Making a Case for John Primer’s Place in Blues History
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
All photos courtesy of Michael Lepek/Spectrum Productions
John Primer’s website is fully loaded with material that summarizes the magnificent resume of this “real deal” bluesman. But just beyond the eye-popping biography and a long list of accolades, is a catchy slogan that epitomizes Primer’s long and illustrious career.
“You Can’t Paint the Blues Without the Primer"
Talk about a pitch-perfect description for a bluesman who has studied under Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Magic Slim, Sammy Lawhorn and other legends. He has also served as a mentor to the likes of Derek Trucks who was “primed” for the stage by the veteran musician along with many other up-and-comers.
Primer’s had on-stage brushes with rock legends like the Rolling Stones who made their famous appearance at the Checkerboard Lounge back in 1981. With countless YouTube views, multitudes of music fans have witnessed Primer in his “paint it black” turtleneck stage positioned right behind Mick Jagger.
Of course, by the time the lads from London came around, Primer was already in the prime of his blues life. Primer was just eighteen when he came up from from Camden, Mississippi in 1963 to join his mother and other relatives in the Windy City. His sharecropper father was killed in a truck accident when Primer was only four years old.
Although his dad passed at an early age, the senior Primer’s musical legacy lived through his son who picked up on the tunes his father and cousin would sing after a long day of working the land. Young John fashioned himself a “diddley bow” and found solace making music on his grandmother's front porch. It wasn’t long until he was soaking up music from blues masters like Muddy, Jimmy Reed and others emanating from grandmother’s record player.
A “Real Deal” Bluesman
While many blues artists are masters at self-promotion, Primer is the sort who lets his tunes do the talking. And, when he sets out to do something, he gets it done. After hearing Muddy’s music blasting out in his crowded Mississippi cabin, he made a vow that he would make it as a member of Water’s band. That happened in 1980 after Primer had paid his blues dues by doing everything from busking around Maxwell Street and fronting a soul/R & B band to touring with Willie Dixon and his Chicago All-Stars.
After Water’s untimely death, Primer teamed up with another all-star bluesman and spent the next 14 years touring and seeing the world with Magic Slim and the Tear Drops. In 1995, he released his first solo album, The Real Deal and soon began fronting a band by the same name. Of course, more rewards and accolades followed as Primer put all his life lessons from the blues masters in action.
Primer has garnered two Grammy Award Nominations and a Grammy Participation award for playing on the Grammy Award winning album , Joined at the Hip with Pine-Top Perkins and Willie "Big Eyes" Smith. Primer has consistently notched up nominations and wins in a variety of prestigious blues competitions dating back to 1987.
While there are not enough column inches to chronicle all his achievements here, the complete list with dates and details along with musical partnerships and performances is available at www.johnprimerblues.com. As for here and now, Primer is up for the “Traditional Blues Male Artist” artist at the upcoming Blues Music Awards, to be held virtually on Sunday, June 6th.
Getting Primed for Future Endeavors
After starting off 2020 on an extremely high note, Primer and his band hit a devastatingly low point when Europe locked down on March 13th, forcing the crew to scramble and do whatever was necessary to get back to the USA. They ended up thousands of dollars in the hole after purchasing last-minute plane tickets and having to stay overnight in Warsaw, Poland. This was while Covid-19 infections were ramping up at an alarming rate in Europe and spreading rapidly in the US.
In a recent interview with Linda Cain, Editor of Chicago Blues Guide, Primer recalled that “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 1 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."
So, instead of earning revenue by playing the blues for an enthusiastic European audience, Primer found himself on lockdown in suburban Chicago. At least he and his bandmates (harmonica player Steve Bell and drummer Lenny Media) made it home safely. Add to that is the fact that Primer was housebound with his wife/manager Lisa and their fifteen-year-old daughter. This partnership proved out to play a pivotal role as Primer entered the pandemic portion of his ever-evolving career.
Yep, thanks to Mississippi grit, a great work ethic, and a strong family partnership, the 76-year-old Primer has taken to live streaming his shows for a music- hungry audience in need of a bona fide Chicago blues fix. His crew consists of Lisa and Aliya Primer. You can catch the fruit of their blues labors every Sunday from 3pm to 4:30 pm CST on Primer’s Facebook page or via Instagram.
With the world slowly opening again, Primer predicts that people will be hankering to see live music once it’s safe to do so. And so off he'll go to places like Rosa’s where he and the Real Deal Band will be performing to limited seating on April 17th. They also hope they will be headed back to Europe to resume that cancelled tour in October/November 2021.
While there could be an entire side bar on why European audiences seem to have a greater reverence for the blues masters, it does lay truth to the simple fact that John Primer is one of the last living links to the legends. Pair that with a strong background in soulful stylings along with a “who’s who” of collaborations and you can only draw one conclusion--- everyone needs some Primer to get a complete picture of “real deal” Chicago blues!