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John Primer will deliver the goods when he returns to Camden for two shows

Posted: September 28, 2017 10:17 a.m.
Updated: September 29, 2017 1:00 a.m.
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MISSISSIPPI NATIVE AND CHICAGO resident John Primer makes his second appearance in Camden after rocking the stage at the 2013 edition of the Carolina Downhome Blues Festival.

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It was just your regular Sunday night at Chicago’s Checkerboard Lounge. That is, it was if your idea of ending your weekend was attending a Muddy Waters show for a few bucks.

On Sunday, Nov. 22, 1981, however, forking over two bucks put you in rare, if not cigarette-smoked filled air, at the iconic blues venue on the city’s gritty south side. The small club located in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Bronzeville was filled to the brim for a midnight show which was to include Waters and his band joined by fellow blues legends Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Lefty Dizz. In the wee morning hours, amid much noise and more than a few necks straining to see just what the fuss was in the back of the establishment, in rambled the Rolling Stones, fresh from a show in Chicago earlier that evening to promote the group’s new album, Tattoo You.

Whether or not the Stones’ appearance at the Checkerboard was planned --- as some have insisted --- or, spur of the moment in order to see some of their idols including Waters and Dizz, it left an indelible mark when the music legends got together for what became a multi-million dollar jam session.

On the stage for that memorable late night/early morning show was Waters’ bandleader and lead guitarist John Primer.

Primer, a two-time Grammy Award nominee was presented with the Blues Foundation’s 2016 Blues Music Award for traditional blues male artist of the year, will be setting up shop in Camden on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 6-7 as a headliner at the 21st annual Carolina Downhome Blues Festival.

On Friday night, Primer and his Real Deal Blues Band will rock The Venue on Broad in a show which takes the stage at 9 p.m. The following afternoon, Primer will play a more intimate, hour-long set inside the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County’s Bassett Gallery at 2 p.m.

In both instances, blues aficionados will get to see and hear a legend in the industry. And while Primer’s Camden shows will not carry the same star power as that night in Chicago some 36 years ago, you can expect to get the goods from one of the giants in the business who laughed when asked about the night he and Waters’ band were joined on the small Checkerboard stage by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ron Wood.

“It was a rumor but we weren’t sure they were going to stop by the Checkerboard. The Rolling Stones loved Lefty Dizz; they were crazy about Lefty Dizz,” Primer said of the Stones’ coming to check out Waters and his band that night on which the Stones and Muddy Waters recorded Live at the Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago 1981.

“Not a lot of white people come up (to the Checkerboard) anyway. I just thought it was a regular bunch of white guys coming up there with a bunch of girls and whiskey. They didn’t come in there with it but from behind the bar, they gave them a whole fifth of Jim Beam. I recognized them and when Muddy was singing, I said, ‘Those are Rolling Stones.’”

From their inception, the Rolling Stones leaned heavily on American blues and roots music and delved into the music of Waters, Dizz and other luminaries of the medium. It was thanks in part of the Stones’ bringing the blues to the forefront in their native Great Britain, that the blues and its performers gained a new popularity beyond the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

“They opened up a lot of new places for blues musicians,” Primer said of how the Rolling Stones brought the blues to new audiences. “They opened up the door for us. It was there with people like Eric Clapton but it was the Stones who really put the blues on the map. They were great for the blues.”

While it may have taken a group from England to bring the blues to a new and younger set of fans, for John Primer, the blues were in his blood even before he was born in Camden, Mississippi --- a town named for Camden, South Carolina by Mississippi governor (1857-59) and Camden, S.C. native William McWillie. 

“I’ve listened to the blues all my life from the time my mom was carrying me around when she was pregnant with me,” he said of his upbringing. “I came out singing the blues. She said when I came out that I didn’t cry like a baby, I came out humming.”

A self-taught guitarist who had a one-string, family hand-me-down bottleneck guitar, Primer always looked forward to when his grandmother received the Sears and Roebuck catalogue in the mail. As soon as it was his turn to look through the book, he immediately turned to the instrument section and went directly to check out the guitars. “I wouldn’t look at nothing else but guitars. They were five, six or seven dollars back then,” he said.

By the time he was 18, in 1963, Primer headed north to Chicago in search of employment and to get away from Mississippi’s cotton fields. “I didn’t care much for the cotton fields. It wasn’t my line and I never could get the hang of it; it was always too tough for me,” he said. 

 “I moved to Chicago to get a job working in the factory. I played guitar and by (19) ’64 , I could play very well by then. I could play all the Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed stuff. I knew what I was doing.”

Ironically, Primer said when he first arrived in Chicago, the blues scene had yet to include or embrace artists such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, opting, instead for more rhythm and blues.

  “Chicago was one of those places that went through hard times. Blues just eased people’s mind back in the day,” he said. “They didn’t care too much about Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and all that kind of music until later on.”

By 1974, Primer was leading the house band at Theresa’s Lounge on Chicago’s south side. While there, he played alongside blues legends such as the late Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. Five years later, Primer was asked to join Willie Dixon and his Chicago Blues All Stars. He was the group’s rhythm guitarist, lead slide player and singer and toured ing the United States, Europe and Mexico.

It was during a stop in Mexico that Muddy Waters took in a Chicago Blues All Stars show and by the end the night, the blues legend started asking questions about Dixon’s guitarist and bandleader.

“We all went to Mexico City and Muddy was on that tour with Coco Taylor and some other bands. Muddy heard me playing and he asked Willie, ‘Who is that young man playing that guitar?’ And, Willie said, ‘That’s John. John Primer.’ Muddy said, ‘That man knows how to play music,’” Primer said as he recalled how his working relationship with Waters began. 

When the Chicago Blues All Stars broke up in 1980, it proved to be the break John Primer dreamed of when first deciding to head to Chicago. He always wanted to play alongside Waters. Little did he know his opportunity would come sooner rather than later.

“Muddy sent his old harmonica player, an old buddy, Mojo Buford, to hit me up and come to see and talk with me,” Primer recalled of that fortuitous meeting and getting the chance to work with one of his idols in the industry. “He said, ‘Muddy needs a guitar player and he sent me here to ask you.’ I said, ‘Man …’ I was jumping for joy.”

Until Waters’ passing in 1983, Primer served as the bandleader, guitar player and the opening act. Following Waters’ death, Primer hooked up with Magic Slim and the Teardrops, touring and playing with them as the bandleader for 14 years.

Primer struck out on his own in 1995 and released his first solo record, The Real Deal. He continues to tour the globe and his discography includes upwards of 70 albums. In 2015, Primer was nominated two Grammy Awards for his work on Muddy Waters 100 CD. 

In 2017, he released Ain’t Nothing You Can Do, collaboration with harmonica player Bob Corritore while Primer also appeared on the all-star album, Chicago Plays the Stones.

In Camden, he will be joined by the Real Deal Blues Band --- which is made up of some of the finest blues musicians the Windy City has to offer --- for Friday’s night’s show at The Venue on Broad before his solo show the next afternoon inside the Fine Arts Center. In both instances, Primer said he wants people to feel they are part of the show when they are there and then, have a good feeling when they leave.

“I want them to feel good because what I do, I do with my heart and soul and with feeling. When I play stuff, I don’t just play it, I feel it. I put hot sauce on it,” he said with a hearty laugh.  

“You just can’t go up there and play it just because you can play and show people how many notes you can play. That’s not what it’s all about. If there ain’t no feeling, there ain’t nothing there.”

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