A fixture on the Chicago blues scene since the ‘90s, guitarist Johnny Burgin has gone through plenty of changes in the past few years, first uprooting himself from the Windy City for California before finally settling in Portland, Ore. And he’s even changed his nickname, too!
Formerly known as Rockin’ Johnny, he’s now The Worldwide West Side Guitar Man – and for good reason: his affinity for touring relentlessly and hooking up with top-notch, foreign-born musicians no matter where on the planet they might be.
For someone who cut his teeth in the gritty bars that dominated the landscape along Madison Street and Roosevelt Road a few miles west of The Loop, it should come as no surprise. During the three decades he spent in Chicago, dozens of international talents who emigrated to the U.S. to study at the feet of the masters frequently shared the stage with him as they learned their craft.
As any true music lover with adventurous ears knows, the roots of blues are firmly planted in Mississippi, Memphis and Chicago, but its tendrils span the planet and its simple three-chord, 12-bar passages speak a language that’s truly universal – something that’s evident in Johnny’s recent recording success, which includes albums with Spanish harmonica master Quique Gomez, Norwegian blues giant Kid Andersen and Mumbai-born Bollywood reed-bender Aki Kumar.
And he ventures into new territory with his brand new Delmark CD, No Border Blues, which delivers tunes filled with the spirit of the golden era of the music in the Windy City, but was recorded during a tour of Japan with a lineup of Asian artists who truly make it their own.
An adventurous musician who’s never shy about taking chances, Burgin regularly fronts a tight three-piece ensemble that includes Wisconsin-based drummer Stephen Dougherty and Los Angeles-based bassist Chris Matheos, frequently calling out tunes during performances they’ve never played before. And they regularly join forces with other top musicians wherever in the world they land.
As Blues Blast learned in a recent interview, Johnny’s always been comfortable being a stranger in a strange land, something that’s been the case since virtually the first time he played in a blues bar while a student in Chicago. The son of an actor father who doubled as a folk singer, he was born on July 17, 1969, in Williamsport, Pa., but grew up in Starkville, Miss., and Greenville, S.C.
“My dad taught me how to play,” Burgin recalls. “He was into stuff like Josh White…a real folkie…the kinda guy who felt betrayed when Dylan went electric.”
Johnny, meanwhile, was more interested in more modern, eclectic sounds.
“My dad he had one of those 10-in. Django (Reinhardt records that I loved,” he remembers. “It was Django playing electric. I don’t think my dad played it very much, but I did!
“When I was in high school, there was a little club in Greenville that would let kids in. I got to see Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Eddy Clearwater and (former Muddy Waters guitarist) Luther ‘Guitar Junior’ Johnson — who’s like the most perfect bluesman ever! Sleepy LaBeef and the (psychobilly band) Flat Duo Jets, too.
“There was a whole lotta stuff going on. It was an exciting time!”
Burgin’s musical interests were pretty broad when playing in bands as a youth, but he was eventually drawn to the music of the Windy City after listening to John Littlejohn’s 1969 Arhoolie release, Chicago Blues Stars, Magic Sam’s Black Magic and West Side Soul on Delmark, and Maxwell Street Alley Blues, an album recorded by Big John Wrencher – the one-armed harmonica player who was a fixture at the historic, open-air market — for Barrelhouse Records in 1974.
Of all the guitarists, though, Earl Hooker remains his all-time favorite.
“Really,” he insists, “that’s all I play…Earl Hooker, Eddie Taylor and Luther Tucker. Almost everything I do comes outta there. And then there’s a little Bobby King, Fenton Robinson, too.”
In fact, the guitarists who appeal to him the most all played in a style he terms “off-handed and a little chaotic” – something embodied in the work of Magic Sam and the often overlooked Hip Linkchain, whose tunes “Cold Chills” and “Confusion Blues” Johnny frequently performs today.
The “lump-de-lump” groove common to music of that era “always grabs you and will never go out of style,” he says, “and I take it in old directions! (laughs) I’m nuevo-retro, man!”
As Elvin Bishop describes him: “His guitar style is raw and rude and real — on the vocal side, a nice original style — he’s damn good!”
