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ROCKIN' JOHNNY BAND
By James Porter, dated June 04, 1998.
"In Chicago, James Porter finds you can't play the blues without paying your dues".
It's Monday night and Rockin' Johnny Burgin is in action at Smokedaddy, a Bucktown rib joint, historic R&B promo photos lining the brick walls. Burgin has been holding court here since 1995, sometimes with Jimmy Burns, occasionally with Tail Dragger, other times carrying the ball himself. His group, once known as the La-Z Boys, is now called the Rockin' Johnny Band, after a certain furniture company objected to the original name. But whatever moniker the crew goes by, it's muscular Kenny Smith or Kelly Littleton on drums; stoic, stern Sho "Nuff" Komiya holding down the bottom with his bass; Martin Lang sporting a Jerry Lee Lewis pompadour and blowing his brains out on the harmonica; and Rockin' Johnny up front, smiling from east to west, lost in a blues reverie as he plays his battered Rickenbacker. It's been like this for Burgin, playing jams and off-night showcases, for nearly ten years now.
Dozens of great musicians emerge from Chicago's blues jams, some of them with knockout original material. But to get anywhere in the tightly knit blues world, younger or lesser-known musicians usually have to do time playing behind better-known acts. In Texas and California clubs, young and old blues guys coexist. In New York City, younger blues musicians can develop at the same pace as their rock brethren. But top Chicago clubs recycle the same blues veterans over and over. Only in cities without a deep blues heritage can up-and-comers avoid years playing behind a Son Seals or a Koko Taylor. Outside of Chicago, they can be Son or Koko. The fact that blues musicians must pay heavier dues than their rock brethren "can be kind of disappointing, but it helps you learn about life, the way things really are, not getting anything easy," says Dwayne Richardson, a ten-year veteran of the blues wars. "Somebody might die, and then everything will shift up. Or somebody might get a big record deal and move on, or somebody might just float off the scene or move away, and it all just moves up. You gotta learn the styles, learn the songs, learn to back people up, let people see your face, kiss butt with the club owners. You've got to wait your turn."
Richardson should know. He and Rockin' Johnny Burgin, both 29, have spent most of the decade putting their weight behind various blues acts. But the performers, who both have new CDs on the market, are just now starting to break out from the pack. They had to wait before doing their own thing, but they're still young enough to make their mark.
In the best bar-band tradition, Burgin and his Rockin' Johnny Band will pull out a few surprises, like the country instrumental "Steel Guitar Rag" or James Brown's "Doing it to Death," but his take on early sixties Chicago blues is in the pocket. And in a city where rock and blues don't like to go to bed together, Rockin' Johnny's Smokedaddy shows attract a surprising number of hipster rock types.
Maybe it's because, like T-Model Ford and other members of the Fat Possum gang, Burgin (above, left, with Tail Dragger) plays hard-driving, back-to-basics roots music with an almost punk sensibility. "I keep my solos brief and to the point," he notes. "People think, 'Oh, it's just blues, I've heard it before.' And then I say we're a blues band, and they don't wanna hear it - that's a big frustration for me. If people hear punk, that's fine."
In another part of town, Dwayne Richardson is working his guitar in D'Agostino's, an Italian restaurant near Steppenwolf Theater. He's just broken up with his girlfriend, and now he's singing songs about heartbreak to a basement full of well-heeled couples. You can hear the hurt in his voice when he goes for those Otis Rush high notes, but he's holding up well.
Although they both play under the big tent called the blues, Richardson and Burgin gravitate toward different poles. Richardson's main men are flashy Son Seals and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and he has no problem adapting a chunky funk rhythm where needed. During his D'Agostino's set he throws in covers of "Superstition," "When Doves Cry," "No Woman, No Cry," and Power Station's "Some Like it Hot." While he's not a purist, Richardson excels at what he does. He won't jive you for thirty minutes and run.
Everywhere he plays, the fresh-faced Richardson still hears comments like, "What's a young black man like you doing playing blues?" Defying all stereotypes, Richardson listened to classic rockers like Zeppelin and Hendrix when he was growing up in Hyde Park. His blues indoctrination started when a friend gave him tapes of B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan. In his 14-year-old mind, Vaughan "sounded like hillbilly music. Then I heard the B.B. King and I couldn't understand what was going on. But when I started playing guitar, the more I listened, the more it sounded like something I wanted to do."
