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Rollin' Stone

Robert Gordon explores the life and times of the blues Zelig, Muddy Waters; plus Local Beat.



Local author Robert Gordon was a year removed from his first book, the local music history It Came From Memphis, and preparing to start a new one about a bookie when the biggest project of his career came and found him. Likely due to a suggestion by friend, mentor, and renowned roots-music chronicler Peter Guralnick, publishing house Little, Brown approached Gordon about doing a biography of blues legend Muddy Waters. Gordon thought it sounded like a good way to spend a couple of years.

But he underestimated a little bit. Five years, three editors, and two children later, Gordon's book, Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters, is finally seeing the light of day.

Richly detailed and researched, written in a voice both scholarly and accessible, and copiously footnoted, Gordon's opus is likely to be the definitive treatment of perhaps the genre's definitive artist, a work of musical biography and history that should have the same durability and relevance that Guralnick's treatments of Elvis Presley (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love) have had.

Can't Be Satisfied (featuring a foreword by Keith Richards) follows Waters (born McKinley Morganfield) from his pre-Depression days as a sharecropper on the Mississippi Delta's Stovall Plantation through his WWII-era "discovery" by folklorists Alan Lomax and John Work III, his subsequent migration to Chicago, his mid-century emergence as the country's greatest blues star, and later status as rock-and-roll godfather and blues-revival icon.

It's a work that reveals the big-picture impact of Waters' unique rise as impressively as it accumulates biographical detail. "After spending so much time on him, I tried to figure out a way to explain what it was [Waters] had done," Gordon explained during a recent interview at the Midtown guest house/office where he wrote the book, "and in a way what the blues had done. What I came up with was Muddy Waters as the triumph of the dirt farmer. He turned white culture's head around, from disrespecting black culture to embracing it. And I think that the power of that turnaround is the great democratic movement of the 20th century, sort of [the American equivalent] of when the Berlin Wall went down. Muddy began that process and took a lot of people on that road."

Gordon's own relationship with Muddy Waters began in 1977, when, as a teenager, he discovered Waters through the aging icon's then-new comeback album Hard Again, considered by some the greatest blues studio album ever. Between that discovery and Waters' death in 1983, Gordon estimates that he saw Waters play about a dozen times both in Memphis and Philadelphia, where Gordon attended college.

Despite this familiarity, Gordon still found that he knew a lot more about Memphis blues than the Chicago scene which made up the bulk of Waters' vast career. But Gordon insists he wasn't intimidated by the project. "This, to me, was really of the same scope as It Came From Memphis," he said. "The difference was that this story begins so much earlier in history in an oral culture of which very few records were kept. I realized quickly that I was battling time and that, if I wanted to get anything on [Waters'] earlier years, I would have to go and find those people, that there weren't going to be many written records. So I started looking for people old people. I had a couple of great days down [in Mississippi] where I just rode around asking people if they knew where any old people lived."

Waters' early years in Chicago presented a similar problem. Gordon found that there were only a few people who really knew the whole story of those years, and they were all dead, except for Waters' notoriously reticent guitarist Jimmy Rogers. Gordon was able to get one interview with Rogers three months before he died.

There are other interview subjects whom Gordon cited as favorites, particularly Waters' granddaughter, Amelia Cooper, to whom Gordon in part dedicates the book. "She really brought me inside his home," Gordon said of Cooper. "She was 3 years old when she moved in with Muddy and his wife in 1959, and she was raised by him as a dad and was inside the home for everything. She was very frank and was a very inspiring person. Her ability to speak without couching the things she saw, even when they hurt her, was very inspiring to me. She was great."

Gordon also said that he owes a great debt to harmonica player Paul Oscher, the New York City native who was the highly unlikely first white member of Waters' band when he joined in 1968 as a teenager. "When I left [Oscher's] Brooklyn basement apartment [after an interview]," Gordon remembered, "I said, 'Good, now I've got a book.'"

And the book Gordon ended up with is a hard, warm look at an illiterate genius whose musical greatness was mitigated by his culturally bred tendency to acquiesce to authority figures and whose immense personal charm was as great as his immense personal foibles. ("I knew Muddy's general story, and I had a feeling that he catted around a lot," Gordon said. "So his sexual affairs were not a shock. But when I realized how many women he had going at the same time, it was really incredible.")

Emblematic of Waters' too-often ignored musical instincts, Gordon cited one particular passage in which Waters convinces his skeptical boss, label-owner Leonard Chess, to record a new artist named Chuck Berry. "That moment typifies the difference between Leonard and Muddy," Gordon said. "I think, left to his own devices, Muddy would have kept on making good records, but, because of his ingrained sharecropping mentality, he demurred to Leonard all the time, even though Leonard often didn't really know what he was doing. And that's why we have all of these horrible records from the middle years, because Leonard was trying to manufacture the sound."