And, like Elvin, his path to the music came while enrolled as a student at the University of Chicago. Majoring in a writing program, he spent his nights spinning indie rock records for the school’s community radio station, WHPK-FM. His life changed forever when fellow student and deejay Dave Waldman insisted that he tag along and travel to the West Side to catch James Yancey Jones — known internationally as Tail Dragger — in action.
Like Burgin, Waldman was also an aspiring musician. He was already gigging with Tail Dragger and Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers. Still active in the city’s bluescape today, he’s recorded albums with Barrelhouse Chuck, Big Wheeler, Michael Coleman and other locals.
The trip to Mary’s Lounge – a small tavern that was far more like a Mississippi juke than a big-city nightclub — proved to be a real eye-opener. For less venturous folks daring enough to experience it, it was akin to Luke Skywalker entering the unnamed bar on planet Nar Shaddaa in the first episode of Star Wars when he seeking safe passage to Coruscant.
A dark hole-in-the-wall in the heart of the poorest neighborhood in the city, it was located at Pulaski and Van Buren and at the polar opposite side from the safe confines of Hyde Park – a multi-ethnic, well-to-do community housing one of the greatest universities in the world – where Burgin resided.
It was packed with a mix of hard-partying mix of transplants from the Delta and the children of others who’d migrated North in seek of a better life decades before. They were living in the heart of one of the worst urban ghettos in America, and the few whites who joined them consisted of musicians, young men who wanted to be or foreigners yearning for a taste of the blues at its source.
As Johnny describes it, it was nothing short of a train wreck when Tail Dragger invited him on stage to play that night. As good as a guitarist as he thought he was, he quickly realized he had to forget everything he thought he knew about the instrument if he was ever going to fit in.
It was a shocker, but he wasn’t discouraged.
“Everything was like Christmas to me back then, man,” he says. “It was like a grand adventure that never ended. I realized that if I was really going to get up and sit in with bands, I needed to really learn from the first brink in the ground.
“Tail Dragger was always good to me and gave me a chance.”
Away from class, Burgin spent hours each day with the guitar in his hands – something that paid off when Tail Dragger — who’d received his stage name from Howlin’ Wolf himself — eventually invited him to join his band, a lineup that included Waldman and Steve Cushing, a first-call percussionist who also worked with Bo Diddley, Magic Slim & the Teardrops, Studebaker John & the Hawks, Lurrie Bell and others and who’s been hosting the five-hour, nationally syndicated Blues Before Sunrise radio show for the past 40 years.
“Those guys were taskmasters on what to play and how to play,” Johnny insists. “They got me rolling.”
Back in that era, Burgin notes, Tail Dragger’s biggest priorities were more often directed at women and booze. Johnny remained at his side until the singer reported to prison to serve a sentence for a murder he’s always claimed was an act of self-defense.
The band remained together without him, calling themselves The Ice Cream Men – a name adopted from a 1950s song by John Brim. Backing a revolving roster of featured artists – including Golden “Big” Wheeler, Jimmy Lee Robinson, Bonnie Lee and Tail Dragger after his release, they held down a regular Thursday-night gig at Lily’s, a popular club on the city’s North Side a few blocks from DePaul University and a short walk around the corner from both B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted and the Kingston Miles.
Johnny eventually earned a University of Chicago sheepskin while playing music five or more nights a week as a sideman with several popular acts, including Eddie “Jewtown” Burks, Little Arthur Duncan, Little Mack Simmons, Jimmy Dawkins and Littlejohn, frequently earning a whopping $35 a night for his efforts.
Initially upset that he’d chosen music over a writing career, his parents’ attitude changed after he’d backed Brim on the main stage for a Chicago Blues Festival gig in front of 200,000 fans. When he informed them that he’d made enough money from that one-hour show to pay his rent for a month, they finally gave him their blessings.
Johnny’s association with Delmark began in 1992, when he entered the studio for the first time to lay down licks for Wheeler’s Bone Orchard and then Robinson’s Lonely Traveler a year later. He subsequently toured the Midwest with keyboard player Pinetop Perkins and Dave Myers, the Windy City stalwart who rose to prominence in the early ‘50s as bass player in Little Walter’s backing band, The Aces, who subsequently became stars in their own right.
