Blues Ain’t Nothin’ But the Mind
The world famous Chicago blues great speaks his mind on Muddy Waters, Magic Slim, The Rolling Stones, young blues rockers, blues, roots and soul music
By Linda Cain
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. He’s been nominated twice for a Grammy and has won several prestigious blues awards.
We first sat down to talk with the world famous blues artist on July 18, 2019 before his show at Hey Nonny in Arlington Hts, IL. John Primer told us about his upcoming CD with Bob Corritore, The Gypsy Woman Told Me, and reminisced about his storied career playing with Muddy Waters, Magic Slim, The Rolling Stones and more. He had just returned from a major festival in Cazorla, Spain where he played his own set on one night and then returned to perform “Angie” and “Let It Bleed” with the Chicago Plays The Stones Tribute, featuring Billy Branch and Ronnie Baker Brooks. Primer had a busy summer and fall tour schedule coming up and things were going great for the very energetic 74-year-old blues man.
At the time, Chicago was still swept up in Rolling Stones mania, as the band had kicked off its No Filter Tour in Chicago at Soldier Field in late June with two sold out shows. The Stones 2016 release, Blue and Lonesome, was a tribute to Chicago blues, the music that gave the band its name (from Muddy’s song “Mannish Boy”). In 2018, Chicago blues artists, including John Primer, returned the favor with the concept album Chicago Plays The Stones, which features Chicago blues style interpretations of famous Rolling Stone songs. The CD, which includes Chicago artists like Buddy Guy, Jimmy Burns, Billy Boy Arnold, Billy Branch, Ronnie Baker Brooks along with cameos by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, was so popular it warranted a live tour on the international fest and club circuit.
Of all the Chicago blues artists who appear on the CD and the tour, John Primer is especially qualified, having served as lead guitarist in Muddy Waters band. He was playing with Muddy and the band at the Checkerboard Lounge on November 22, 1981 when the Rolling Stones made a South Side pilgrimage to sit in with their blues hero. Primer, who was 36 at the time, recalls the occasion:
Q. What stands out the most in your memory about when you played with the Stones and Muddy at the Checkerboard? I remember police barricades to keep the fans away from the club.
JP: I didn’t quite understand what was going on at the time, but there were rumors going around. Rick Kreher (guitarist) said something about the Stones might show up, he talked to Mojo Buford (harp player) about that because a lot of times they’d be in town and they were gonna show up, but they never showed up. And they wanted to see Lefty Dizz, ‘cause they were crazy about Lefty.
Q. So there were all these rumors, but then they really showed up. You must have been surprised. And what did you think?
JP: I seen them comin’ in. Oh, man what’s with them? It was like a whole party.
Q. They didn’t seem like your typical South Siders, with their entourage and rock star looks.
JP: The band was playing and we called Muddy up and then then the Rolling Stones came in. And they sat down in the front and they was drinkin’ -- bourbon and whiskey.
Q. Yeah, they’re known for that! There was a DVD of the documentary of them with Muddy at the Checkboard.
JP: Yes, I have that. It’s a great film.
Q. And how about the Stones tribute to Chicago Blues, called Blue and Lonesome? Have you heard that?
JP: Yeah I have the CD. It’s the Stones, man! Doin’ their thing their way. The way they doin’ it is great! It’s a good CD. I like the way they do it. Couldn’t be any better. If I did it, I’d do it the same way. It’s traditional blues. They know how to do it.
Q. Mick and Keith bonded over a Muddy album and named their band after a verse in a Muddy Waters song. They started out as a blues band.
JP: What can you say? That’s the Rolling Stones. They sound great!
Q. And Mick and Keith play on Chicago Plays the Stones. Have you heard any feedback from any of the Stones about what they think of this album?
JP: They heard it. Well, they know who I am, but I never had contact with them. They know everybody who played with Muddy.
Q. Did you go see them at Soldier Field?
No, but Lisa (wife/manager) was out of town and I stayed home with my daughter.
Q. Joseph Morganfield (Muddy’s son) was there and he got to go backstage. And they were reminiscing about the Checkerboard. They’ve always given respect to Chicago blues artists.
JP: Yes, they definitely do.
John Primer (L) and Muddy Waters (off center)
Q. I’m sure you learned a lot from Muddy. He was a big influence on you. What did you learn.
JP: I learned how to play the slide – play it right! I was going about it the wrong way. I was taught by his guitar player Sammy Lawhorn.
But (as a child) I first started out with one string (attached) on the side of my Grandmother’s house. Like a diddley bow. I couldn’t do it right, but I didn’t want to give up. I started listening to Muddy Waters records and I really wanted to do it.
But he played one way when I first heard him, and then he played a different way towards the end (of his life).
I learned the slide lick from Muddy. He influenced me a LOT. I just looked, learned and listened. I figured out what he was doing. He would put the capo on, and I learned how to play with the capo. And without the capo, in any key you want.
John Primer & Magic Slim
Q. I’m sure you learned a lot when you were with Magic Slim.
JP: Yeah, I learned a lot from Magic Slim. I was with him 13 years.
Q. What were the best lessons you learned from Slim?
JP: To be on time. When to leave home to get to the gig on time.
Q. When Slim moved to Nebraska, is that when you formed your own band?
JP: Well, I was always playing with the Teardrops band, like at the Checkerboard. And Slim would come and go.
But he taught me a lot of stuff. I learned to never compete with him playing the guitar back then. When I tried it, he just put me under the table! And I never tried it again (he chuckles). That was back at Blue Chicago.
Q. People who saw you at Blue Chicago would always ask, “Who is this great guitarist playing with Magic Slim?”
JP: Slim and I learned a lot from each other. He would tell people that he learned a lot from me. I learned a lot from him.
