Toiling as a sideman on Chicago’s blues scene is no bed of roses. The long hours can be rough, the pay alarmingly low, the working conditions sometimes lousy. But when you really prove yourself on your chosen instrument and your peers thoroughly respect you, the phone seldom ceases to ring. The stars know who to track down when they have fresh vacancies in their bands and want to sound their very best.
Guitarist Anthony Palmer has been an in-demand sideman since the 1980s. His versatility is exceptional, his technique immaculate. Palmer stands toe to toe with blues-rocker Joanna Connor one night and expertly backs the more traditional Jimmy Burns the next. Joanna and Jimmy have been Anthony’s two primary bandleaders over the past quarter century, but he’s played with a who’s who of local blues royalty since learning his trade on his native West Side. You’ll find Palmer on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at Kingston Mines playing in Connor’s band, and he occasionally still works with Jimmy at B.L.U.E.S. and Buddy Guy’s Legends. A first-rate sideman checks his ego at the door. “You have to be very attentive. You have to be aware of everything that’s going on musically. And you try to find where you belong in there. It’s like trying to find your space,” Palmer says.
“A lot of guys come out and say, ‘Okay, I’ll do this, and I’m gonna form a band, and the next thing you know I’m gonna be the man!’ I’ve never really had that mindset from the very beginning, because my initial thought about playing an instrument, I just wanted to play, and I wanted to play in a band situation. And I’ve always found that sometimes it’s harder to play support than it is being out front. I’ve tried being out front a few times. I can make the comparison. Being a sideman is less stressful, and I think you can really hone your chops a little better as a sideman. From night to night, you hear different things, the interaction with the other musicians and whatnot. So I’ve always enjoyed that.”
Palmer grew up at 13th and Karlov Avenue. He didn’t know it then, but Otis Rush and Luther Allison also lived on Karlov at one time or another. What the lad did know was that he dug live blues. “I can remember going to the stores with my mother, and Roosevelt Road was the spot,” he says. “You could go to just about any corner at that time where I lived at, and you could hear live music pouring out onto the street. You’re just there. Sometimes in the daytime, they would have their doors open, and I remember many a time I wandered away from my mother and she was wondering where I was at. And I’d be down in front of the nightclub listening. It was almost like a magnet.”
By the time he was 14, Palmer was getting serious about his playing. “I’ve always had guitars of some form from the time I was a little bitty boy. I had the Mickey Mouse guitars with the plastic strings, and then on up the ladder,” he says. “Once I got about ready to come out of grammar school, one of my gifts for my graduation, my grandfather and grandmother told me that if I passed, they would buy me any electric guitar that I wanted. That was a big deal to me. I had a guitar from Sears, a $29 electric guitar, and a Teisco amp. I think the amp was about $40. And I was like on top of the world, man.”
Totally self-taught, Palmer adopted an unusual guitar tuning that’s baffled more than a few potential jammers: he keeps his first and second strings tuned a half-step up from their usual pitch. “People make a big deal out of it. It’s no big thing. It was totally accidental,” says Anthony. “When I was learning, I never had a formal lesson. All I had was a music book, and they would tell you, you tune your low E, and then you go up to the fifth fret, put your finger behind it and tune the next one, and so on. So my automatic thought was, I’ll tune all of ‘em (that way). I got frustrated with the other way because I couldn’t understand the shift from E to E. I couldn’t understand that. ‘Now why would you change tuning?’ So I just decided to tune straight down like that.
“It wasn’t until years later, when I started going around playing with other people, they would tell me, ‘Your guitar’s out of tune!’ Or the other guys would pick it up and look at it like, ‘Man, what’s up, man? This is not right!’ I’d say, ‘It’s right for me!’”
Palmer’s direct musical influences were few. “I had one local guy from my neighborhood at the time. The first time I heard a guitar tune that I just was over the moon listening to, it was this guy by the name of L.C. Roby. I remember I was like 16, 17. He used to play around at the Majestic Lounge. And me and my buddies used to go around there on the weekends, and they would sneak us in. We were underage. The guy would always tell us, ‘Go sit in the back in the dark!’ But I was just enamored of this guy’s playing. He used to play a 335 through a Twin, and his tone was somewhat like Freddie King,” says Palmer.
“The sound was so big and just out there. It was almost like being addicted. Man, I’d be at the damned club every other week. So I got to know him. So then he got to know me, so he figured I was worthy of him trying to show me things, and I started going over to his house. And we used to sit down on his porch. He’d put the amp on the porch, I’d bring my guitar over, he’d bring his out. He lived across from some railroad tracks. And we used to play, man, we’d be out there to four o’clock in the morning sometimes! My mother would be mad because I’m riding a bike, right? ‘Where have you been?’ ‘Well, I’ve been over at L.C.’s house.’ I enjoyed that. That was the one guy of all that really just grabbed me.”
