Featured Interview – John Primer
On any given Sunday, Blues lovers around the world can be treated to a unique and breathtaking experience. John Primer is playing every Sunday, solo in his home music studio and delighting virtual audiences. One of the few silver linings of this horrific COVID crisis is that an artist like Primer is able to stay connected and offer his music in ways that are surprising and different. John’s live streams highlight his facility and mastery of the electric guitar, his unwavering funky internal rhythm and his deeply resonant voice full of soul and emotion. Virtual performances are as varied and multifaceted as an in-person Primer show. Medium tempo Chicago shuffles, funky “hip-shakin’” (as he yelps while playing) slinks and low down slow Blues burners sit side by side. As John describes it:
“Just gettin’ my exercise, gettin’ a workout. I’m having fun doing it, I love to do it, oh yeah. Play the way I play by myself, play what I want to, try to play whatever I want to. If I miss a note I have to holla at myself, nobody else I can look to. (chuckles)”
Peppered with John and his wife/manager Lisa’s banter calling out friends, fans and colleagues while telling stories and sharing love and memories, the listener is invited into the Primer’s home for an intimate connection we all need so desperately right now. The engagement that John brings to these performances are what this accomplished Bluesman has been doing for his entire 60 year career.
John Primer is a living legend. One of the most authentic and vital holders of Chicago Blues, John is a vibrant artist with a well defined, time honed style that honors his forefathers and mothers but also amplifies (literally and existentially) what he calls “Traditional Blues.” John doesn’t just play the Blues he inhabits all the complex layers of the Blues with immediate and deeply personal connection. An accomplished songwriter, John values the diversity and nuanced importance of Blue composition. However, he tempers his encyclopedic knowledge of Blues, Soul, R&B and popular songs with the reckless abandon needed to perform the Blues. As he says to his sidemen “make sure you don’t just play a song, play with a feeling.”
John is a Blues prophet sharing the gospel of Chicago Blues all over the world. The pandemic has handcuffed John and like so many other artists has dried up his avenue to engage. In addition to the live streams, Team Primer is forwarding a campaign for John to be inducted into the Blues Music Hall of Fame, an honor he richly deserves, and John is nominated for a Blues Music award this year for Traditional Blues Artist. These are ways for John to stay connected to the often regional fan bases that sustain the Blues. Blues Blast catches up with John every 4 years or so, this being his 3rd feature since 2012. In his bassy Mississippi drawl, John was reminiscent of his days with his mentor the legendary Magic Slim and shared freely about his approach to the guitar, the Blues and his formidable songwriting skills.
John Primer is the recipient of a Doctorate in Blues education. The higher education system in the Blues is not in classrooms or colleges but is handed down knowledge. In the Blues tradition, John learned from masters like Magic Slim, Sammy Lawhorn, and Willie Dixon and has processed his learning into his own distinct and personal style. John is right next to guitar legends such as Buddy Guy, Otis Rush or Magic Sam. A facile and fluid guitarist, John plays with sensitivity. John prefers semi-hollow body guitars to the more popular solid body stratocaster which became the industry standard.
“Well, you know I’m playin’ like traditional Blues on those guitars. The Epiphones I use the most, sometimes a Gibson. It’s just a style for me, you know. I get good sound, better sound. I like the Strat, but I can’t get the sound I want out of it when I want to play slide and stuff. I love when other peoples play it, it sounds great, when other peoples play it. (chuckles) But me, it’s not the right feeling for me, the sound coming out of the real traditional Blues. Hollow body put cha’ in the mind of the acoustic guitar you know.”
Primer plays slide in a standard turning which is different then legends of the slide such as Muddy Waters or Johnny Winter. This is a more flexible approach that was epitomized by the genius Earl Hooker and something John learned on the bandstand.
“I used to start playing slide guitar with Pat Rushing, in 1972-73. Cause I was playing at this club called Thereas’s Lounge and got next to Sammy Lawhorn. He thought we’d play one tune with slide and that’s it. Tune how you tune the guitar and learned how to play it. Learned all about it.”
John’s Blues are traditional. He plays with a clean thick sound that comes first from his fingers and requires only amplification. No distortion, no effects, just pure Blues.
