John Primer is the Real Deal

Brant Buckley talks with Chicago bluesman John Primer.

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John Primer 2017 Eric Kriesant
John Primer live in 2017 Photo: Eric Kriesant

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. He has played and 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. Primer’s personal accolades include a Lifetime Achievement Award that reflects 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.

Brant Buckley:

What are you currently working on?

John Primer:

I’m working on a new CD. It’s called Soul of a Blues Man. There’s a lot of soul music and blues on it. It’s going to come out in January or the first of February. There will be a lot of soul, rhythm, and blues.

What did you learn playing behind Muddy? Any good Muddy stories?

John Primer with Muddy Waters 1981 Blues House Productions
John Primer with Muddy Waters 1981 Photo: Blues House Productions

He was a great player. He played the same music with different lyrics. His music was always the same. That was Muddy’s sound. He taught me not to be like him or sound like him. Although when I play his songs, I try to sound as close as possible to keep it original. He was a great man.

I learned a lot from a player named Sammy Lawhorn who played with Muddy for 15 years. I like the way he played slide. When he played an Elmore James song he would just tune the big string down. I watched how Muddy would put the slide on his little finger. Sammy, could play rhythm while the slide was on his little finger without de tuning the guitar. When I play slide I don’t de-tune; I am in A 440 (standard tuning). Back in the 40’s and 50’s Muddy was in E, G, and A tuning.

How is the sound and spirit of Mississippi in your playing? Can you give examples?

I was born in Mississippi. I had a real hard time there. I lost my dad when I was 3 years old in an accident with some guys drinking. I was raised without a father. My mother was in Mississippi a lot but she was always on the go. I practically was raised without my mom and dad. My grandmother, Aunt, and Uncle raised me. My mom’s older brother was my father figure. We didn’t have much food either. We would have to eat cornbread and chicken. We would eat the same kind of stuff. It was tough for me. A real hard time. Just living. That’s where I got the blues.

I was a sad kid most of my life especially when I think about my mom and my dad. She left and went to Chicago to get a job. That was the saddest moment of my life. She said when I turned 18 she would come and get me to go to Chicago. When I talk about it I get watery eyes. I would cry, cry, and cry. I would go to the back of the house and cry. My eyes would swell up because I cried so much. It was a real sad time. I play the blues the way I feel it.

How do you approach playing solo versus playing with a band?

It’s easier playing alone. If you make a mistake, you don’t have to catch up with it. Think John Lee Hooker. Muddy would cover his mistakes up. It’s much easier playing rhythm. I play rhythm, lead, and chords while singing.

Do your hands ever tire while playing? Your hands are always moving…

No. I may cramp for a minute. I never get tired. I never get tired playing when I am onstage. I don’t get tired, I wear them out. I have too much energy for them.

If you could only play electric blues or acoustic blues from here on out which would you choose and why?

Acoustic blues. It started on the acoustic guitar. Muddy Waters electrified it. That’s why Chicago is so famous because it electrified the blues.

What else do you want to achieve?

I want to keep the blues alive. That is my main goal. It’s not about winning things. In the beginning it wasn’t about winning anything. Back in the day it used to be about winning contests to see who the best guitar player was. That’s not what it’s about. I want to continue playing the blues as long as I can or as long as the mighty God lets me play them. I want the younger generation to keep on playing the blues. Don’t disrespect it or try to change it. Try to keep it as real as you can. I’m doing what I love. Blues is all about life. I want to keep it real.

*Feature image Marilyn Stringer