Three-time Grammy-nominated producer Larry Skoller has a penchant for pushing the borders of tradition with ambitious projects. In 2009, he produced “Chicago Blues, A Living History” with Billy Boy Arnold, John Primer, Billy Branch and Lurrie Bell, and followed it up with “Chicago Blues, A Living History, The (R)evolution Continues.” In 2013, he produced the Heritage Blues Orchestra’s “And Still I Rise,” which received a Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album.
On July 24, 1915, McKinley Morganfield was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. He later became known as Muddy Waters. Today, on 100th anniversary of his birth, “Muddy Waters 100” is released. The singer on each of the 15 tracks that span Muddy Waters’ entire career is John Primer, who, like Muddy, moved from Mississippi to Chicago to pursue a career as a bluesman.
Primer played with Willie Dixon before he achieved his lifelong goal and joined Muddy Waters’ band, staying with it until Waters died in 1983. Like the “Chicago” projects, “Muddy Waters 100,” which is nominated for the best Best Blues Album for the 2016 Grammy Awards, was released by Raisin’ Music Records (Skoller is the president) and features contributions from today’s greatest blues artists, including guitarist Bob Margolin and harpist James Cotton, who both played with Waters. Also on the album: Keb’ Mo’, Gary Clark Jr., Derek Trucks, Shemekia Copeland, Billy Branch and Johnny Winter, who died shortly after a unique session.
Skoller spoke about “Muddy Waters 100” with Blues Festival Guide and Tahoe Onstage Editor Tim Parsons:
Parsons: Did the idea for “Muddy Waters 100” come from working on “Chicago Blues, A Living History?”
Skoller: When we did some Muddy songs for that session I realized it was important for John (Primer) to do a Muddy tribute. When the centennial period had come up, I wanted to try to create something special — I asked John to do it. He is pretty much the guy for channeling Muddy, carrying on his tradition and his sound in a way that is true to the music and in his approach and what he learned from Muddy.
How did you select the songs? That must have been as daunting as picking the ones for “Chicago Blues, A Living History.”
I was a guitar player for a long, long time before I got into producing and I’ve played a lot of this music and have been around a lot of guys who have (as well), so I have a pretty deep knowledge in terms of material. As with the case of “Chicago Blues, A Living History” I know the artists quite well. I tend to stay away from overly covered songs but there are certain songs when you are doing a Muddy tribute that you just can’t avoid. They are anthems and too important to his legacy. But I also wanted to fill it out with songs that were less familiar but also covered the different periods of Muddy’s career. So the first thing that happened was I needed to pick material from his very early days up to his later days.
There are different arrangements. All the real iconic songs, we needed to create a new version of them. To cover them just the way they were would be just another cover. We arranged “Got My Mojo Working,” for example, just on one chord. I think it’s the first time it’s ever happened and it just turned out great. The same with “Mannish Boy.” I originally recorded that song straight. It was a great track and it was fine but it was at that point that I realized I needed to do something different with it.
With its hip-hop beat,“Mannish Boy” sounds like the most radically changed arrangement. What’s been the response?
We put loops to “Mannish Boy” and changed it up a little bit. It was something I felt really good about. I knew that some people were going to take exception to it and some would really like it. I think it turned out really well. It’s not a pure and traditional treatment of it. That was the idea behind the record. I knew that I was going to either make a lot of friends or make some new enemies, but that was something I felt really strongly about because, like Muddy in his time, he was doing something very different. He was taking songs and technology both live and in the studio and plugged in his guitar just like people doing loops today.
How do you describe Muddy’s influence on today’s music?
Everything we listen today, whether it’s coming out of a radio or whatever, it all goes back to Muddy. I want to pay tribute to Muddy and the tradition but also to pay tribute to his influence in everything that came after him because it’s possible that of artists from the 20th century he could arguably be the most important in terms of what we hear today.
I was surprised to learn that Muddy played the gospel “Why Don’t You Live So God Can Use You.”
Not a lot of people know about that song. That one he did in Stovall with Son Sims the fiddle player. (Folklorist Alan Lomax in the early 1940s made field recordings at the Stovall plantation with Muddy Waters and others for the U.S. Library of Congress.)
The Big Bill Broonzy song “I Feel So Good” is great.
James Cotton was on the original version. That track came out so beautifully. John sang the hell out of it. I put that song down in the order (No. 14) but I had to really struggle to do that because it’s such a strong tune. That’s one of the great songs on the record. There are two guitars (Primer and Margolin) and no bass. It’s just got a really beautiful quality.
Did you hear any new stories about Muddy during the sessions?
Johnny Winter ended up doing a couple of tracks, which is something he never does. He does one pass and that’s pretty much what you get, and he learned that from Muddy. When he saw that’s what Muddy did, that became his practice. That was the only Muddy anecdote from Johnny Winter but it was a pretty strong one. (Muddy Waters) was such an influence that it lasted pretty much through (Winters’) career. To have him come in five weeks before he passed and then to actually make an exception and make a second pass for this Muddy project was kind of interesting.
To get so many great players, it must have been expensive.
It was an expensive project, certainly when you compare it to most other blues projects. Raisin’ simply pulled the money together. People with their own unique voices, Keb’ Mo’ and Derek Trucks and Gary Clark, these were all people who I really felt needed to be on the record because like Muddy they have their own unique voices and are taking it directions and doing their own thing and not in an archival sense. They were excited about doing it and they understood what this was about and I was able to offer them a certain amount and we worked it out because they really wanted to be a part of the project. People who are on the record are on the record for a reason, both musically and spiritually, in what Muddy meant to them, and means to them today.
- “Muddy Waters 100”
Featuring John Primer with Bob Margolin, James Cotton, Keb’ Mo’, Gary Clark Jr., Derek Trucks, Shemekia Copeland, Billy Branch and Johnny Winter
Release: July 24, 2015
Label: Raisin’ Music Records