That's when Richardson's apprenticeship began. "When I graduated high school I said, 'I wanna really see if I can play,' and I just went out on the jam sessions. Then people picked me up - Tommy McCracken, Professor [the late pianist Eddie Lusk, who headed up Professor's Blues Revue] - and I found that was the music I wanted to play."
Soon enough, he made the pilgrimage to the nearby Checkerboard Lounge. "I grew up in Hyde Park," he relates, "and I was all scared for my life to go to the Checkerboard, and didn't want to get mugged and everything. Dion Payton was playing, but I had no idea who he was."
Richardson's introduction continued when Tommy McCracken, a mammoth singer, spotted him at a blues jam. "I was real nervous because I didn't know how they did things," Richardson says. "I had practiced in my room, or played with friends, but I had no idea how things went playing music for real on the blues scene. And this big fat Indian dude asked me to play with him, and I said OK. We played at the Park West Playlot, which was right next door to the Kingston Mines. "I was playing, and I guessed I was doing pretty good," Richardson recalls, "but McCracken turned around to me and he said, 'Look, you muthafucka, you PLAY! Turn your shit up, step out and play.' So I stepped out, turned up my guitar and started playing. He taught me a lot about entertaining people and just really playing this music."
From there, Richardson moved on to Professor's Blues Revue, famous for lead singer Gloria Hardiman's rendition of "Meet Me with Your Black Drawers On." "Professor was one of the best entertainers I ever played with," Richardson (right) says. "He may not have played the piano like Memphis Slim or Sunnyland Slim, but he would totally entertain the crowd. Playing with him, I got to open up the show, and he told me to just kick butt. He'd be like, 'We're on the show with Joe Louis Walker, so I want you to play the guitar with your teeth, under your leg, behind your back - whatever you gotta do."
Johnny Burgin was born in the non-blues mecca of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He later moved to Greenville, South Carolina, where at age 16 he started playing rock guitar. "I really jumped into the blues feet-first once I got to Chicago, through Tail Dragger, and then Big Wheeler, Jimmie Lee Robinson, John Brim and Big Smokey [Smothers]," he says. "I loved Big Smokey." After a few gigs with Tail Dragger, it was time to go back to the woodshed. "When I actually had to go play a blues gig, that's when I realized, 'I really gotta learn about the blues,'" Burgin says. "I went back and listened to the records again - the greatest hits of Little Walter, Muddy Waters' 'Real Folk Blues' - and I heard 'em differently. I was playing in black clubs, and when I went back and listened to the records again, I imagined those people playing in those black clubs. All of a sudden, the meaning of 'em just changed."
The Hyde Park music scene was percolating in the early nineties. Chris Holmes was starting to come on with various projects, and bands like Tart and the John Huss Moderate Combo were making noise. This was the atmosphere that new U of C grad Rockin' Johnny found himself floating in. There was blues activity in the area not seen since the Paul Butterfield-Michael Bloomfield days of the early sixties. A small core of blues fanatics - Burgin, soon-to-be-bandmate Lang, blues DJ Dave Waldman, saxman Jesse Scinto and guitarist/harmonicat Ken Kawashima (aka Sugar Brown) among them - was jokingly dubbed "The Hyde Park Blues Mafia."
An early version of the Rockin' Johnny Band played around campus a lot. "I really wanted to play," Burgin says. "Tail Dragger wasn't always hiring me, so it was like punk, where you just had to do it yourself. I played bass in [a band called] the Ice Cream Men every Thursday at Lilly's. I really wanted to play lead guitar, too, so I formed my own band, and we played at co-op parties and all that stuff." Through Waldman, host of a blues show on WHPK-FM 88.5, Burgin met Big Smokey, who "always let me sit in. He introduced me to Little Smokey [Smothers] - and he always let me sit in." And so the apprenticeships continued.
Do enough time playing blues in this city, and you're bound to catch the ear of Bob Koester. In addition to being the main man at the Jazz Record Mart, he's also the founder of Delmark Records, which is primarily known for signing blues artists who've been around the block and then some. Young artists are common as sidemen on this label, but never as credited artists. Burgin, only the fourth white bluesman to record for the label since its inception in 1953 (after Dave Specter, Tad Robinson and Al Miller), had guested on Delmark discs by the likes of Golden "Big" Wheeler, Jimmy Burns and Jimmie Lee Robinson. But it was only this year that Burgin earned his own CD on the label, "Straight Out of Chicago."
