Few have done more to preserve, promote and enhance the American blues tradition. A former Muddy Waters bandmate, award winning guitar player, singer and eBook author, Bob Margolin has the blues covered from every angle. Even his nickname, “Steady Rollin’” is steeped in the blues. Among his many accomplishments, Bob is the founder of the VizzTone Label Group, the VizzTone Blues Review and he sits on the board of directors for the Pinetop Perkins Foundation. Take a deep breath, because there is a lot more to Bob Margolin.
A recipient of the 2013 “Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Journalism,” owing to his outstanding work while writing for Blues Revue Magazine, Bob has released several solo CDs, including Blues Around the World with the Mike Sponza Band and Not Alone, featuring the late Ann Rabson. In 2007, he recorded In North Carolina, on the VizzTone label. Steady Rollin’ was also the winner of a Blues Foundation Blues Music Award for producing the “Best Historical Recording of 2004,” Breakin’ It Up and Breakin’ It Down.
Somewhere among the recording, touring, festivals and club appearances, in 2011 Margolin published the Intentional blues fiction eBook, “Steady Rollin.’” What is Intentional blues fiction? We decided to find out.
An Interview with Bob Margolin
Music Interview Magazine caught up with Bob Margolin for a little give and take about his eBook, Muddy Waters, the blues, guitars and much more.
For those who have not yet read your book, “Steady Rollin’,” what is “Blues Fiction?”
My description of blues fiction is Intentional blues fiction. There are many blues stories that have a loose relationship to truth yet purport to or are accepted as truth. My blues fiction stories are more like songwriting, made up from experience, imagination and a deliberately engaging drama. I don’t pretend that the stories happened as written, but they could have happened. It is rewarding to write this way. Readers seem to understand my intention and enjoy it.
Although it has probably been asked many times before, how did you acquire the nickname “Steady Rollin’”?
In the late ’70s in Boston, a blues radio DJ at Emerson College asked me if I could arrange for him to introduce Muddy’s band at a nightclub gig. I did it and as he speed-rapped the whole introduction, it all rhymed. When he got to my name, he said, ‘And from right here in Boston we have ‘Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin.’ The title of Robert Johnson’s blues classic ‘Steady Rollin’ Man’ rhymed with my last name. Even at the tender age of 29, I had traveled enough geographically, musically and romantically, so I thought it was a good fit and decided to use the name.
You have played alongside many legendary blues greats, among them Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Johnny Winter and Eric Clapton. You also played guitar in Muddy Waters’ band from 1973 to 1980. Waters’ music is still being referenced by contemporary artists, both live and in the studio. He occupies a special place in popular American music. Why do you think Muddy Waters, both the man and his music, continue to resonate with so many people?
Muddy was special, a musician with charisma that affected people in a spiritual way, both musically and personally. That is the short answer. In 1994, I wrote a long article for Blues Revue Magazine, writing every story and analysis I could find inside of me. I get asked about Muddy so often that I put up a link on my first website ‘What Was Muddy Like’ and it’s still there, under Muddy Waters.
Muddy began his career playing slide guitar that was tuned to an open G chord (DGDGDB), but that changed somewhere along the way. After a certain point, it seems he stuck to standard tuning. Would you agree? Why do you think that is?
Muddy’s early guitar partner in Chicago, Jimmy Rogers, said he taught Muddy how to play guitar in standard tuning. This would have been in the mid-1940s. Muddy, endlessly creative, figured out how to play slide guitar in standard tuning as well master other standard tuning figures. He never forgot his open G foundation either. He was a masterful guitarist to go along with his sublime singing and ability to lead a band and bring out the best in anyone who played with him.
You sit are on the board of directors for the Pinetop Perkins Foundation. What kind of work does the foundation do?
We carry on Pinetop’s wish that young people would be inspired by blues music and want to carry it on. We have workshops each year near Clarksdale, Mississippi, where the obvious and undeniable presence of blues ghosts can be felt. It is a thrill to watch the talented young people feel and take inspiration from the blues. Pinetop and Muddy too, smile down on them.
If you don’t mind, we’d like to pick your brain a little about guitars. You have been photographed many times over with a Telecaster in hand. For the Blues Around the World album, with the Mike Sponza Band, it looks as if you may have used a Stratocaster. Generally speaking, what type of guitar do you favor? How about strings and gauges?
I have a few guitars and I pick which one I want to use by whim. None of them spends a night with another. I have the Strat I mostly played in Muddy’s band, as well as the Gibson ES-150 that I got then too. I have a ’99 ’54 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop reissue that is getting a little beat now but sounds great. The Telecaster chooses me most often these days. It’s one of the first ones but all the parts can’t be original, or I never could have afforded it. Its light as a feather, plays and sounds great, and stays in tune. This is the first time I’ve felt like I have a favorite guitar, but I’m fine using the other ones too. I rarely take out more than one guitar at a time, unless I’m driving and there’s room for an extra. I use the same strings on all my guitars: GHS Super Steels, .056, .044, .32, .20 plain, .016 and .012.
How do you feel about single-coil pick-ups versus humbucking?
I don’t have much experience with humbucking pickups. I hear plenty of guitars with them that sound fine to me, but I think that generally single-coil pickups are perceived to have a more focused sound. I’ve never made a direct comparison myself.
Do you ever use foot pedals in the studio or at a show?
I have a Boss RV-3 Reverb/Echo pedal which is more than 12 years old. I haven’t used it in a long time, but sometimes it sounds good on a recording.
What amplifiers do you like?
I love Victoria amplifiers. They always sound great, every size and model and they inspire me to play better because their tone is so expressive and majestic. I have an old Gibson GA5 that sounds great for distorted recording — lots of personality to the sound, perhaps a Southern accent.
You were recently invited to be a special guest with Hot Tuna at the Beacon Theater. Are there any plans for a follow up with Jorma and Jack?
I played with them again last November at Jorma’s Fur Peace Ranch. I don’t have any shows with them in 2014, but should get back there in 2015. I really look forward to that. I love their music and spirit.
You are also a founding member of the VizzTone Label Group. What prompted you to start a music label?
I started it in order to make my own album, In North Carolina, in 2007. My partners and I thought we could put out albums for other artists this way too. The business model has been evolving and I am thrilled with all the music that VizzTone releases. Sometimes it feels like I’m just squeezing in listening while on the go, writing on computers and making phone calls. But when we get together at a VizzTone showcase in Memphis, as we do a couple of times a year, I love socializing and jamming with the VizzTone artists. Their fine music gives the label group its branding. Music lovers know they are going to get deep, interesting music from VizzTone Label Group Artists.
Your concert schedule is posted on bobmargolin.com. Can you talk about any other projects that are due out this year?
In March, I did some recording in Italy with Enrico Polverari and Fabrizio Poggi. We’re still working on that. Right after that, I went to Chicago and worked on an album for producer Larry Skoller, which celebrates the centennial of Muddy’s birth. I’m feeling a drive to make a new CD myself, but I may try to work at first with my close friend, spectacular singer-songwriter and entertainer, Diunna Greenleaf. She’s from Houston. I love her as well as her music. She just won the Koko Taylor ‘Traditional Woman Blues Artist of 2014’ at this year’s Blues Music Awards. Diunna is very inspiring in the studio. I feel sorry for any artist in the world who would have to follow her power onstage.
In addition to Bob Margolin’s solo albums, check out his work with Muddy Waters on songs like “Sad, Sad Day,” “Champagne and Reefer,” and “Mannish Boy.” Of course, there are many others.