Every musician in the blues has a good back story about how he developed an interest in the music, but no one’s life has taken a more fascinating path than Jerry Portnoy, who’s best known for his work as the harmonica player in Muddy Waters’ band in the ‘70s and as a founding member of both the Legendary Blues Band and Ronnie Earl’s Broadcasters.
The great majority of artists in the modern era have discovered the music in the grooves of records. Others learned it at the feet of family members who grew up in the tradition. But not Jerry. He’s different. It literally seeped into his subconscious as a toddler, hid there through his childhood and hit him like a freight train around the time he was old enough to vote!
A stylish dresser who’s known for his dark, rich tone and agile play on the reeds, Portnoy was barely out of diapers when the music began coloring his life on Maxwell Street, the virtual ground zero of the blues in Chicago.
Now based in Massachusetts, Jerry grew up the son of a shopkeeper operated Max Portnoy & Son, King of Carpets, peddling flooring to the masses after emigrating from Kiev in what was then the Russian province of Ukraine.
Maxwell Street exists today solely as part of blues legend. A neighborhood that once served as home for Jewish immigrants and where jazz great Benny Goodman grew up, it was far more than a district of shops owned primarily by first-generation Americans. It was also a flourishing open-air market where anything and everything was for sale.
The neighborhood gave up its ghost to urban renewal in the latter part of the 20th century, first to expand the Dan Ryan Expressway to the east and then by development of the expanding University of Illinois-Chicago campus from the west. But in its heyday, it was a major crossroads where the Southern drawl of poor blacks who’d migrated from the South blended with the voices of other transplants from around the globe into an excitement filled cacophony as everyone shopped for a great deal.
The Portnoy’s shop was situated a block and a half east on Maxwell Street from its epicenter, which was its intersection with Halsted about 13 blocks south and a mile east of the heart of the Loop. It was totally low rent – the complete opposite of the glitz and glitter of Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile to the north.
The aroma of fried onions from Jimmy’s Hot Dog Stand — which operated at the heart of the neighborhood 24 hours a day — dominated the atmosphere, blending seamlessly with car exhaust, kerosene burning in 55-gallon drums bringing warmth to the peddlers and musicians on the street during winter and stale urine and rotting garbage emanating from the alleyways during the summer heat.
Small-town folks flocked there from across the Midwest on weekends, frequently becoming lambs for the slaughter when the “bargains” they unearthed turned out to be cheap knockoffs instead.
But the blues there was out of this world.
The neighborhood was an incubator when recent arrivals from Mississippi and Louisiana began developing their techniques, turning the country blues of their home states into what became the intense, electrified Chicago sound. It was there that many of today’s blues gods first experimented with amplification for the first time. They played for tips, powering their equipment using extension cords and paying shopkeepers a quarter or more to plug in to their electrical outlets.
“I was down there every Sunday from 1947 to 1953,” Jerry, now age 76, remembers today. “I started going there when I was five. And that was still the height of the neighborhood.
“There was music everywhere,” Portnoy remembers, noting: “But there was a lot more than blues.”
On any given day, you could hear gospel, gypsy jazz, klezmer and – yes – even classical music, too.
A who’s who of blues artists — including Robert Nighthawk, Bo Diddley, Honeyboy Edwards, Big Bill Broonzy, Earl Hooker, Floyd Jones, Johnny Young, Blind Arvella Gray, Jimmy Rogers, Big Walter Horton, J.B. Lenoir and, later, Junior Wells and Koko Taylor — all honed their chops there.
Although many historians have claimed Muddy did, too, Portnoy is quick to point out that he didn’t, adding that the undisputed king of the blues during that era “took umbrage if you accused him of it.
“I think he thought that that was beneath him,” Jerry says.
But one person who was present was a young Little Walter Jacobs. Like all of the biggest names in the era, Walter set up shop in the alley just to the west of the hot dog stand, and Jerry passed him by frequently when he left the shop and crossed the intersection to pick up corned beef sandwiches for his father from Lyon’s Deli, which was directly across the street from the alley.
