Featured Interview – Jimi “Primetime” Smith


Cover photo © 2023 Marilyn Stringer

imageJimi “Primetime” Smith has a long and impressive history with the blues, having released numerous acclaimed albums and having played with blues royalty such as Otis Rush, Albert King, Albert Collins, and Etta James.  However, his unobtrusive and humble nature often leads to blues fans feeling uncertain if they have ever seen him previously.  Adding to their uncertainty is the fact that before he changed the spelling of his name and added the nickname, he would often be confused with organist Jimmy Smith.   However, Jimi’s most recent work is getting so much attention that he seems destined to soon become a household name.  Blues Blast Magazine had the opportunity to catch up with Jimi recently following the Blues Blast Awards show in Peoria, Illinois.

Jimi was born in Chicago into a musical family.  His mother, Johnnie Mae Dunson (AKA “The Big Boss Lady”), was a pioneer in the industry as one of the first female drummers and songwriters.  She played with legends like Albert King, JB Hutto, and Jimmy Reed, and was also Reed’s manager.  This led to Jimi having some impressive mentors, and he recorded his first song (on a 45-rpm record) at the age of eight.  His first professional show, which was with Jimmy Reed at the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, was at the age of fourteen, where he played in a slot between Charles Mingus and Ray Charles.  By the age of seventeen he was playing in the blues clubs in Chicago alongside Big Walter Horton, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmie Johnson, Eddie Taylor and Fenton Robertson.

“Jimmy Reed was the most influential.  He was the first to start teaching me how to play guitar.  However, Hubert Sumlin was a long-time friend of my mom’s.  They knew each other even before I was born.  Hubert showed me how to play and get different tones with my fingers rather than a pick.  He never used guitar picks.  He also showed me how to play in different keys without using a capo and how to be myself.  He taught me how to take the influence of others but develop my own style.”

At the age of twenty, Jimi moved to Minnesota where he played in a duo with Lazy Bill Lucas.  He then met Linwood Slim when Slim’s bass player disappeared, leaving his equipment in the studio, and Jimi informed Slim that he could also play bass.  Jimi then played bass with Linwood Slim for a brief time, and later played guitar with him.  Eventually the band broke up and Jimi formed his own band, but he also backed up many famous artists.

“Etta James was one of my favorites, and it’s true what they said about her.  She had an incredible ear.  I remember her turning to me and saying, ‘baby—your G string is a little sharp’.  I just said ‘yes Ma’am.   I was about 28 or 29.  Albert King had problems with other people, but not me.  He was a great gentleman.  I remember his hands were really huge.  He would shake my hand and it felt like putting it in a baseball glove.  I got to meet many other artists.  I met June Carter and Johnny Cash’s son.  I got to see my friend, Eddie Clearwater.  While on the cruise I got to hang out with Carey Bell, Bobby Rush, Ruth Brown, and Gatemouth Brown.  It was the most interesting time.  It was 4 am and we were sitting around telling stories about the Chitlin Circuit.  I could have sat there all-night listening to them.”

During the late 1980s, Jimi toured Germany with Luther Allison’s former drummer Donald “Hye Pockets’ Robertson, and then joined Big Walter Smith and the Groove Merchants.  Big Walter Smith became a father figure to him, and since Big Walter often referred to him as his son, and because they both had the name last name, people often thought Big Walter was Jimi’s actual father.  After Big Walter’s death, Jimi took over the band.  Also, during that time, Jimi made an album with Hyepockets on Ruf Records called Not 4 Sale.  It was while he was living in Minnesota that he adopted the nickname “Primetime”.

image“I was playing in the house band at Blues Alley in Minneapolis and always dressed in suits.  One night I came in and my suit really struck the bartender.  He said, ‘Man—you look prime time!’  I decided to keep it and change the spelling of my first name because when people saw the name Jimmy Smith, they thought they were going to see the famous organist.”

As the leader of Jimi “Primetime” Smith and the Primetime Players he recorded Give Me Wings, which was a live album from a show at Blues Alley.  Also, while in Minnesota, Jimi frequently participated in the Blues in the Schools programs, introducing youth to the genre and educating them about its history.  And, in 2014, he was inducted into the Minnesota Blues Hall of Fame.  Jimi then went through several more musical partnerships.

