Joseph “Mojo” Morganfield grew up with a musical legend for a father: the late Chicago blues deity and rock progenitor Muddy Waters. “He was just ‘Dad’ at home,” recalls Morganfield, who declares his upbringing in suburban Westmont — replete with school, chores, basketball practice, et al — as “a good childhood, in a normal household.”
He does acknowledge, though, that normal households typically don’t see the likes of Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones dropping by to pay a visit.
“Eric came over quite a bit, whenever he was in the States,” Morganfield said of the British guitar god, noting that Clapton served as best man in Waters’ 1979 wedding. (As for fellow Brits the Stones, Mick Jagger and company not only drew inspiration from Muddy’s music, they famously appropriated their band name from Muddy’s 1950 hit, “Rollin’ Stone.”)
And when it wasn’t superstar rockers coming to call, it was elite players from Chicago’s fertile blues scene. Home was simply awash in live music — and spicy conversation, Morganfield remembers — over his father’s Deep South cooking. “We’d have fish fries, and musicians would be here. They’d pull guitars out and go till 3, 4 in the morning, drinkin’ and talkin’ [stuff].
“I got an earful at that age, believe me,” he added with a laugh.
“Mojo” Morganfield, 56, is the youngest son of Waters, who was born McKinley Morganfield in 1915. Raised on a Mississippi plantation where he picked up guitar and harmonica, Muddy Waters arrived in Chicago in 1943 to ply his trade as a professional musician. He remained here for the rest of his storied life, emblazoning his mark on music history.
And it all started with Muddy’s introducing the electric guitar to local blues clubs, in the words of essayist Michael Hill of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted Waters in 1987. “His groups, which played with all amps cranked, consisted of bass, drums, second guitar, piano and harmonica, with Waters on slide guitar and vocals,” Hill wrote. “He and a shifting company of stellar sidemen played hard-edged, unadulterated blues, but his bands had the earmarks — in size, volume and attitude — of rock combos to come.”
The most recent of Muddy’s offspring to pursue his own career in music, Morganfield has released a new single. “It’s Good to Be King,” on Chicago’s longstanding independent Delmark label.
The irrepressible, quintessentially Chicago-style blues track was recorded by Morganfield and his combo, the Mannish Boyz — another band name sparked by a Muddy Waters hit song. In this case, it was the paradigmatic 1955 “Mannish Boy” (co-written by Waters, Bo Diddley and Mel London). Its pile-driving central riff, instantly recognizable, hammers home the lyrics “I’m a man, I spell M – A – N” – simple, declarative sentences that resounded with much deeper meaning amid the Jim Crow era in which it debuted.
When Mojo Morganfield and the Mannish Boyz (the band’s official moniker) recorded “It’s Good to Be King” this past summer at Chicago’s VSOP Productions Studios, the band and producer Michael Freeman paid appropriate deference to COVID-19. “[Facility staff] would clean the studio before we got there,” Morganfield related. “Each musician had his own section. And they had to wear masks; I didn’t, because I was isolated from everyone in the vocal booth.
“And the next day we couldn’t come in, since they’d take that day to clean, again, before we could come back and finish.”
“It’s Good to Be King,” penned by Johnny Lee Schell, was previously recorded by Big Daddy Gumbo (aka the late Tommy Dardar.) “It’s a good song, but it has a Louisiana twang; I wanted to Chicago it up,” Morganfield said.
So, Morganfield and Freeman brought in a trio of stellar Chicago blues artists: Ronnie Baker Brooks — son of celebrated hometown bluesman Lonnie Brooks — on guitar, Emmy-winning blues harpist Billy Branch, and Brother John Kattke on piano. “What the song says to me,” Morganfield said, “is that every person has their castle: family, friends and the things you surround yourself with. A person should feel like a king or queen when everything is going right — when the mojo is working. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, enjoy it.
“We were supposed to put out a full CD,” he continued. “But with the virus being out there, we wouldn’t really have been able to [tour in order to] promote it. So we released the single, just to keep our name out there.”
Mojo and the Mannish Boyz aim to have the album recorded, mixed and released “sometime in 2021. But we’re watching the corona numbers; if they’re high we won’t go back in the studio. Keepin’ it safe and still being productive is really difficult right now.”
Muddy Waters’ youngest son first took up guitar under the exacting tutelage of his father; it was an exercise in perfectionism. “He’d play me a note, and then he’d leave. Once I got that note, I would call him back in and play it. I wouldn’t call him back if I didn’t have it down, though, ’cause he had no patience!”
Bob Margolin, guitarist for Waters’ band from 1973 to 1980, knew Joseph as a youngster, and recalls Muddy suggesting one day in the Morganfield kitchen, “Show Joe some things on guitar.” Margolin happened to have brought along a vintage Fender Stratocaster, which he placed in the 9-year-old’s hands — and marveled as Joseph spun out a line from one of Waters’ own songs, staying behind the beat exactly like his old man (who called the technique “delay time”). Whether genetic or learned, Margolin said, little Mojo “had the feel of Mississippi blues — of Muddy Waters.”
Morganfield, also a spokesman for Muddy’s estate, said that the South Side home on 43rd and Lake Park — the first house Waters ever bought, now owned by his great-granddaughter Chandra Cooper — is currently being “rehabbed and repaired” in preparation for a Muddy Waters museum to be headquartered there. Morganfield expects the museum project, overseen by Cooper, will be up and running in two years.
“The main goal,” Morganfield said, “is to keep my father’s legacy alive.”
Moira McCormick is a local freelance writer.