A Life Steeped in the Blues
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Plugged in, raw and immediate, Chicago blues carries on a musical tradition that, arguably more than any other regional blues scene, continues to stay vital and present while proudly holding up its storied past. It’s a distinctly urban art form that originated from rural Southern roots – from the so-called “Great Migration” of millions of African-Americans to the Northern cities during the 20th century. When you mention Chicago blues, a host of legends springs to mind: Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Magic Slim, Buddy Guy … the list is paragraphs long.
The importance of this particular scene can’t be overstated; as the blues became electrified, it not only redefined what could be done with the form, but it also sowed the seeds for rock n’ roll. In fact, one of rock’s architects, Chuck Berry, originally signed with iconic Chicago label Chess Records. Music would never be the same.
Conversely, veteran bluesmen like John Primer continue to carry the torch for classic Chicago blues. And make no mistake, when Primer performs, it’s no nostalgia act. He’s lived and breathed the blues his whole life.
“The day I was born in this world, I knew the blues,” he says. “I was listening to the blues at two, three years old. I’m from the roots, listening to Muddy Waters way back in the 50s. The blues has been with me all this time.” You’ll get a chance to hear authentic Chicago blues up close when John Primer and his band take the stage at the Fort Wayne Botanical Conservatory on August 26.
By the time he was old enough to attend school in his hometown of Camden, Mississippi, Primer had already made attempts at assembling a rudimentary guitar (built on the wall of his house, no less). By eight years old, he borrowed his first real instrument and began playing in earnest, fueled by the songs he heard on his grandmother’s radio. Raised on a steady diet of gospel, spiritual, and R&B music, Primer became enthralled by the songs of Little Milton, Albert King, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed and other blues artists. He made his first appearance at his local church, and he never stopped performing.
Primer’s thoughts turned to Chicago as his teen years waned. Then, at age 18, he pulled up stakes and left for the city in 1963. He was surprised, to say the least.
“All those artists I listened to, I’d thought they weren’t around anymore,” he recalls. “Then I came to Chicago and found out they were all still alive. .. Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Son House and all those older guys. Magic Slim and Muddy were my biggest idols.”
Primer remembers soaking in the blues in the most elemental way possible upon his arrival.
“I used to go down to Washington Street every weekend. This old guy played the blues; he had a bass player. I was all of about 18, and some of the kids were even younger than me,” he remembers. “We’d go down there and play and jam, even during the winter. It was something to do. Guys would make amplifiers out of radios and we’d play through those. We had fun, and we were learning.”
He formed his first band, The Maintainers, in 1964. For four years, the combo played clubs on Chicago’s West Side. Then, Primer received the opportunity to front The Brotherhood, a soul/R&B group that covered even more sonic ground.
“That was the second band I was in,” says Primer. “I was always the blues guy in the band. We had horns and everything, and we played all kinds of music. But I played all blues.”
A later stint with the house band for the venerable Theresa’s Lounge on the South Side allowed the guitarist to play alongside such greats as Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Lonnie Brooks and Sammy Langhorn. By the late 70s, Primer found himself in Willie Dixon’s Chicago All Stars where he honed his playing and singing skills while touring the U.S. and Mexico. But two of his career highlights still lay ahead of him.
Muddy Waters, he of “Hoochie Coochie Man” fame and one of Primer’s biggest influences, brought him on board as a guitarist and bandleader.
Primer says, “When I got in his band, being the guitar player, I was his right-hand man. I could ask Muddy for anything and he’d help me out.”
He played with Waters until the artist’s health declined and removed him from the stage. “I played with him for about 2-1/2 years,” Primer recalls. “But through his music, I knew him my whole life.”
At this point, another of Primer’s heroes emerged.
“In 1982, Magic Slim asked me, ‘Can you go overseas with me?’
I said, ‘Yeah.’
We went six weeks while Muddy was sick.” Waters passed away in 1983, and Primer joined up with Slim’s band for what turned out to be a long – and productive – haul.
“Magic Slim was a great guy, and we were very close. We were like family. Brothers. In all of 13 years he never got mad at me or called me a bad name – and if he did, I never knew of it.”
He shares a funny experience he had with Slim that sheds light on their easy relationship: “One time, and it was my first time playing the North Side, I got lost and I was late getting to the show. I got there and they were playing as a three-piece, sounding so good. I went back outside to listen to them play a couple more songs [laughs]. When I came back in, Slim stopped playing in the middle of the song … then I had to play three songs by myself then call him back up! He was a great guy. I miss him a lot.
“He took me a lot of places I’d never been before. I went to a few places with Muddy, but went to a lot with Slim,” Primer adds. “We traveled all over the world.”
After nearly a decade and a half with Slim, Primer finally struck out on his own.
“I played with his band until 1995, then I put out my CD on Atlantic Records.”
His major-label debut, The Real Deal, established Primer as a premier bluesman in his own right. He toured extensively and settled into his solo career. But he still remembers what a gracious Slim told him when Primer first embarked on his journey as an artist.
“When I left the band, Slim said, ‘You’re always welcome to come back anytime you want. I don’t care who’s playing in the band. You’ve always got a place here.'”
A dozen albums into his solo career, Primer shows no signs of slowing down. He has won several awards and has been nominated as a Grammy Awards blues artist. But what courses through his veins is still as vital and fresh as it was when he was a youngster.
John Primer is living the blues, and now he’s put his own stamp on it.
“I’m me and I do my own thing,” he says. “I learned what other people played – Muddy and all of them – but I don’t try to be them. I learned their music, but I play my sound. When you hear me playing, you know it’s me. Singing, you know it’s my voice.”
He adds, “I’ve got a baritone voice, which is a good voice for the blues.”
When asked what advice he offers younger players, he’s succinct: “Just listen to the blues. Listen and learn.”