“After my band petered out, I formed a band with Paul Mayosich and Hyepockets called the Rhythm Doctors, and we recorded an album titled Malpractice.  After that band broke up, members of the Rhythm Doctors joined with members of a band called Downright Tight  to form Famous Dave’s Allstars and wound up being the house band for Famous Dave’s venue three nights a week.  Then I started playing again under my name, opened for Coco Montoya, released an album called Back on Track, and later was hired to play with Bernard Allison.  I went on his European tour and stayed with him for about a year.  But he likes to have his band members close by geographically and I had decided I wanted to move to Arizona.”

After moving to Arizona, Jimi connected with an old friend, Bob Corritore.  They have a new album on VizzTone records titled World in a Jug.  It is receiving rave reviews, and Rock & Blues Muse note that they “nail the real Chicago vibe effortlessly…listening to every song on this release is a major priority”.

“I hadn’t seen Bob since the 1970s, and I went to his club for his birthday bash and sat in with him, and we’ve been playing together ever since. He asked if I wanted to put an album together and we put the list of songs together and when we listened to it it sure sounded nice.  He had the concept for the cover, and he has a graphic artist.  I like the cover, the layout and the music we played on it.  We also went into the studio with Anthony Geraci and Wes Starr to lay down some tracks.  That’s how he gets the ‘in the vaults’ stuff.  He does that until he figures out the right time to put things together.  When you have that caliber of musicians, that’s the best thing to do.  I’ve loved playing with Bob since day one.  He was born and raised in Chicago.  In fact, he was still there in 1979 when I left.  It’s just that we lived in that era and played with so many of the great musicians, so when we get together there’s that thing we have from Chicago.  It is in us—it’s just there.  When we get on stage there is something magical.”

imageCorritore echoed the belief that their life experience in Chicago adds to their chemistry together.

“We can talk about stuff that very few people could reference that was part of that scene.  The more we play, the more he is digging deeper and deeper into the well of the old school.  We’re constantly  unraveling new songs and finding new ways we can do something together.  He is a good man and a great player.  His style is just right there.  He has his own tone and the way he phrases.  And there is just this constant ‘cool’ factor that adds value to each of the tracks.  I’m don’t know how I’ve been blessed that some of the great Chicago blues guys come to Arizona, but we’re into a heavy Chicago blue band and people respond to it, and it’s been a joy to work with him.”

Jimi is open to using a variety of equipment when he plays.

“Everybody tries to buy the most expensive stuff or vintage just because it’s vintage.  If I go to a music store and pick up a guitar and I play it and it’s nice and feels good, I don’t care if it costs five dollars or a thousand dollars.  Right now, I’m mostly playing my Les Paul Epiphone and a vintage Strat.  I also have a Tele that I did up—I was channeling my mom with all those rhinestones, but mostly just use that Epiphone and my 1972 Stratocaster.  I also have a Le Doten custom Strat with the F-holes in it.  For amps I was playing out of Fender Deluxes.  I have two of those, but with my injuries and my back, I can’t haul that gear anymore.  I recently found an amp I’m happy with—it’s a micro pro-2 with one 12-inch speaker.  It only weighs 15-20 pounds.”

While he had numerous excellent mentors for his music, Jimi indicated that, like many other passionate musicians, he never learned much about the business side of the music industry, and still manages and books himself.

“I’ve been looking around.  I’ve talked to people about management and publicity.  I still do everything myself right now.  Really, all I want to do is play music and make people happy.  My happiest time is when I’m on stage.  I love the reaction of people when I’m playing and being with the people I love.  I got to play with all the greats.  I got the play at the Checkerboard Lounge, at Theresa’s, both of Buddy’s clubs and Kingston Mines. But I’m just a simple man doing the best I can. Playing is my life’s blood. If people enjoy me, well God bless them, and I love you all.”

You can follow Jimi “Primetime” Smith at https://www.facebook.com/JimiPrimeTime and purchase his latest album at www.vizztone.com.

Please follow and like us: