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All roads led to Chicago blues great Muddy Waters for Jerry Portnoy and Big Bill Morganfield

Special to the Union Leader
February 21. 2018 1:15PM

Harmonica master Jerry Portnoy's storied career has included tours with Eric Clapton and Mudy Waters. 
If you go...
WHAT: Winter Blues Festival with lineup including Jeff Portnoy and Big Bill Morganfield

WHERE: Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 So. Main St., Plymouth

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday

TICKETS: $29-$39

INFO:; 536-2551

There aren’t many branches left on the Muddy Waters blues tree.

Waters, known as the father of Chicago blues, fostered a cadre of sensational blues musicians on his albums and in his band, stretching from the late 1940s all the way until his death in 1983.

Two of them will be featured Friday at the Winter Blues Festival at the Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center in Plymouth.

Jerry Portnoy joined Waters’ band as a young harmonica player in 1974, staying on with the legend for six years.

Waters’ son, Big Bill Morganfield, didn’t even pick up a guitar until after his father’s death. But in style and passion, he carries on his father’s legacy.

Portnoy was introduced to the blues as a youngster in Chicago, wandering through Maxwell Street, where his father ran a store. The area was a haven for blues musicians, who performed alongside the street in what Portnoy described as an “open-air bazaar.”

“Everything was for sale, and Sundays people would come up from all over the Midwest,” Portnoy said. “I didn’t pay it any particular attention at the time. I referred to it as the soundtrack of my childhood.”

It wasn’t until after college that he was reintroduced to the blues and started playing, choosing the harmonica over guitar or drums.

“I didn’t have much digital dexterity, so I didn’t want to play the guitar or the piano or drums,” he said. “I was pretty oral and had to be stuffing my face with food or smoking a cigarette or kissing my girlfriend, something with the mouth. I figured it was pretty easy, low notes to the left, high notes to the right, breathe in, breathe out. Yeah, I can do this.”

Portnoy was working at the Cook County prison and playing on the side when he had a serendipitous meeting with Waters, sitting in with the guitar powerhouse at a benefit for a fellow musician.

Waters was impressed with Portnoy’s chops and soon invited the harp player to join his road band.

“It’s called being obsessive,” Portnoy said of his relationship with the instrument. “I would fall asleep playing and wake up and start playing again before I brushed my teeth. I was listening to records and going to clubs. It was a total immersion.

“The old saw about luck being preparation plus opportunity, that was pretty much true,” he added. “I’d learned his stuff and knew all the records. I knew the plot, and when the opportunity presented itself, I was ready to walk through the door.”

Portnoy quit his job at the jail, and a month later he was on stage with Waters on the French Riviera.

“If you play blues harmonica it’s the greatest job in the world,” he said. “It’s pretty heady stuff. It was great. Even playing with Eric (Clapton), and that was really sweet. Nothing tops playing with Muddy Waters.”

Clapton comes calling

When the Waters band dissolved after his death, Portnoy played with a number of other alums of the group in The Legendary Blues Band.

Clapton came calling in the early 1990s as he prepared for his anticipated return to the blues with the album “From the Cradle.”

“He was going to do what he always wanted to do, which was make a real traditional blues album from some of the songs and artists that influenced him,” Portnoy said. “In ‘78 when I was playing with Muddy, we were Eric’s opening band on a big European tour. Frequently at the end of his show, he’d call Muddy and me up to play the encore. When he went to go back into the blues and wanted a harmonica player, I was the guy he called. I’m eternally grateful for that call.”

Portnoy, now 74, is officially retired, but is excited to get back on stage with some old friends, including Sugar Ray Norcia, and some, such as Jason Ricci, who he hasn’t worked with before.

“It should be a great show, and I really am looking forward to getting out of the house,” he joked.

Moganfield finds the blues

Morganfield almost didn’t follow in the footsteps of his father, whose given name was McKinley Morganfield. Morganfield wasn’t in regular contact with his father as he grew up in Florida and graduated from Tuskegee University in Alabama with aims on becoming a teacher.

Morganfield first showed an interest in the blues after seeing Waters perform live for the first time. Morganfield, who was a student working on a second degree at Auburn University, also in Alabama, traveled to Atlanta to surprise his father at a show in 1980.

“Getting a chance to actually see him and to tell him I had graduated from college with my first degree ..., he said. “I wanted him to know his little boy was doing OK in this world.”

Even though he was enthralled with Waters’ live performance that night, it wasn’t until after his death that Morganfield was determined to pick up the guitar.

He played mostly by ear, often learning by listening to records and playing along.

“My father had passed away. I thought I would try to do a tribute to him, and it all started with that idea and that plan,” Morganfield said. “I was hoping to do it in a year, but it took me awhile to get good enough to put something out that was respectable enough to say, ‘Father, I put this together for you.’ ”

Finally in 1999, he released “Rising Son,” recorded in his hometown of Chicago and using a number of musicians who did tours with Waters’ band like pianist Pinetop Perkins and harp player Willie “Big Eyes” Smith.

The next year, Morganfield won the prestigious W.C. Handy Award for Best New Artist.

Although his music has a blues backbone, it’s also influenced by the soul and pop music he grew up listening to in the 1970s.

“I had zero interest in blues,” he said. “It was something that I knew my dad did and was good at. As a young kid I was into Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Supremes. Even bands like Rare Earth. Those were the things that interested me, and those are the sounds I liked, and my friends liked them too. We’d ride around in the car, and music was a big part of our lives. Those are the things I grew up on.”

Recently, Morganfield fused blues and hip-hop with the recording “Hold Me Baby” for the Fox TV series “Shots Fired.”

But while he continues to be experimental in some facets, Morganfield still puts a premium on preserving his father’s memory with his music.

“He passed away in 1983, and it’s almost as if he is still living,” Morganfield said. “You can’t talk about the blues without saying Muddy Waters. You look at the music itself, it’s incredible one person can lay down that kind of mark and still be remembered today.”

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