John Primer: Deep in the Blues
By Eric Noden
Grammy & Blues Music Award nominee John Primer never stands still. He’s been playing Chicago Blues for over 40 years. He’s worked with and learned from Blues legends such as Willie Dixon & Muddy Waters. Today Primer continues the tradition, playing hard driving Chicago blues with a feeling.
BL: When did you move to Chicago?
JP: 1963 I came to Chicago and stayed on the West side near Leavitt & Jackson.
BL: Why did you move to Chicago?
JP: To get a job. That’s what I really came here for, to get a job. I couldn’t cope with the work that we was doing down in Mississippi, I mean fieldwork and all that stuff, you know – cotton fields. I never could get the hang of it. It just wasn’t for me. When I was down in Mississippi I would always say, “Man, if I ever get grown, I’m gonna get out of here. I can’t stand this. I’m going where my mom is – Chicago.”
BL: What was your first job in Chicago?
JP: I first started working at a car wash. I did a lot of that type of work for a long time. First job I got was in Des Plaines, a long way from the west side.
BL: The first guitar you had in Chicago, was it an electric guitar?
JP: Acoustic. Seven dollars – from a pawnshop on Madison and Paulina in Chicago.
BL: That sounds like a good deal.
JP: Yeah, that was a good deal.
BL: So did you do gigs with the acoustic?
JP: Well, not at first, no. Later on in the years I started doing gigs, but I was learning to play. I knew how to play a lot of stuff, but I was learning. I knew some Jimmy Reed and some Howlin’ Wolf and stuff like that. You couldn’t play too much on it – I could play “Spoonful” and John Lee Hooker stuff. It was pretty good.
BL: Have you always been a singer?
JP: Oh Yeah. Back in my young days in Camden, Mississippi, I remember when I was going to school, about third or fourth grade, all the time I would go outside and sing. Out where we lived at was a church and we used to go to school in the church before we went to the big school – Camden High School. [pullquote]At church I used to go outside all the time during recess, and I would be out there singing. Some of the kids at the high school would give me a dime to sing a couple of songs.[/pullquote] I had a cousin who had a guitar and he would play, and I’d be singing with him a little bit. I can remember one of the songs…[singing] “I never felt more like singin’ the blues. I never thought I’d ever lose your love dear. You had me singing them blues.” Man, they’d give me a dime and I’d go get me some candy or pop and I’d be happy. I think pop cost five cents then, it was cheap.
BL: You’ve done a few residencies, one of which you did for a really long time, playing at Theresa’s.
JP: Oh yeah.
BL: How long were you there for?
JP: Seven years, man.
BL: Seven nights a week?
JP: Seven nights a week for seven years, I played there from 1974 til 1980.
BL: Did you ever take any time off?
JP: No, it never did close.
BL: How many sets would you typically play?
JP: Four sets on Saturday, but during the week it was three.
BL: What was it like?
JP: I played with a lot of great Blues players at Theresa’s. There was Junior Wells, Lonnie Brooks, Buddy Guy, Sammy Lawhorn, Byther Smith, Louis Myers, Dave Myers, Johnny Winter and Mike Bloomfield. It was in the basement of a big apartment building down on 48th and Indiana. When you walked down in the basement it was a narrow walkway, so it was a small club. The stage was also pretty small. It had a juke joint vibe. [pullquote]Theresa didn’t have to have no bouncers to put nobody out there. Somebody starts somethin, she comes from behind that counter with a baseball bat and grabs you, and put you out the door.[/pullquote]
BL: Who were some of the other musicians that worked with you in Theresa’s house band?
JP: Nate Applewhite (drums), Sammy Lawhorn (guitar), and Ernest Johnson (bass)
BL: How did you become Muddy Waters’ guitar player?
JP: I started in ‘79 with Willie Dixon. As a matter of fact, Willie Dixon got me my first passport. We was going to Mexico City in 1979, so we all were doing a show down there with Willie Dixon – Muddy Waters, Koko Taylor, Larry Davis, Lefty Dizz, Queen Sylvia – all of ‘em were down there. Then in 1980, when Muddy’s old band quit, Muddy called Willie and asked Willie, “Where is that guitar player that was playing down there with you in Mexico?” So, he gave him my name and gave him my number. He never did call me, but Willie told him I worked down at Theresa’s in the house band with Junior Wells. Then Mojo Buford came down to the club and was talking to me about it. He said, “Hey, Brother Mud sent me down here – He needs a guitar player. Wanna play with Brother Mud?” I said “Yeah Man”. He gave me his number and he said, “Hey, we got rehearsal tomorrow down at his house in the basement. “I’ll be at your house to pick you up at ten o’clock in the morning.” I was up at six o’clock waiting. I was excited, man, because I had a dream when I was real young, down south – when I was fourteen – that I was playing with Muddy on stage. Yeah, I dreamed that and it came true.
BL: So you said your first rehearsal was in Muddy’s basement?
JP: Muddy wasn’t living there, it was his son, Charles, living in the basement. That’s where we rehearsed at, where Muddy used to live, his old house.
BL: What was the first gig that you did with Muddy?
