Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bob Margolin talks about Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Delay Time

For seven years, from 1973 until 1980, Bob Margolin lived his dream by playing guitar with the Muddy Waters band.  Muddy had him stand to his right so he could lean in and watch Muddy play.  I first became interested in Margolin while reading "Can't Be Satisfied," the biography of Muddy Waters, sometime last year.  One quote and one story stood out for me.  I reproduced part of the quote below-- a long, slow, climactic description of Muddy Waters performing the song "Two Trains Running" that shows the effect of truly great art on our lives.  The other story had to do with a guitar lesson, hollered and sung from the kitchen by the master himself.  It turns out that both stories came from a single source-- Margolin's own article about knowing Muddy, called "Can't Be Satisfied."  The title comes from Muddy Waters first record at Chess (the same song Margolin was playing in the living room when Waters yelled his corrections).

Like Robert Lohr, Bob Baldori and Daryl Davis, Bob Margolin surprised me be agreeing to share some of his thoughts about the music he loves and his working with his hero with a tiny blog.  Each of these musicians is from a second, internet savvy generation of blues musicians, each was touched by real greatness, and each one is pretty great himself.  It's amazing that they each see fit to share the experience.

On your website you say that you started out playing Chuck Berry music as a kid, and that got you to the blues. Can you describe that journey?

I listened to Rock ‘n’ Roll music on the radio since the late ‘50s when I was a kid and I sure liked it better than the classical music or Broadway musicals my parents listened to. I started playing guitar in 1964, when I was fifteen. I took lessons but quickly stopped because they taught me how to read music and play mostly standards. I could learn how to play Chuck Berry music by listening to his records and finding the notes on the guitar. His style featured lots of what guitarists call “double stops,” – two notes played at the same time, usually with one finger hitting both strings. It showed me the harmonic relationships of the notes. It was pretty easy to find them. Eventually I wanted to play Blues, which was a lot like Chuck Berry songs but on a slower groove and without the double stops.

How old were you when you started playing in serious blues bands?

I was in bands from 1965 on, and some of them played some Blues songs. In a psychedelic band from Boston that I was in called The Freeborne, I wrote a bluesy style song for the album we made in 1967. I was in some bands you could call Blues Rock, but the first serious all-Blues band I played in was Luther “Georgia Boy” “Snake” Johnson’s. Luther had been in Muddy’s band, moved to Boston to start his own band, and ran it like a minor league Muddy Waters Band. This was in late 1971 – early 1972. We played six sets a night six days a week with a 3-set matinee on Sunday and it was intenseley educational as well as an interesting experience.

Then one day you find yourself in the biggest of all blues bands. How did that happen?

Naturally I get asked this often, and I tell the story the same way each time because it doesn’t change. I had been in bands that opened up shows for Muddy Waters, who was the musician who inspired me the most. I’d met Muddy on those gigs, and he was encouraging because I was trying to play the “Old School” Chicago Blues that he played. In August, 1973 he started a week-long run at a club in Boston and I was there to see him early on the first night. It turned out he had fired a guitar player the night before and so I popped up in the right place, right time. But I also already loved his music, had some experience playing it, and was ready to make the most of the opportunity to do my job well and to learn about playing Blues directly from the musician I admired most.

Had Muddy Waters been one of your heroes before you met him? And if so, what was it like to be working with him?

Absolutely. When I first heard Muddy on a radio show I was moved by his disticnctive vocal tone and I thought his slide guitar player was great too. Came to find it was Muddy playing electric slide. Naturally I didn’t often play slide when I was in Muddy’s band, that’s what he did, but I listened and tried to learn. I tried to use the situation to give Muddy what he wanted on the bandstand and learn as much as possible for my own musical development too.

There is something a little miraculous about growing up and working with your hero.

Naturally it doesn’t happen that way for many. I appreciated it fully from the second the possibility arose to right now. Though I have lots of musical interests and influences, I try not to let Muddy down.

Did you meet or play with any of the other giants from Chess Records?

I was in Muddy’s band, not anyone else’s, but often legendary musicians like Willie Dixon or James Cotton, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Rogers, and Big Walter Horton would sit in with us. Beyond Chess, there were a lot of Blues-loving rock stars that jammed too: The Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter, The Band...

There are great blues musicians all over—but I find it amazing how many wound up at Chess in the 1950s. Have you got an explanation for that?

There was a Chicago Blues Sound that most of the Chess artists represented. But then again Etta James’s Chess hits had strings and orchestras in them. And Elmore James and Jimmy Reed were not on Chess, though their music is classic Chicago Blues.

Did you see Cadillac Records? Did it ring true to you at all?

I found Cadillac Records to be enjoyable because the characters and music were familiar to me, but because I know a lot about the Chess Records story and knew some of the players personally, I found it jarring when a detail of the film didn’t ring true. In particular I don’t think the film captured Muddy well. Muddy had a dignity and charisma that didn’t come through.

In your article “Can’t Be Satisfied” you talk about what you call Muddy Waters’ “’Delay Time,’ his extremely ‘behind-the-beat’ rhythmic approach.” Can you put that in words for us, or give us an example from one of Muddy Waters’ recordings?

On really slow Blues songs, the length of the delay would really be exaggerated. Rather than singing or playing right on the one-two-three-four beat, the note would come a little delayed. In the course of a fraction of a second the listener subliminally misses the note, begs for it, and then is satisfied. It’s a very sensual and sexual way to play music.

What are some of your favorite musical moments after the Muddy Waters days?

It’s tempting to name famous people we played with, but truly, the biggest thrill was just to play Blues with Muddy Waters and use what I learned from him to support him as much as I could.

You’re a really good writer with wonderful stories to tell. Any thoughts of a book?

Yes, I’ve been working on a book that will have some of my Blues Revue columns, some old and new photographs, and some Blues Fiction that I’ve written. It’s conceived and coming along well as I choose what to include and how to organize it and write transitional stories and captions.

Anything else?

I love how Blues music brings all kinds of people together – nationalities, ages, gender, income. There are so many things that divide us, it’s a social as well as a musical thrill to see so many kinds of folks loving Blues music. For me, I still feel like I’m practicing a religious rite when I play a Chuck Berry song, for the worth of the music, its history, and it’s importance as a gateway for me.

Thank you.

You can find out a lot more about Bob Margolin at his website

(Stay tuned for Margolin and Daryl Davis playing "Wee Wee Hours" while waiting for Pinetop Perkins to, well... you'll see.)

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