Gordon himself demurred when prodded to declare his subject the blues' most important artist, though he did acknowledge that Waters embodies the scope of the music more fully than anyone else.

"He's sort of like a blues Zelig," Gordon said, in reference to the Woody Allen film in which the title character pops up in key moments throughout history. "He was in the Delta and he was in Chicago. He started on acoustic and then had basically the first electric blues hits. He was a folkie in the early '60s and psychedelic in the late '60s. He was everywhere. And so by writing about him, I got to write about the whole history of modern blues. Muddy set the template."

Robert Gordon has several local events scheduled this week to celebrate the release of Can't Be Satisfied, among them:

Wednesday, May 22nd: Gordon will hold a book signing from 5 to 7 p.m. at Burke's Book Store.

Friday, May 24th: Gordon will be on the panel for "Blues From the Delta To the World," part of the Blues Foundation's Handy weekend Blues Symposium. At 3 p.m. at the new Central Library, Gordon will be joined by Bob Santelli, CEO of the Experience Music Project and author of The Big Book of Blues, Art Tipaldi, senior writer for Blues Revue, and Edwina Handy Decosta, great-granddaughter of W.C. Handy. The panel will be followed by a performance from former Waters sideman Bob Margolin.

Later that night, Gordon and Margolin will team up at the New Daisy Theatre for a tribute concert to Waters and a premiere screening of Gordon's companion documentary, Muddy Waters: Can't Be Satisfied. Gordon's hour-long documentary condenses the narrative of the book and spikes it with photos, performance footage, and interview segments with artists such as B.B. King and Bonnie Raitt. The documentary will air as part of the PBS American Masters series next February and will be screened at 9 p.m. at the New Daisy. The screening will be followed at 10:30 by a tribute concert featuring the Bob Margolin Band, Calvin "Fuzz" Jones and Hubert Sumlin (both also one-time Waters sidemen, though Sumlin is best known for his work with Waters rival Howlin' Wolf), former New York Dolls frontman David Johansen, and other unannounced guests. The concert will be filmed, along with other events over the weekend, for the Memphis episode of The Blues, a seven-part documentary series executive-produced by Martin Scorsese that will air on PBS sometime next year. Gordon is the writer and associate producer of the Memphis episode.

Saturday, May 25th: Gordon will hold a book signing at 5 p.m. at Tower Records in Peabody Place. LOCAL BEAT As the bulk of the blues world descends upon Memphis for this year's Handy Awards, there are far too many related events to discuss here, but we do have space to highlight a few, starting, of course, with the awards themselves. The sponsoring Blues Foundation is boasting that this year's ceremony could be the most entertaining yet, and judging from the announced lineup, it's hard to disagree. The highlight of the show which takes place at The Orpheum theater at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 23rd promises to be a Sun Records reunion/tribute. Sun's rockabilly side got an understandably huge amount of attention during the past year's 50th anniversary celebration, but the label's blues legacy seems to have been unjustly ignored in all the brouhaha. The Handys aim to set that straight by putting Sun-connected blues icons B.B. King, Ike Turner, Little Milton, and Roscoe Gordon onstage together. The ceremony will also air a video tribute to Sun founder Sam Phillips.

Other notable performers scheduled to appear this year include Charlie Musselwhite, Marcia Ball, Otis Taylor, Maria Muldaur, and Shemekia Copeland. On the awards side, Ball and comeback kid Turner headline a stellar group, with multiple nominations. Both are up for Entertainer of the Year.

The weekend slate of events kicks off Friday afternoon with the Memphis-based Blues Music Association's annual town-hall meeting, an open-to-the-public opportunity for blues professionals to hash out the state of the genre. The meeting will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. at Automatic Slim's Tonga Club downtown.

Friday night, the Handy Festival will feature some of the world's biggest blues stars performing throughout clubs on and off Beale Street. B.B. King at his namesake club is the undeniable highlight, but other pairings include Deborah Coleman at the Lounge, Ann Rabson at Rum Boogie Café, Paul Reddick & The Sidemen at Silky O'Sullivan's, and Otis Taylor at Blues City Café.

On Saturday night, The Music Maker Revival Show will be held at the New Daisy Theatre. The show is a benefit for the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization that assists older Southern roots and blues performers with food, shelter, medical care, and other needs. Performers will include Cootie Stark, Beverly "Guitar" Watkins, Jerry "Boogie" McCain, and Cool John Ferguson, who have all recorded for the Music Maker label, as well as former Handy nominee Willie King and Memphis' Robert Belfour. The cover price is $20, with all proceeds going to the Music Maker Relief Foundation.

Finally, on Sunday from 3 to 9 p.m., the Beale Street Blues Society will host its annual Beale Street Mess Around at Blues City Café, with performances from local acts Barbara Blue, Brad Webb & Mississippi Morris, Mark Lemhouse & Scott Bomar, and Eric Hughes, among many others. Cover is $5.

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