Featured Interview – Jimmy Burns

To no one’s surprise, John Lennon and Paul McCartney are regarded as one of the most successful and influential songwriting tandems of all time.

And while they were nowhere near the level of Lennon/McCartney, Lou Gramm and Mick Jones were still responsible for crafting a boatload of songs that resulted in more than one multi-Platinum album.

Also, to no one’s surprise, although they were responsible for a number of tunes that have managed to stand the test of time, neither The Beatles nor Foreigner will ever be mistaken for being blues bands.

That doesn’t mean, however, that with a little deep digging, the blues can’t be found at the core of some of the tunes off of Let it Be, or Foreigner’s self-titled debut.

For proof, just pick up a copy of the latest installment in the resurrected recording career of Jimmy Burns – Stuck in the Middle (Del Rone).

The Chicago-by-way-of-Mississippi bluesman confidently tackles The Beatles’ “Get Back,” along with Foreigner’s “Cold as Ice,” on his first studio album in almost eight years.

But why take the time, effort and energy to bluesify songs normally associated with the classic rock side of the airwaves?

According to the 68-year-old Burns, the answer is pure and simple.

“I’ve always liked that stuff to begin with,” he said. “Those are some songs I’ve been wanting to do for years and I finally got around to doing them. But “Cold as Ice” – the first time I ever heard that, I liked it. And I’ve been doing that song for years when I play solo acoustic sets.”

Certainly no different than most music lovers, Burns finds the songs of the Fab Four to be as compelling today as they were four decades ago.

“I like a lot of their stuff. They’re one of the best-ever,” he said. “I find myself humming a lot of their stuff. But a lot of times, when I hear rock, I don’t really hear rock – I hear the delta. First time I heard “Get Back,” I said, ‘That sounds delta to me.’ That intro (on Burns’ version) is a lick I got from Magic Sam.”

Burns also gives his own take on John Hiatt’s “Feels Like Rain,” along with the album’s title cut, “Stuck in the Middle,” – the Gerry Rafferty-authored hit for Stealers Wheel – another staple of classic rock radio. “I’m excited about the album and hope to do well with it,” he said.

Since making his way back to playing the blues full-time in the early 90s, after taking a lengthy sabbatical from playing music to raise his family, Burns has been busy helping to connect the dots between the world of the blues and the world of rock-and-roll – a process he has had his focus on for quite some time.

“They talk about Jimi (Hendrix) as a rock star, but Jimi actually played a lot of blues. Jimi’s thing was really Curtis Mayfield, Albert King, John Lee and Muddy,” said Burns. “If you listen to his music, you can hear that. He just had a really different take on it and music is so much better because of it.”

After sitting out a large chunk of the 70s and 80s to spend time at home with his family, Burns’ desire to make a return to the Chicago blues scene was due in part to a couple of “young guns” gigging around the Windy City in the late 1970s.

“Believe it or not, it was Lurie Bell and Billy Branch,” said Burns. “Not that it was something they said, but it was something I heard from them playing the blues. I was listening to them and said, ‘Damn. I play that.’ And I told my wife at the time that I was going to put together a blues band.”

Rather than just jumping back on stage with the same game plan he had used when playing with the Fantastic Epics or Jimmy Burns and the Gas Company in the 1960s, Burns re-tooled his entire approach to the blues.

“What I said was, ‘I’m going to come back, but with a different concept. I’m going to have a new version of the blues. I’m going to mix the blues with more modern rock,’” he said. “Start out with the 12-bar and then leave that and go off into other changes, such as I did on “Leaving Here Walking” (found on his 1996 disc of the same name, along with 2007’s Live at B.L.U.E.S.). Or like “You Better Know What You’re Doing” – that’s pure John Lee Hooker. I think my words were, ‘I want to re-define the blues.’ I don’t know how much I’ve succeeded at doing that, but I’m not disappointed at the stage I’m at now. I’ve gone way beyond my fondest expectations. I’ve never enjoyed music more than I am enjoying it now.”