Two years on the road with Sam Lay, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame drummer who was a founding member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, followed and helped complete Johnny’s blues education. “Sam played so hard every night,” Burgin remembers, “he showed me what to do and taught me by example, teaching me how to concentrate and how to give a perfect performance.”
The lessons paid dividends in 1994, when Johnny began what would become a multi-year Monday-night residency with guitarist Jimmy Burns at Smoke Daddy, a barbeque joint in the burgeoning Wicker Park neighborhood in a unit that frequently included Kelly Littleton (Lil’ Ed & the Blues Imperials) or Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith on drums and Martin Lang, another UC student, on harp.
Two years later, Delmark owner Bo Koester dropped in to hear them one night and liked what he heard so much that he signed both Burgin and Burns to his label, producing Jimmy’s Leavin’ Here Walkin’ CD in 1996 and releasing the Rockin’ Johnny Band’s debut album, Straight Out of Chicago, in 1998 – a disc that featured Lay and the sensational Robert Plunkett (Luther Allison, Eddie Shaw) on percussion.
International tours followed and Burgin was becoming a popular national act, too, but he quit from the business altogether in 2002 to raise his daughter, selling all of his equipment in the process. He returned to the stage seven years later after the disintegration of his marriage, and has been working relentlessly ever since, spurred on by the European following he developed after playing at a festival in the Netherlands shortly after ending his “retirement.”
No Borders Blues marks the 11th album released under his own name and fifth at Delmark in a career that also includes stops at VizzTone, West Tone and Marquis — in addition to work as a sideman for Liz Mandeville, Kumar, Willie Buck, Paul DeLay, Paul Jones, Eddie Taylor Jr. and several others.
Taylor’s father, Eddie Sr., was the first American bluesman to set foot in Japan in the early ‘70s – the music equivalent of Commodore Matthew Perry, who opened the nation to foreign trade. The music took hold through subsequent visits by The Aces – brothers Louis and Dave Myers and Fred Below, Otis Rush, Dawkins and Robert Lockwood Jr.
By the late ‘70s, several Japanese musicians and blues lovers began establishing themselves in the Chicago music community – something that continues today through keyboard players Sumito “Ariyo” Ariyoshi and Lee Kanehira, guitarists Shoji Naito, Shun Kikuta and others.
But it didn’t take long for Burgin to discover that there were other, equally deserving artists bubbling under the surface in their homeland.
Johnny began visiting the Far East at the suggestion of close friend, former classmate and bandmate Dr. Ken Kawashima. The son of a Japanese father and Korean mother, he grew up in Ohio, but now lives in Toronto, where he’s both a music scholar and PhD in East Asian history. He’s also another former Tail Dragger protégé who plays original, but early-sounding modern blues and records under the stage name Sugar Brown.
“He’s wa-a-ay more lo-fi than me, more traditional in a way,” Burgin points out. “I played on his last album, Calling All Blues, a couple of years ago, and I’ve recorded some of his songs over the years.”
They first set foot in Japan in 1996, meeting and befriending several musicians close to their own age while establishing themselves on the local, underground blues circuit. Johnny still appears at some of those clubs – Bright Brown in Tokyo and ChicagoRock in Osaka – today.
“I didn’t go back until 2014,” Johnny says. “I went with Yoshimi Hirata, a wonderful bass player whose whole goal in life is to play like Dave Myers and who played with me frequently after I met her the year before.
“Her goal in that trip was to find a way to share me with everybody. That right there tells you how much different the Japanese approach is.”
The groundwork for Johnny’s new CD was laid during that journey and two more that followed. The first-ever U.S. release ever to feature the Japanese blues scene, it features contributions from 11 Japanese artists with Johnny sharing vocals with Kanehira, guitarist Nacomo Tanaka and a trio of harp players – Kaz Nogio, Iper Onishi and Kotez.
They produce a sound that captures the essence of the Windy City in a set that includes four originals and seven interesting reworked covers, a couple of which are delivered in their native tongue. Burgin’s regular rhythm section is present, too – but only on one cut, which was recorded at Delmark’s studios in the good old U.S.A.