JP: It was in Indiana – Merrillville. We come back and left the next day for Austin, Texas to play at Antone’s. There was Lovie Lee Watson (piano), Mojo Buford (harmonica), Jesse (drums), and Ernest Johnson (bass). Muddy also had guitar player Jimmy Rogers helping him out. So, we get down there and the second night Jimmy Rogers almost fell off the stage because he was drunk. That night Rick Kreher, played guitar in Rogers place, so from then on, Rick was the guitar player. When we got back to Chicago, then we changed drummers. Our drummer, Jessie didn’t want to go on the road and leave his wife, so they got Ray Allison to play drums. That was the foundation of the whole band then. We was good then. We went on then until Muddy died.
BL: How did you learn how to be a bandleader?
JP: Well, Junior Wells. He taught me that. But I always have been a leader. When I was with the Maintainers and the Brotherhood Band, I was always lead guitar and sing out front man.
BL: You also worked with Magic Slim for a long time.
JP: Yeah, Magic Slim, 13 years with him.
BL: What did you learn from working with Slim?
JP: When I got with Slim then I really learned how to be a leader. He was a great leader. He was no problem, no getting mad at you and sayin things to you – he’d make a joke out of it. You don’t know if he was serious or not (laughs). Few times I’d be late comin in and sometimes I would do it on purpose so he would play some, cause people wanted to hear Slim play some guitar, because when I’d come up there he didn’t play much. So I let him play and man, he’d get up there and play like 3 pieces. When I walk in he’d say to the band, “You all better buy a black suit, cause I’m gonna kill the guitar player.” Slim is a nice guy. He don’t hold nothing back from you, he’d make you play too. I used to get angry with him a lot of times cause he’d make me play so much lead guitar, but I see now what he was doin – he was teachin me – and yeah, he taught me well. (Smiles) Yeah, our 13 years was good. We never had a fight, argument, nothing like that. No arguing or threatening, me and Slim, never.
BL: How did you get into playing slide guitar?
JP: I didn’t start messing with the slide until around ‘74 with Sammy Lawhorn. Sammy played slide, but he only played one song with slide and that was, “Dust My Broom.” He wasn’t too much of a slide player, but I got it from Sammy playing it. Then after that, I got with Muddy and started playing it with him and thought, “Oh man yeah, this is it!”
BL: Can you tell me more about Sammy Lawhorn?
JP: He played with Muddy about fifteen years. He come from Arkansas, you know. I think Pine Bluff, Arkansas. But Sammy was a great guy. He was a good teacher. He would say, “Hey, I want you to learn my music, study my music, but don’t try to be me.” He said, “Learn my music, cause I won’t be around forever, so somebody’s gotta carry it on.” He learnt me a lot of playin’ and was just a great guy. That’s one reason why I don’t drink today because Sammy used to get drunk sitting up there playin’ and he’d get drunk and go to sleep on the amp in front of all those people sittin’ out there. So after awhile I decided I’m just gonna play what he play, but I don’t have to be like him. He said, “Don’t try to be me.” So, I guess that was good. Sammy was a great guitar player.
BL: Have you listened a lot to Buddy Guy’s guitar playing?
JP: When I was listening to Muddy’s stuff back in the day, I didn’t know that Buddy was playing with him sometimes. I thought Jimmy Rogers was playing or Pee Wee Madison, but later I found out that was Buddy’s stuff, that was Buddy playing the guitar. It was good stuff, man. I studied and I learned a lot from Muddy Waters and Buddy’s playing.
BL: What kind of guitar do you play now?
JP: I play Epiphones, 335 style, I got all Epiphones.
BL: What kind of amp do you use?
JP: A Fender twin. I got a 1965 old Fender twin that I bought when I was down at Theresa’s for $200 bucks.
BL: On your CD “All Original” you wrote and produced all the songs. Can you tell me how you approach song writing?
JP: It’s just telling a story. It don’t take me that long to write a song. Just a few minutes. I could sit down here and in about an hour or two hours, I could write two or three songs. You write about what you talk about, or you write about what you see – like things happening, you can write about that. Or sometimes a person can say something, and you can write it. “Poor Man Blues” – I wrote that when I heard a guy say, “Oh, I’m just a poor man living in a rich man’s land.” So, I said, “Ah, wow!” At that time they were having a problem in Ethiopia and I wrote that song. It was about that country. [sings] “I’m a poor man, living the best way that I can.” They were starving, you know. So that’s how I wrote it.
BL: You also have a recently released CD They Call Me John Primer. Could you tell me a little bit about that one?
JP: It was recorded live in Europe and was produced by Wolf Records. Most of the stuff on there is traditional Blues. A few songs on there are mine. It was recorded when I was on tour with the Mojo Blues Band from Austria. Erik Trauner used to play with Buddy and all them guys in Chicago. He was a great harmonica player and a guitar player.
BL: How can I find out about your upcoming tour dates and new recordings?
BL: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
JP: I’ve been nominated for a Blues Music Award in the “Traditional Blues Male Artist of the Year”category. You can find out more about that and vote at www.blues.org.
BL: Good luck with that and thanks for the interview.
Interview by Eric Noden www.ericnoden.com
For more on John Primer visit www.johnprimerblues.com