As many of you may have heard, the great soul, blues and gospel singer Otis Clay passed away suddenly this month in Chicago. We feel fortunate that he performed at SPACE so many times throughout the years, leaving us with wonderful memories of his powerful, passionate, and electrifying shows. His funeral on January 16th at Chicago’s Liberty Baptist Church drew an overflow crowd including soul and blues luminaries such as Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, Joe Simon, Syl Johnson, Gene Barge, Cicero Blake and Billy Branch. U.S. Congressman Danny Davis read a tribute that he gave on the floor of Congress a few days after Otis’ passing. Otis had an amazing career and left us with a rich and diverse legacy of music. From his early gospel days with groups like The Sensational Nightingales and Pilgrim Harmonizers, to his first soul recordings on Chicago’s One-Derful label, to his classic sides on Cotillion, Hi Records and his own Echo label — and more recently receiving a Grammy nomination and being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. One recent highlight was Otis’ performance at the Message In Blue album release show at SPACE as well as his moving contributions to the CD. We’ll miss him deeply and cherish the memories he left us with. —Dave Specter (Photo: Harvey Tillis)
This winter will bring Chicago blues luminary Mud Morganfield back to the club for his annual post-Christmas show on Saturday, December 26. The blues singer and songwriter won the Blues Music Award for Best Traditional Blues Album for 2014’s For Pops: A Tribute To Muddy Waters, featuring Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. That album was the follow-up to 2012’s critically acclaimed Son Of The Seventh Son, both on Severn Records. SPACE recently spoke with Morganfield about the impact of his father’s legacy, the state of blues music today and more. “I didn’t choose this path, I didn’t need to,” Morganfield says. He was interviewed by Dan Szwiec.
How important is it for you to preserve your father’s legacy?
I’m trying to [preserve] my father’s legacy and the blues. People [are] getting away from the real blues. I’m trying to preserve his legacy, my legacy, and anyone who’s into traditional original blues.
How would you describe traditional blues?
Lightning Hopkins, my dad, the Blind Lemon boys, Sonny Landreth. You know, those kind of cats, man, that originated that blues stuff. And John Lee Hooker.
I’ve been doing blues since the day I came here, man. I might’ve been tapping on my mama’s stomach. I started beating on cans at a 4 or 5-year-old age with tree branches. I’ve always been musically inclined, and I’ve always had these music waves through my ears and my heart. You know, this is nothing new to me. I didn’t choose this path at the time, I didn’t need to. My dad was there so there was no need to.
At what point did you decide to release your own music?
When the opportunity presented itself. When I felt like people were getting away from the traditional blues; making it rock-y blues with these 40-minute guitar solos. And I still don’t understand that, people are still screaming for that kind of stuff. That is not blues. People got to know that; that isn’t traditional blues by anybody’s means of imagination. From John Lee Hooker to my dad. I don’t know what you call it, but it ain’t blues.
Do you think it’s important for the blues to evolve, or do you think it should stay true to its roots?
I tell you, man, people like myself and a few more people down here are trying to keep the traditional blues alive. It’s hard, man, because everyone wants to do a different kind of blues. Especially with the Johnnie Taylors and the Tyrone Davises and the Bobby Rushes. And even Bobby tries to do traditional, but those guys are old blues soul performers, you know what I mean? That old Delta, Mississippi/Louisiana kind of blues; I just want to be a part of it because my dad spent his entire life trying to do that. As his son I feel responsible and I feel I have to do that. I’m still gonna be Mud Morganfield too. If you check out Son Of The Seventh Son, there’s eight or nine original songs that I wrote that got away a little bit from traditional, but I still keep it Chicago blues there.
You’ve been quoted as saying the similarities between you and your father’s voice are a double-edged sword, could you elaborate on that?
It can be. You know what, man, we had one Muddy Waters, one B.B. King, one John Lee Hooker. But here’s the thing: If somebody can sound like any of the giants in the industry, you know they would, wouldn’t they? Absolutely. And here’s what’s so great about it with me; I’m not some broke man that’s running around saying, “Look at me, I sound like Muddy Waters.” I am the eldest son of Muddy Waters. So I have a born birthright to mark my father, as well as my sisters have to mark my mother.
Did your family have any holiday musical traditions?
My family, man, we’re big believers of Christmas. I was raised in a church, my grandmother, bless her heart, she believed in church and I stayed in church so much I got a headache. We truly believe in the spirit of Christmas, it’s one of my favorite holidays.
What are your touring plans for next year? What is touring Europe like?
The only [show] I have now is SPACE. [Europe is] really cool, they love us, they love the blues, and they love music in general. Talk about a red carpet affair, every time I go there they put the red carpet out for me. How cool is that?
Any blues artists you’re a fan of now?
I’m a fan of blues, period. Let me remind you, I come up in a whole different era. I came up in the Motown era, you know, the Johnnie Taylor and Tyrone Davis era. That’s the stuff I listened to. Remember now, I’m only a kid of Muddy’s, so when pop was doing this great blues and recording all those great songs, it was a little past me, I was still a tot. So when I come up in my era in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, it was Hall & Oates’ “Maneater,” War’s “Cisco Kid.” All those great tunes, that’s what I came up listening to.
What were your plans for the Morganfield Foundation and preserving Muddy’s old house?
I collected money for my dad’s house, and it was a failed attempt. I gave everyone’s money back, and I just keep the foundation there in case something comes up. I keep it licensed as a non-profit organization. Somebody bought the house and they’re supposedly doing great things at some point in the future.
My plans were to turn it into a music school. Not a museum; you got museums and artifacts of my dad in the Delta [Blues] Museum and around the world. I was going to make it a school for children to teach them nothin’ but blues. No rock, no R&B, I wanted to teach children to play blues-based guitar or blues drumming and so forth.