“I don’t see myself as anything special,” Jimmy Burns chuckles. The top-shelf blues guitarist is a little too self-deprecating, of course, but his modesty comes honestly; he’s playing in service of the music and in service of the performance. “There’s only one type of music: good music,” he says; “I don’t care about the genre; it’s all about the presentation.”
The Mississippi-born Burns delivers that message emphatically on his most recent album, It Ain’t Right (Delmark, 2015), a collection of covers of soul, blues, and gospel tunes that not only showcase Burns’ soulful vocals but also his down-to-the bone guitar and harmonica work. He’s joined on the album by his stellar backing band of Anthony Palmer on guitar, Greg McDaniel on bass, Bryant “T” Parker on drums and backing vocals, Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi on piano, and Roosevelt “Mad Hatter” Purifoy on organ. Burns moves from the opening bluesy rock riffs of Billy Flynn’s “Big Money Problem”—Chuck Berry meets Duane Allman on this can’t-sit-still scampering tune—to the Sam Cooke-influenced “Will I Ever Find Somebody”—the song opens with a riff off of “We’re Having a Party” and throws in some gospel organ for good measure—and onto the rough-and-ready, snaky blues of the Bobby Rush classic “Snaggletooth Mule, featuring some B.B. King-inflected guitar licks in the opening twelve bars that kick off the song. Burns delivers a moving version of his older brother Eddie’s “Hard Hearted Woman,” and he closes the album by resurrecting the traditional gospel tune “Wade in the Water” with a bright call-and-response take that moves the body and soul.
Although it took Burns twelve years to get back to the studio to record this album, he’d been steadily playing blues festivals and clubs—”at blues festivals you might be on stage for a 45-minute set, but it’s more money for not quite as much work,” Burns laughs—as well as collecting songs for the next project. “I’ve had these arrangements for a little while and Dick Shurman, my producer, came to me and helped me choose the ones we put on this album.” Burns made a few discoveries during the process, he recalls. “I heard some Percy Mayfield songs I’d never heard before, and I thought I’d heard almost all of them. You know he has a whole lot of songs, and I love these two we put on the album: ‘Long as You’re Mine’ and ‘My Heart is Hangin’ Heavy’.”
Burns took a little hiatus from recording in the 1970s and ’80s, when he focused on raising his family; for thirteen years he ran a barbeque joint in Chicago called Uncle Mickey’s, which closed in 2004. He “came back” in 1996 with Leaving Here Walking (Delmark), which received two W.C. Handy Award nominations and was named Best Blues Record of the Year by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors. Yet, for an artist baptized in the Mississippi blues tradition and later confirmed as a teenager in the Chicago blues, folk, and soul scene, music lurked in his soul and he played sporadically during those years. “The music drew me back to playing full time; I never stopped loving the music and I played it,” Burns says. “Music is a part of me.”
As a child he first heard the blues, and it took hold of him and wouldn’t let go. “I started listening to the music as a kid—’Shake the Boogie’, John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boogie Chillen’ and stuff like that—and then I saw them perform the music live; when I heard that music I was attracted to it and it was different and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.” Burns “started messin'” with the guitar—”it was a one-string guitar”—before he was seven-years-old, but in just a couple of years he was playing “regular guitar.” “It was in open tuning, so it made it a little easier to learn; I never took lessons, and it’s pretty much what I still do today,” says Burns. “I’m forever trying to re-work a song; whatever I hear, I hear it a different way, and I feel it a different way,”
As a musician’s musician, Burns’ quest has taken him on a colorful journey through folk music and soul music. Back in the 1960s—”when I was a youngster,” he laughs—he was hanging out at the now-legendary Chicago folk club, the Gate of Horn (whose reputation was most recently recalled in the movie Inside Llewyn Davis), and he “had a fake draft card so I could get in, since I wasn’t old enough yet.” He played at the Fickle Pickle, a Chicago coffeehouse where blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield produced a weekly series devoted to the blues. “This guy told me he had been meaning to start a band,” recalls Burns, “and the next thing you know he’s off playing with some famous people [John Hammond, Robbie Robertson, Charlie Musselwhite, and Bob Dylan.]” But, Burns says, “when I heard a lot of this music, I thought, ‘these guys are playing blues,’ but back then what they were playing they called ‘folk.'” Burns recalls hearing Odetta, Josh White, and Barbara Dane—”damn, that’s blues she’s playing,” Burns recalls thinking when he first heard her—in those days.