Just a teenager himself and still playing country blues that was more reminiscent of Sonny Boy Williamson than the revolutionary, pyrotechnic styling he’d perfect in the ‘50s, Little Walter was riding high at the time, having just recorded his first single.
The disc — “Ora-Nelle Blues” backed by “Just Keep Loving Her” – was recorded at Maxwell Radio and Records, a few steps west of the alley in the same block, only a short while before. Now one of the most highly prized blues recordings of the late ‘40s, it was only one of two platters ever to appear on the store’s Ora Nelle imprint.
“The blues fascinated me,” Jerry recalls. “It was the soundtrack of my childhood,” quickly adding: “I didn’t pay it any particular attention. It was just my ordinary environment.
“I didn’t even know what blues was! But the way I feel about it is that it imprinted those sounds in my head. And when I got exposed to blues years later, it triggered something and I just went crazy for it.
“My father got forced out of that store in 1953 under eminent domain because the city was gonna put a highway right through the block he was on. That was the beginning of the end of Maxwell Street.”
Gentrification slowly ate away at the neighborhood, which disappeared completely when wrecking balls finally tore through the remaining buildings in 2000. Meanwhile, Jerry went off in a different direction. He graduated high school, attended college on and off for a while, held various jobs and hung out at another long-gone landmark, Howard-Paulina Billiards, the largest pool hall in the city on Chicago’s far North Side.
“Then I got drafted,” Portnoy remembers. “I was a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division.”
Known as the Screaming Eagles, the unit played major roles in both World War II, where it participated in storming the beach at Normandy and the Battle of the Budge, and Vietnam, where it played a vital role in the assault on Hamburger Hill, but Jerry was already back home prior to that battle after filing for a discharge as a conscientious objector and eventually winning his separation.
“That was an interesting episode,” he says. “But at any rate, I got out of the Army in the fall of ’66, went back to Chicago and managed the pool hall for four or five months. We had 21 brand-new Gold Crown Brunswick pool tables, ten antique five-by-ten billiard tables and one five-by-ten snooker table.
“Then, early in ’67, I went out to San Francisco – my sister was living out there – and was there for the famous Summer of Love. In ’68, I went to Europe, just kinda bummin’ around.”
The blues came calling just before he left.
“I was over at a friend’s house,” Portnoy remembers, “and he had a harmonica sitting on his mantelpiece. I picked it up, and he told me I could play it.
“There was a lot of musical talent in my family,” Jerry says, “none of which I thought I possessed. I had had abortive attempts at guitar and piano and even accordion — and couldn’t play anything. Everything required a degree of digital dexterity.
“But the harmonica was strictly an aural instrument. I picked it up, put it in my mouth and figured: ‘Low notes to the left, high notes to the right. Breathe in, breathe out…I got this!
“I had this physical affinity for it. I had this sense immediately that I could do something with it.”
The friend told him to take the harp with him on his trip.
“I fooled around with it while I was hitchhiking,” Jerry remembers. “I figured out how to play a few things. And then, when I got up to Sweden, I was staying at this kinda hippie crash pad. I went out one day and found a record store downtown and found this Sonny Boy Williamson record – Rice Miller, Sonny Boy No. 2.
“It was an album he’d recorded in Europe with Memphis Slim, Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy and Billy Stepney on drums. It had a gray cover with some stars on it, and he was in profile with a harmonica stuck in his mouth – the long way, like he was gonna swallow it. He could play that way…Rick Estrin can do that.
“Anyway, I bought the album, took it back to the apartment, dropped some acid (LSD), put on the record – and I never came back!”
The very next day, after a police raid, Portnoy found himself in a jail cell, where he awaited deportation back to America.
“To make a long story short, I got a free flight back to the United States, which is exactly what I wanted,” he says, “because when I dropped that acid and heard Sonny Boy, I said to myself: ‘That’s the coolest shit I ever heard! I gotta learn how to do that – and the States are the only place to learn.’