Located at 14th and Pulaski, the Majestic Lounge was Anthony’s first blues hangout, along with his pals, musicians Ricky and Michael Scott. “I got to know Johnny Dollar. So there was one week that the other guys didn’t go with me. I just went up there by myself. I was very full of myself, very cocky. I had just got a brand new white Stratocaster—time payments, the whole nine yards. I learned a few little things at the house, and I was ready. So I down there, and Johnny Dollar called me up on stage with his band.”
Things didn’t go as planned. “One of the guys said, ‘You better go home and learn how to play!’ ‘Cause I’m up there, noodling around—to this day, I don’t even remember what we were playing. I just know I was bad. I think back on it. But I got my head handed to me.” Anthony took that band member’s gruff advice. “I woodshedded at home for the better part of a year or so. I spent hours in my attic, practicing with records and whatever. So one day I decided to have enough nerve to go back to the Majestic. And I went there this time, and it worked. Johnny Dollar called me back up. He said, ‘Boy, you ready now?’ I said, ‘I think so.’ He said, ‘Alright.’ So I got up there and I played, and from that point on, the guys accepted me.”
The West Side was teeming with precocious guitar talent during the early ‘70s, notably Melvin Taylor and Michael Coleman. “We were all in different bands. We were from different parts of the West Side. I was in Lawndale. Michael was more toward the East Side, in the projects. Melvin was further west. Melvin played with a band called the Chicago Transistors. And Michael had a band called the Midnight Sun. My band was called Communication.” Formed in 1970, Communication was a soul band that stayed together for a decade despite never having a record on the shelves.
“Most of the guys were just pals from the neighborhood,” says Palmer. “We won a talent competition at Operation PUSH. That was roughly 1972.” Their potential big break arrived when a representative from RCA caught their act and invited them to submit a demo. The wheels were turning until the RCA rep informed the band’s manager he’d likely be busted down to road manager once a professional management team took over. “Our manager, being the mercenary, greedy son-of-a-gun he was, he decided, ‘I’m not gonna take the tape to New York.’ And we were young guys. All we knew about was playing. We didn’t know nothing about the business,” Palmer says. “If we’d have known any more, we’d have probably figured out a way to take the tape there ourselves. But he just figured, ‘Okay, if I’m not included, nobody’s gonna get anything!’ So that was the end of that.”
Communication finally saw the inside of a professional studio at the dawn of the ‘80s after signing on as funk master Bobby Rush’s band. “We got to know Bobby and went to rehearse with him. I was with Bobby about a year-and-a-half,” says Anthony. “We recorded a session for Philadelphia International. But before that was released, they cut his deal. They got rid of him. So that stuff will probably never be heard.” That’s a shame, because the session was held in Philly with Leon Huff on electric piano. “That whole thing was mindblowing, because I was always into the O’Jays and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, and I always imagined what it was like to record the records they did. Then to be in that studio—Sigma Sound Studio was just amazing. You’d walk into the first part of the lobby, and the whole wall was gold records.”
The band soon ceased communicating. “We splintered,” says Anthony. “I had a girlfriend at the time. We had an apartment and bills, and I was gone most of the time. And it got to the point I wasn’t really making enough money to do anything, so I got frustrated and I gave Bobby my notice.” It was time for an extended vacation. “I subsequently went and got a job on a moving van. I did that for like a year-and-a-half. I stopped playing. I took my equipment and hid it as far away from my sight as I could so I wouldn’t get the urge, not knowing that the urge would come back without seeing it. Because I always missed it. I just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’
“What actually brought me out of mothballs, I was working, and Johnny Christian came along. So I don’t know how he got a hold of me, how he knew where to find me at, but he came to my house. He said, ‘Man, I need a guitar player!’ I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to.’ And he kept talking, taking, talking. And the more he talked—‘Okay, okay, you got me!’ I was back in it again,” says Palmer. “There wasn’t much money, but we worked all the time. We worked like six nights a week, and the band was pretty good.”
Anthony played West and South Side haunts for a year with Christian, but joining vocalist Gloria Hardiman and her new band Nightflight propelled him onto a more lucrative scene around 1982. “Eddie Turner, our drummer, and John Hill, the guitar player, they came to my house one day and said, ‘Hey, man, we’re getting ready to go try something on the North Side, the clubs up there.’ I didn’t know nothing about the North Side clubs at all. I was sort of leery of it because I was just really getting back into playing. I said, ‘Do I want to get this deep in this again?’ I was happy doing what I was doing. So they persuaded me,” says Anthony. “We started working at Wise Fools Pub and B.L.U.E.S. and the Mines. After awhile, we got to doing it pretty regular.”
