Featured Interview – Jimmy Burns

Cover photo © 2024 Peter Hurley

imageWe met the man at his apartment on the 2nd floor of a 2-flat, only a couple miles due west of where his family landed when he first came to Chicago in 1955 at the age of twelve. Since migrating from Mississippi, he had spent most of his life living on the Near North side and surrounding communities.

“Come on up,” he bade us on the intercom. “I forgot about the interview so I have a pot goin’ in the kitchen that I have to tend to.”

“Shall we meet you in the front room, then?” we asked.

“Yeah, that’s good, I’ll be with you in a minute; I’ll leave the door open,” he replied.

After a quick ascent up the stairs, we turned left to the large living room facing Potomac Avenue with two wide couches, a computer nook with an office chair and a fireplace topped with an enormous mantle filled with dozens of framed family photos. Bluesman Jimmy Burns joined us presently, dressed in home clothes: a black tee shirt with a random band name emblazoned on the front, blue jeans, and comfy slippers.

“I hope I’m presentable. You know, I really did forget you were comin’,” he laughed.

“Just glad to be here, Jimmy. You’ve given a thousand interviews, but maybe we can touch base on some things not yet explored,” we posited.

“Well, ask away,” he replied with a grin. “I’ve done so many of these, but I’m happy to accommodate.”

The Jimmy Burns Blues saga is not a typical one. Delta born and raised on a cotton plantation until his father moved his large family north, he possesses all the credentials of a bonafide Chicago bluesman with roots in the Deep South. His story, however, takes an unexpected turn from the standard migratory tale after it wends its way into the Windy City.

“You know I was really a doo-wop singer in my early days, not a Blues artist,” he asserts. “Me and the neighborhood kids, we used to gather at the Seward Park Fieldhouse to work out our harmonies. I had come from a Gospel singing tradition growing up in the South and this was close to that. It was a natural step.”

He clearly was a precocious talent. Fresh from the fields, he established himself as a formidable tenor voice in his new city environment with little difficulty.

“Were you a standout vocalist? Is that the way that you assimilated into a new social circle?” we inquired.

“It was just a way of life, you know, all the street corner groups that were cropping up everywhere. This was the ‘50s, mind you. I didn’t live far from the original Cabrini Greens. Not the high rises, but the original neighborhood was row houses. Still is. Curtis Mayfield used to live over there, I used to hang out at his house. We both attended Wells Community Academy. Everyone sang in those days, as I recall. In church, in vocal clubs, under lamp-posts—I can’t remember whether I stood out or not,” he replied modestly.

Modesty is a recurring theme throughout the interview. The man’s remarkable vocal talent is never a subject for braggadocio. But his voice was so good that by the tender age of 16 he had joined an established vocal group, the Medallionaires who had a few 45’s under their belt.

image“You can find them on Youtube,” he says. “I’m not on those Mercury label recordings but I did record with them. The ones I’m on were never released. I was 16 at the time and they were 19 so, yeah, I was the youngster of the group.”

We settled into an easy Q and A for the next hour or so.

Peter M. Hurley: Let’s go to further back, Jimmy. What are your first memories and how did music come into play

Jimmy Burns: Well, my father was a sharecropper. I was born in 1943 in Dublin, Mississippi, the youngest of nine. Not far from Clarksdale where the family would drive to on some weekends. That was the place for serious shopping. I ended up going to grade school in Clarksdale for two years. But we moved from farm to farm in my childhood. I think I can track three moves, three farms. My father drove a tractor on at least two of those farms, but I don’t remember him coming in from working the fields, per se. Daddy played some guitar, some piano and some harp. I read somewhere where they said he performed at medicine shows but someone made that up. He’d play at gatherings at the house, probably. My Mama played a little too.

PMH: And you?

JB: My daddy showed me how to play the diddly bow. He strung it up on the front porch on a post. One string, you know, but I loved that sound. It’s got that Delta sound, I’ll always have that in my blood. It got me acquainted with playing a stringed instrument. Later on, by the age of 9-10, I got a guitar. Now I had 6 strings. Open tuning.

PMH: Open tuning? What chord, what key?

JB: I have no idea. What I do know is that I just knew how to play it automatically. It came out of me like—I just knew how to play it. Though I play in some open tunings today, I couldn’t replicate that one if I had to. I just picked it up and made music.

PMH: Was it blues?

JB: That’s what my folks were playing and listening to. I remember them talkin’ ‘bout Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blues musicians from that era. And Lightin’ Hopkins was on my radar, I still appreciate him today.

