John Primer’s career trajectory is similar to that of blues titans such as James Cotton and Buddy Guy.
Primer was born in Mississippi and moved to Chicago as a young guitarist trying to cut it in the music business. Before long, he was a bandmate of Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and Magic Slim. It’s a scenario that was quite familiar decades ago, but now Primer is truly one of the very last musicians left who have that kind of classic back story.
It’s a testimony to Primer’s energy and curiosity that he doesn’t feel the need to play the role of the elder statesman. Now 74, he can tell an anecdote about some good advice he received from the legendary Sammy Lawhorn, but he is just as likely to mention his enthusiasm for Chance the Rapper. Primer’s sound is fundamentally classic Chicago blues, but he is not interested in being a museum act.
Primer brings his Real Deal Blues Band to the Reading Blues Fest for two performances on Saturday, Nov. 23.
He always throws in some classic covers, but Primer has always been a prolific songwriter, too. He says that it’s a matter of discipline as much as anything else.
“The good idea will come to you, but you better write it down because you will forget it,” he says by telephone from his home in Chicago. “I’ve thought of a lot of good things without writing them down. Later on, I’ll think, ‘Now what was the name of that song?’ You have to get yourself in the right position and then start writing and adding lyrics to it.”
He couldn’t have asked for better songwriting mentors than Dixon and Waters.
Primer had made a name for himself with gigs at Chicago clubs such as the Checkerboard and Theresa’s Lounge when Dixon pegged him for a guitar role in a touring band called The Chicago Blues All Stars in 1979. After the tour was over, Primer teamed up with Waters during his late-career resurgence, and frequently appeared with him as both guitarist and opening act until Waters’ death in 1983.
He could probably please crowds by just playing “Sweet Home Chicago” and “I’m Ready” night after night, but Primer has always preferred to mix things up. Even when he does songs by Dixon, Waters or J.B. Lenoir on his solo albums, he tends not to choose the obvious titles. He’ll also throw in a total curveball such as the disco-fueled version of “Rhinestone Cowboy” that’s a surprise highlight of his 1992 album, “Stuff You Got to Watch.” He tries to keep an open mind at all times.
“A song might jump into my head while I’m in the middle of another song,” he says. “It can be something I haven’t played in years, and I’m doing a different song and suddenly there it is.”
He never achieved the level of fame that some of his fellow alumni from the Waters bands enjoyed, but Primer has steadily toured and released solo albums, almost always to high critical acclaim. Two standouts are 1995’s “The Real Deal” on Atlantic Records and “Knocking at Your Door,” put out by Telarc Blues in 2000.
“’The Real Deal’ helped to put me in the spotlight, but working with (second guitarist) Larry McCray and producer Mike Vernon on the Telarc date, that one stands out, too,” Primer says.
His latest album, “The Soul of a Blues Man,” finds Primer exploring the soul music he dabbled with in the 1970s. Especially noteworthy is an excellent rendition of Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away.”
After years of bouncing around from label to label, Primer finally seized the means of production, and his new album was released on his own record label, Blues House Productions.
“A lot of things have changed since I started in the music world, which makes me glad I have my own label. A lot of people don’t,” he says. “I can do my own CDs now. All it takes is getting into the recording studio and just doing it.”