Burns moved to soul music with The Medallionaires, when he was 16, who recorded some doo wop tracks in the 1960s; in 1965, he sang lead in The Fantastic Epics, who played at the old Arie Crown Theater in Chicago. “We played a lot of R&B and Top 40 and cut a few singles [“Give Her to Me” (1965) and “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” (1966) among them], and we’d play regular nights at the Thumbs Up club in Chicago.” “We played one place in Northlake that turned out to be a syndicate joint; we had to play all night, and I saw bouncers throw people out on their heads; we didn’t play there long,” chuckles Burns. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Fantastic Epics became Rasputin Stash and had a few hit R&B records under that name. During these years Burns met British guitarist Jeff Beck, then with the Yardbirds, who came to a show at Thumbs Up and wanted to sit in with The Fantastic Epics. “Jeff was the first guy I saw do that feedback with his guitar; man, all the girls were crazy about Jeff, too,” laughs Burns, who ran into Beck a few years ago and talked about those nights, which Beck remembered fondly.
Burns’ influences run deep from Archie Brownlee of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, Howard Tucker of the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and the Soul Stirrers to Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Elmore James. “Two people I truly miss,” he says, “are Michael Jackson since it seemed like I watched him grow up and B.B. King. If you play urban blues, it’s hard not to put a B.B. lick in it. I love that song “Please Love Me.” B.B.’s death really hit me hard, too; when you’re young, you think everybody’s going to be around forever, and as you get older, you start to realize that you’re not gonna be around forever.”
Tireless in his quest to get better at performing and playing, Burns keeps practicing guitar and learning more from others. “I practice all the time,” he says. “I don’t feel like I know enough, and I want to learn more. My friend Pistol Pete is showing me stuff all the time.”
One of the reasons Burns is learning more guitar is because he’s been wanting to get back to writing some more. “Lately I haven’t been inspired to write anything,” he says. “I’ve been going back and hearing things a little differently, but after a while you can do only so much of that, and I’d like to try to write some new stuff, too. One of the reasons I don’t like playing with other musicians sometimes is that I like to play songs like I hear them, and they don’t always hear them that way. When you’re playing your style you’re not competing with anybody.”
Burns is always going to leave it all on stage, and it’s evident in his commitment to being ready to perform or record. “I’m not going to put on a show, or record a song, until I’ve got it. I remember one time I was playing with Pinetop and I’d had a little too much to drink, and I just embarrassed myself. I wanna be damn sure I got it; you don’t want to play onstage unless you have it.” But he’s not just out to please the crowd, and his commitment to doing his music the way he hears it defines him.”I’m gonna play my music, and I hope you enjoy it. I’m playing what I feel, and I’ll always do that. I don’t know how good I am—other people will tell you how good I am.”
He’s spent some time playing with others, too, and he’s learned one of his most important musical lessons from playing with Pinetop Perkins. “You have to listen to what they’re playing and not get out in front of them; that’s the worst thing you can do. I’ve seen some guys do that, and then they get lost and can’t find the groove again. Whether you’re playing in someone else’s band or in your own, never get out in front of the music; the music will take you where you want to go.”
“What amazes me about music,” Burns reflects, “is that we still continue to recycle it. You have to find your own groove and your rhythm with it. That’s the new thing you’re bringing to a song. I think musicians have a problem with relativity, I mean, relating to a song so you can give it your own interpretation. I don’t think about originality. I just wanted to sound good and feel good. If I feel good, the people are going to feel good. I don’t believe in bullshittin’ the people.”
Burns believes he’s grown in many ways as an artist. “I’ve learned more about my guitar, and I’m still learning,” he says. He’s also evolved tremendously as a musician. “When I started, I thought I had to do blues and that was all I had to do. Well, I played ‘Honest I Do’ in a major scale, not the typical minor scale of blues music. And I’ve done that with some other songs, too. If it sounds good that’s what matters. I’ve evolved into putting a sound to music that I’m comfortable with,” says Burns.
One thing is sure: Jimmy Burns is not sitting still. He’ll soon be off to play in Argentina and Brazil, and he’ll keep playing locally in Chicago clubs as well as regionally and nationally. He plans to keep recording and putting out new records, and though it might be a few years before the next one comes out, he and Shurman are already looking through songs and talking about what might be on the album.
At this point in his career, Burns is a little more reflective, especially in a world where the delivery of music is so different and often challenging. “Who’s interested? How important am I and is it worth doing that?” he asks. “I’m known when I go to YouTube; I see Jimmy Burns all over the place; how can I turn it into a monetary value?” he laughs. “But, I’m not looking to be a big star; I gave that up when I was 16,” he chuckles.
In the end, it’s all about the music, just as it’s always been for Burns. He going to do what makes him feel good and make the music that appeals to him, whatever people call it—blues, soul, folk, or rock. “I just want to play music,” Burns declares. “I enjoy playing music and I want to learn some more and I want to come up with more music.” And that’s something for which we can be damn grateful.
Visit Jimmy’s website at: www.jimmyburnsband.com/