On July 4, George "Mojo" Buford returned home to Minneapolis following a gig at Yoshi's nightclub in San Francisco, where he performed with two of 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 his 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," said his son, Abe Markoe.

A native of Hernando, Miss., Buford moved to Chicago around 1953 and wound up joining Waters' band a few years later as a stand-in for Cotton -- not long after famed harpist Little Walter had left the same post to launch his own career. Buford played with Waters off and on until Waters' 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 1960s.

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, issuing several of his own records. His last local gig was in June at the Famous Dave's Blues Fest in downtown Minneapolis.

Buford spent the past decade living in a senior care center in north Minneapolis, where he gave this account in 2002 of how he was recruited by Waters, 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. "He's the real deal. He is one of the last real guys carrying this music on."

St. Paul harmonica ace Harold Tremblay, whose band Cool Disposition backed Buford on occasion, said, "He was the guy in the Twin Cities who had the most direct connection to the old blues guys. Just his presence inspired a lot of people here."

A memorial service is still being planned, his son said. He is survived by nine children (and had 10 total).

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658