“Well, I been using a Fender Twin amp, 1965 reissue. I’ve got the real one but I play the reissue. With the 1/12 speaker in there (single 12’ speaker). It’s small, people never seen it say ‘where you get that sound?’ It’s lighter, you can do anything with that Fender Twin around, you know. Too old you know to be carrying around something heavy. (haha) I play it either way. You know if I want to play some slide, I get the kind of sound I want, the right kind of sound I want. You know, Blues sound. Clear sound. No effects, I don’t use no effects or anything like that.”
John has taken on the position of poet laureate of the Blues. A clever yet plain spoken songwriter, again he was the recipient of handed down education this time from one of the greatest Blues writers, Willie Dixon.
“My songwriting style comes from writing lyrics down from a song that I want to learn from other peoples’ songs. Willie Dixon’s style actually was in mind how he built a song with the 12 bar Blues. That’s how I come by writing my own songs. Just write about things that happen. You know things from the past, you know you write down a sentence or two and you write the lyrics down. How you going to use these lyrics, you find a rhyme to it. So you find what rhyme. And you can listen to what somebody else said or words that you never heard and you can write your song out of that. So that’s how I began to write my own songs. Why I talk about, when I can write about? (haha) Write about it in a Blues way. I start writing because of Willie Dixon, because that’s who I know who could write all those Blues songs. He influenced my songs. I always said I wish I could write like what’s his name? Bob Dylan (haha). He’s one of my favorites, a Rock n’ Roll guy, but Blues – Willie was the man.”
Soul music has always been an important part of John’s career. Not leaning on Rock conventions like many Blues players do, John connects the dots between Muddy Waters and Otis Clay, between Koko Taylor and Aretha Franklin, between Howlin Wolf and Otis Redding. John’s 2019 Blues Blast Soul Blues Award winning album Soul of A Bluesman is a homage to his Soul influences.
“I learned all this stuff (Soul music) in my younger days. I listened to all types of music, I just didn’t listen to Blues, I listened to all types of music. Do Wop music, oh man I learned singing all types of music , just singing it. I just learned all this stuff down about Soul music, listening to Johnnie Taylor and Rhythm and Blues music. But I figure you know, well I know so much stuff, there are so many Soul songs and I know a lot of Blues songs that are not even my own songs. I figured instead of me tryin’ to write a Soul album, I put a couple tunes on there but you know they kind of the Blues more than Soul. Yeah, but, I just love that music and I always try to squeeze it on to the shows I do.
I figure I know so much things, why don’t I just give a shout to someone else’s music so that’s what I did Soul of a Bluesman (haha).”
John has a long standing relationship with harmonica wizard Bob Corritore. Chicago native transplanted to Arizona, Corritore is one of the many keepers of the Blues flame. A tremendous talent, Bob also operates a club in Scottsdale and continually pumps out fine traditional Blues albums with a whose who in the field. On their third record together, 2020’s The Gypsy Woman Told Me, John and Bob locked in in a way they hadn’t before on record, a revelation of traditional Blues.
“Yeah, well Bob and I, we have been friends for a long time and worked together for a long time. He got the Chicago style, from Chicago. Him and I get along real good. When he needs me to play at his club in Scottsdale, AZ I go and play and he put together a band for me. He’s one of the guys who really shows his appreciation, keeping the Blues alive. He’s a great wonderful guy. He means good. This last CD was something we wanted to do. So I went to Arizona and we cut the CD. It’s a winner.”
After stints in Willie Dixon’s band in the late 70’s and Muddy Waters’ band in the early 80’s, John Primer became the band leader for the monumental talent that was Magic Slim. This was post graduate Blues university time, when John would earn his cred not only in the US but internationally. One of the most important mentoring relationships for Primer, the years spent being coached, supported and molded by Slim helped launch Primer into his solo career.
“Working with Magic Slim was one of my greatest lifetimes of playing music. We went everywhere around the world. Working with Magic Slim was like to me, the same as I am, working with him he have no problem with you. You’d have no problem with him, he’d never get angry with you. He’d joke around with you, he might call you a MF a couple times. But, he never called me that. Never spoke that way to me. We talked, but not that much (chuckles) but we got along good. To me he was a big brother and a good teacher.”
