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John Primer Interview: Part 1

Chicago Blues Hero to release new album

The award-winning, international blues star was on top of the world until the world suddenly changed. Keeping the blues alive takes on a new meaning in the year 2020

By Linda Cain

John Primer. Photo: Roman Sobus

When it comes to traditional Chicago style blues, John Primer is as real as it gets. He even named his group The Real Deal Blues Band. As a teen, Primer moved from his home in Mississippi to Chicago in 1963 during the “Golden Era” of Chicago blues and quickly became a part of the scene here. In 1974 he joined the house band at Theresa’s Lounge and eventually became the bandleader. For seven years, he got to play with blues originators like Sammy Lawhorn, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Smokey Smothers, Lonnie Brooks and more.

John became known for his guitar skills (lead, rhythm, slide) along with his powerful vocals and band leading skills. In 1979, Primer was asked to join Willie Dixon’s band, the Chicago Blues All Stars. Six months later, Muddy Waters heard him and recruited Primer to serve as his guitarist, bandleader and opening act. After Muddy’s passing in 1983, he joined internationally popular Magic Slim & The Teardrops and stayed with them for 13 years.

In 1995, John formed his own band and released 16 of his own albums, while touring all over the world. He also served as a session player on countless albums by other artists. In total, he has played on at least 85 recordings, including his own releases. Notably, he played guitar for a few songs on the albumJoined at The Hip by Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, which went on to win a Grammy.

John Primer at the Grammy Awards
John Primer at the Grammy Awards

He’s been nominated twice for a Grammy for his contributions to Chicago Blues: A Living History and Muddy Waters 100: the Official Tribute Album. Primer won a Blues Music Award for Best Traditional Blues Artist. He also was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame as a Legendary Blues Artist.

And now Primer has a new album, with frequent musical partner and blues harp virtuoso Bob Corritore, slated to drop on May 1, 2020 -- The Gypsy Woman Told Me on the VizzTone label. It’s the third collaborative CD for the dynamic blues duo, preceded by 2017’s Ain’t Nothing You Can Do! and Knockin’ Around These Blues in 2103, both on the Delta Groove imprint. “The third one is the charm!” declares Primer. “With each record, we learn more about each other and ways to make the records better and better. This one is the charm!”

Bob Corritore agrees, “John and I just wanted to expand and reinforce our brand of Chicago blues. It seems like we keep growing and reaching a little higher every time we get together. Of the three great albums that we’ve done, this one seems to have the broadest representation of the scope of what John and I do! And within that scope that Chicago blues sound is strong and consistent, while varied. But you have to be the judge of that. We are both very proud of it!”

When it comes to recording together, both Primer and Corritore are on a mission. Primer explains: “Bob and I work so well together and really have a lot of fun making great Chicago blues music together. We both have a passion to keep this music that we love alive and in the front of everyone’s minds to keep it going and so the younger guys can be exposed to real blues.”

Since Primer lives in the Chicago suburbs and Corritore resides in Phoenix (he moved there from Chicago in 1981 and opened his famous club The Rhythm Room in 1991), getting to perform and record together is a rare pleasure. “Bob and I click, we get along and are like family. We play Chicago blues together. Bob gets me and I get him and we are great together. I always have a lot of fun and a lot of laughs when I am with him. We enjoy one another, it’s easy,” says Primer of his colleague.

Corritore concurs about the magic that happens when they get together: “There is something about being raised in Chicago blues that is an unspoken truth. You can’t really explain it but when you’re playing with somebody else who is a Chicago blues musician, you immediately connect. John and I have a very similar point of reference and that makes for a very powerful musical occurrence.”

John Primer and Bob Corritore. Photo: Eric Kriesant

The Gypsy Woman Told Me features covers of songs by Muddy Waters (the title track), Chuck Willis, Lil’ Son Jackson, J.J. Cale, Rice Miller a.k.a. Sonny Boy Williamson #2, Jimmy Reed, Jimmy Rogers and more. Primer contributed two new originals for the album: “Little Bitty Woman” and “Walked So Long.”

When it’s time to make a record, the musical partners draw on their live performances and love of Chicago blues when choosing the songs for the album. “John and I both bring our ideas to the session and we just knock them out. Sometimes we will hit something in the live performances of the night or nights before and we try to recapture that. Often times John just has some very cool songs in mind that he introduces to us at the session. With John Primer, you can just let it flow. The magic just seems to happen!” Corritore proclaims. Primer adds: “I let Bob direct the album. He has the overall vision, but he is a great guy and we talk it over and decide together what is best and what we feel works. I won’t do a song I don’t like.”

