Muddy Waters is known to the world as ‘The Father Of Chicago Blues’, but to Larry ‘Mud’ Morganfield he was known simply as Pops. Muddy’s eldest son grew up in the shadow of his father’s indomitable spirit – an original voice of the Delta that electrified the blues on the South Side of Chicago, then introduced it to the world – but is now finally stepping out to pick up his inheritance.
‘Son Of The Seventh Son’ is Mud’s debut album – a somewhat belated offering, considering it took him fifty-eight years to get round to recording it. It’s the sound of modern Chicago blues: dynamic, gritty and electric, yet with a traditional edge that would make his father proud. So what took him so long?
“I just got tired of the years,” he tells Clash, reclining in our office lounge. “I drove trucks for a lot of years. I just got tired of it calling me! I got tired of tapping on the dashboard of my truck… I had to answer the calling.”
Like a priest drawn to his destiny by the forces of a higher power, Mud similarly had an epiphany from a welcome visitor.
“I had a couple of dreams of my father, and it was so strange,” he explains. “The first dream was he was playing on the stage, and he wouldn’t talk to me. I’m down there, I’m waving up at him – he’s playing up on a high stage – but he never answered me. I woke up out of that and thought, ‘That was really strange’. I never had dreamed about my father but that particular time I did. But it was just a dream; I brushed it off. But lo and behold, a week later I had the same exact dream. Now, did that persuade me to start singing the blues professionally? I don’t know, but here I am.”
Mud is the product of the relationship between McKinley Morganfield (AKA Muddy Waters) and Mildred Williams. The pair split when Larry was eight-years-old, and while Mildred raised her son, his father was never far from his life. “Pops was always there if I needed him,” Mud remembers. “Don’t get me wrong, he was only a phone call away, but sometimes when divorces and break-ups like this happen, the kids are the ones who get affected the most. And I think that’s what happened in my case: I didn’t understand why Pops wasn’t in the house no more, still being too young to figure out that sometimes relationships just don’t always work out.”
As Larry grew, Muddy Waters continued to dominate and uphold the blues. Originally ‘discovered’ by folklorist Alan Lomax while the latter was passing through Mississippi recording country blues musicians in 1941, Muddy subsequently packed up and headed north to Chicago, signed to Chess Records (alongside Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry), and established himself as the genre’s most potent and authoritative artist. His songs, including ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘I’m Ready’, ‘Mannish Boy’ and ‘Got My Mojo Working’ are the foundations of the blues pantheon, while ‘Rollin’ Stone’ was appropriated by five blues enthusiasts as their band name in the early Sixties. This second wave of interest, which was entirely due to young white artists hijacking the blues from what was previously an exclusive black audience, benefitted Muddy, as these artists endorsed and heralded him as a legend. He performed with The Rolling Stones, The Band, Bob Dylan, and recorded with Steve Winwood, Johnny Winter and Michael Bloomfield, while The Beatles, upon their first visit to America, claimed the thing they most wanted to see while there was Muddy Waters. Despite Muddy’s stature, fame and regard, Mud’s tastes as a teenager tended towards the newer sound of young black America.
“I’m a Motown, rhythm and blues baby – that’s what I heard,” he explains. “When I heard my Pops’ thing, I just thought it was a bunch of noise going on! Because it was The Supremes and The Dramatics and The Temptations – it was those kinda people who my peers and myself was relating to. I didn’t have any idea of the impact that Pops was making.”
It’s an admission that echoes through every subsequent generation as the blues fights harder and harder to stay alive and successful. Motown eventually gave way to hip-hop as the chosen soundtrack of black youths, and years of pent-up aggression – wherein blues quietly moaned about injustice and Motown progressed from innocent beat-driven dance songs to socially conscious messages – transformed into a hostile and often militant stance that defiantly challenged the social strata. On the negative influence of hip-hop, Mud says: “At this point in my life, I really don’t need any enemies, but I tell you, some of the stuff I heard is just… I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I have sat down and tried to figure out what is the concept in some of the things some of these rappers say out of their mouth – hurting, raping, doping, pistols and killing – and I just can’t make sense of it. I’m sorry, I just can’t make sense of it. Every man has a right to be a man and to protect yourself, but the unnecessary stuff and the harder stuff, I can’t figure that out.”
Mud Morganfield’s blues is made to appeal to the Twenty-First Century. He knows the world isn’t what it used to be, and he knows the purpose of music is to connect with the feet as much as it is the heart. “When my father was coming up, times was hard on those plantations. Everybody needed a god in their life, and they was singing the blues about it, just needing to be saved and rescued and all that. But in my era, it wasn’t quite like that. So my blues took on a different form. If you listen to ‘Son Of The Seventh Son’, you’ll find a song on there called ‘Catfishing’ – it’s more of who I am. Look, I don’t need the world sitting around crying – I want people to have fun; I want them to dance. That’s the kind of blues I like to do. I mean, I like to put in my dad’s style, because that’s part of my make-up, that’s part of my genes, but everybody knows what a broken heart is. I wanna sing about something that makes you wanna dance. You dunk down a few beers and you go, ‘God, I like that sound!’ And you dance, man, and you have a good time.”
Recorded in two days to perfectly capture the energy and vivacity of Mud’s music, ‘Son Of The Seventh Son’ features the cream of Chicago’s struggling blues scene: Barrelhouse Chuck on keys, E.G. McDaniel on bass, Bob Corritore and Harmonica Hines on harp, Billy Flynn and Rick Kreher on guitars, and Kenny Smith – son of Muddy Water’s drummer Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith – on drums. When he travels around the world performing, Mud can draw upon each country’s best blues musicians, all of whom are keen to sample some of that Morganfield magic. With Mud today in Clash HQ were guitarist Ronni Boysem, who’d traveled all the way from Denmark, and harpist West Weston, whose journey from Essex was considerably shorter. A few days previously they’d played the Boisdale Club in London, and Mud was still reeling from the reception of English audiences. “I just wish that I could just pack up this crowd, you great people, and take them home with me, and when I perform in the States, let them out,” he beams. “I got rave reviews, great audiences; I really don’t think that they care how you sound, it’s just the respect that they have for the blues, they’ll clap for you anyway. You can’t beat that.”
With an audience that’s still hungry and responsive, it’s highly likely that the blues will persevere. But after Mud, can the Morganfield name survive in music? Of his ten children, none are musical, but then, if it took him almost sixty years to heed the calling, they’ve still got time. Finally fulfilling his fate, Mud is an example that good things come to those who wait, and his beliefs, he says, never faltered. “I’d like to just let the younger generation as a whole know that they can make it. There’s no dream too high that they can’t make, and I’d like to let them know that I’m living proof of that. You take a little Chicago, urban-born kid like myself, who came up in the ghettos – where, when Dr. Martin Luther King got assassinated, it was burnt even more – you let them know that dreams are reachable. Good dreams are reachable, and never stop trying.”
And now he’s reached his dreams, what’s next for Mud? “I want to take it as far as the heavens,” he smiles. “As far as I can go, man. As long as I stay healthy, you’re gonna hear from Mud Morganfield.”
Words by Simon Harper
Photography by Hayley Louisa Brown