Rising Son

Big Bill Morganfield follows father, Muddy Waters

Chicago Tribune

June 9, 1999

By Steve Knopper

It was late at night. Pinetop Perkins had vacated his grand piano. Willie "Big Eyes" Smith had untied the large rope that anchors his kick drum to his stool. Most of the reunited members of Muddy Waters' band had gone home. Only a few engineers were milling around the wooden floors of Studio Chicago.

Then Bill Morganfield clicked "play" on a boombox, and soon a familiar voice filled the room. It was the late Muddy Waters himself singing "Screamin' & Cryin'," a 1949 song about viewing the past with terror.

Morganfield began to sing along, line for line, with the voice -- the voice of his father.

"Very spooky," recalls Jon Autry, an engineer at the studio.

When McKinley "Muddy Waters" Morganfield died in 1983, it seemed he had left behind no Ziggy Marley, no Jakob Dylan, no Rosanne Cash to carry the music in his blood to future generations. Waters had pushed guitar lessons on one of his sons, Joseph, but he had lost interest years ago. Several blues artists have performed under the name Muddy Waters Jr. over the years, none related to McKinley Morganfield.

Now, however, comes the debut album of 42-year-old "Big Bill" Morganfield, who will perform with a band Friday at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn. Morganfield recorded the album "Rising Son" at Studio Chicago last October.

It contains a ferocious version of "Screamin' & Cryin'."

Tracing Muddy Waters' family connections is almost as difficult as reproducing the electric guitar solo in "Honey Bee." He married four women, maybe five. He had six children, none with his wives. And that's not counting the stepchildren he raised.

Still, friends recall Waters as a "great patriarch" and loving family man.

"Because (he) traveled and kept odd hours, when he would come home one night from a gig, often he would wake up his kids -- Charles, his stepson, and Cookie, his granddaughter," says Robert Gordon, author of "It Came From Memphis" and a Waters biography due late next year. "They would all have late-night breakfast together. That way they could be sure to see him and spend time with him.

"From what those kids told me, they loved it."

But it's clear that Bill Morganfield never enjoyed that closeness. He was born in June 1956 -- the same month his father recorded "Diamonds at Your Feet" at Chicago's Chess Studios -- to a 20-year- old Florida woman named Mary Brown. Though Waters later moved Brown to Chicago, Bill stayed behind.

The blues legend did occasionally visit Ft. Lauderdale, where Bill lived with his grandmother.

As an adult, Morganfield says, he's proud of his father's accomplishments -- saying he'd like to win a Grammy Award to go with Waters' eight -- but he avoids details about the relationship.

Like many men of his generation, Morganfield grew up listening to the Temptations and Marvin Gaye. He messed around with the guitar, but degrees from Tuskegee University and Auburn University and a brief semipro basketball career pushed him in other directions. Waters' death, followed six months later by that of Morganfield's grandmother, drew him back to the blues.

"I got to tell you the truth -- I listened from records," Morganfield says. "My daddy never really sat me down and said, `This is how you do this, this is how you do that.' I'm a pretty slow learner. I would listen to records and try to duplicate them, and record myself and see how close I came to it.

"It took years and years of just trying to play that stuff. It's not the easiest stuff in the world for somebody who wasn't brought up in that particular time era."

Morganfield practiced at home until about 1994, when he was ready to perform in Atlanta nightclubs. Shortly after that, he met "Steady Rollin' " Bob Margolin, another of Waters' musical colleagues, at a blues event in Mississippi. The pair performed "Walkin' Blues" two years ago at a Waters tribute in Washington, D.C.

"We found we really did click instantly," Margolin says. "I literally did get goosebumps when we started playing together.

"It's the timing. Muddy had a behind-the-beat time called `delay time.' That was his term for it," says Margolin, who produced Morganfield's debut album on the Blind Pig label. "When the note wouldn't come exactly when you'd expect, it would make you kind of subconsciously wish for it. And then it comes when you least expect it. Bill seems to have inherited that exactly."

Morganfield isn't exactly making like Jakob Dylan and downplaying the family connection. He dedicates the CD to his father; he covers five songs associated with him, including Willie Dixon's "The Same Thing," and there's the title, "Rising Son." But neither is he a novelty or an imitation. His deep, rubbery voice contains hints of both Waters and Howlin' Wolf, but the singer-guitarist-songwriter brings his own energy and confidence to bad-boy blues anthems such as his strong "Dead Ass Broke" and James Lane's "Sloppy Drunk." There's desperation and menace in his vocals.

"It just rolled off effortlessly," Morganfield says of the session at Studio Chicago. "I wanted it to be a tribute to my daddy. I was really trying to get close to his sound but not try to duplicate it, per se. But it's really hard not to duplicate it when you're playing with Pinetop and Bob.

"Those guys made it their point to tell me stories. All those guys had stories about my daddy, and all those guys loved my daddy. Evidently, he had an effect on them."

Harpist Paul Oscher, for example, recounted his bout with walking pneumonia, which forced him to quit Waters' band in the '70s. Waters didn't believe Oscher; he had never heard of such a thing as "walking pneumonia" and was certain Oscher had made it up. Years later, Waters discovered Oscher really had been ill and apologized profusely.

More somberly, Oscher also recalled sitting next to Waters in the back seat when, on the way home from a 1969 gig near Champaign, a car jumped a highway divider and hit the band's car head on. Waters' driverand the two people in the other vehicle were killed. Perkins broke some ribs. Waters broke his pelvis and had to walk for months with a cane.

It was a huge event, emotionally, in the singer's life, and it affected Morganfield too. "He never really talked about it to me, as far as the pain that he had. But evidently it was pretty bad," Morganfield says.Sandra B. Tooze, one of Waters' biographers, notes that on one of Waters' visits to his then-12-year-old son in Florida, he gave Bill the cane he had used to walk. In a world where Waters fans are so fanatical they make pilgrimages to his grave in southwest suburban Worth, such a father-to-son totem might seem to leave more of an impression than usual.

Reminded of the gift, however, Morganfield says he remembers the cane but doesn't know where it is.

"It meant something, don't get me wrong," he says. "But I didn't take it and put it in a glass box or anything. I saw it for a long time. It wasn't a big deal.

"I had his cane, but -- you know what I'm saying? I got his blood."