Margolin: Very deep question -- thank you. I started listening to the radio in about 1958 and loved the music I heard on the rock 'n' roll stations. But it was Chuck Berry's guitar playing that made me want to take up guitar passionately. Eventually I followed the path of his inspiration, spiritually and musically (Chuck Berry's "double-stop" guitar playing uses the blues scale 2 notes at a time, which teaches a lot about how those blue notes go together). I always enjoyed the bluesy side of rock 'n' roll. I eventually was in some blues bands and knew it would be a lifelong love.
Was there a moment when you thought, "The blues is what I want to do?"
Not a specific moment. It was so natural that it happened without me thinking about it, just like the purest kind of family or romantic love.
It seems you jumped into the blues in a big way, playing with Muddy Waters. Did Muddy have a lot to teach you, and how did that experience shape your style and sound?
Getting into Muddy's band in August 1973 was a "Crossroads" moment for me. I was completely aware of the significance as it was happening. I knew I had to do it if I could, that I had a lot to learn, and I had to prove myself to keep the job and go farther with it. Muddy knew that too and he gave me a chance. I owe him forever, he is such a musical and spiritual foundation for me. I was also very aware that I was getting to learn from him as an apprentice to a master rather than in a more modern way. He deliberately gave me that, too. I learned the very distinctive "behind the beat" timing of his music, which he called "Delay Time"--more extreme than what even most old school bands play. I learned the tone and style and language of his music, and the protocols of how the band worked onstage. I also learned how to lead a blues band with a guitar and this gives me, ever since, the ability to "play well with others." I can play a show with a band who doesn't speak English, and without a rehearsal, but if they love and know blues too, we can turn a jam into a tight musical experience and entertainment at a club or concert.
You played with Muddy until 1980, but you're first solo album didn't appear until 1988--and then they seemed to appear every few years. Why did it take so long get that first album out?
In the '80s, I was really hoping I could make a good living for the rest of my life just playing blues in bars for soulful audiences, and not have to do too much unpleasant business. If I had an urge to record, I'd make a board tape of my band off the small sound system I carried, and give it to my friends. Toward the end of the '80s, as the local and touring blues scenes began to tighten up, I realized I had to get back out on the world's blues scene, make recordings, and tour more if I was going to continue to make a living. It's too bad I was pushed into doing that, but it's also good that I got into learning the art of crafting a recording. I've sure learned a lot more about it as I went along. I hope I can produce and conceive a recording and of course I try to be be a better songwriter, guitar player, singer and bandleader as the time goes on.
I'm very excited to be working on a new project with as many original, co-written, or new-to-me-and-the-audience songs as possible. I would like to take a step forward and do more than what I've done before. It is a challenge at a time of life where it would be comfortable to rest, but that's not how life is for me or most folks these days. So I will do my very best and I hope my next recording, which I hope to release in mid-2015, will show that I've accomplished something both deep and fresh for me.
You talk a lot of about breaking down barriers between your bands and the audience. So many musicians think it's OK to not even acknowledge the audience. How important is that connection for you, and what do you get out of it?
I respect anyone's attitude about it for themselves. I know some truly great musicians who say, "I play for me." But I find making music to be a social activity. I love to move or entertain an audience. And this profession is one I can be proud of because it brings all kinds of people together. I get a perk that many other professions don't have: I meet the people I play for, often become friends with them, and their compliments are a blessing that I value deeply. Life is pressurized and sometimes someone approaches me when I'm very busy trying to do something professional or personal. But I always try to be as nice to everyone I can be, and right in the moment. I regret the times I don't manage to do that, but I want to live up to the examples of social and musical giants like B.B. King or (Muddy Waters guitarist) Hubert Sumlin. They had the ability to humbly accept compliments and then shine a light back on their new friend.
You've played with Muddy Waters, Pinetop Perkins, lot's of amazing blues musicians as well as fronting your own bands over the years. Is there any event, jam or time that perhaps is more notable in your career than others?
It's a thrill whenever it goes well, but let me mention one (of many) particularly deep thrills. In 2010 I was on a blues show where I was standing onstage between Hubert Sumlin on my right and Pinetop Perkins on my left. I tried to play my guitar parts to work with both of them, something complementary, but I was very aware that I was hearing and feeling the ultimate live stereo experience.
What keeps you steady rollin'?
I have a very happy home and love to be here. I feel like I'm being torn from it every time I leave for a gig or tour, but when I get out there, I have such a good time playing and socializing with people who love blues that it fills my heart.
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