It should serve as a real eye-opener for the American audience, he says, noting: “There may be some people who are gonna be turned off at first blush because of an accents or whatever. But it’s important to confront people with that and get them to look beyond it because I think albums like this one are a really effective way – and the right way – to bring the music forward…to widen the tent and widen the audience and keep things current for the blues in general.
“Everyone should be able to play the music if they can play it, and everyone deserves to be heard without these biases that we carry around.”
The Japanese blues scene today is much like what Johnny says he first experienced in Chicago: “Peace, love and kumbaya…let’s help each other.”
Unfortunately, he notes, that’s not always the case in the Windy City anymore because the community has become more cutthroat and competitive because of money.
“That’s one of the reasons I left,” he says. “Most of my peers and mentors were either dead or retired – or it was just time to go (move away). I should have done it a long time ago. It’s not a regret, though…you have to recognize endings.”
Burgin had already resettled in Petaluma, Calif., prior to that recording. He was playing about 250 gigs a year internationally and working locally with Kumar, Andersen, Alabama Mike, Nick Gravenites, Nancy Wright and Andy Santana, earning a Blues Music Award nomination for his work on the Andersen-produced Wolf tribute compilation, Howlin’ at Greaseland, in the process.
He also traveled to Chile, Russia and the United Kingdom in support of Kumar for his Bollywood Blues album. And he’s grateful that Charlie Musselwhite provided a hand on his most recent previous CD, Johnny Burgin Live, while he was there.
Prior to being sidelined because of the coronavirus epidemic, he was playing and touring out of his new home base in Portland, Ore., traveling constantly and developing new markets both here and abroad. More recently, however, he’s been stuck at home, teaching remotely at the Chicago Blues Institute and considering what the future holds.
““I really enjoy that…deepening students’ understanding of this music,” he says. “It’s never about the money. That’s kinda what keeps me going. But it’s going to be interesting to see what happens after all of this and to see which bars survive.
“You can’t expect these clubs to operate at half-capacity. You just can’t. No one’s gonna be able to do things like the way they used to do it.”
Johnny frequently supplemented previous tours by working as a featured guest artist at local jams – something he’s extremely reluctant to do going forward. But he is interested in increasing bookings for house concerts, which have also been a welcome part of his time on the road.
“I really them,” he says. “As an artist, it’s great to get rid of the middle man. We don’t need a venue to present ourselves. We need a space, not a bar. Right now, I’m liking the alternative thinking.
“The way things are now, with my rhythm section in Wisconsin and L.A., I’m not sure what we’ll be doing when things get up and running again. But that’s a really good unit, and I really like the trio sound and adding in guest artists, whether its (harp player) Kim Field from up in Seattle or (Portland-based vocalist) Rae Gordon. I like coloring it out with somebody.
“And I’d love to bring some of these Japanese folks…get Yoshi to take a holiday and do a tour with me. I’d love to have a rhythm guitarist again.”
He’s also interested in developing a podcast and recruiting friends to record an instrumental guitar album, noting: “I’m excited by some younger players…Dylan Bishop, Eddie 9V. I can’t believe how good he is. I’ve always wanted to record with Big Joe Louis. And I might go to Europe and play with some guys over there.
“I just want to collaborate with people I admire and who come at it from different angles than I do.”
And don’t be surprised if Burgin does another No Borders project, too. “I’m getting into a niche with this,” he believes. “It could be something I’m going to be doing for the whole rest of my career, man. I don’t know where it’s going to go next.
“I played some with (the band) Jesus on a Tortilla, and I’d love to do more with them. And I’d also like to be a little more exotic…go to Nepal or Vietnam…or somewhere…and just see what’s there and do some interesting collaborations. I’m gathering information now about Southeast Asia and other places for when the world opens up again.”
Check out Johnny’s music and find out what he’s up to next by visiting his website: www.rockinjohnnyburgin.com
Late breaking update: As this story was being prepared for print, Burgin uprooted himself again, departing for a brief reunion with Tail Dragger in Chicago before planting new roots in New Orleans.