The Gypsy Woman Told Me was recorded in Phoenix at Tempest Studios and at Kid Andersen’s Greaseland Studio in San Jose, CA, with ace session players from both locales. While Primer and Corritore are the only Chicago natives on the album (with the exception of Jimi “Primetime” Smith), their esteemed accompanists play Chicago blues with a deep reverence, yet modern flair.

Corritore, who co-produced the album with Clarke Rigsby and Kid Andersen, explains: “All the albums I produce are live in the studio. And usually they’re associated with a live performance at the Rhythm Room and then a session the next day at the amazing Tempest Recording (owned by the legendary Clarke Rigsby). Clarke and I have been working together since the 1980s and so many magic moments have been recorded at his beautiful studio. Brian Fahey, who has been my go-to drummer for decades, was on both Phoenix sessions as was Billy Flynn (guitar) and Mike Hightower (bass) on the first session and then Jimi “Primetime” Smith (guitar) and Troy Sandow (bass) on the second.”

Corritore continues: “In the case of the Greaseland session we planned that at the end of a Southwestern tour. We played three days at the Big Blues Bender in Vegas, then a show for the Santa Barbara Blues Society, and then a date at Biscuit & Blues in San Francisco, then we planned a day to record at Greaseland in San Jose while we were in the neighborhood. Kid Andersen’s Greaseland has become a highly noted studio with lots of great work coming out of there, so John and I wanted to work there. Kid Andersen has an exceptionally cool, casual thing going on there plus I love working with some of the musicians from that area who we had as our session band: Bob Welsh (piano), Kedar Roy (bass) and June Core (drums). The great thing about the Greaseland sessions is that it wrapped a great week of John and I playing together so we were really synced up and connected as you can hear from the songs recorded! 

What I try to do in recording sessions is to take an audio snapshot of a moment in time where the spontaneity of a live performance is captured in a studio setting. We just go into the studio and let it rip and see what happens. Working with John Primer is an absolute pleasure. He has all my respect musically and in friendship.”

Primer and Corritore’s roots in Chicago blues run deep. Corritore runs down their histories: “I first got to know John in the ‘70s when I used to go down to Theresa’s to see Junior Wells and James Cotton. John was just getting started there as an apprentice to Sammy Lawhorn. He was already a great player but he would develop into so much more in the years to follow. Through the years we knew each other but for some reason we never played together until we finally made a plan in 2012 to bring John to the Rhythm Room and then a recording session. Though we never had played together before, we both had such strong Chicago blues backgrounds that we just played the gig effortlessly! We went in the recording studio and we surprised each other! John is such a strong front man and such a great singer and guitar player. All we have to do is what we do -- but it seems like we amplify each other’s strong points. That’s just the unspoken truth of Chicago blues. If you know that language, then you don’t have to second-guess anything.

Bob Corritore, Billy Flynn, John Primer at Lucerne, Switzerland Blues Fest photo: Jennifer Noble
Bob Corritore, Billy Flynn, John Primer at Lucerne, Switzerland Blues Fest photo: Jennifer Noble

Later that same year John and I worked a five-week tour of Europe together. We had one week at the Lucerne Blues Festival and then a four week tour with what is called the “Chicago Blues Festival Tour” (which BTW has no connection with the Chicago Blues Festival of the same name). What I found after working with John for five straight weeks was a great friendship. That life on the road is very regimented and every night is another intense performance. John is just an earnest stand up guy with an amazing work ethic and we had each other’s back on that tour. Lots of fun doing lots of work!

So over the years John and I have developed a unspoken understanding. He has his own orbit with a great regular touring Chicago based band featuring the great Steve Bell on harmonica. I have my regular band in Phoenix with Dave Riley and a whole bunch of other projects with Bob Margolin and Bob Stroger, Diunna Greenleaf, Jimi “Primetime” Smith, Adrianna Marie, The Fremonts, Andy T Band and others. John Primer also works with bands all around the world. But each year we take a little bit of time to meet up and we really enjoy performing and recording together! It’s a special thing when we get a chance to play together.”

Unfortunately, as of March 2020, the opportunities for Corritore and Primer to play music together suddenly disappeared. Even the Gypsy Woman couldn’t have predicted what was going to happen to John Primer during that fateful month.

But first, a flashback to 2019, when John Primer and the Real Deal Band enjoyed a banner year as one of the top acts on the international blues circuit.

Primer recaps: “2019 was a lot of fun! We worked our butts off! We did a Canadian Tour, a Nebraska/Iowa Tour; I went to Geneva, Switzerland to perform with Bonny B. Bluesman at his blues club called Le Blues Club, I went and performed with Bob at the Rhythm Room and did some recording, we performed at Chicago Blues Festival again which is my favorite festival, and a lot of smaller festivals all over, like Ann Arbor Blues Festival and Fishers Blues Festival in Fishers, IN. We went to Finland and played the Rawa Blues Festival and also Thusis, Switzerland’s Blues & Rock Night Festival. But the highlight of 2019 was being able to be back on the Legendary Blues Cruise again with my family and Steve Bell. We did acoustic shows every day on the cruise. It was a blast!”