A larger than life figure Slim was literally a giant of the Blues. With a big fluid finger picking technique that was complemented by Primer’s flat picked inventiveness, the pair created some definitive Blues during the great 80’s and 90’s resurgence. In thinking about their impact and different style John ruminates:
“Yeah different style. People very excited to see him because there are two lead guitar players in the band and singin’. And I created all the background for the stuff we did. He thump, as big as he was he’d have that whole stage shake. (makes a thumping sound). He get that sound out when he played.”
Magic Slim always had an eye for teaching and paying forward the music. Pushing John to realize his independent style, Slim shared the wealth and the spotlight. But, one could never forget he was a straight up assassin and the man in charge.
“When he come up he give me all these solos all the time. I be getting angry, why he given’ me all these solos. But I would realized he was teaching me, showing me what to do. He would let me play as long as I want. Out of respect I don’t play a whole lot, so I just play around and solos on him and that’s enough.”
“We go to the club and play somewhere, I don’t care where we at, I’m gonna have to play 3 songs and we have to open up the show for him. And then when we play and we cooks, and we call him him up. And sometimes he say to do 3 songs (ha) and he still be sitting at the bar drinkin’ and smokin’. Drinkin’ that whisky and smokin’ those cigarettes, and that whisky Wild Turkey. And I do the 3rd song and gettin’ ready to call him up and look over there. I could see him, I kept my eyes on him, hold up one more finger. (laughs). And then after we play that one I call him up and he say ‘ah, I don’t know what to do you boys sound so good.’ (giggles) Man, he come up there and kick butt. Man, he was one hell of a guitar player. That’s the only guitar player I’ve seen that could play and play. Always through the turn around, move to the 5 and come back around, you know, he play it all the way through the Soul thing and just keep pickin’ it and never lose the time. Yeah, that’s why we called it lump to lump. So we gave him the ‘lump.’ We played the lump that’s what happened.”
“The lump,” or sometimes called the “Chicago lump,” is a style of playing that John and Slim created to allow Slim to indulge his endless creativity when he soloed. John breaks it down for us:
“To me the lump, we created that because we’d play on during the solo. What it was there was no turn around. (hums a few notes of a regular 12 bar turn around) That’s just regular Blues lick. But, the lump play on without the turn around it just drives on. Only thing that really be in and out is the drummer. Everybody walk, we don’t do that (turn around). Keep that lump on, big drive, forward Blues. (hums a heavy shuffling bass riff) da-lump da-lump da-lump.”
Shaking out some final immature mistakes and building his ability to hold the band together. John recounts a hilarious time that he did get on the wrong side of Slim:
“One time back in Chicago we would be playing the Blues, sometimes I’d be getting late gettin to the show cause I did get turned around, North Side, I’d get kind of lost because I didn’t know where I was goin’. I didn’t know too much about the North Side of Chicago. So when I do find my way, he already got the show goin’. So I just sit outside, you know I had all my stuff. I was just listen and I let them play 3 songs, I get peepin’ in the window, he don’t know I’m outside. So when he start on that third song I come through the door and he stop, bustin ba do ba do ba do and he just stop playin’. And he tell the people’s, ‘oh, oh, that’s John Primer, where you at? Where you been? All you all better bet a good seat cause I’m gettin’ ready to kill the guitar player.’ (ha ha) He did not finish that song. I had to go up and play three songs and then call him back up. (ha ha)”
John learned lessons about how to be a bandleader from Magic Slim and has held down his crew The Real Deal Band for more than 3 decades. Currently employing Steve Bell on harmonica (one of the legend Carrey Bell’s sons), Lenny Media on drums, Danny O’Connor on bass and often complimented by Ronnie Hicks on keyboard, John guides his crew with one underlying principle: respect.
