Bluesman brings authentic Chicago blues to Buena Vista Thursday
When people think of the blues, the music that most likely comes to mind is the Chicago blues courtesy of musicians like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, Junior Wells, Magic Slim and others. This enduring style of blues developed from country blues brought to Chicago from Mississippi and other Southern states. Chicago blues introduced urban influences to the blues, including electric guitars and amplifiers, and John Primer became a part of the Chicago blues scene after he moved from Mississippi to Chicago in 1963 at the age of 18.
“I was around (music) all my life,” Primer said. “In grammar school, when we’d go out at recess, I’d sing. A lot of kids would give me a dime to sing. Then I’d go buy some wine candy ‒ it was just sweet candy but we called it wine candy. I guess I was born for that.”
While Primer grew up around spirituals, gospel music and country blues, he had already discovered the Chicago blues while listening to his grandmother’s radio in Mississippi. When Primer’s mother moved to Chicago for work, Primer soon followed.
“The time was good then. There were jobs everywhere (in Chicago).”
In less than a year, Primer had formed his first band, The Maintainers, and by 1968 Primer was fronting the Soul and R&B group The Brotherhood. Primer’s success in these early bands landed him the opportunity to replace John Watkins in the house band at Theresa’s Lounge, a famous blues club on Chicago’s South Side.
Primer said another musician told him about a band that needed a guitar player. “Sure enough, it was Junior Wells’ band. Junior was working (at Theresa’s) and his girlfriend worked there.” Primer remembers the story well, recalling that Watkins told him, “‘I need a guitar player to replace me. I’m sick of it. I’ll be there Sunday rehearsing.’
“So I went down Sunday morning. … They were playing ‘Play that Funky Music White Boy.’ … I saw Theresa at the bar with a beer can sitting there. I told her John told me to come down and the next thing I know, that beer can goes whizzing by my head. But she didn’t throw it at me, she threw it at John and said, ‘I told you about bringing that mother-fuckin’ shit in my place.’
“(John) looked at me and said, ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’ Then he said, ‘Be here Monday night and tell Junior I said to come down.’ So I showed up and told Junior what John had said, and Junior said, ‘I don’t care.’ I had the gig from then on. John still worked there, and Theresa fired both of us at one point. … She finally hired me back. I ended up staying there for seven years.”
That seven years at Theresa’s saw Primer play with Sammy Lawhorn, Buddy Guy, Smokey Smothers, Lonnie Brooks and many other legendary blues musicians as he and his Mississippi roots helped shape the sound of the Chicago blues. Lawhorn is best known as a member of Muddy Water’s band, but he also played with Junior Wells and taught Primer how to play slide guitar.
“I learned a lot playing at Theresa’s. … I was playing there when I got the job with Willie Dixon in 1979. He was a funny guy to work with.”
As a member of Dixon’s Chicago Blues All Stars, Primer toured the U.S., Mexico and Europe, all the while developing his skills as a vocalist and a guitarist, playing both rhythm and lead slide guitar. Eventually, “Muddy heard me playing and liked my music,” said Primer. Six months later, Muddy Waters recruited Primer as his guitar player, band leader and opening act. Primer performed with Waters for the next 15 years.
“I went overseas with Magic Slim in 1982 because Muddy was sick. … I said I’d play (with Slim) until Muddy got well, but Muddy never got well.”
Primer joined Magic Slim and the Teardrops as the band leader and guitarist. During Primer’s time with the band, it was repeatedly voted the number one blues band in the world. “I stayed with Slim for another 13 years. He was a funny guy. He liked to start the show, so I’d let him play two songs, then I’d come in and he’d stop playing and make a big deal,” Primer chuckled. “He was a great guy to play with.”
In 1995 Primer ventured out on his own and released his solo debut album, The Real Deal. Since then, he’s released or contributed to more than a dozen albums and toured extensively around the world. His work has garnered him two Grammy nominations and two Living Legend honors as well as a Blues Music Award for Best Traditional Blues Artist from the National Blues Foundation.
Primer said he’s played in Colorado before “with Magic Slim and Muddy but not with my band.” Fresh off a weekend gig at the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival in British Columbia, Primer and The Real Deal Bluesband will play a show in Nebraska before heading to Buena Vista for their first Colorado gig together. Afterward, they head to Trinidad to headline the Trinidaddio Blues Fest.
Primer said he’s “working on a new CD. I’m trying to get it out before next year, but I’ve been so busy touring,” including gigs in Colorado Springs after Trinidad. “Mainly, I want everybody to know the blues is real and to keep the blues alive. So I’ll just give a shoutout to all the younger generation to keep the blues alive. It’s the root of a lot of music. So keep it alive. Keep it going.”
Anyone who knows anything about the blues will recognize what an amazing opportunity we have to hear a living legend perform in Buena Vista. So don’t miss this show! It starts at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 24, at The Lariat, 206 E. Main St.