John Primer & Billy Branch at Chicago Blues Festival. Photo: Jennifer Noble
John Primer & Billy Branch at Chicago Blues Festival. Photo: Jennifer Noble

The start of 2020 promised to be another stellar year for John Primer. On March 11, Primer and his Real Deal bandmates (harp player Steve Bell and drummer Lenny Media) landed in Amsterdam about to embark on a three week tour across Europe. They knew about the coronavirus in Europe and brought masks, hand sanitizer and Chlorox wipes to be safe. The very next day, President Trump announced a travel ban to restrict airplanes coming from Europe into the U.S. Afraid of being stranded overseas with a cancelled tour schedule, Primer and his band quickly purchased emergency plane tickets for a total cost of $3,000 to get home before the ban went into effect at midnight.

The experience left them frazzled.

‘We had terrible flights home. We had an 18-hour delay in Warsaw, Poland so we had to get hotel rooms there for another $300. It wasn’t safe to stay in the airport. We went home with no money at all. I had to charge everything for all three of us. Our tour was going to last 19 days with 14 gigs. We were going to make $17,000 plus sell CDs and merchandise. All that GONE because of COVID-19. This was the worst experience for us. As soon as we got to Amsterdam we had to turn around and come home. It was hard to do without any time to adjust,” Primer recalls.

They succeeded in arriving in the U.S. just in time. “We were exhausted, worried and scared traveling home. We didn’t know what would happen to us if we got caught at the border. They took our temperatures at the airport getting off and on planes and made us fill out forms. There was panic at the airports with people trying to get back into the USA before the midnight deadline,” Primer explains.

Photo: Eric Kriesant
Photo: Eric Kriesant

The blues band made it through customs with no delays; they were happy to be home at last. But the world they came home to had changed for the worst. He continues: “Then when we finally got home we were very relieved! We then noticed the craziness here at home and in the grocery stores. Nothing was the same. Every day the phone would ring and more and more of our dates were cancelling on us. No news of when this will end. I am the only one working in my household and I support my band as well. So this has been a lot for me to take in. I feel responsible for my family and my band. I also have a 15-year-old daughter and my wife works with me as my manager so I take care of everyone. It’s been very, very hard and depressing. Losing so many people and so many black people is just not right and it scares me. They said I am at very high risk (he's age 75) to get this and die from it so I am staying inside and away from everyone until it’s safe.”

Like his fellow unemployed musicians all over the world who can’t perform live, John Primer is reaching out to his international audience by live streaming from his home each Sunday afternoon.

“I do my Facebook live stream show for tip money on Sundays from 3 – 4 p.m. CST. I have a basement studio and my wife and daughter help me. My wife has applied for every grant there is out there for help. We really need unemployment to kick in or the small business loan, but we have not heard back from anyone yet. We have received a check to cover our mortgage for May from the National Blues Foundation and we have also received money from Mike Zito and Nick Moss’ Go Fund Me Campaign ("Pay The Blues Forward"), but we are still waiting for more help. I hope to do more live streaming events to keep us alive. Every tip really helps us these days! It’s very hard to ask for help, but we have to. We are very grateful to everyone out there that is helping all us musicians.” Primer says.

The future for Primer and musicians everywhere remains uncertain.

Photo: Eric Kriesant
Photo: Eric Kriesant

“All my dates in March, April and May cancelled on me so far. I am waiting now to hear about June. Everyone is scared and cannot tell me when or if their bars will re-open. Some blues bars are taking a huge hit and some might not ever re-open for us. Our touring as we know it will be changed by this. Work will be harder to get. But with live streaming, maybe this is a new way to reach our fans! Old dogs can learn new tricks!” Primer declares.

“Please tip us or donate to our fundraising campaigns if you can. If you can’t send money you can always share our causes with all your friends so that you can reach out to that one person that can donate a few dollars. If we don’t keep the musicians alive the music will die and without this music to heal us it will not be a world I would want to live in personally. So helping the musicians is really important. To all those that do work a job and have not had a loss, think about all the money you did spend going out to all those clubs and tip a musician you love instead,” he asks.

John Primer’s Blues in My Basement streams at:

Facebook Live & Instagram Live, Sundays, 3-4 p.m. CST

Now, more than ever, musicians need to sell their merchandise to survive. Fortunately, Primer has an excellent new CD available on May 1. You can order The Gypsy Woman Told Me here:

Or send a check for $25 made out to:

Blues House Productions

1909 Fairfield Rd. Lindenhurst IL 60046

About the author:

Linda Cain is the founder/managing editor of Chicago Blues Guide.


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