AUSTIN, Texas During his lifetime, McKinley Morganfield, a.k.a. Muddy Waters, loomed large as an ambassador of the blues.
His bands created the prototype for the modern electric Chicago blues style, and through their ranks passed many of the pre-eminent instrumentalists of the genre.
A handful of his surviving sidemen, plus Waters' son Big Bill Morganfield, gathered on Thursday to play a concert tribute to the blues progenitor and reflect on his legacy as part of the 25th anniversary celebration at Antone's, the legendary Austin blues establishment.
"Just listen to the records. Muddy was one of the greatest men, maybe the greatest I've known," exFabulous Thunderbird harmonica player Kim Wilson said backstage. "He was an aura, a persona. It's my bible."
Waters, who was born in the Mississippi Delta in 1913, took Wilson under his wing when the harmonica player was still in his early 20s.
Other Waters cohorts who gathered for the occasion were harmonica player James Cotton, pianist Pinetop Perkins, guitarist Hubert Sumlin, drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, bassist Calvin "Fuzz" Jones, harmonica player and singer Mojo Buford, guitarist Bob Margolin and the younger Morganfield.
The sold-out Antone's show featured three sets with various lineups, but when Morganfield, Perkins and Margolin traded vocals on "Got My Mojo Workin'" (RealAudio excerpt) at the evening's close, it was hard to dispute they'd succeeded in calling down the great man's spirit.
Stage Of Dreams
Though among his employees Waters had something of a reputation as a taskmaster, any hardships endured seemed long-forgotten Thursday night as the longtime comrades gathered backstage.
"Ever since I was a little kid I dreamed of playing alongside these guys," Morganfield said before taking the stage. "I've played with some of them, but this is the first time with all of them together like this. This is really special and a little scary. ... Yeah, I'm nervous, but I think we're going to invoke the man up there."
Wilson said, "I've known some of these guys for 30 years. But the biggest honor is when they treat you like an equal. It's definitely different than when I was a kid, ... because I'm an old f---er now, too.
"I just want to be with these guys as long as they're alive," Wilson added. "When you're a kid you just take it for granted they'll be around forever."
Buford, 70, toured with Waters on and off for more than 30 years and now sings with Cotton on tour. "Muddy had his rules, but we broke them," he confided. "Even [Muddy] broke them once in a while."
Perkins, who recently celebrated his 87th birthday, joined Waters in 1969, replacing Otis Spann on piano, and played with the band up to and after Waters' death in 1983.
He continues to tour and record, and though he says his arm hurts him more than ever he was a guitarist with Sonny Boy Williamson II in the '40s but switched to piano after seriously injuring his arm in the 1940s he's as spry as a teenager.
He played just in the third set, contributing, among other gems, a rendition of the humorous boogie standard "Chicken Shack" and his own "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie."
"Muddy was a good bluesman," Perkins said. "He had a good voice and I loved playing behind him. ... We just put so much into it. We'd chop the blues up so many which ways.
"Muddy had that old style, it ain't today like we used to do it."
Smith said, "I don't know if it's how good we play now or how old we are. It takes some seasoning to get it right."
Also sitting in on stage were drummer Ted Harvey, bassist Sarah Brown, sax player Kaz Kazanoff and guitarist Derek O'Brien.
"Muddy meant everything to me," club owner Susan Antone said. "He was the CEO of the blues and of Antone's. My brother and I called him 'Daddy.' Having all these guys here is nothing but pure joy."
Susan Antone's brother, club founder Clifford Antone, was unable to attend the show, having begun on July 5 a four-year prison sentence for marijuana distribution and money laundering. But Susan Antone said recordings of the shows were being made for her brother to hear.
Sumlin, who toured with Waters and Howlin' Wolf, probably best summed up the camaraderie and the jovial mood backstage. "Why are blues people so happy?" he said, laughing. "Hey, you do something you love, do it all your life, it makes you very happy."