Burgin reckons he got his shot with Delmark by making himself "quietly indispensable. I didn't draw much attention to myself, but I was right there where I was supposed to be. Koester always liked my playing, but he told me a year before the contract, 'If I thought you were singing better, I'd sign you.'"
His high-pitched tones conjured up at various times Skip James, Curtis Mayfield or Al Wilson, the falsetto-voiced guitarist with Canned Heat. Burgin who sounds a lot more self-assured now, sings the first five songs on his CD. In true soul-revue fashion, Robert Plunkett, Tail Dragger and Sam Lay also take vocal turns on the album, but Burgin holds his own.
While young Rockin' Johnny hung around local blues clubs to get a glimpse of Big Smokey Smothers, Dwayne Richardson went through similar rites of passage. "I used to read articles about how Stevie Ray would go down to Antone's in Texas and Freddy King would tell him, 'OK, I'm not gonna talk to you in front of all these people 'cause you're a little white boy, but you hang out till after the show and I'll show you some stuff.' That's how I thought it would be. But when I came around, nobody wanted to show me nothin'. I did meet a few people, like Son Seals and Otis Rush, who would give me advice or tell me I'm doin' good, keep playing. That was what kept getting me through."
Richardson fondly remembers the night a fellow musician introduced him to Seals: "Son said, 'How you doin', young man? Very pleased to meet you. He was very courteous and open to me. He played the blues, but his songs had different turnarounds, a different style, a little funk, and that's who I kind of patterned my style after, a little bit. Him and Otis Rush were the only two guys who came up to me and said, 'I really like the way you play. If you play tonight, why don't you play one of my songs?' I was honored to hear that. So I got a special place in my heart for them, and their style of music."
That encouragement helped Richardson gut out the grind that takes its toll on so many young blues musicians in Chicago. He tells of a mutual acquaintance who is now playing with a wedding band. "The blues kinda got to him," he says. "People fade away." That's almost what happened to Richardson. A bout with hard drugs all but ruined his rep. "I was a rich kid and had everything I wanted," he explains. "The drugs and the alcohol can take a toll." Speaking from hard-won experience, Richardson tells up-and-comers to avoid "that 'bleeding heart' type of thing: 'Well, I'm a bluesman, or I'm a blueswoman, and this is the life.'"
After turning his life around with a stint in the Army, the opportunities slowly started coming around for Richardson again. Alligator Records honcho Bruce Iglauer asked him to play on a Chicago blues tour of Europe. "Over there, people treat you like a king," he says. "It was proof that what I'm doing, people want." He continued to pay dues playing with J.W. Williams and "waiting for the right thing to come around." In his case, it happened to be a Halsted Street bus. "I was sitting outside a restaurant waiting for the bus one day, playing my guitar, and the owner walked out and asked me for a lesson. I said 'Sure!' Then he said, 'Well, do you want to play in my restaurant?' and I'm like, 'Yeah, sure,'" Richardson recalls. "Then I met a few musicians who said, 'We don't care about the money, we don't care about the gigs, we just wanna play. We'll stick in your corner, we'll rehearse for free, just tell us what to do.' My bass player, Tom Marshall, he's an awesome country-rock guitar player, but he said, 'I'll play the bass behind you.' The drummer, Brian Mell, he's a jazz drummer - he went to school, got a degree in percussion - but he was just like, 'Man, tell me what to play.' I was knocked off my feet. And now it's finally building up, and I can kinda see the light at the end of the tunnel." The stint at D'Agostino's led a revitalized Richardson to sharpen his songwriting skills. "I'm not a person who can just whip out originals," he says, "but if I've really got the feeling about something, then it'll come out the best in that blues style." You can hear Richardson's style on a new, self-released CD, which is named after his band: "Dwayne Richardson & Two Blue." It's an impressive piece of work.
Meanwhile, Richardson, Burgin and others like them continue to pay their Chicago blues dues every night of the week. "We deliver some music for the people to have a good time," Richardson says. "They just wanna drink and socialize and party, and we can help."