“I couldn’t have been happier because I didn’t have money to get back on my own.”
Portnoy stayed in California for a brief while, meeting Sonny Terry and Estrin and starting to play out a little on his own. “I started getting into it,” Jerry says, “and then my father got sick in early 1970. I went back to Chicago, and the music kept me there. I started playing professionally.”
He was shopping at Bob Koester’s famed Jazz Record Mart – then the base of operations for his Delmark label — at its old Grand Avenue location shortly after his arrival when he spotted a poster on the wall advertising guitarist/mandolin player Johnny Young.
An artist who was as wide as he was tall and one of the first Windy City-based, electrified bluesmen of his era, Young was appearing at the Wise Fools Pub, a long-running club near DePaul University on the North Side.
“I go up there,” he says. “And as I’m approaching the place, I can hear the music and I can hear Big Walter’s harp pourin’ out of the doorway. I could hardly pull the money out of my pocket fast enough.
“I walk in and Johnny looks kinda like a bowling ball – round and black. His playing was very simple, but what a beat. It’s Johnny Young with the Aces – Louis and Dave Myers and Fred Below on drums and Big Walter on harp.
“That was the first live music I saw after returning to Chicago, and I got to know all those guys and started sitting in with the band.”
All superstars in their own right, guitarist/harp player Louis, bassist Dave and Below were the finest rhythm section in the golden era of Chicago blues in the ‘50s after bursting into prominence in support of Little Walter.
Enthralled by Big Walter’s sound and revolutionary technique, which included the three-note turnaround used by most harp players today, Portnoy starting visiting him at home, traveling to one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the South Side with a bottle of V.O. in tow to share and often using it to mimic a weapon underneath his clothing as he walked the street.
Apparently, Horton quickly realized that Jerry was something special. As most folks who knew him remember, he was often a difficult man for strangers to approach — suspicious at first meeting, but warm after you’d earned his trust.
After cracking open the booze, Jerry would ask how Horton played various pieces. The master would say something along the lines of “it goes like this…” and launch into it, but it was up to the student to listen and attempt to reverse engineer it because Walter wouldn’t go into much, if any, detail.
Fortunately, Portnoy was persistent, sometimes bringing along a tape recorder to capture what he could. And other top harp players of the era were also very supportive as he started sitting in with dozens of artists in the city, including Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Littlejohn, one of the best and most often overlooked slide guitarists ever.
“I lo-o-oved Johnny Littlejohn,” Jerry says today. “Working with Johnny…as a band leader, as a guy to play for both musically and personally, he was tops in my book. He had a great sense of humor, he was a good cat to work for, he was fair and he was so-o-o underrated.
“That guy was a great singer and a great guitar player. And he had that real Mississippi whine in his voice. I just loved hearin’ him sing, man! I miss that cat. I got his picture up on my wall.”
One of the first members of a new wave of young white harmonica players in the blues, following in the footsteps of Paul Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite, Corky Siegel and Paul Oscher, Portnoy’s first true professional gig came after Young asked him to work a show with him in Appleton, Wis.
“I worked with Johnny Young for about two years,” Jerry remembers. “He was a fun guy who could turn evil in an instant because he couldn’t handle hard liquor. He’d fire me at night and hire me back in the morning.”
Portnoy spent the next couple of years with Johnny Littlejohn and then Sam Lay. He was working a day job at Cook County Jail, performing vocational evaluations on inmates, in April 1974 when the blues world lost Young after a heart attack.
“There was going to be a benefit at a club called On Broadway,” Jerry reminisces. “That day, I stuck a couple of harps in my pocket before I went to work. I didn’t know who I’d play with, but I knew all the cats around town. I figured I’d get up there with somebody.
“When I walked into the place, though, I almost turned around and walked out. The place was packed practically shoulder-to-shoulder, and I didn’t know if I wanted to deal with it.
