Featured Interview – Rockin’ Johnny Burgin

It may not have been as spellbinding as an episode of CSI, nor as compelling as a chapter out of a Sherlock Holmes novel, but the air was still thick with mystery and there was still a burning question to be answered.

What happened to Rockin’ Johnny Burgin?

During the early 1990s, a person would have been hard-pressed to find a hotter band on the Windy City blues scene than the Rockin’ Johnny Band. They played to jam-packed clubs and had a pair of outstanding albums issued on the venerable Delmark Records label (Straight Out of Chicago and Man’s Temptation).

And then … poof! Rockin’ Johnny just disappeared into thin air.

Well, not really.

While he was still in Chicago, Burgin wasn’t playing the blues. Heck, for eight years, he wasn’t playing anything.

He moved from front-man on the bandstand to front-man of his family, giving up music to be with his wife and raise his daughter.

“I never wanted to quit forever and it really wasn’t supposed to be a total break from music, but it did end up being that way,” Burgin said. “When I decided to come back, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to play. I had sold my stuff and didn’t even pick up a guitar for about eight years. I didn’t know if I could play … I wasn’t sure how people would respond to me coming back. At that time, I was separating from my now ex-wife and I was broke; I needed the money and I wanted to play.”

Needless to say, Burgin was welcomed back by blues fans across the globe with open arms and big smiles plastered on their faces, saying, ‘Welcome back!’

“They were really happy when I came back and that meant a lot. Blues fans are really loyal and that was gratifying,” he said. “As soon as I started playing again, this guy from the Netherlands wrote me and did an article on me and my career and I got a really-good festival gig in Holland out of that. It was a really positive experience, but I had so much rust on me, that I really didn’t know if I could handle the job, you know? But honestly, I’m a much better player this time around than I was back in the ’90s. I’ve really grown into myself.”

‘Handle the job’ he did and since returning to playing the blues in 2009, Burgin has been busily making up for lost time and this spring, he released his latest album, Greetings From Greaseland. The disc is named after Kid Andersen’s San Jose-based studio, where it was recorded.

“I think it’s the best CD that I’ve done in my career. It’s been the best-received (by blues lovers) one since my first one, which came out at the beginning of ’98,” he said. “It was a breath of fresh air to go to California and work on that disc … it was a good vibe. I’ve also really built up my audience in California, too.”

While it contains Burgin’s patented blues on the inside, the outside of Greetings From Greaseland is kind of a tip of the hat to Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park album. It’s postcard-like presence was done with a purpose, because after all, Burgin did for-go recording right in his own backyard for taking a trip out west to the bright sunshine.

“I live about four miles west of Delmark Records; it’s right off Irving Park Road and I live right off Irving Park Road. But instead, I said, ‘You know what? Let’s do it (record at Greaseland). There was a CD that Paul Delay did that I played on (Delay Does Chicago (Evidence Records)) and the whole concept was, a bluesman from the northwest (Delay was from Portland, Oregon) comes to Chicago and does something fresh. He worked with me and my band and Jimmy Dawkins and Zora Young,” Burgin said. “That really helped him and there was a big reaction to that CD. It gave all of us a boost. So I thought about it and decided I should do the same thing … a Chicago/west coast CD. Aki Kumar (harp player) – who I play with a lot on the west coast and then he comes here and plays with me – suggested recording at Greaseland. He’s the one that introduced me to Kid. After that, going to Greaseland to record was a no-brainer.”

Working with Andersen turned out to be just what the doctor ordered for Burgin.

“He’s a real blues-head. He’s a genius guitar player, but deep down, he’s a blues-head and there’s not many blues-heads that can actually operate a recording studio. Most guys that can operate a recording studio are reggae-heads or progressive jazz-heads, or they’re hippies that love the Grateful Dead,” said Burgin. “Ultimately those guys will try and steer you to an ideal that’s not your ideal. It’s like this tug-of-war to get the sound you want. It wasn’t like that with Kid. He wanted what I wanted. He knew where I wanted to be and I didn’t have to explain it. I did that CD in five hours, which is my personal best. I did Now’s The Time (his comeback disc) in six hours, so I beat that by an hour and I think that’s the best I can do. I left the rest to Kid, because he’s a great engineer. It’s a nice collaboration.”

