Guitarist Rockin' Johnny Burgin talks about Tail Dragger, the old cats of Windy City and Delmark records

"Blues music has a lot of meaning and stands up to repeated listening." 

Rockin' Johnny Burgin: Windy Blues

Guitarist Johnny Burgin came to Chicago from South Carolina to attend the University of Chicago, and earned the name "Rockin' Johnny" as a DJ at the college radio station WHPK. Rockin' Johnny began playing in the ghetto clubs of Chicago's West Side with blues singer Taildragger, and then began touring nationally as a sideman with former Howlin' Wolf drummer Sam Lay and blues piano legend Pinetop Perkins. After learning from the masters, he put his own band together. Things started happening for the Rockin' Johnny Band after they took a Monday night residency at The Smoke Daddy in Chicago. Their original, energetic approach soon made them a strong local draw week after week and year after year, bringing in blues aficionados, every musician in town, and a younger crowd that normally didn't go to hear blues bands. The atmosphere the band generated was so electric, that Delmark Records offered them a contract after hearing just one set. 

Photo by Kurt Swanson

A true "musician's musician", Rockin' Johnny has been one of Chicago's most in-demand blues session men since the 90s, contributing his incisive playing to over a dozen CDs by artists such as Billy Boy Arnold, Jimmy Burns, Tail Dragger, Little Arthur Duncan, Paul DeLay and many more. The Rockin' Johnny Band plays vintage Chicago blues, but also is known for a wide repertoire which ventures into Stax style soul, swing, and lots of originals that are harder to classify. On stage, the band performs with spontaneity and fun, always showcasing fantastic guitar playing. Delmark recording artist Rockin' Johnny Burgin is the new modern king of Chicago West Side blues. Johnny recorded his sixth album "Greetings from Greaseland" (2015) with the cream of the crop of the San Francisco Bay blues scene at California's funkiest studio, Greaseland. Features Aki Kumar on harp, Kid Andersen on guitar, Vance Ehlers on bass and June Core on drums. It also features the first recordings of Johnny on harp.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos: Kurt Swanson, Jon Pearson, Monaghan Photography / All rights reserved

How do you describe Rockin Johnny sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I don't use a set list, I have a spontaneous approach. I like working with pick-up bands and making them work out, for example. With my regular band, I like doing songs we've never done before. I take a lot of risks. I like players that are a little off-hand and even chaotic like Magic Sam-- he was a great guitarist but never acted like one-- or Hip Linkchain.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I'm having a great period now-- life begins at 40. The beginning of my career in my early twenties was very exciting too, when my regular Monday nights at Smoke Daddy took off and everyone came to hear us-- when I was playing with Sam Lay all over the country or when I was playing five nights a week on the West Side of Chicago with Taildragger. Every night was a big adventure. But now things are better because in the 90s, things happened very fast and I felt a little too much pressure sometimes. Now I'm doing the same thing but I can relax and enjoy it, which actually has the added benefit of making me play better. My worst moment was being away from music for 8 or 9 years. All I was trying to do was be around for my young daughter, but it backfired. I could have spent more quality time with her if I was playing music instead of working for a living. And for a long time being away from music destroyed my confidence for a while, but thankfully that chapter is over now.

"I think they should try to dig on some older blues. A lot of players have a limited frame of reference; they're not going back any farther than Albert Collins." (Johnny Burgin - Photo by Jon Pearson)

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

Blues music has a lot of meaning and stands up to repeated listening. I can listen to Johnny Littlejohn's first album on Arhoolie, or Magic Sam's Black Magic or West Side Soul, or Big John Wrencher's Maxwell Street Alley, etc, etc. over and over and over and never get tired of it, and always hear something new. The groove and the feeling of it never goes out of style and always grabs you. So our audience is loyal, but the trick is to bring new people in.

Do you remember anything funny playing in the ghetto clubs of Chicago's West Side?

Playing with Taildragger in the 90s was quite an adventure. Drinking and getting laid was the top priority, the music was way down at the bottom of the list. Now Taildragger takes himself seriously as one of the last real Chicago blues artists, but then, it was a little wilder. The audience loved to talk back to him and that was half the show. Playing with Mary Lane too, the same women came every week and screamed at the same lines of the same songs, and it was like a ritualized group therapy. Those audiences taught me how to listen to blues music.

