THANKS - BEHIND THE SONGS WITH STORIES AND PHOTOS
More in my rearview mirror than in front of my windshield
But I’ve still got a long way to go
Old souls inside, man what a ride!
Steady Rollin’ on
I sang that in 2022. In 2023, I celebrate 50 years since Muddy Waters took me in his band for seven years and all that came from that Crossroads. With this album I thank Muddy, a certain special guitar, and the wonderful musicians who blessed me with their music and friendship.
Inspired by response to my Facebook posts, stories and photos about “the old days,” and because I can with today’s technology, I want to give you everything I have about where this album comes from. More than will fit in CD packaging, here’s what I’d tell you if we were hanging out and I could tell you stories and show you photos on my phone while we listen to the album together. This way, YOU can choose if, when and how deep you want to go. You don’t have to start at the beginning and read to the end, you can skip around to what interests you. Scroll through, I title the topics in bold print. You can, of course, just play the music.
In 2023, I celebrate 50 years since Muddy Waters (1915-1983) hired me to play guitar in his band and put me on the road I still ride. The biggest thrill was to play his Blues next to him onstage, thousands of times. I thank him and try to honor him every time I play music or write about it. He was a charismatic icon, a legend at the top of Human Achievement. He was my favorite musician way before I met him and worked for him for seven years. The most important concept of this album is Thanks Muddy! He was an Angel at my 1973 Crossroads. Everything since goes back to this.
THANKS TO THAT GUITAR - From 1975 to every song on this album
In 1975, I bought a 1956 Gibson ES-150 guitar. I used it occasionally on the road with Muddy and I did have it with me for the recording of the 1975 Muddy Waters Woodstock Album and the 1976 Last Waltz concert and film.
I was blown away to see and hear The Band live in 1971. In 1975, just a few years later, Levon Helm from The Band, along with Henry Glover, produced the Muddy Waters Woodstock Album, his last for Chess Records. It included Garth Hudson from The Band and my first harmonica hero, Paul Butterfield. Muddy brought me and Pinetop Perkins from his road band to the session.
In 1976, Levon Helm invited Muddy to The Band’s Last Waltz concert. It was obvious in the moment that this concert was a big deal. I thought my experiences would just stay special in my memory, but here’s where the ES-150 comes in again: Muddy brought me so he would have a familiar sound onstage and to explain his preferences to musicians he didn’t know well. I believe that the rock stars in the room who saw the rehearsal were nice to me because of that, but probably also because my guitar was so cool, a hollow body archtop electric like those used on early electric Chicago Blues. After the Last Waltz concert, I jammed with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Levon, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John and Ron Wood. They all checked out the guitar and seemed impressed with me for having and playing it. Bob Dylan sang Robert Johnson songs.
From my association with Muddy, and that I was seen playing next to him in the film as he kicked ass on his “Mannish Boy” showstopper, The Last Waltz is a lasting waltz high point and credential in my life. I had a connection to and friendship with the individual musicians in The Band. In 1996, I had the opportunity to spend long breakfasts with The Band’s bass player Rick Danko in Finland. I told him that The Last Waltz was Muddy’s most visible moment. Rick was sorry to hear that Muddy was not appreciated more for his own legacy, but glad The Band could do that for Muddy. Of course, it is also my most visible moment.
From the magnificent music and Martin Scorsese’s film, The Last Waltz is a cultural phenomenon music documentary. Now, The Band, the film, and especially the music performances have several generations of fans. There are tribute bands that re-create the Last Waltz, some very well.
In 2016, forty years after the Last Waltz, I was invited to participate in a Blackbird Productions show that goes beyond tribute. It was the songs as interpreted by some of today’s most talented and known Americana, Country and Rock stars, like Warren Haynes, Don Was, Jamey Johnson, Dave Malone, John Medeski, Cyril Neville plus New Orleans drummer Terence Higgins and Mark Mullins” The Levee Horns.
Some of the guests over the five years of occasional touring were Taj Mahal, Lukas Nelson, Joan Osborne, Margo Price, Dr. John, Kathleen Edwards, Anders Osborne, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams. One-show guests have included Nathaniel Rateliff, Emmylou Harris, and Vince Gill.
And more than a dream come true: the two surviving members of the original The Band: Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson. When I saw Robbie for the first time since the 1976 Waltz, he observed accurately, “We don’t look like that anymore.”
I sold the ES-150 in 2016, an ugly music biz story, but Cameron Williams, who bought it, brought it for me to use on shows of 2017 Last Waltz 40 Tour and 2022 tours.
In November 2022, three of the musicians on those shows bought it back from Cameron and gave it back to me. Amazing kindness! I’m inspired to feature that guitar as a foundation and touchstone on every song of this album. I’m so grateful for the second chance to own it and use it and love it.