The 1990s was when Burgin seemingly broke onto the scene like a bolt out of the blue and while he may not have been your classic ‘overnight success,’ that tag wasn’t very far off the mark, either.

“I felt a lot of pressure, with everyone looking at me. Before I knew it, my first Delmark CD was out and it did pretty well, so there was a lot of attention on me,” he said. “All of a sudden, I went from playing these humble, $35 gigs in these little black clubs on the West Side to playing in a lot bigger places. It happened really fast and I think I handled it OK, but now, none of that stuff fazes me. It’s a lot easier to just enjoy it.”

Burgin and the extraordinarily-talented Kumar currently have plans in place to record a double-bill CD with split vocals, ala what Buddy Guy and Junior Wells used to do.

Burgin really begin to make his mark on the Chicago blues scene by playing with legendary cats like Sam Lay, Taildragger and Jimmy Burns.

“Playing with those guys was a huge break for me … but I did earn all those breaks, you know? For guys now, they couldn’t come up and learn the way that I did, because the people to work with are not there anymore,” he said. “They’ve got to carve their own way and I don’t know how they’re going to do that.”

Lay’s reputation certainly preceded him, as stints playing drums for the likes of Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band would indicate.

“Sam really taught me a lot about repertoire and he always gave a 110-percent. There are musicians who do a job like a plumber that’s fixing a sink. And then there’s musicians who are on the other side and it’s all about excellence and the glory and the feeling of it,” he said. “Unfortunately, it (playing music) is kind of a job and there is that element of fixing the sink in there, you know? But Sam played so hard every night and he taught so much by example. He showed me what he wanted and I concentrated on giving a really perfect performance. That was a great thing.”

While it still involved playing the real-deal Chicago blues – and was still a wonderful thing – you could say that Burgin’s time backing up the one-and-only Taildragger was at the opposite end of the spectrum from his days with Sam Lay.

“Yeah, that was a whole different thing. When I was playing with him (Taildragger), the priorities were whiskey and women … for Taildragger. It was a walk on the wild side,” Burgin said as he chuckled. “Taildragger and I are a good team, musically. I learned to make him comfortable and when we’re together, he relaxes because he knows it’s going to be good. We developed a really good relationship.”

Burgin was also Jimmy Burns’ right-hand man for quite awhile, as well.

“With Jimmy, we needed each other. He needed a good band and I needed a great singer, so it really worked out to both our benefits.”

Playing with Burns at the Smoke Daddy club in the city’s Wicker Park neighborhood was where Burgin was discovered by Delmark’s legendary guiding force, Bob Koester. That turned out to be huge for Burgin, even though his take-home pay from the club didn’t require much effort to carry.

“The first two years at the Smoke Daddy, we played for free. Jimmy Burns made a little, but the band played for free,” he said. “But you know what? I’m getting returns on that now. The Smoke Daddy was a gentrified place and all of a sudden, we were packing it. Then we started getting paid, because we were packing the place. That opened up every door in Chicago for me, because we were packing this place on a Monday night.”

Although one would be hard-pressed to tell that he’s not a native Chicagoan, Burgin was not born and raised in the Windy City. Originally from Starkville, Mississippi, Burgin came to the big city in search of an education (which he got) from the University of Chicago, after also spending time in South Carolina. Although it may not be of a conscious effort on his part, that unique southern/northern blend can most definitely be picked up in Burgin’s guitar playing.

“I came to Chicago when I was about 18 and pretty soon after that, I met some blues purists at the radio station (WHPK, the college station where he DJ’d at, and where he also picked up the ‘Rockin’ Johnny’ handle) and they kind of steered me in a way that was good for me and that’s how I met Taildragger,” he said. “I had been playing prior to moving to Chicago and had been doing some gigs, although I wasn’t that good. The first time I sat in on the West Side, I completely failed. That was a learning experience, for sure.”

That ‘learning experience’ was something that couldn’t be pulled from the bookshelves at the University of Chicago’s library, nor was it something that could be studied be simply watching others do it. It was learned by jumping into the fire with both feet.

“The cool thing about playing with Taildragger on those West Side gigs was, it re-contextualized the whole music as part of the black culture and a black experience,” he said. “It made me listen to the blues in a whole new way and I just appreciated them on a much deeper level. I think that really helped me a lot.”