With a few personnel changes and the installation of keyboardist Eddie Lusk as bandleader, they changed their billing to Professor’s Blues Revue in 1985. Hardiman split vocal duties with Willie White, although virtually everyone in the band including Anthony took their turns behind the mic. “We had something for everybody, I think, and it worked for awhile,” says Palmer. The Revue journeyed to Europe in 1986 as Otis Rush’s band, and Palmer found himself sharing a stage at Montreux with Rush, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray, and Luther Allison. “I always say that’s one of the top things I’ve done,” he says. “I’ll never forget that, because it was so surreal.”
Professor’s Blues Revue was featured on Alligator’s 1987 anthology The New Bluebloods with a cover of Jeannie & Jimmy Cheatham’s “Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On.” “We had been doing the song for about a year live,” says Anthony. “Bruce Iglauer, he had another song he wanted us to record. We worked on it, and we just couldn’t get the right feel for it. I think it was Gloria that brought up ‘Black Drawers.’ We were in the studio and just more or less told Bruce, ‘Okay, what you do, don’t say nothing. Just sit over there and listen!’ So actually, we cut the tune in two takes. All we did, we played it like we played it every night.”
Not long after that, Anthony left the Revue. “As soon as we recorded ‘Black Drawers,’ it seemed like almost as soon as we did that everything started going crazy,” says Anthony. “Egos and whatnot.” During a brief stint with another Hardiman-fronted outfit, Palmer received an offer he couldn’t refuse in late 1989. “We were playing at Blue Chicago, and one night two of the guys from Joanna’s band came in. It was almost like a mugging or a kidnapping,” he laughs. “They were saying, ‘Hey, man, Joanna wants you to come and play in the band. Would you be interested?’ And for what we were doing at the time with Gloria, we weren’t really doing a whole hell of a lot. So I jumped at it.”
He stuck with Connor for a dozen years the first time around, touring the world with the fiery slide guitar specialist and recording four albums for Blind Pig. After eight years as Jimmy Burns’ guitarist, Palmer returned to Joanna’s band in 2011. “I always say I play counterpoint to her,” he says. “Her thing is slide. She plays a lot of straight guitar, but I can’t play slide. So she does the slide stuff, and she’s a great rhythm player. I think she’s a great guitar player all the way around. She’s developed a lot. And I play off of her really well. Sometimes it’s like telepathy. We’ve played together so long, it’s like she knows where I’m going. I know where she’s going.”
Burns hired Palmer in 2003. “I got a call one evening: ‘This is Jimmy Burns.’ I didn’t know Jimmy Burns from Adam. I knew he played at the Mines. I knew some of his material. And he said, ‘I’ve got this trip coming up. I’ve got to go to Quebec for a couple of days, a festival. I need you to come play with me for a couple of days,’” says Anthony. “While we were riding to Canada, I learned basically almost all his stuff. All I had to do with Jimmy was backtrack. When I first started playing, I was playing closer to what Jimmy did. So I just had to deprogram myself, simplify.”
Jimmy gave Anthony his enduring nickname, the “Fret Burner.” “Oh, man. I hate that,” moans Palmer. “The reason I hate it is because if you have a nickname like that, people think you put it on yourself. And that’s something I would never do. Jimmy came up with that, and I just said, ‘What the heck.’ I don’t hear it as much now as I used to, so I’m glad of that.” Nonetheless, Anthony was red-hot on Burns’ Delmark albums Live at B.L.U.E.S. in 2007 and It Ain’t Right in 2015. He also contributed to recording projects by Johnny Drummer, Lurrie Bell, Byther Smith, Eddie Taylor, Jr., and Linsey Alexander during the 2000s.
Happily, Palmer’s extended bout with relative anonymity may be about to end: he’s considering making his own long-overdue debut album. “I’m just more or less in the thinking stage of it right now, so nothing’s been done yet,” he says. “I want to do a blues or R&B sort of thing. I haven’t sung in a long time. I got away from it. Sometimes you get sidetracked by one thing: ‘Okay, this is fine for now. I’ll go back to it sooner or later.’ Then you look up and you never go back to it.”
In the meantime, Anthony will continue to serve as a consummate team player, unleashing his fret pyrotechnics behind whichever bandleader happens to be paying his salary that particular evening. That’s the life of a blues sideman, and he’s long been one of Chicago’s best. He also understands the value of loyalty in a very competitive field.
“I don’t burn bridges!”
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.