Big Bill Morganfield’s got his daddy’s high cheekbones and the same dusty deep-chocolate resonance in the low end of his voice. And over the years he’s acquired a similarly whinnying style of slide guitar that’s displayed on his new album Born Lover.
But Muddy Water’s son was slow to follow in his daddy’s giant footsteps.
“When I graduated from high school my ambition was to go to college and get an education, so I could make a living and take care of my family,” the 53-year-old bluesman says by phone from his home outside Atlanta, Georgia.
So Morganfield earned degrees in English and Communications from two colleges and became an English teacher. “I was a closet musician,” Morganfield says. “For years the only people who heard my playing were my family.”
With five albums under his belt, it’s obvious things changed somewhere along the line.
“When my daddy died, in 1982, on his death bed he said one of the things he was disappointed about was that none of his children had taken up music,” Morganfield recalls. “I decided to fulfill his wish.”
Big Bill certainly has, touring the world and even enlisting a crew of ex-Muddy Waters Band personnel that includes guitarist Bob Margolin, drummer Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and pianist Pinetop Perkins for 1999’s excellent Rising Son, his second CD. Since then Morganfield and Margolin have become close friends. Margolin, who is also an exceptional slide man in the Waters vein, co-produced the new Born Lover with fellow guitarist Brian Bisesi.
“We went through a list of 25 songs and narrowed it down to a dozen that really showcase my voice and feature me playing in different styles — not just my daddy’s,” says Morganfield.
Two tunes in particular, Morganfield’s own satirical “High Gas Prices” and his “X-Rated Lover,” showcase his explosive slide playing on his road-worn Gibson ES-347. The gleaming red beauty is the same guitar he’s posing with on the cover of Born Lover, complimented by an equally cherry-hued chapeau.
“That’s the first Gibson I ever played,” Morganfield says of the guitar, which is an evolution of the semi-hollowbody classic Gibson ES-335, but with a coil tap, a brass nut (which zings up his slide tone), block markers on the fretboard, and a tailpiece with fine tuners. “I saw it on the wall of a guitar shop, tried it out, and it felt right. Now, I’ve played it so much it’s almost worn out.”
Although the title track is a Muddy Waters tune, other classic bluesmen also get their due on Born Lover. Willie Dixon’s “One Kiss,” Buddy Guy’s “My Love is Real,” Howlin’ Wolf’s “My Last Affair,” and Snooky Pryor’s “Peace of Mind” are also in the mix.
“I write songs about things that touch my life, like ‘High Gas Price,’ ” says Morganfield, “and when I pick classic songs to perform I really think about how they let me use my strengths as a singer. Because I do sound like my daddy, I have to be careful about how many of his songs I do. I only play about three a night when I’m on tour.
“My favorites of daddy’s to sing,” Morganfield continues, “are ‘Blow Wind Blow,’ ‘Mannish Boy,’ and ‘Born Lover.’ Those all touch my heart and soul.”