1. Gone To Main Street (Muddy Waters)
Originally released in 1952 by Muddy and his original band featuring Jimmy Rogers on second guitar and Little Walter on harp. It was always one of my favorite Muddy songs from before I was in his band, but he didn’t play it often. In 1975, however, I recorded it with him for The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album, featuring Levon Helm and Paul Butterfield. Levon liked to sing this song too, in his own southern-fried voice. I dedicate this to Muddy and Levon, and thank them.
2. The Shape I’m In (The Band)
They opened their shows with this rocker. I play it here as a Blues shuffle, Blues music was in their background. The lyrics by the recently -departed Robbie Robertson are desperate Blues in content. I humbly pay tribute to The Band’s inimitable, funky Down-Home harmonies too. On the recent Blackbird Presents Last Waltz Tours, I hear today’s musicians deliver this opener with power and creativity. I watch every rehearsal and show. I love that music more than ever and I learn so much from all of them. These stars put together by Blackbird Presents have become a band and a family. I thank them too.
3. Mean Old Chicago (Bob Margolin)
I wrote this song at the moment I lived it. It mourns the death of my friend, Chicago Blues Legend Jimmy Rogers. On my flight’s final approach to Midway Airport in Chicago, to attend Jimmy’s funeral, the song came to me all at once and I wrote it on a drink napkin with a pen before we landed. I recorded it for my 1999 Hold Me To It album on Blind Pig Records but I wanted to play it on the ES-150 now, for Jimmy and Muddy and all the Chicago Blues players we’ve lost since, especially so many of the other players in Muddy’s band. I play it in Muddy’s standard tuning slide guitar style.
4. Who (Willie Dixon)
The single was released in 1956 by harmonica genius Little Walter. I used to play this song between 1985-2008 with R&B legendary singer, and showman Nappy Brown on our gigs where I backed him. Willie Dixon is one of the greatest Blues songwriters and his original lyrics for this one are deep and clever. I’m not-so-much into the threatening lyrics as those of the of the two verses after the solo, social commentary disparaging gossipers. Today’s social media amplify gossip much more than word-of-mouth used to. Musically, I chose to forego the original’s signature easy-going riff for Nappy Brown’s hard driving shuffle delivery. I added my own ES-150 slide guitar part which often echoes the melody.
5. Lonely Man Blues (McKinley Morganfield and Bob Margolin)
In 1977 I wrote this Blues song. Muddy liked it, added a verse of his own, shared the credit and recorded it for his I’m Ready album, his second for Johnny Winter’s Blue Sky Label. Before CD’s, vinyl records could only be about 35 minutes long or bassy sounds would make the stylus jump out of the groove. Our song did not make it onto the original vinyl album. But in 2003, my friend, Sony Legacy producer Steve Berkowitz gave me the opportunity to co-produce reissues of Muddy’s Blue Sky albums. I heard the song again for the first time in 25 years. I played bass on it, with Muddy, Jimmy Rogers, Johnny Winter, Big Walter Horton, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Pinetop Perkins — not a shabby Chicago Blues band. In 1998, I recorded it for my Hold Me To It album. For this album, I use the ES-150, the perfect guitar for it. And I play it in Muddy’s Mississippi Open-G Tuning slide guitar style. I also add a second guitar part that thanks Jimmy Rogers’ complementary, beyond the concept of lead and rhythm guitar. Jimmy told me he and Muddy did that deliberately and called it “filling in the cracks".
6. Baby Can't Be Found (Bob Margolin)
In 1978, Muddy toured Europe with Eric Clapton. I met and jammed with Eric in 1976 at The Last Waltz and on the 1978 tour I had much more opportunity to hang with him. He told me, “If I’m singing a Blues and forget a lyric, I can always get out of it by rhyming something with the line “My baby can’t be found.” Pretty good way to save a song onstage. Not long after, I lived those lyrics in a difficult, doomed…uh…relationship. And in 1993, I wrote and recorded the song for my first Alligator Records album Down In The Alley. I think it’s one of my better songs but I’m particularly moved that Johnny Winter singled out that song as one of mine he really liked. So I dedicate this version, played on the ES-150, to Johnny, not the baby who couldn’t be found. And I thank Eric for the lyric idea.
7. Hard Working Man (James A. Lane)
James A. Lane is the name of the Chicago Bluesman Jimmy Rogers and this song is one of his classic Chess Records 1950s singles. It’s not one of his better known songs but I love how plaintively he sings it and his Delta/Chicago Blues-style guitar playing. I wanted to cover it using the ES-150. I met Jimmy when I first joined Muddy’s band in 1973. When I had nights off in Chicago, Muddy’s other guitar player, the late Hollywood Fats, and I would take a cab to Jimmy’s house and he would drive us to the North Side where he was a guest with the Bob Reidy Blues Band.
I’m grateful to meet my musical heroes through my Muddy connection and that applies deeply to Jimmy. His friendship and the times I played with until his passing in December 1997 are a blessing that I carry inside. Thank you Jimmy Rogers, who had my job in Muddy’s band 25 years before I did, and shared so much about working with Muddy in conversation and by example.
