By most all accounts, Theresa Needham was, at the very least, a super-feisty woman.
One that you did not want to tangle with.
Because though she may have been on the other side of 70 years old, everyone knew that the owner of Theresa’s Lounge could pack one heck of a punch.
So when John Primer saw her approaching the bandstand at a rapid clip after he had just finished a song, he couldn’t help but fear the worst.
“I was up on stage and saw her coming at me with her hand in her apron and I said to myself ‘Oh, Lord, she’s fixing to shoot me,” Primer said. “She stopped and looked me up and down and I thought, he it comes. But she reached in her apron and pulled out a $10 bill for me.”
An Alexander Hamilton instead of some hot lead from the business end of a Colt .45?
Pretty sweet deal.
“I’d been playing there (at the club) a couple of weeks but hadn’t sung anything. But one night I sang a Bobby Bland tune, “Today I Started loving You Again,” said Primer. “And she pulled that money out of her apron and said, ‘Here, mother&#* I didn’t know you could sing.’ Whew! What a relief. But then every night after that I sung that song. That was her favorite song.”
Patrons of Theresa’s Lounge probably never knew exactly what to expect when they descended those concrete steps into the subterranean depths of that funky old bar.
But one thing they knew for sure – there was plenty of Chicago blues to be found there, regardless of the day of the week.
“Oh yeah, it was pretty wild with all the people that was coming in there. You’re talking about Junior Wells and James Cotton and all those great guys,” Primer said. “Those were some great times with some great blues.”
Primer played there seven nights a week, hitting the stage at 9 p.m. and jamming right up until 2 a.m. the next morning.
His tenure as the featured house band at Theresa’s began in 1974 after he was invited there to play by John Watkins (Willie Dixon’s one time guitarist), who he would eventually replace at the club.
And right off the bat, Primer was initiated into just what kind of goings-on he could expect to occur at 4801 South Indiana Ave. on a nightly basis.
“I get there on a Sunday night and tell her (Theresa) that John Watkins invited be down to play,” he said. “So I’m back there talking to John and all of a sudden a beer can comes flying past. She threw a beer can at John Watkins and called him a bad name. So I said, oh wow.”
And although Theresa would from time to time fire Primer (or for that matter, any band), he would quickly be rehired when tempers cooled down and he ended up holding down the fort at the legendary club until the early 1980s.
While there are still plenty of places to see the blues in the Windy City, there is just not the sheer number of clubs catering to the blues-loving public today like there was back in the 1960s and 70s.
“That’s true. The economy is part of it. People just don’t have jobs like they used to,” said Primer. “Back in those days, there were plenty of jobs and people went out and had a little money to spend and they spent it and they enjoyed themselves spending it. But when people don’t have money to go to clubs, those clubs have to close. And these days, it’s hard to just walk down the street and hear blues playing anywhere. You just don’t hear the blues playing from houses or in the alleys like you used to. It’s just a different scene these days.”
And even when you do wander into a club that features blues music on a regular basis, you may hear some sounds coming from the bandstand that are ‘non-bluesy.’ And the way Primer sees it, that’s cool.
“You can mix other things in with the blues. You can play a little bit of rock or dance music in there, too,” Primer said. “Soul music goes good when it’s mixed with the blues, too. You can combine all those things. Just play the songs that people love. People may come to see and hear the blues, but when you throw something else in there that’s a little different, they love it. And sometimes it really gets ‘em going. You get ‘em dancing.”
Although there may have been no written rules against playing soul, or even disco, at Theresa’s Lounge, the performers there knew full well that the club’s namesake was not a huge fan of such musical choices.
“Well, I used to sneak in some soul – stuff like Tyrone Davis – at Theresa’s. She didn’t like people playing that stuff, but when I did, people got up and danced, danced, danced … every time I played those songs, so she really didn’t say too much,” Primer said. “But really, she didn’t mind it if you played it right. You got to keep the people wondering what you’re going to play next.”
Primer has been playing the blues since he was a mere lad of 8 years old and was instantly hooked on the sounds of Muddy Waters and Elmore James that he heard coming out of his grandma’s old radio.
Born in Camden, Mississippi, Primer moved to Chicago when he turned 18, quickly establishing himself as a premier guitarist.