“I’m easy with them, I don’t force them to do nothin’ I don’t get angry with them if everybody ain’t playing together. If you miss a note, ain’t nobody perfect. Just gonna continue doin’ it. But I work with them and actually when I’m playing with them when we do rehearse or whatever, I’m still up there teaching ‘em. You know the way I want to play it, the style, and how to play like the song right. Make sure don’t just play a song, play with a feeling. So I don’t have any problem with ‘em, don’t get angry at ‘em. Don’t get ‘em back stage and ‘hey, you didn’t do this, didn’t do this’ no, no, no you don’t do that. You expect them because their grown peoples, their not kids. They working, this just like a job, they workin’ for their money. This just a regular job you got. You do your job and that’s all. Just show respect, and show me respect, cause I’m definitely gonna show them respect, a lot of respect. And that’s how I work my band and how my band works. Any musician who works with my band gonna receive a lot of respect, because they know if they don’t know I’m gonna learn ‘em, show them how to play this right now, how to work with them. Treat them fair and treat me fair.”
Like so many other Blues stars hammering out a living on the road, John has found a large audience in Europe and annually makes multiple trips.
“They love the Blues from the US, music from the US. All music, I don’t care what music goes over there you’re gonna get a huge crowd, because they love all types of music. And they’re crazy about the Blues. They show you all the kind of respect about it. They roll out the red carpet for you over there in Europe. Great place to make a living.”
Having received his vaccine shots, John and his team are looking to the future and are in negotiations for a European tour. This is a fitting bookend to the pandemic for Primer who was almost stranded in Europe when everything first hit the fan.
“I left (to play in Europe) the day after my birthday, my birthday is March 5th, got there on the 10th of March. Soon as I got there, I’m in the motel room, waiting, you know we gonna get ready the next day, hit the road and start workin’. We were going to Germany, Holland and Amsterdam. Then on the television, CNN news in France, it came on the news we’re gonna have to be home by Friday the 13th by midnight. After midnight can’t nobody can catch a flight back home, you’d have to stay there and find a way back home. We were lucky. Got up the next morning went to the airport we were there 6 hours waiting to catch a plane. Couldn’t get a plane. Finally got tickets to Amsterdam and then Warsaw, Poland we had to stay overnight. So we laid over overnight there, got there at 9 o’clock at night, got up the next morning at 6 to get to the airport. Then our plane didn’t leave until 1 o’clock to get home. But we got home about 11 o’clock that night to Chicago (chuckles). In and out. Had to cancel all those gigs, didn’t get paid, didn’t get paid.”
At a recent live stream John performed the classic “Howlin’ Wolf.” A slow Blues with well worn imagery, John presented the song in his straightforward, honest style. Playing with a pick, John created, and does this with all his solo performances, a full and well orchestrated accompaniment to his plaintive singing. His internal sense of rhythm and ability to deliver a song also adds to the orchestration and allows John to break away from rhythm guitar and deliver stinging, facil lead lines that never feel hollow or disconnected. Reaching over and dipping his finger into his sterling silver pinky slide mid-solo, John eviscerates “Howlin’ Wolf” with slashing slide and pumps the song into a frenzied finale. This is the John Primer audiences are thrilled by all over the world, this is the John Primer who has defined modern Chicago Blues, this is the John Primer who makes his living traveling near and far proselytizing the beauty of the Blues. This is John Primer in his late 70’s possibly more vital and potent than he was in his 30’s or 40’s. Defining the Blues history and shaping its future while maintaining the tradition. John will be back out, he will be back in your town, he will be back in Europe. John’s music, his spirit, his warmth and his tradition, just like the Blues, will endure. Don’t sleep when John comes back out – see him and revel in the pure Real Deal.
Continuing to respond to the newly required digital demands on connection, Team Primer has souped up John’s website and given fans a wealth of pictures, stories and content at https://johnprimerblues.com/home. Do yourself a favor, check out John’s live streams on Sundays on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JOHNPRIMERBLUES
Interviewer Bucky O’Hare is a Bluesman based in Boston who spreads his brand of blues and funk all over New England. Bucky has dedicated himself to experiencing the Blues and learning its history. As a writer, Bucky has been influenced by music critics and social commentators such as Angela Davis, Peter Guralnick, Eric Nisenson, Francis Davis and Henry Louis Gates Jr.