Big Bill Morganfield says he had no intention of playing the blues until his father, the beyond-legendary McKinley "Muddy Waters" Morganfield, died back in 1983. So what, exactly, kept him away?
"Well, shit man, first of all my dad was living, and I was intimidated by how good he is," says Morganfield. "I was like, 'No way, uh-uh, I ain't doing it,' you know? But after he passed away, I decided to try my hand at it."
Raised by his grandmother, Verdell Clark, in southern Florida, Morganfield had taken off to Alabama for college and earned degrees in English and communications. It was shortly after graduation that he learned of his father's death.
"We had just gotten to the point where we was gonna start trying to hang out a little bit, and I got a phone call that he passed," recalls Morganfield, who now lives in Atlanta. "He was sick and we had talked, but I didn't know that he was that sick to the point where, you know, he had to leave us."
Once he decided to follow in his father's footsteps, Morganfield realized he had some catching up to do. He took to spending his days working as a schoolteacher and his evenings studying the musical legacy he was born into.
"When I first started, I was just taking up where he had left off," he recalls. "But it wasn't right, doing it that way, so I decided to go all the way back to the beginning, and study all that stuff from the plantation recordings up to the modern ones, and to learn it as best I could."
It took time — Morganfield didn't get around to recording until the late '90s — but he learned his lessons well. In 2000, he won the W.C. Handy Award for Best New Blues Artist. "It's eerie," commented a writer for his dad's hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, "as if his father and Howlin' Wolf had never left."
Morganfield's voice definitely has a depth and resonance not unlike his father's. And his 2009 album Born Lover bears the name of the Muddy Waters song he covers alongside Howlin' Wolf's "My Last Affair." But even though he appreciates Waters' early field recordings and the raw acoustic blues of his seminal Folk Singer album, Morganfield clearly leans more toward Chicago-style electric blues than its Mississippi Delta antecedents.
Rising Son, the artist's 1999 breakthrough album, was co-produced by Bob Margolin, who played guitar with Waters throughout the '70s, as well as keyboardist Pinetop Perkins and drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, who did the same in the '60s. As Morganfield puts it, "They decided they would get together to start me off and send me out there the right way."
This time through, he'll be backed by Denver's Delta Sonics, who also perform with Margolin. "It's a really solid band, man," he says. "You guys oughta be proud of those guys."
As an air conditioning repairman toils in the background, Morganfield says he's also looking forward to escaping the Georgia swelter. "You guys got a different kind of heat going on," he says. "You add that humidity, man, and it's like you got a monkey on your back."