“I was just about to leave, but looked toward the stage, and saw Muddy sitting at a table. I looked around the room and saw the other guys in his band — Luther ‘Guitar Junior’ Johnson, Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith and Calvin ‘Fuzz’ Jones — but I didn’t see Mojo Buford, his harp player.
“When I saw Muddy, he looked right at me and our eyes locked. He put his finger up and motioned for me to come over to see him. At that moment, any thought of leaving vanished because that was like a royal summons from the king.
“I went up there, and he asked me if I’d play a set with him. I said: ‘Of course.’ Then he told his manager to take my number.”
The set went off without a hitch, Jerry says, adding: “I played pretty well, I guess.”
After the set, he stood outside in the rain and waited for the chance to thank Waters personally for the opportunity.
Waters emerged from the bar, exchanged pleasantries and then asked: “Boy, can you travel?”
“Muddy, wherever you want me to be in this world, just tell me and I’ll be there,” Jerry answered.
“You’re gonna hear from me,” Waters replied.
Three days later, Muddy’s manager called and instructed him to give Waters a call. As Portnoy says today: It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was about to transpire next.
Muddy told him: “We’re going to Indianapolis May 25th — playing a big baseball stadium” then told him to familiarize himself with the other musicians – he was going to replace Buford, who had gone off on his own, and become a member of the Muddy Waters Blues Band.
Portnoy uses a baseball analogy to describe his attitude when that day finally arrived. The feeling was akin to walking out onto the grass of Yankee Stadium to play centerfield. For any blues harp player, it was the greatest job imaginable.
“Muddy was a great band leader,” Jerry says today. “He was pretty laisse faire. He hired you because he knew you could do the job and pretty much let you do what you wanted unless he found it objectionable. That’s when he’d give you a look or something.
“But he was really generous. There are a lot of band leaders out there who are jealous of their sidemen. They’ve gotta be the star and don’t want anybody else getting over with the crowd. But Muddy was the complete opposite.
“The first week I was in the band, we opened up the Cellar Door in Georgetown (Washington, D.C.). I was standing next to Muddy, and right before my solo, he put his hand in the small of my back, gave me a little push and said: ‘Go get ‘em, son!’
“That’s what he was about. If I tore the crowd up, he was happy. To walk out on that bandstand was always a feeling of pride.”
Portnoy’s stay with Waters included some of Muddy’s most successful recordings, including the albums I’m Ready, Muddy “Mississippi” Waters and King Bee as well as Johnson’s Luther’s Blues, a solo effort backed by Muddy’s band.
His run ended in the summer of 1980, when he Smith, Jones and Johnson departed along with keyboard player Pinetop Perkins and guitarist Bob Margolin. They left following an unresolved dispute with Waters’ manager, who, they believed, was taking unfair advantage of them financially.
“We didn’t have an issue with Muddy,” Jerry insists. “But his manager made it tough on us – and fed Muddy’s worst instincts. It just got untenable at the end.”
Details of that falling out remain murky, but Portnoy promises to tell all in his autobiography – if it ever gets finished.
Jones, Smith, Perkins and Portnoy reunited shortly thereafter as The Legendary Blues Band. Their first album, Life of Ease, featured Louis Myers in the lineup, with a second disc, 1983’s Red Hot ‘n’ Blue.
“We had such great comradery in that band,” he says. “I wasn’t really in favor of that name, but Willie said: ‘Well, they always introduced us as ‘Muddy Waters and His Legendary Blues Band. So let’s just use it.’ We went along with that. And, at least initially, it helped us getting started.”
The band continued in various incarnations for the balance of the ‘80s, and the lineup truly was legendary. “Our first guitar player was Duke Robillard,” Jerry notes. And both of the Myers brothers appeared on the first disc. Other members included guitarists Billy Flynn, Nick Moss and Little Smokey Smothers and harp player Madison Slim, among others in different alignments.
