Interview with bluesman John Primer - a powerful force in helping to keep alive the pure and real Chicago blues

"You have to open up your heart and let your feelings flow through your body and think happy thoughts while you play the blues."

John Primer: The Soul Of A Bluesman

Two-time Grammy nominated artist and American blues legend John Primer was the bandleader and guitarist for Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Magic Slim & The Teardrops. Having played or recorded with a who's who of blues greats including Junior Wells, Gary Clark Jr., Derek Trucks, Johnny Winter, The Rolling Stones and Buddy Guy to name a few, John Primer's personal accolades, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, reflect his countless contributions to the history of Chicago blues. There are very few fans, critics or musicians who will deny the fact that John Primer is the real deal. Tradition, style, mentor, leader, storyteller, veteran. These all words that describe bluesman John Primer. John takes his music seriously and finds it extremely important to share his experiences and emotions telling stories with his guitar. Song after song, show after show, and year after year, John delivers intense, soul grabbing music straight from the heart.

John Primer's road to success began in his hometown of Camden, Mississippi. John eventually made his way north to Chicago in 1963, which started a whole new chapter in his life. John began to make a name for himself with his flawless guitar work and strong vocals, able to play many styles of music from blues to soul, and in 1974 he landed a spot in the house band at the legendary Theresa's Lounge between 1974 and 1980, where he backed up the likes of Junior Wells, Louis Myers, Jimmy Johnson, Lonnie Brooks, Paul Butterfield, Johnny Winter, Bonnie Raitt and many others. There he met Sammy Lawhorn, ex-Muddy Waters guitarist and one of John's greatest influences. John and Sammy packed Theresa's night after night, and his reputation began to spread throughout Chicago. In 1979, John was invited to be a member of Willie Dixon's Chicago Blues All-Stars, and by 1980 he held the honor of becoming the bandleader for the last great Muddy Waters Band. He stayed on as bandleader and guitarist until Muddy's untimely death in 1983, and his road took a different turn. John joined forces with West Side bluesman Magic Slim, and together they heated up stages all over the world for over 13 years. As the bandleader for Magic Slim and the Teardrops, John began the slow process of learning what it takes to be a true "master" of the Blues. A new chapter in the life of John Primer was about to emerge, and soon he was in his own again as the leader of his own band. John Primer is a powerful force in today's Blues scene. He is dedicated to keeping the music alive and in it's original form. By teaching the younger musicians his traditions the stories will never fade away. John Primer's new album titled "THE SOUL OF A BLUES MAN (2019) featuring deep soul-blues vocals, master blues guitar and harmonica with soulful saxophone, and the BEST traditional Chicago blues!


Interview by Michael Limnios

Special thanks: John Prime & Lisa Becker Primer (Power House Productions)

Mr. Primer, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues music?

When I was 5 years old I remember singing all the time and listening to blues records on my Grandmother’s record Player. My family always played the blues in our home when I was growing up the blues was popular.

How has the blues changed your life and what do you learn about yourself from the blues music?

The blues allows me to travel all over the world and meet so many amazing people. You have to open up your heart and let your feelings flow through your body and think happy thoughts while you play the blues. 

What characterize the sound of John Primer? How do you describe your philosophy about the music?

My sound is my own interpretation of many blues legends like: Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, BB King, Howlin Wolf, Lightning Hopkins, Elmore James & Magic Slim. I am true to the real sound no pedals or fancy stuff. I believe in keeping the sound true, real and from my heart.

"The Blues is a part of me, where I come from." (John Primer / Photo by Marilyn Stringer)

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

When I moved from Mississippi to Chicago. Chicago was a whole new world for me to explore. No more working in the fields for me!

How has the Blues music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The Blues is a part of me, where I come from. I am from Camden, MS and was born in 1945 on sharecropper land. We had it really hard back then. It was hard for my family to eat. We were not treated equal so we suffered. Out of this suffering came the Blues. The Blues healed us and made us get by day to day. It uplifted us and carried us forward. This suffering and injustice effects me and has taught me a lot. I see others suffering all over the world and it makes me want to sing the Blues to them, to heal them and make them feel better. We shouldn't treat each other so badly, there needs to be more love and peace in the world today. I hope to bring this message to all peoples with my music.

