‘Reciprocating the energy’
Big Mo—Butte County’s hardest-working bluesman
They don’t call him Big Mo just because of his prodigious talents as a singer/songwriter, or as a blues guitarist with chops to spare. And they don’t call him Big Mo because of the big money blues artists pull in, especially all those journeyman players who don’t inhabit the small pantheon of surviving blues gods who can still extract big bucks from the blues. And they don’t call him Big Mo because of the size of his dream, that passion he picked up back when he was a kid in Germany intent on mastering a quintessentially American musical form.
No, they call Paradise bluesman Maurice Huffman Big Mo because he’s a really big guy, well over 6 feet tall, and packing more weight than he knows is good for him.
“My only demon is my weight,” he says. “Playing a show is just such a high, and then when it’s over there’s this empty feeling. Some guys fill that with alcohol or drugs, but I go looking for a good restaurant.”
If you’ve ever spent an evening filling yourself up with a helping of Big Mo’s hearty music, then you just might want to thank Ray Charles because it was Brother Ray who set a 13-year-old German boy on the path to the blues.
“A friend of my mother’s took me to a concert in Mannheim,” Huffman says. “I didn’t want to go see some old guy with one of my mom’s friends, but from the first note out of his mouth, I was hooked.”
If things had gone as planned, Big Mo would have toured his native Germany with Norton Buffalo last September. Sadly, Huffman played that tour without Buffalo as the harp virtuoso fought the last stages of the cancer that took his life.
The German tour—along with other big chunks of Huffman’s life—will be featured in a soon-to-be released film by Helge Renner, a documentarian who’s followed Huffman and his band around for four years, creating a cinematic record of one of the very few honest-to-God German bluesmen working today.
Recently, I sat in at a rehearsal with Big Mo and his Full Moon Band in the studio back behind his house in Paradise. Even in rehearsal, it’s impossible to hear this ensemble without recognizing that these guys are very good. They’ve been the recipients of four CAMMIES (Chico Area Music Awards), as well as other, nonlocal recognitions.
There is no exact count of the number of songs Huffman has written, but his band has four 12-song set lists, making 48 songs in the current rotation, and they are currently working on an album of new material due out in April.
Huffman and his compadres have established a strong bond of affection and respect, and their ability to read one another is a good part of the rapport they establish with their audiences. “It’s a curse,” Huffman says. “I’ve gotta do this. I don’t think I could live without it.”
Hal Race, the rock-solid drummer for the band, adds: “My head clears when I get back to playing.”
They’ve all got day jobs, but their dedication to the music never flags.
Race is a mortgage broker, an occupation most people don’t immediately associate with blues musicians. Eric Webber, the sax player, works in the printing department at the Paradise Post. Keyboard player Terry Smith works for IBM, and Pat Hilton, the trumpet player, works for North Woodwinds, where he repairs musical instruments. Steve Valine, the pedal steel player, works in the parts department of Wittmeier Chevrolet, and Dave Mattson, the bass player, is a CPA.
As for Huffman, he owns and operates Swiss-Link Military Surplus, a firm on Clark Road in Paradise that employs 10 people.
But despite those demands on their time, Huffman and his band get together three or four times a month to rehearse, and they perform regularly, doing lots of benefits and fundraisers, not to mention the paid gigs at blues festivals and clubs that help spread their reputation. Huffman and his band have shared stages with Buddy Guy, Canned Heat, Billy Preston, and a galaxy of musical luminaries.
“When I was a kid, I only heard these guys on Armed Forces Radio. Being on stage with them now is just such a high. And I’m so overwhelmed by the support we get from our audiences.”
Webber echoes the sentiment: “We get such energy back,” he says, “sometimes it feels like we’re just reciprocating the energy our audiences give us.”