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John Primer

John Primer

Chicago blues traditionalist

by James M. Manheim

From the January, 2016 issue

When I moved to Chicago in the early 1980s, it was in part the blues that drew me there. The first generation of Southern migrants who created urban blues were still at it, and I got to hear titanic, wrenching solos from Muddy "Mississippi" Waters at Navy Pier with a horde of other reverent young people. I frequented the B.L.U.E.S. club on Lincoln Ave. on the North Side and, when feeling adventurous, Theresa's on E. 43rd on the South Side, where the warmth in the house gave the lie to the chilly streets outside. It's likely that I heard guitarist John Primer at this time, probably more than once, for he played in the house band at Theresa's and then in the bands of Waters and Willie Dixon.

Primer was born in Mississippi in 1945 and came to Chicago in the early 1960s, making him part of the last wave of the Great Migration. In the late 1980s he performed, at the Ark among other places, as one of Magic Slim's Teardrops, and emerged with his own band. He's released about a dozen albums that are marked by the styles of his mentors, but his concerts don't have the feel of a blues museum. Primer does some covers, usually putting his own stamp on them, but most of his material is original.

He's not extraordinary either as a vocalist or a guitarist, although he's solid as both and has an attractive way of building a guitar solo out of clean, economical phrases. What's compelling about Primer's music is how it fills out the traditional lyric themes of Chicago blues--love, sex, poverty, the Migration itself--in unusual ways that have the feel of growing from the tradition's roots. His blues aren't cut down to radio length but stretch out for six or seven minutes and tell a story or approach the subject from a variety of perspectives.

Some are downright novel--Primer's "1839 Blues" is a story of separation told in the time of slavery--but in the words of WCBN Nothin' but the Blues DJ Jerry Mack, Primer has stayed "true to the tradition of South Side Chicago blues." Now seventy, he may be the last musician who absorbed that tradition firsthand and has carried it forward, and his show might be the perfect place to reflect on the nature of this thing called Chicago blues. Primer comes to the Ark on Sunday, January 17.     (end of article)

[Originally published in January, 2016.]


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