Where does your creative drive (about your lyrics) come from? What was the hardest part of writing a song?

My creative drive has always been inside me, I guess it's my survival and work ethic. In order for me to be happy I need to create songs and music. I need to be alone in order to write my songs and away from home is best. I like to write when I am on the road. Being away and on the road helps me to look back at my life for songs. When I played for Willie Dixon he taught me how important it was to be a song writer and I always stuck to it after that.

Do you remember anything fanny or interesting from studio and  recording sessions?

Just a whole lot of hard work and good times when it comes together good and on time! It makes me very happy to be able to create and record new songs to share with the world.

Why did you think that Chicago Blues continues to generate such a devoted following?

Chicago Blues is the first electrified Blues! Before we migrated to Chicago, Blues was really just Country Blues. Muddy Waters was one of the very first to electrify Blues. Chicago Blues is a huge force that will never die. Blues history in Chicago can never be replaced or outdone. So many wanted to come and learn Blues from the Chicago bluesmen. Chicago is the home of electrified Blues and the home of Chess Records where they recorded it for the world to hear.

"When I moved from Mississippi to Chicago. Chicago was a whole new world for me to explore. No more working in the fields for me! (John Primer & The Real Deal Blues Band / Photo by Eric Kriesant)

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss all my blues family members that have passed away, so many of them are gone now. With them passing the Blues will never be the same. The Blues has moved into a new phase where more Rock sounds can be heard than Blues sounds. These bands don't want to work hard or for a long time, they want fame and fortune now. A lot of musicians today don't have time to help others out, they are just into themselves and not helping the other less fortunate ones. The social media can be a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. We don't see each other except for FaceBook. My hope is in the future musicians can appreciate one another more, teach each other more, learn from one another more and respect the older tradition and keep it alive. I have spent my lifetime trying to keep the older traditions alive and now I need the next generation to help me keep it going or it will die.

Are there any memories from the famous Maxwell Street which you’d like to share with us?

The first time I went to Maxwell Street it was a strange place. So many people selling things. People of all different backgrounds from all over the world met there every weekend. I went there on Saturdays to go shopping and look around, but I would never miss going there on a Sunday. Sundays were special to me because this is when all the Blues musicians would get together and play outside. We would play for tip money. Sometimes I would play there from 9am until 3pm and I would make maybe $40 after we would split it all up. I played with Pat Rushing and my first band called The Maintainers. I would watch many others perform down there it was an amazing time for Blues. It kept all the younger guys interested in Blues and it helped make it popular in Chicago. This was a great place for all the Blues guys to network with each other and learn from each other. The food was great too! It was everywhere and didn't cost much. I remember eating Maxwell Street polish sausages. There will never be another place like that again.

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

I consider Blues to be a way of life, for me that's what it is because I come from a place where it all began. I do also believe that people can also live a Blues life and not be from MS, sharecropper land in 1945. Some people play the Blues to learn music and to get the basics before moving on to another genre. We as artists all have our own destiny and pathway. My pathway has always been on the Blues road, so Blues can be different things to different artists.

"My hope is in the future musicians can appreciate one another more, teach each other more, learn from one another more and respect the older tradition and keep it alive. I have spent my lifetime trying to keep the older traditions alive and now I need the next generation to help me keep it going or it will die." (John Primer / Photo by Marilyn Stringer)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music and blues circuits?

Some of the most important lessons I have learned from my music is how to open myself up and use my music to heal people. I have also learned how to be a band leader, how to manage a music career, how to live on the road, how to help other musicians along the way and to always teach the lessons I have learned to others just starting out, while learning and keeping an open mind about lessons being taught to me. A true master is always learning from his students.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?

Blues music is part of African-American Black Culture. This history stays with us and plays a big role in our continued fight for equality today. It is sad that the African-American Culture does not support Blues music like they used to, I think it's because they want to move forward into other forms of musical expression so they can forget the pain of the past and move forward. Also the bluesman historically never really made much money, it was a way to get out of the field and to bring some much needed happiness to the field workers. Those days are not forgotten, but the musical expression needed to move forward into other forms including Rap. Blues will never be forgotten it's the root music to all other musical forms and vital to learn in order to learn true American history.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Well seeing as though I have traveled all over the Earth a few times now, I would love to go to the moon and play someday for some aliens - maybe they would dig it and we could all be friends. I could be responsible for really taking Blues to the next level! I think they would really love it and it would bring all of us closer!