Portnoy decided to call it quits after a six-year run. “I ‘retired,’” he says. “I bagged it in 1986. I was burned out. I’d been on the road for 12 years, and I was drinking a lot. My marriage was in trouble and all that stuff.”
He worked as an advertising copy writer for the next year or so and briefly fronted his own band before being approached by Ronnie Earl, who was forming his own band, The Broadcasters, after a lifetime as the featured guitarist with the Rhode Island-based horn band Roomful of Blues.
Their two-year partnership proved rocky before Jerry launched his own band, The Streamliners. Their four years together produced one album, Poison Kisses in 1991. A disc that’s chockful of great original material Jerry penned himself, it also was released as Home Run Hitter on the Indigo label in 1995, getting far more distribution and including three additional tracks.
It was around the same time of the album’s first release that Portnoy began a fruitful association with Eric Clapton, initially when Eric was scheduled to appear for 24 nights at Royal Albert Hall in London, shows that live on in the 15-cut Reprise release, 24 Nights.
“Around Thanksgiving 1990, I got a call from Eric to go over to England after New Year’s to rehearse for six blues shows that he was planning,” he says. “It was going to be six nights with a small (four-piece) rock band, six nights with a big (nine-piece) rock band, six nights with an all-star blues band and six nights with an orchestra.
“I was part of the all-star blues band that had Eric, Jimmy Vaughan, Buddy Guy, Robert Cray, Albert Collins, me on harp, Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry’s famed sideman) and Chuck Leavell (of the Allman Brothers) on keys, Jamie Oldaker (of the Bob Seger Band) on drums and Joey Stampinato (Bonnie Raitt, NRBQ) on drums.
“At the end of those shows, Eric really, really liked my playing,” Portnoy recalls. “He invited me back for the shows in ’92. Everything fell to turmoil because his son died, and those shows didn’t take place.
“But he did call me back for ’93 with Duck Dunn on bass, Chris Stainton (of Joe Cocker fame) on piano, Andy Fairweather Low on second guitar and Richie Hayward (of Little Feat) on drums. At that point, I became a regular member of the band because he was going to do all blues for a while.”
Jerry’s harp work graces Clapton’s From the Cradle as well as his Me and Mr. Johnson, Complete Clapton and Forever Man albums, after which Eric veered away from the blues for other musical directions.
Portnoy subsequently earned a Grammy nomination in 1996 as a member of the Muddy Waters Tribute Band for the You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Dead and Gone album. He’s been in semi-retirement since 1997, when he released a three-CD instructional package entitled Blues Harmonica Masterclass, which still sells well today.
“I pretty much lived off of that instructional video for ten years,” he says, now preferring to enjoy life in home near the ocean in Dennis, Mass., and frequent visits from his grandchildren while working locally with his own band occasionally and appearing nationally when the money is right.
His only other album as a front man is Down in the Mood Room, a blues/jazz hybrid that was produced by Robillard and released in 2001. Currently, he has no plans for another, knowing that a new CD would force him to tour on a regular basis, something he truly doesn’t want to do.
“I’ve done European tours and a couple of South American tours, and I’ll come out for festivals if they pay my freight,” he says. “I played the Niagara Falls Blues Festival in September, and I’ve got a couple of other things in the hopper, too.”
That includes a Mark Hummel’s Blues Harmonica Blowout tour of the West Coast with Robillard in tow on guitar, which was scheduled for early January 2020, about the same time this interview was scheduled to run. He also posts occasional instructional videos on the www.sonicjunction.com website.
There’s no argument about it: Portnoy is a great, traditional harp player. But what Jerry’s most proud of, he says, is his songwriting. “When you play a good solo,” he notes, “it vanishes into thin air. But if you write a good song, it stays there forever.”
Check out where he’s appearing by visiting his website: www.jerryportnoy.com. And while you’re there, be sure to check out his personal vignette on Maxwell Street, which will probably be a segment in his autobiography down the road. It goes into far more detail than contained here.