It may seem like a no-brainer today that a guitarist with the immense talents of Burgin would have his sights set on becoming a professional musician from the get-go, but prior to his arrival to attend school in Chicago, he says that may have been the furthest thing from his mind.

“I really didn’t think it was possible. If such a thing were possible, I definitely wanted to do it. But I just kind of took it month-by-month after I graduated … I mean, I didn’t have any real kind of a career plan,” he said. “It was like, well I made it this month. And then I made it the next month and then the next month and then that added up to a year. Then I asked myself if I should try it for another year and I did that until I got married, which was a good 12 years or so.”

That month-by-month plan certainly worked out as well as could be for Burgin, but that didn’t mean that his immediate family actually endorsed such a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of career plan.

“No, my parents were not too happy about this. But I played the (Chicago) Blues Festival with John Brim, Yank Rachell and Big Wheeler … that’s the only time I’ve played the main stage at the festival,” he said. “And so I told my parents that I had just paid my rent in an hour. And there was nothing they could really say to that.”

One of the major reasons that Burgin has never lacked for a gig – whether with his own outfit or whether backing someone else – has to be the individualistic sound he pulls from his guitar. There are certainly touches of the 1950s Chess-era blues at the surface, but there are also embellishments of a more modern, a more non-traditional sound, to boot. Add it all up and what you have is the unmistakable sound of Rockin’ Johnny Burgin. According to the man himself, the end result of the way he sounds today may have something to do with the equipment he was using once upon a time.

“I had this Rickenbacker and a small amp and I had to develop ways of playing louder with that, just to be heard and to cut through. The bass would be so loud and the harmonica would be so loud, so I used extra-heavy picks and would pick at a certain point on the guitar, because it had such weak pickups,” he said. “So I had to cut through all that and I just developed a style in actual working conditions and out of making what equipment I had work. I’ve also had a lot of variety in the bands and the people that I’ve worked with and each one is kind of a puzzle and you sort of have to figure each one out as you go. I had to have a wide palette. How do you contribute and how do you make the person you’re working with sound good? Or how do you show yourself in the best possible light?”

A fine example of Burgin’s touch and finesse on the six-string can be found on his version of “House of the Rising Sun” from Greetings From Greaseland.

“I’m really big into Django Reinhardt – he’s one of my total heroes. I put some Django stuff into “House of the Rising Sun.” It’s like a Django/Luther Tucker kind of thing,” he said. “And as a college radio guy, I listened to a lot of indie rock and really like groups like The Minutemen. The guitars sound great on those records.”

It’s a shame that Burgin is so good on the guitar, because in a way – thanks to his prowess on the instrument – he really doesn’t get the credit that he deserves for being a first-class vocalist. He’s passionate, soulful and just downright bluesy when he steps up to the microphone.

Oh, he’s also a heck of a harmonica player, too.

“Well, I was not very good in the ’90s, which is when most people made their opinion of me (singing). I think of myself as a singer that plays guitar,” he said. “My harp playing may not be anything to really write home about, but it’s nice, because I have a good guitar player with me a lot of the time and I can put the guitar down and sing and play harp. That makes the guitar like an extra-special treat.”

Burgin’s rapport with his audience – as well as his bandmates – leaves the impression that he’s a natural up on the bandstand. Turns out that’s pretty much the truth, regardless of what he’s doing up there.

“I love to be on stage and I love to perform and connect with the audience,” he said. “The actual mechanics of how that happens is not important. I’d probably be happy if I were a magician, or something. I mean, look at Junior Wells. He was a great harp player, but he was pretty casual about it. He’d just play through the vocal mic, but what he really liked to do was to talk to the audience and tell stories. He was in complete control and I like that a lot.”

His career plan of ‘no real career plan’ has most definitely worked out and probably even exceeded expectations for Rockin’ Johnny Burgin.

But more than something that happened just over night, it’s something that he’s been working on and adding to for decades now.

“The first band I was in was the Ice Cream Men with Jimmie Lee Robinson and Big Wheeler and that was kind of concurrent with the Taildragger thing. I was either playing second guitar, or there was no bass and I played the bass lines on guitar. So I started with the more simple and basic roles and I kept adding more and adding more and adding more,” he said. “Now I can just do what I want too … and I still want to play a lot of guitar. But there’s no reason for me to just be a guitar player. That’s why I love to play harp; it gives the audience a break from being hit over the head with so much guitar.”

Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015

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