"It's been a long journey for me, man," chuckles blues man William "Big Bill" Morganfield. Due in town for a two-night stint at the newly-opened Home Team BBQ on Sullivan's Island, the Atlanta-based singer/guitarist is staying busy on the road this summer behind his recent album Born Lover. To him, it's just one of many steps on a musical adventure.
"I'm just starting to hone in on a lot of things, you know, like my guitar sound," he says. "Over the years, I've been searchin' and strugglin' and searchin' ... I'm satisfied one minute, and the next minute I'm not."
Morganfield may be searching for just the right amplifier tones, vocal inflections, and rhythmic grooves to emphasize his musical personality, but he will forever be tagged as the son of McKinley Morganfield — better known as the legendary blues singer Muddy Waters, a man who balanced the harmonica-tinged wail of country and Delta blues and the rolling, amplified boogie of Chicago.
"I've been doing this professionally for 13 years," Morganfield says. "It seems like in the beginning, it was 'Muddy Waters' son' and 'He's the son of Muddy Waters,' and that whole movement tying me into my daddy, which is something I didn't dislike. I'm very proud of my father and his accomplishments, and to be recognized as his son on the national level was great, you know. But I always knew — in my own mind and in talking to my father — that I had to be my own man. I couldn't go out and just play Muddy Waters tunes. There's no real value in that. I do recognize that people have a certain respect for guys in the business like me who try to take it to a different level and try to develop their own thing."
Morganfield was raised by his grandmother in southern Florida. He only gradually got into playing music as a serious vocation and profession after years of working as a teacher — several years after his father passed away in 1983. Morganfield's 1999 debut Rising Son — a boogie collection produced by Muddy's longtime guitarist, Bob Margolin (who also played on the album) — won a warm reception from blues fans and praise from critics. In one album review, Guitar Player said that Morganfield's album would have brought a smile to his father's face. The following year, the W.C. Handy Awards dubbed Waters' son the "Best New Blues Artist."
"My dad, Muddy Waters, was probably the biggest influence on me, of course — the Delta and Chicago styles. He was known as the guitar picker from Stovall's Plantation [in Clarksdale, Miss.]. In the latter years, I checked out some of the other great guys, like Howling Wolf, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, James Cotton, Little Walter, and John Lee Hooker ... all the traditional guys who I've studied and continue to study. I'm real deep into Otis Rush now, who was a very, very effective cat — vocally and on guitar. I've been trying to broaden my horizons and stretch out beyond the Chicago blues into other stuff — even with the Piedmont blues.
"They always say that blues guys get more valuable as they get older," he adds. "They accumulate a wealth of knowledge. That's why when we lose those guys, it's such a tremendous loss. You've got so much wrapped in the great guys, and so much they can share on stage."
While Big Bill succeeded in developing his own personal style and sound — without mimicking his father's music — inevitably, there's a hint of Muddy Water's voice in his singing.
"I can hear it," he says. "You get glimpses of it. I studied my pop's music pretty strongly, and it's kind of hard to get that out of me. Vocally, we're kind of in the same place. Even when I talk, people always say, 'You sound like your Daddy,' so it's in the speaking voice, too. It's a genetic thing. I don't think I can get rid of it if I wanted to. But, I still have my own way of doing things, and singing things, so I think it comes across as my own."
After working with the Blind Pig label for several years, Morganfield started his own record company last year under the moniker Black Shuck Records (it's backed by VizzTone Group). His new album, Born Lover, was released last week.
"On this record here, it's my baby in the sense that I have my own record company together," says Morganfield. "I actually put all the money up for it and all that, so I was able to control the sound of it. This album is where I'm at on this continuous blues journey. I'm even moving on from when we first started recording it."
Margolin reunited with Big Bill in the studio to co-produce. "Born Lover reveals and celebrates his journey and progress as a blues artist," he said of the new collection in a recent press release. "I find that Bill still honors his father with deep Chicago blues. He also tells his own stories with original songs, a wide variety of style, and fiery slide guitar. Bill's singing has taken an exciting leap forward in both power and nuance. It's a thrill to hear Bill fulfill."
Morganfield and his current touring band — pianist and organist Clark Stern, guitarist Brian Besesi, bassist Tom "Mookie" Brill, and drummer Shelby "Winston" Salem — plan to play a mix of standards and early original material along with most of the tracks on Born Lover this weekend.
"Home Team and I go way back," says Morganfield. "I've been down there every year for three years with the Blues Bash, so I look forward to it. I had this new album, so I told [Home Team talent buyer and co-owner] Tony McKie that I was ready to work it. We'll be coming in there with a world-class band."