Jimmy Burns never strictly was, nor does he ever have plans to be, just a bluesman. When he was barely 13 years old, a year after his family had moved from Dublin, Mississippi to Chicago, Burns was singing on stage with the gospel group the Gay Lites.

“I’m not just a blues artist. My background is really diverse,” he said. “And my philosophy is, there’s only one type of music and that’s good music. If it sounds good and feels good, do it.”

Folk music was also of interest to Burns in the 1960s (he was a regular performer at The Fickle Pickle), as was R&B, soul and doo-wop.

And all that wonderful music leads right back to the good, ole’ blues.

“First of all, you have to remember, you can play that stuff all night long and somewhere along the way, the blues will creep in there,” Burns said. “The blues influenced most of those kinds of music.”

Even though he’s called the big city of Chicago home since the mid-50s, his youthful stomping grounds of the Magnolia State are never too far from his mind, or from his music. That’s probably one reason Burns christened his 2003 release Back to the Delta.

“You have to understand, that with me, I don’t want to leave the delta,” he said. “It’s some of the richest music in the world. It was the first music I ever heard and I like a lot of the licks (from the delta blues). I just like that stuff and will never get tired of it. Matter of fact, I want to get deeper into it. I’m not running from the delta.”

The delta not only inspires Burns musically, but it also the place where he was born the youngest of nine children.

One of his older brothers would also leave the state of Mississippi for brighter lights and a bigger stage, ultimately finding fortune playing blues guitar – Eddie “Big Daddy” Burns. Eddie Burns carved out a nice a career in Detroit as a bandleader and at one time, also played with John Lee Hooker.

“I was the youngest and can never remember all of us (kids) being at home at the same time,” said Burns. “My brother (Eddie) wasn’t raised with us. My grandmother and grandfather raised him. He was there when I was born, but I don’t remember that. I remember seeing him a few times, but I really didn’t get to know him real good until I got grown. But I liked his music.”

The Burns brothers got to know each other and then eventually found their way into the recording studio, emerging with the heavily-praised Snake Eyes (2002, Delmark Records).

After teaching himself the basics of the guitar, it wasn’t long before Jimmy Burns fell under the spell of some of the best six-string players around, at a time when he was refining his budding talents to shape his own sound and style.

“Lightnin’ Hopkins. Muddy Waters. John Lee Hooker and B.B. King. Those were my main influences on guitar,” he said. “Definitely Lightnin’ Hopkins. That “Leaving Here Walking” that’s a Lightnin’ Hopkins lick. Man, the way Lightnin’ played was so good, it will put tears in your eyes. He just had a way with it. I just love his music – I’m crazy about him. He’s the man.”

As evidenced by his choice of material on Stuck in the Middle, Burns does not believe in sitting back and playing it safe by regurgitating the same thing over and over. If there isn’t something new and fresh in it, Burns says it’s best to just leave it alone, then.

“I’m not the kind of guy who believes that if you come into a bar and hear a song and then go across the street and come back six or seven songs later, it should sound like the band is playing the same song,” he said. “I sure don’t subscribe to that. I got a problem with that. And I can’t see no point in B.B. King Jr., or Albert King Jr., because there’s only one of those guys. I love those guys and their music, but that can’t be duplicated.”

One thing that heartens Burns is when he hears some of today’s up-and-comers adding their own spin to the blues.

“I see younger guys coming in and I’m impressed by that,” he said. “They’re still playing the blues, but they’re putting their take on it. That’s what keeps it going. And I think that’s one reason the blues is going to continue to go in a lot of different directions, because you got people coming from all directions with a lot of different influences. Each time someone plays the blues, it’s something different. Some move away from tradition and some want to keep that tradition. I’m a little bit of both.”

Twenty-some years into the “second phase” of his career, Jimmy Burns shows no signs, or has no thoughts, of applying the brakes any time soon.

“I don’t plan on hanging it (my guitar) up,” he said. “If I have anything to do with it, I don’t plan on stopping. I just hope people can appreciate my contributions and my love for the music. Lord knows I love the music. I have great respect for it. It has such a rich history and should continue to evolve. But I’ve seen this all over the world – people seem very receptive to what I’m doing. Very receptive.”

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