In 1977, when I was off from Muddy, I went to see Jimmy play. At the end of the night, I told him I was going to talk to Muddy the next day and asked if there was anything he wanted me to tell Muddy. They hadn’t played together or seen each other for a long time. Jimmy said, “Tell him any time he wants to get together and play those old Blues like we used to, I’d love to do that.” I got chills to think of them together again. The next day I called Muddy and told him what Jimmy said. Muddy replied casually that he would love it too. After the call, instead of hanging up I kept my finger on the phone button for a dial tone and called Johnny Winter. I told him Muddy and Jimmy wanted to play together again. Johnny got chills too and said, “I’ll make that happen!” Indeed he did instantly get Jimmy to be on the recording for Muddy’s next Blue Sky album, I’m Ready. But that put me out of a guitar job, with Muddy, Jimmy and Johnny playing.
Muddy had seen me play bass on a European show with Gatemouth Brown and kindly said he wanted me to play bass on that album. I did. But I also had the opportunity on the first day in the studio to set up Jimmy’s guitar in Muddy’s amp and Muddy’s guitar in my new Music Man amp. I bought it after Eric Clapton lent me his Music Man at The Last Waltz. I still have that amp.
Muddy and Jimmy wanted heavy, overdriven sounds like they used in the 1950s. Johnny Winter, producing from the control room, asked if they wanted cleaner tones and they both laughed and said “No!” like two bad little boys. I watched both of them play together again, magically, for the first time in 20 years while I thumped along on bass. That is one of my all-time biggest musical thrills.
8. For You My Love (Paul Gayten)
I think music lovers somehow have an affinity for songs that came out…when they did. This song was released in 1949, the year I “dropped” (modern music biz term). I first heard it sung by Pinetop Perkins, born in 1913, when I was in Muddy’s band. There’s a fine recording of it with virile 63-year-old Pinetop singing it on The Nighthawks’ Jacks and Kings album. I’m on guitar. Researching the song to record it for this album, I found great versions by Nat King Cole and Nellie Lutcher, the original by Paul Gayten with a very exotic groove, Larry Darnell and Lou Rawls. There are some elaborate arrangements but I chose to present it as straight Blues, as Pinetop did, using the ES-150 with a clean, archtop tone. I kept the groove on bass too. I feel my dear friend, Pinetop Perkins, when I sing it. As the song says, “I hope you feel the same.”
Pinetop was the oldest and I was the youngest when we were in Muddy’s band and I loved his Old School singing and piano playing. We’d also go out and find more bands to play with after Muddy’s gigs and I made sure we got back to our hotel OK. Pinetop lived to be 97, making people happy with his music for about 80 years. In 1998, we were touring in Japan when I got the news that my father had passed in Florida and I had to leave the tour. Pinetop put his arm around me and said, “I’m your Black daddy now.” It is one of the sweetest things anyone ever said and did for me. Thank you Pinetop, I love you.
9. No Consolation (Bob Margolin)
I wrote this sad song as I lived a hard time and recorded it for my 1999 album Hold Me To It on Blind Pig Records. I used a National Steel Guitar, a gift from Pinetop Perkins but I recorded it with a raw, not sweet, electric tone on the ES-150 for this one. As I began to record, I got very uncomfortable with my absolutely hopeless song of ultimate defeat, with no redemptive “Consolation.” Twenty-five years later, I don’t feel the same way about my hard time and Blues. I preserved the original lyrics on this new version but put them in the past. Tense. I added new lyrics telling how I feel now, the lessons and coping skills I’ve learned. Time helped me feel better. Spoiler alert for this song: “Sometimes, Consolation is slow.”
10. Just Before Dawn (Bob Margolin)
I originally wrote and recorded this for my 2007 In North Carolina album, the first album released by The VizzTone Label Group. Here it is just me singing my Blues about romantic loneliness. I feature only the ES-150 with a sweet-this-time vintage tone that reveals its burnished sparkle and a touch of enhancing amplifier vibrato and reverb. I hope you can feel all the music I’ve made on this guitar over 45 years as I love it on this song.
The title is not in the lyrics, and ironically describes a time of day when I felt the purest love in my life. “Before dawn” is a phrase my mother used to use to describe early morning hours, from dark to the first light of sunrise. When I visited my parents as an adult, my mother and I sometimes found ourselves talking in the living room just before dawn. In the dark light, her old age and my middle age didn’t matter. It was just as we always are together.
My wife, Pamela
All of our dogs and cats, past, present and future
My family, always, for their love and support
The Pinetop Perkins Foundation - pinetopperkinsfoundation.org
The VizzTone Label Group, my partners Amy Brat and Richard “Rosy” Rosenblatt
Warren Haynes, Don Was, Jamey Johnson and Cameron Williams