And as evidenced by his nomination for Traditional Male Blues Artist of the Year at the 2012 Blues Music Award, Primer has not slowed down one bit over the course of the past 50 years and is rightfully getting the recognition he deserves.
“You’re lucky when you get nominated for that. There’s always so many people that deserve that award, so it’s a real challenge (to get nominated),” he said. “So it’s a great feeling to be part of that group. With all the artists that are out there these days, it really means a lot to be up for something like that.”
Primer is also up for a BMA in the Album of the Year category for his contributions to Chicago Blues A Living History: The (R)evolution Continues.
The highly-acclaimed second installment of the Chicago Blues A Living History series, part number two also features artists like Billy Boy Arnold, Billy Branch and Lurrie Bell.
“That was a great thing that I got involved with – the CD and all the shows. We just got together and were trying to do all that we could to help make sure that the guys that came before us are known and are not forgotten,” Primer said. “It’s Chicago blues history and it’s a living thing. And we’re all living these moments. I’m proud of the way that this project is trying to help keep the Chicago blues alive.”
Primer isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel. He fully understands that the formula for successful and authentic blues was written many decades ago.
And that formula does not require a whole lot of tweaking.
“I really don’t try to change the blues, I just try to keep it original. You do want to expand it, but you can’t expand it too much,” he said. “You just try and come up with different lyrics. You might change up the rhythm a little bit, but the biggest part is the lyrics. That’s what makes a song. Muddy Waters’ music was all the same – they just had different lyrics to them.”
Those songs that Muddy sang told stories of love gone astray, long distance telephone calls and hard times for hard working people.
According to Primer, all those themes are still as relevant today as they were back in the 1950s.
“There’s a lot of things that can inspire you to write a song. Maybe it was something that you saw today, or something that you heard somebody say,” he said. “There’s just so much stuff to write about – stuff that happens to people every day.”
Back in the late 1970s, Primer managed to catch the eyes and ears of Muddy Waters and received the opportunity of a lifetime when he was asked to serve as Waters’ opening act.
But Primer quickly went from opening act to becoming a full-fledged member of the Muddy Waters Blues Band, where he played until the band leader’s death in 1983.
“That was a great thing for me, a great learning experience to be in his band,” said Primer. “I had a wonderful time playing with Muddy. I couldn’t have been in any two better bands, Muddy’s and then Magic Slim’s.”
After his stint with Muddy Waters ended, Primer hooked up with Magic Slim and was the big man’s guitarist and right-hand man for several years.
“I’d been with Slim about 14 years or so and he told me it was time to get my own band,” said Primer. “But all I had at that time was my name, I didn’t have any CDs or anything, but he encouraged me to start working on my own stuff.”
It didn’t take Primer very long to get up to speed with his own material and he has cut albums for Wolf, Earwig and Warner Brothers since leaving Slim’s side in the 90s.
Primer is scheduled to enter into the recording studio in early March to begin work on his follow-up to 2008’s All Original (Blues House).
The highly under-rated Sammy Lawhorn, who played guitar with everyone from Muddy to Eddie Boyd to John Lee Hooker and Junior Wells, also served as a kind of mentor and guiding force for Primer back in the day.
“Sammy, he made me not to be afraid of anything. He taught me a lot. He was a great guitar player,” said Primer. “I was just playing rhythm at the time and he taught me how to be a bold guitar player, not to be afraid of nothing.”
A good deal of the instruction that Primer received from Lawhorn was on-the-job training, although there were probably plenty of times that Lawhorn didn’t exactly know just how his pupil was progressing.
“Well, we’d be playing and he’d be getting drunk. He’d play the first set and be drinking and halfway through the second set he’d be drunk,” said Primer. “And I’d be up there shaking, thinking what am I going to do now? But he did that so much, that I finally got used to it and could carry the load when I had to. But there would always be backup musicians in the crowd, because they knew he was going to get drunk and they might get a chance to play. And that happened a lot.”
Even though a bluesman might have had a steady gig back in the 1970s, playing at a place like Theresa’s every single night of the week, that didn’t mean that musician left with his pockets stuffed with cash on a regular basis.
“It’s hard anytime (make a living) playing the blues. But it’s better these days,” Primer said. “You can make a little more money now than you could back then. Playing at those clubs back then, you couldn’t make nothing.”
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2012 TheBluesblast.com