Bob Margolin, nicknamed “Steady Rollin’”, is certainly most famous for being Muddy Waters’s longtime slide-guitar player. He toured worldwide with Muddy, and they recorded several award winning albums. Like Muddy’s Woodstock Album, a Grammy winner in 1975, and Muddy’s last recording on Chess Records. He also played on four Johnny Winter produced records on the Blue Sky label, and three of them were Grammy winners. In 1976, Bob went with Muddy to San Francisco and played in Martin Scorsese’s classic concert movie The Last Waltz.
Since he started his solo career in 1980, he has recorded ten records, plus an album with piano player Ann Rabson. In 2016 he released his latest album My Road on his own label Steady Rollin’ Records. Yours Truly met Bob Margolin on several Blues Festivals, including Notodden Blues Festival 2015. While waiting backstage for his performance with Mud Morganfield, the following interview occurred.
Let’s go back in the days. When did you first get interested in music?
- When I was a little boy, I used to ride in the car with my parents. They would let me choose the radio station. And I found Rock’n’Roll stations. Maybe 1957, I heard Jerry Lee Lewis in Bopping at the High School Hop. I heard Chuck Berry singing Sweet Little 16. And Little Richard, among all of the fine Rock’n’Roll musicians. And I really, really loved it! But I loved the guitar playing of Chuck Berry, in particular. So, just a few years later I said; “I want to play guitar too”. And the first time I picked one up, and I started playing it, I said to myself; “I can play this”.
Where did you find that guitar?
- I think it was at the house of a friend of mine. I said, “I want to try your guitar”, and I just picked it up. And I started to see how that one worked. It felt very natural to me, so I wanted to play more. My sister had started taking lessons, and she was younger than me. So, when I picked up the guitar too, I started taking some lessons. But they didn’t teach me how to play Chuck Berry. So I stopped taking lessons, and just started listening more to records.
Did you start in a school band, or something?
- When I was in high school. I started playing when I was 15, and by the time I was 16, I was in bands
Any plans to become professional in the high school days?
- I didn’t think about it very much. I just thought I wanted to be in a band. And when I was sitting in class, I was only thinking about the music that I could hear in my head. And just looking at the clock, wishing the day would be over. But also wishing, if I had to be there anyway, I could be playing guitar too. And be playing music for the other kids in my school.
How was the progression, from playing with your school friends, to more professional circumstances?
- Well, I played in some bands when I was in high school. Then in other bands, when I was in college. Eventually I made a record, I guess in 1967, with a band called The Freeborne. But it was mostly psychedelic music, though I wrote a song that was like a blues song. I didn’t sing it, but it was kind of bluesy. It was the first song that ever I wrote for a band. And it was on our record Peak Impressions.
Was this a wax recording?
- Yes, cassettes were yet in the future. Anyway, after college I started playing in blues bands.
So, you were ready for the blues by then?
- Well, before that, in the late 1960’s, or maybe a little earlier than that? I listened to the radio, especially to a college radio station. Because they played some blues. I remember one night I heard Albert King singing his song; I love Lucy. His guitar was named Lucy, like B.B. King’s guitar was Lucille. And I heard Muddy Waters sing; “Sail on my little honey bee, sail on”… When I heard that slide-guitar, I said; “What a great singer, and his guitar player is great too”! But I found out that it was the same person; Muddy Waters. I felt something then, and I decided that I wanted to go deeper with that music.
But the step from being a fan, to actually be accepted as his guitar player. That’s a pretty big jump.
- Well, I started playing in bands that were trying to play Chicago Blues. And then, I played in a band with a guitar player that used to play with Muddy Waters. His name was Luther “Georgia Boy - Snake” Johnson. And that is not the Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson, that was in Muddy’s band in the 70’s. This Luther had been in Muddy’s band in the late 60’s. Then he moved to Boston, and many young blues musicians learned how to play Chicago Blues from playing in his band. He was a great, great, deep Chicago Blues musician and bandleader. Kind of a wild person, but he never did anything bad to me. I learned a lot from him and other people in his band.
Did it kind of inspired you to move to Chicago, or how did it happen?
- I never moved to Chicago, ever. I lived in Boston, and when Muddy Waters would come to town, I would always watch him play. But then, some of the bands that I was in, used to open shows for Muddy. The band with Luther “Snake Boy” Johnson, and another one afterwards, called Boston Blues Band. Muddy heard that I was trying to play Chicago Blues. Of course, I didn’t play Muddy’s songs on a Muddy Waters show. But he could see that I loved his style of music.
One night in August of 1973, I went to Muddy’s show. And I was the first person, on the first night of five nights in the club. I came in and the first person I saw was his harmonica player, George “Mojo - Dreamy Eyes - Good-looking” Buford. All of a sudden George asked me; “Bob, do you have any reefer”? And I did! But then he said; “Oh, but wait a minute, Muddy just fired a guitar player last night, wait here”… A minute later, Muddy Waters came out of the dressing room and said; “Oh good, come to my hotel room tomorrow and bring your guitar”! I could see that was a crossroads moment for me. I knew muddy well enough to know what he’s going to do. So I brought the guitar to his room the next day.