Q. So it was mutually beneficial.
JP: Yes, for 13 years. I never had no problems. He never cussed me out or argued and I never argued with him or nothing. I knew Slim, I knew his ways and how he was. And Nick too (Nick Holt, Slim’s brother on bass).
Q. And how about his son Shawn Holt?
JP: He’s a good guy. I played on his first CD. He’s a great musician. He’s got a long way to go, got a lot to learn a lot about the business, but he’s a great guy.
Q. How old is he now?
JP: Probably in his 30s. I knew him when he was a little small kid.
Q. What advice would you give to him or other aspiring blues musicians?
JP: Keep the charge going. Don’t let it down. Keep it going for the blues. Yeah. Do your best. There’s a lot of competition out there. But don’t let it get you down. Keep on doing it.
Some people really love blues, some people don’t really LOVE blues, but they’ll listen to it. But hey, it’s alright.
So if you’re doing what you love, keep doing it and be well.
Bassist Danny O’Connor enters the Hey Nonny green room.
JP: See this young man Danny O’Connor? He played with Magic Slim, too. For six years. And my drummer Lenny Media played with Magic Slim too. So I got part of the Teardrops. All three of us played with one of the MASTERS! Magic Slim!
Back in the day, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells had the best band. But then me and Magic Slim came and took over! After Buddy and Junior split up.
They had two stars, and then people would say (about us): “it’s great to see two stars, two great guitar players at the same time!”
John Primer, Steve Bell, Melvin Smith
photo: Jennifer Noble
Q. I saw on your bio that you have worked with some young stars, Gary Clark, Jr. and Derek Trucks. Their music is blues based, but it’s very eclectic.
JP: Yeah. They’re doing it their way.
Q. What do you think of these type of bands that play blues rock and blues fusion? Coming from the point of view of an artist who plays real deal blues?
JP: Well they gotta crawl before they can walk. They gotta get to it. They are young, but they gotta play their way into it. Work their way up to it. It ain’t something you can just come by every day. You gotta have a mind to do it. The older they get the more they will pay attention to it.
But they’re doing a great job, keeping it all alive.
But all nationalities and no matter what color they are, they’re playing it. And it’s a good thing for the blues. We all learn different types of blues and other types of music. And you can play blues and add anything you want to add to it. And still call it blues. But hey it still comes from the blues.
But most of ‘em, they’ll settle down with it. Cause they’re workin’ at it. It’s in the mind. Blues aint nothing but the mind. They’ll get to it. It’s a good thing for the blues.
Q. Those bands are bringing new, younger people to the blues, even though they aren’t playing real blues like you.
JP: They’re playing it their way. Doing their own thing. Can’t knock ‘em for that. It is what it is.
photo: Eric Kriesant
Q. What is your definition of real deal blues, since that is the name of your band? Is it like saying old school blues or traditional blues?
JP: I’m just playing what I learned. Traditional blues. What the old guys laid down. I didn’t create it.
All the old guys back where I lived in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, that’s what I learned when they laid the ground down for us to keep going. And there’s no more creation like that anymore. You can’t hear that now.
They laid it all down. That was it. A one time thing. Blues. Even rock and roll don’t sound that same as it used to.
The only thing that sounds the same is jazz, blues, gospel.
Q. Roots music.
JP: But even gospel can get out of hand, with horns and all that. But back in the day, it was a capella.
Q. The voices were the instruments.
JP: Yeah. So I tell all the young generation to listen to the blues. You can learn it. You can get it. Get the foundation and go from there.
Q. You did some creative mixing of styles -- of blues and soul -- on your latest album, Soul of a Blues Man, that is kind of unique. Because when it comes to soul music, with artists like Aretha Franklin, Otis Clay, Tyrone Davis and Otis Redding, they emphasize the singing. Soul music isn’t about the guitar and there is never a harmonica. So you broke from that soul music tradition.
Q. For you, is there a difference in how you sing and play blues music versus soul music? Or does it all flow together?
JP: It all flows together for me. I get the same feelin’ whatever I play, soul music or blues music, I get the same feelin’. For all music. You can’t just get up there and play it. You gotta have a feelin’ to play it. And it’s hard to come by for some people. They just play it just to get the sound and show you what they can do with their fingers and that they can improvise and all that.
JP: Yeah technique. But it don’t take that many notes to get a point across. All it takes is one or two or three good ones. Like B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King (smiles and chuckles and says Yessss….) Playing fast is OK. It’s all right. But take your time, whatever you do.
photo: Jennifer Noble
Q. What was your concept for Soul of a Blues Man. Did you make a conscious effort to showcase your singing?
It’s the same feeling that I heard from those guys (the artists he covered). I’m not them, but it’s the same form. I’m putting my own feeling in it.
Q. And then your arrangements had guitar and harmonica.
Q. So it’s different. On your blues albums everyone talks about your guitar. But on this, everyone talks about your singing.
JP: Well, I can sing any type of music.
Q. Who are your favorite soul singers, your biggest influences?
JP: Well, really no favorite guy. They were all great. Bobby Bland, Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis, Al Green.
Q. Can you tell out about your future projects? You and Bob Corritore have a new CD coming out. Can you tell us what to expect?
JP: It’s Chicago traditional blues. A lot of great people played on it.
John gets the call for showtime and off we go to the Hey Nonny showroom for a packed house waiting to hear some real deal blues from one of the Masters.
photo: Jennifer Noble
We pick up our conversation with Mr. Primer in early 2020. Click HERE to read about the new CD and about what happened to John Primer & The Real Deal Blues Band during the pandemic.
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.