PMH: Your music roots seem to have been established so early in you. And yet it was not until many, many years later that you returned to the Blues. You had pursued Doo-Wop, R&B and Soul Music, even Folk in the interim.

JB: This is interesting. It wasn’t until years later that I recognized that Blues music was in all those forms. I eventually realized that Blues was the source. That’s why, when I did “rediscover” the Blues in the early ‘90s, it came to me so naturally. I was a Bluesman by birth and I had sung forms of music with the Blues as inspiration. Funny, I wasn’t so conscious of it the time. Music was just music and there’s only two kinds: good and bad. I told Billy Branch once that the first time I heard him with one of his Sons of Blues lineups, it hit me that that form was within reach for me too. It sounded right. That must have woke up the Blues in me.

PMH: And now, with your Blues that you play today, you fold in all your other influences too.

JB: That’s the beauty of it. I hear arrangements. I hear a Blues song and I might feel it differently than it had been recorded originally. But I feel its power and I feel its message. And I can only reinterpret it in my own way. My years as an R&B singer helped me develop my arranging and songwriting skills.

imagePMH: I’ve been listening to your first Delmark Records album repeatedly to prepare for this interview. It is so fresh. You have the vocal chops of an R&B man and the soul of a Bluesman. And at least five of the songs were written by you. It’s no wonder this release was revered as a breakthrough album and won awards. (“Best Blues Record of the Year’ by the National Association of Independent Record Distributors and two W.C. Handy Award nominations.) How did this come about?

JB: Long story short, after all the singles that I had recorded in the ‘60s and the early 70’s, I decided to concentrate on my family and I quit trying to make it in the business. I settled into a life of running a BBQ joint of my own I called Uncle Mickey’s. This went on until the early ‘90s and I was invited by Johnny Burgin to join him on his weekly slot at Smokedaddy’s on Division. That was a good band. He was playin’ the Blues right, in my opinion. My own way of playing Blues, my years of growing up with the Country Blues, really came through in this context. After some years in residency at this club, Bob Koester of Delmark came in to hear us. He signed me right there and then, and before you know it, I was in his studio up on Rockwell recording that album “Leaving Here Walking,” released in ’96. I’ve been with Delmark ever since, including this new era with Julia (A. Miller: C.E.O.) and Elbio (Barilari: A&R.)

PMH: We recognize this room from your private weekly stream-casts during Covid. You played live from this apartment. Those were great.

JB: Yeah, I did those from right there on that couch. That was a tough time with no work, man. I never want to see that again. But since I play guitar every single day anyway, I decided I might as well play for the public while I was at it. It kept me in the minds of the people and I’d get responses from folks who were listening from all over the world. And I’m still learning guitar, it never ceases.

PMH: You do have a remarkable history of traveling.

JB: I’ve been all over Europe and into Russia. I’ve traveled extensively in South America too, especially Brazil. I have friends down there and have stayed all over. I still travel to Blues fests all over. In fact, I’m leaving for Germany in a couple of days with my band. We’ve been together for some time now. Good guys. And we know each other quite well musically. I’ve got James Carter on drums, E. G. McDaniel on bass, and Anthony Palmer on additional guitar. I do love to travel. When all is said and done, though, I always say that my two favorite places are Chicago and the United States (chuckles.)At that point, Jimmy’s adult grandson named after him popped in. “Look after that pot, James?” instructed Grandaddy. Later on, his oldest child walked in and gave Daddy a kiss. “Hi, I’m Velvet. It’s really Blue Velvet but it got shortened over the years.” Mr. Burns’ family is a source of great pride and the myriad aforementioned photos attest to it.

PMH: So, after some time with the Medallionaires, you began to record on your own. Those were some great records. Collectors’ items, I hear.

JB: Last I heard, my Soul number with the Fantastic Epics that was released in the early ‘70s, “I Really Love You,” is so rare, an original copy sells for something like $6000 in the U.K. But I sure don’t get any of that,” he chuckled. “You see, these records are now seen as falling into the category of “Northern Soul” in contrast to Southern Soul, out of Memphis and the like. Northern Soul would be recorded in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, places like that. But we didn’t think to categorize it back in the day because, of course, we were just playing our music.

imagePMH: Did you tour behind the early recordings in the early to mid-‘60s? Were you ever on a package tour?JB: No, I pretty much played Chicago is all, record hops and the like, where I’d lip-synch. That was common in the late ‘50s and ‘60s. To have a record, you still needed promotion behind it and there wasn’t much to go around from the labels I was with: Tip Top, Dispo, Erica, and later on U.S.A. Records, like that. I do remember the first time I played in Milwaukee, however (laughing). I’d never been that far north!