He just told me to play it! So I started playing the old style Chicago Blues that he played. And then he started singing. That was such a thrill for me at that moment. And he liked what I was doing. But he did not think I was a great guitar player. He just thought that maybe I could learn, and maybe I could play good in his band and help him. He knew I would want to learn from him, and I did. But he maybe thought it was like a puppy doing a trip. He said to his girlfriend; “Hey, listen to this kid playing my shit. Do it again”! He brought his drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith into the room and said; “Bob’s gonna be in the band”. And Willie stuck out his hand, gave me a big smile and said; “Welcome to the club”!
It was wonderful for me, and I knew this was an opportunity to learn more. But not the way people learn from taking lessons. Or from watching musicians from the audience. Or even listening to records. But from being together on stage. Like the way people did things in the middle ages. Like being an apprentice to a master. I tried to really use what I learned from Muddy. Both to give him what he wanted on the bandstand, and to be a better musician myself.
I believe you needed a certain cool, or a certain charisma, to impress Muddy. And to even be accepted as his sideman.
- I don’t think I was cool, and I don’t think I had any charisma. I just think I was a lucky 24 years old kid. He was MUDDY WATERS. He was at the top of the art of playing Blues music. He was one of the best in the world at it. And I was a young man that wanted to play that style of music. I appreciated that he gave me a chance, and I tried to learn as much as I could from him. And do as much as I could for him on the bandstand, with music. Also to be helpful to him off the bandstand, like when we were travelling. Or, just be a good friend to him.
Did he tell you how to play, or tell you how to play Muddy Waters? Or did he just tell you to play your own stuff?
- He wanted me to fit with the band. But he was always happy when I played a solo, that he didn’t tell me how to play it. And as a matter of fact, I think before I was in the band, when Otis Span was in the band and used to rehears with the musicians. And tell them what to play and how to play it. But after Otis Spann left the band, and then died a little while later, nobody taught anybody anything. So, you had to learn it live on the bandstand.
How long did it last playing Muddy?
- Well, I was in his band from August 1973 to June 1980. So, almost seven years.
And what happened then? Did you start on your own, and recorded your own stuff, or what happened?
- Well, some of the guys in the band stayed together. Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Pinetop Perkins, Calvin Jones and Jerry Portnoy. They all stayed together and got many different guitar players. They called it The Legendary Blues Band. Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson started his own band, and I started my own band too.
Doing series of recordings, I believe?
- Well, I didn’t start to record right away in the 1980’s. What I really wanted to do was just play whatever kind of music I wanted to play. Blues, some Rock’n’Roll, some Soul music. Anything I thought like playing, but mostly Blues. And to just play in music clubs, for soulful people. I didn’t want to be a business man, I didn’t care about making records. And I did that pretty good in the 1980’s. By the end of the 80’s, it became obvious that the world was changing. I’d better make a record, if I wanted to still make a living. And travel and get out on the world scene.
So, I began doing that in the 1990’s. I came to Scandinavia the first time in 1990, when I was invited to play at Notodden. I played with the band I had with me at the time, with Tom “Mookie” Brill and Chuck Cotton. We also played with Jimmy Rogers, the great guitar player. Who had my job in Muddy Water’s band, 25 years before I did. He became a legend on his own, of Chicago Blues music.
I think that ever since I left Muddy’s band, and especially after he died, people valued me for being able to give them a taste of Muddy Waters. A little bit of his sound. But honestly, to get with Muddy Waters, nobody could do it, even his sons. Like, I would play with Mud Morganfield and I know Bill Morganfield. They sound like him, and they have the spirit of his music sometimes. But there are many guitar players that play Muddy’s style on guitar, very well.
Maybe there are some people that think that’s all I do. But it’s not. I’ve recorded for many labels and I’ve done my own original music. Some of it is nothing at all like Chicago Blues. And I’m going farther in that direction now. I still love and honour Chicago Blues and always will play some, whenever I play. But I have other sides of my music, that I would like the world to see. And I’ve been recording a new album, that will show everything. Both the respect and love for the old style of Chicago Blues, and what I learned from Muddy. As well as other interests and music, that is original to me. That doesn’t sound like anybody else.
Do you have a name for that album?
- I wasn’t able to think of a good name. But my manager Patricia Morgan said; “I’ve got two ideas for you; One would be called; My Road. And another would be; Look at me now”! I liked those ideas better than any that I had, I thought they were very good ideas. So, I choose her first suggestion. And I love Pat. She’s been my manager for some time now, and I love to work with her. She’s very, very smart. And she helps make my life better musically.
To me, it was a special pleasure to meet your old Telecaster, with all the marks in it. Or should I say all the scars in it?
- Well I only had that one since 1991, and the guitar was 40 years old then. So, it was old when I got it, and now it is older.
Is that why you like it?
- I had some really good guitars, and I loved them all. But for the last two or three years, this is the one that says; “ME”, every time I play it! So now, I just use this guitar. But I don’t have a name for it.
Another thing, to take it home with. I know you love animals, don’t you?
If animals could make music, what do you think they would play?
- Oh, I think they would sing. I know my dog sings. In, maybe 2002, I had an experience when I did some shows with the older Chicago bluesmen. And one night, three or four of them stayed at my house. Pinetop Perkins, Willie Smith, Carey Bell and Hubert Sumlin. We all sat on the porch the next morning, after my wife had cooked a wonderful breakfast. Then we heard a fire engine far away. We had two dogs, and they started to howling along with it. “Ahh ooohhh”! And Pinetop said; “Their feelings are hurt”. I love my pets and it’s hard to be away from them. But I play the guitar so that they can have dog food every day.
Words and photos; Krister Palais