George "Mojo" Buford showing off his skills in 2002. / Star Tribune file

George "Mojo" Buford showing off his skills in 2002. / Star Tribune file

On July 4, George “Mojo” Buford returned home to Minneapolis following a gig at Yoshi’s nightclub in San Francisco, where he performed with his fellow vets from Muddy Waters’ band, Hubert Sumlin and James Cotton. A day later, the legendary blues harpist went in for heart surgery and never fully recovered, according to family. Buford, 81, died Tuesday morning of heart failure at St. John’s Hospital in Maplewood.

“He was doing what he loved to do right up until the end,” his son Abe said proudly.

A native of Hernando, Miss., Buford said in a 2002 interview that he moved to Chicago around 1953 and wound up joining Waters’ band a few years later filling in for Cotton (not long after Little Walter left the same post to launch his own career). He played with Waters off and on until his death in 1983, including gigs with the Rolling Stones in England and with many of the legendary San Francisco bands at the Fillmore in the late-’60s.

After a Waters gig in 1963 at the Loon nightclub in south Minneapolis, the harp blower decided to make the Twin Cities his home and tried his hand at a solo career from here, issuing several of his own records. His last local gig was at the Famous Dave’s Blues Fest in downtown Minneapolis (Peavey Plaza) this past June.

Buford spent the past decade living at a senior care center in north Minneapolis, where he gave this account in 2002 of his recruitment into Waters’ band, whom he always referred to as “Muddy Waters” (full name, never abbreviated):

I was out in the street drinking wine with his band. You know, we had a gallon of wine and was passing it around, and [pianist] Otis Spann said, `Come on, Muddy Waters is just a man like you and me.' And so he brought me in and told him I was a harmonica player. Muddy Waters said, `You don't say.' We were together from then until he died."

One of the most reputable harp blowers in modern blues, Fabulous Thunderbirds leader Kim Wilson, remembered the thrill of standing in Buford’s shoes when the T-Birds backed Waters at several mid-'70s gigs at Antone's in Austin, Texas: “I love Mojo Buford," Wilson said in 2002. "He's the real deal. He is one of the last real guys carrying this music on."

Here's a 1981 clip that prominently features Mojo at work.