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had? What’s the best jam you ever played in?

Opening up the show with Muddy Waters for the Rolling Stones at the Checkerboard Lounge was my favorite show, but recently I played with the Chicago Blues: A Living History Band at the infamous Montreux Jazz Festival this was a new highlight in my career. We played the same show as Bob Dylan and got to meet Quincy Jones backstage as well.

"Work hard, don’t do drugs or alcohol, stay true to your own style and put your heart out there for the people – let them feel what you are trying to say and always give back." (Photo: John Primer & Muddy Waters, 1981)

You have played with many bluesmen like Muddy, Jr. Wells, Willie Dixon, and Magic Slim. It must be hard, but which gigs have been the biggest experiences for you?

The biggest experience for me was when I played 13 years with Magic Slim. He took me around the world and taught me how to be a good bandleader and how to survive on the road.

Are there any memories of all GREAT ARTISTS you meet which you’d like to share with us?

The first time I left the U.S.A. was with Willie Dixon and the Chicago All-Stars Band. Willie helped me to get my first Passport. We played in Mexico City for thousands and thousands of people. It was the largest crowd I had ever played in front of. People were hanging off of the walls and sitting in trees just to hear us play! It was truly amazing!! 

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The best moment was when Mojo Buford told me that Muddy Waters would like me to join his band and the worst moment was recently we totaled my van in Canada and I had to rely on strangers to help me out. It was hard for us to get home with all our equipment, but thank God we were all OK, just bumps and bruises.

With such an illustrious career, what has given you the most satisfaction musically?

After all these years my peers are finally noticing me. It feels so good to be nominated as well as win awards for your life’s work from your peers and fans. It makes you feel like you are doing something right.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Work hard, don’t do drugs or alcohol, stay true to your own style and put your heart out there for the people – let them feel what you are trying to say and always give back.

"I have never changed. I have stayed true to my style all these years and I have shown my followers how much I love and respect them. I am humble and give back to my community as much as I can. I also appreciate everything that I have and that might be given to me." (Photo: John Primer & Magic Slim)

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues?

Magic Slim taught me the most secrets about the blues and how to be a real bluesman!

What advice Muddy, and Willie given to you, and which memory from those makes you smile?

Muddy, taught me confidence on stage and also how to play the slide-guitar; he was like a father to me. Willie, taught me the importance of writing my own songs and protecting them.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD people…and musician?

The way I was raised by my mom, grandmother and uncle. To always respect and help others. It is always better to give than to receive, especially to those in need.

Some music styles can be fads but the soul & blues are always with us. Why do think that is?

The gospel and blues music is the foundation of all other music styles, that’s why it will always be around.

How has the blues business changed over the years since you first started in music?

The Internet has changed the music dramatically. The Internet allows us to be more independent and to reach more people all over the world instantly. 

Why did you think that John Primer continues to generate such a devoted following?

I have never changed. I have stayed true to my style all these years and I have shown my followers how much I love and respect them. I am humble and give back to my community as much as I can. I also appreciate everything that I have and that might be given to me. 

What do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a bluesman?

Where I come from and the struggle my family and I had to go through in Camden, Mississippi. We had a very, very hard life when I was growing up and some of my family is still struggling to this day down there.

"The gospel and blues music is the foundation of all other music styles, that’s why it will always be around." (John Primer / Photo by Eric Kriesant)

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from your gigs in Greece?

The most vivid memory was the last time I played there were got caught up in the protesting and riots the day we were trying to get leave and drive to the airport. I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to get out because the country was in such turmoil and the people were in a panic. I pray for Greece and for the people there. I hope that things get better for you and that your country becomes a stronger one when it is all over. It always seems darkest before the dawn so stay true to your beliefs, work together, help each other and all will be worked out in the end. I would love to come back any time and play my music to help you come together or to celebrate anytime – just send for me and I will come!

Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? Happiness is...

I loved to go fishing, play with my daughter Aliya and relax under a nice shade tree and write music.


John Primer's Blues Home

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