PMH: I love those records. Your voice was something else. Still is. (Think Jackie Wilson meets Ben E. King, with a little of the rasp of The Temptations’ David Ruffin on the side.)

JB: I’m glad they’re on YouTube for people to enjoy.

A Google search of Jimmy Burn’s early recordings reveals a trove of classic-but-obscure R&B and Soul offerings by a great talent who never reached the Top 40. See: “Forget It,” “Give her To Me,” “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone,” “Through All Your Faults,” “I Don’t Need Your Help,” “R&B,” “I Tried,” “Used To Be,” “‘I Can’t Get Over,” “Did It Ever Cross Your Mind?,” “Powerful Love” and the aforementioned “I Really love You.” All are under the name of Jimmy Burns, Jimmy Burns & The Casics, or Jimmy Burns & the Fantastic Epics.

PMH: Any chance of a Jimmy Burns’ Greatest Early Hits package some day?

JB: Oh, those labels and their master recordings are long gone. But at least some of the actual discs survived and are in collectors’ hands.

PMH: Any other brushes with stardom in the ‘60s?

JB: I remember when me and the Epics played the old Arie Crown Theater before it burned down. The Yardbirds were on the bill too and Jeff Beck used to hang with us at a club called “Thumb’s Up” on Broadway & Surf. They had bands like Baby Huey & The Babysitters doin’ Top 40 stuff back then. The girls were crazy about Jeff, especially when he’d do that thing with the feedback. Last time I saw him was at Buddy Guy’s old club, he had dropped in. Beck remembered that time with us, we had a nice reunion.

PMH: RIP, Jeff Beck. Much later on, after the success of your first Blues offering, “Leaving Here Walking,” you’ve had some great follow-ups.

JB: Well, my first full album, that did put me on the map. And I immediately began to tour. I was an “overnight success” at the age of 53! But yes, I continued to record and have built up a large repertoire.

PMH: Speaking of age, it seems you surround yourself with younger musicians. And your albums showcase a cross section of Blues, Blues-Rock, R&B, Country Blues, City Blues, the works. Your album “Stuck In The Middle” is about as rocky a Blues album as there is out there.

imageJB: That one features my man, Dave Herrero, who has recorded with me and has been on the road with me. There’s a YouTube video of our stage performance in Turkey. That’s a great country and they love the Blues there. Keeping the younger Blues players around me keeps me vital. I still host an open mic night every other Wednesday at Buddy Guy’s Legends, I alternate with Brother John, and I still see a lot of youngsters coming on the scene. To be honest with you, the line about what age group plays, what is Blues and what isn’t, who plays it and who doesn’t is somewhat blurred in my eyes. As I mentioned, music is music, good or bad. I gravitate to the good.

PMH: You’ve got a new album in the works, right?

JB: Yes, it’s a little different than most of my others. Elbio at Delmark hooked me up with some jazz cats who go by the name of Soul Message Band. It’s a great quartet, with two horns, drums and organ. The material on this CD, to be called Full Circle, will reflect the instrumentation and the players on them.

PMH: Let’s name-check all of your albums, Jimmy. There’s your debut we’ve mentioned, there’s Night Time Again, Stuck In The Middle, Back to the Delta, It Ain’t Right, Good Gone Bad, Eddie Burns’ Snake Eyes that includes you and a live record at B.L.U.E.S..

JB: Those are all available on Delmark except Stuck in the Middle, which is on Velrone Records.

PMH: What a breadth of material. And with so much original songwriting—classic sounding with great hooks, like they’ve been around forever! And you’ve covered everyone from Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Stealers Wheel, John Lennon, John Hiatt, Willie Dixon, Leroy Carr, Elmore James, your older brother Eddie Burns, and the list goes on and on and on. Not to mention my personal favorite, a solo guitar/vocal cover of “Gypsy Woman” written by Curtis Mayfield. What a magnificent interpretation by a contemporary Bluesman.

JB: I love recording as much as performing onstage. My ears are wide open to everything. Each of us is a product of our age, our eras. And the material I perform is the stuff that hits me, that moves me. I’m happy that people like it, it makes it all so right.

Just like his soon-to-be released CD with a jazz combo, Jimmy Burns is an explorer of many threads that lead back to his birthright sounds. Folding in his gospel roots, teen-age doo-wop, Soul and R&B sounds, he’s found a home in his own brand of the Blues and it is reflected back in his big presence in the world-wide Blues scene. With a warm handshake and a hug, we parted.

“See you ’round when I get back from Germany,” the man said. “Now I got to see to that pot I have on the stove.”

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