What’s the best jam you ever played in?

Playing guitar with Dave Meyers on guitar at the Checkerboard on an after work monday set, then having Dave come to my gig that night to play bass. Also playing with Robert Lockwood and Sam Lay in Cleveland. Sam was the leader, but he backed Lockwood on a few songs. Boy did he play great that night-- Playing with Carey Bell and Taildragger at the 5105 Club in Chicago right before Taildragger went to jail for a while. I sat in with Louis Meyers at his last gig before he passed. I was lucky enough to meet and play with so many people I admired.

What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Playing with Taildragger in the jail he was in was something I won't soon forget, I was very nervous that the people wouldn't like it but they did. Probably one of the best shows I did was a revue with a set from my band, then we backed up Johnny B. Moore, then Bobby Radcliff, and then Jimmy Dawkins, that was in 1999 or so in Peoria IL.

"Delmark is pretty hands-off-- they want you to play in the studio what you play in the clubs."

Photo by Jon Pearson

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Bobby Radcliff told me to just relax, and Taildragger has always said, “Take your time, and play the blues”-- I think that's the key because it's easy to be competitive, or nervous, or too excited, and you have to relax and feel it and just let it be and then the music will play itself.

Are there any memories from Tail Dragger, Sam Lay and Pinetop Perkins which you’d like to share with us?

Too many. We have to sit and drink together and then I can tell you everything! But I am very grateful to have played with all of them. Taildragger is the musician I've had the longest and most satisfying relationship in my career. We've been playing together for a long time, and when we work together, we don't have to think about it-- it's just like falling off a log, and that's a special thing to have. He brings a feeling out in me when I play.

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

I miss the people I knew who have passed on: Big Smokey, Little Smokey, Little Arthur, Johnny Littlejohn, Willie Young (Howlin' Wolf saxman), Robert Plunkett, Sammy Lawhorne, Little Mack Simmons, and guys who were just such characters like Little Wolf, plus guys who are alive but have had health issues like Johnny B. Moore, Eddie C. Campbell-- I think about these people all the time. They were my friends and they were great players and they all had something of their own to say. When they are gone, no one will play the way they did.

"I like players that are a little off-hand and even chaotic like Magic Sam-- he was a great guitarist but never acted like one-- or Hip Linkchain." (Johnny Burgin in studio - Monaghan Photography)

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to new generation?

I think they should try to dig on some older blues. A lot of players have a limited frame of reference; they're not going back any farther than Albert Collins. Albert is great of course, but how about Lowell Fulson, Jimmy Dawkins, and for that matter Billy Butler and the Bill Doggett stuff, and Luther Tucker, Earl Hooker, etc. I've been lucky to get a lot of good advice and learn from many, many people. I remember wanting to join this swing band in the early 90s, because they were making money and doing all these gigs, and back then I was just getting started and didn't know what to do. Billy Flynn told me, hey you're getting a good reputation for playing blues and you should just play the blues and boy, was he right. So some of the best advice I got was to stick to the style that's really you. (because I'm a blues head and would never be that much of a swing player).

Which memory from Billy Boy Arnold, Jimmy Burns, and Little Arthur Duncan makes you smile?

Arthur had such a warm, happy personality, and he was always saying something hilarious. We were on the plane leaving Hawaii and there was a TV on that was built in to the seat, and it had that white fuzzy stuff on it, and Arthur said, “hey man, is it snowing?”-- in Hawaii, it's 70 degrees.

Jimmy Burns used to say, when he sang “It Hurts Me Too”, – drop the hammer on it johnny!-- we really played our butts off at the Smoke Daddy. Jimmy got his Delmark deal with my band backing after Bob Koester heard one set. That's about as fast as you can get!

Billy Boy always knew exactly what he wanted and was a great singer. I always tried to emulate his singing.

From the musical point of view what are the differences between: Chicago and the others local Blues scenes?

Chicago is the “lump-de-lump”-- the jimmy reed thing, whether it's laid back or it's really intense, like “you're so fine” by little walter is total chicago to me-- the California scene is more swing based and they are probably better musicians but they can't lump-de-lump with that heavy beat like the Chicago guys to me.

"The groove and the feeling of it never goes out of style and always grabs you. So our audience is loyal, but the trick is to bring new people in."

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Chicago and Delmark? What are the secrets of label?

Delmark is pretty hands-off-- they want you to play in the studio what you play in the clubs. So it seems to me that they make “documents” or snap-shots-- they don't try to make hits or tailor or produce artists for commercial success. That's a great thing historically because if Delmark hadn't made a lot of the records they made, nobody else might have, or it would have come out differently.

Which memory from Jimmie Lee Robinson, Eddie C. Campbell, and Jimmy Dawkins makes you smile?

Dawkins and Eddie C. I saw play a lot, but didn't do that many gigs with either of them. I did a few recording sessions with Dawkins and one gig up to Detroit, but he was a man of few words. They are both unique guitarists. Jimmy Lee I knew real well. He rehearsed me mercilessly for hours and hours. He was a kind person, but I think he was often very unhappy and “suffering in mind”.. I was part of some efforts trying to do some things with Jimmy with a band, but his career took off the most when Jimmy became a solo artist. Then he could just create his kind of eccentric patterns with complete freedom. Jimmy always called me Johnny Burgundy, and thought I should have a band with burgundy uniforms and told me so many, many times. Maybe he was right. Jimmy was good at marketing himself with the spurs he wore and his custom-painted cab, “The Lonely Traveler”... I do that song every so often.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

With the blues I can connect with people which is a powerful and healing thing to do for me and other people too.  It’s about connecting with people and that's what makes you feel good and brings the music and the whole experience to a higher level. When I play a gig and that doesn't happen, or it's in an environment where it's clamped down, it's just depressing and not good enough and leaves me wanting the real deal.

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs most frequently?

I usually only write songs under deadline. It’s just as creative in its own way to play a standard if you play it well AND in your own way. I play a lot of songs and very few of them I wrote, but I try to make whatever I play my own.  I write songs about real experiences, like "it's expensive to be broke"! Or house band blues, my band was really a house band and struggling to establish ourselves and it was that. There are other bands out there playing that song because they are in the same boat!

Are there any memories from Greetings from Greaseland studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I did that in 5 hours, it was like Sinatra coming in to record. When he came in, everything was already prepared, and he walked in, sang it and left. I walked in, played it with the band, and then we all went to a nice Indian restaurant! I did very little with the mix, I left it to Kid Andersen and he did a great job. Greaseland is a fun place, there are folks just hanging around there, cats walking on the amplifiers, it's very informal and cozy. So it was a bunch of friends hanging out and playing and the spark was just there.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I wish there was less of a rat race of promotion and self-promotion constantly going on in the blues world, for me it can be distracting from actually playing blues or anything else for that matter. I try to protect myself from that, while still staying working and current. That's why I’ve chosen over the years not to have a smart phone. Although my next trip to Europe I will have to break down and get one just to stay in touch better with my girlfriend and my family.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

Taildragger still makes me laugh with his stories he tells before the songs. I did a great Easter show with Wisconsin harp player Jim Liban, his music can really take you on an emotional journey especially his version of "Way Back Home" by the Jazz Crusaders, when we got done with that everybody in the room was on an emotional high and in another place…

"I'm a blues head and would never be that much of a swing player."

Is it easier to write and play the blues as you get older? What is your BLUES DREAM? Happiness is…

Yes of course, because it's the experience of life you put into it. As long as you keep growing and engaged with it, then your music gets much more meaningful, effective and deeper. But with every action we move either towards life or death-- and some older artists can just get fossilized in their ways. I want to keep learning and changing so the music gets better. That’s why I like the stimulation of travel and working with different artists.  

I just want to live the life of Django Reinhardt or Earl Hooker-- they are my two favorite guitarists-- I'm doing my best! Obviously my abilities are nowhere near as great and we are in a different era but I have always been captivated by the freedom they both had of just hitting the road when they wanted to, coming home when they wanted to, playing what they wanted, where they wanted with who they wanted. That’s all I want, that can't be too much to ask right?

Which incident of Chicago Blues history you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting with you?

I'd like to see a painting of Taildragger and Eddie Taylor at the Delta Fish Market. I don't have to be in it! It's enough to know I played there too.

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

That's a tough question! I think I'd have to catch an Earl Hooker gig at Peppers...

Rockin Johnny Burgin - official website

Photo by Jon Pearson


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