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FEATURE: Michael Packer
GLT blues radio

Michael Packer


Dec. 20, 1950 - May 6, 2017

Michael Packer with guitar by Lee Ann Flynn
photo: Lee Ann flynn

Who was Michael Packer and why did this New Yorker start the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame®?

(The 5th Annual Chicago Hall of Fame® induction 2017 ceremony will be held at Buddy Guy’s Legends on October 15)

Michael Packer I Am The Blues Vol 3 CD

By Linda Cain

To answer the first part of the question, we will let Michael Packer’s music speak for itself.  Here are direct quotes from his CD: I Am the Blues / My Story Vol. 1&2.

“I have been beaten, robbed, shot at, stabbed, done time in prison. I played guitar with the legendry Delta bluesman, Honeyboy Edwards, who played with Robert Johnson. Tell me I ain’t got the blues. The blues don’t get any better than that.”

A musical prodigy, Packer began playing in top Greenwich Village clubs at age 15. He hung out with artists like Tom Waits and Paul Butterfield.  In 1969 at age 19, Packer started the band Papa Nebo; they were signed by label boss Ahmet Ertegun and cut an album for Atlantic Records. After that band broke up, Packer moved to San Francisco where he played in coffeehouses and on the streets; there he met George Thorogood who was doing the same. It was George who turned Michael onto the blues.

Packer moved back to NYC and formed the band Free Beer (so named because it looked inviting on club marquees) with an ex-Nebo bandmate in 1973. They were signed to Buddah and RCA Records and toured the country with band like the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, Quicksilver Messenger Service and zydeco’s Clifton Chenier to name a few.

But fame and fortune proved fleeting and the young musician acquired some bad habits. Packer continues his narrative on the CD:

“Those were the good days. I hit the skids and was homeless on the streets of New York City. I hung out with winos and junkies. Alcohol and heroine were my friends. I did time at Riker’s Island for attempted robbery. I hung out with murderers and thieves. They were my friends.”

He served nearly a year in Riker’s and formed a popular prison band, which appeared in an HBO TV special “The Prisoners of Riker’s Island.”

Michael Packer at Buddy Guy's
photo: Lee Ann Flynn

Upon his release from prison, Packer remained sober for the rest of his life and became a highly respected member of New York’s blues scene. In 1980, he formed the Michael Packer Blues Band released several albums on the Iris Music Group label.  He also worked solo and opened for John Hammond, Jr. and sang with Matt “Guitar” Murphy. Packer’s folksy blues guitar style made him a perfect sideman to the legendary David “Honeyboy” Edwards, who was the last living link to Robert Johnson. Packer and Chicago blues harp player Michael Frank toured and played with Honeyboy until his passing. Edwards died at age 96 on August 29, 2011.

Michael Packer, Honeyboy Edwards, Michael Frank
L to R: Michael Packer, Honeyboy Edwards, Michael Frank

On September 27, 2011, Packer hosted a memorial tribute for Honeyboy at Buddy Guy’s Legends and inducted him posthumously into the newly formed Chicago branch of the Blues Hall of Fame ®. He also inducted Michael Frank, who founded the Earwig Music blues label. The Blues Hall of Fame ® website and international organization was started in 1999 by former Chicago area resident Dan Marolt. Packer was known for being an “ambassador” and events producer to both the NYC and Chicago Blues Halls of Fame. Packer’s wish was to honor not only the famous blues artists but to give recognition to “in the trenches” musicians who deserved to be honored as well. He referred to it as a “grassroots Hall of Fame.”

Michael Packer and Johnny Winter
Michael Packer inducts Johnny Winter in New York City

Packer returned to Chicago on April 28, 2013 to host the first annual Chicago Blues Hall of Fame® Induction ceremony to encompass multiple inductions. He returned each year through 2016 to produce the events that included performances by famous veterans like Sam Lay, Syl Johnson, Billy Boy Arnold, Corky Siegel, Eddie Shaw, Jimmy Johnson, Johnny Drummer, Tail Dragger, Donald Kinsey, Linsey Alexander, Holle Thee Maxwell, Deitra Farr, Eddy Clearwater, the Original Chicago Blues All-Stars and more.

Michael Packer & Syl Johnson
Packer inducts Syl Johnson in Chicago in 2016
photo: Lee Ann Flynn

 He also included next generation artists such as Toronzo Cannon, Mike Wheeler, Nellie “Tiger” Travis, Greg Guy, Carlise Guy, Mark Maddox, Liz Mandeville, Mud Morganfield, Big Bill Morganfield and Tomiko Dixon to name a few. Sidemen and women who play guitar, bass, drums, keys and harmonica were also inducted. Packer also included non-performer awards for DJs, journalists, writers, photographers, club owners, record label heads and more.

Mike Wheeler & Michael Packer
Mike Wheeler & Michael Packer
photo: Lee Ann Flynn

Michael, being a professional musician for 50+ years, completely understood exactly the years of dedicated practice it takes to first learn and develop the unique skills needed, and then the dogged persistence to live the life traveling from town to town, playing night after night for basically just the applause from the audience,” said Blues Hall of Fame® founder Dan Marolt.

“This is what drove Michael to induct the hundreds of Blues artists over the past six years. Receiving an induction directly from Michael was even more of an honor, because they all knew that Michael had done it all.    Michael also felt very honored himself for being able to honor each Blues Artist.  He often referred to the BHF inductions, which he created, as being magical.  Most of the Blues artists and guests felt this as well,” Marolt explained.

Billy Boy Arnold & Michael Packer
Michael Packer inducts Billy Boy Arnold in Chicago in 2016
photo: Lee Ann Flynn

Not one to rest on his laurels, Packer created an international charitable event in 2016 called “Blues For Peace.” He organized blues musicians from many cities in 10 countries to perform blues events to raise funds to help the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR. While the worldwide events raised thousands, Packer’s own Blues For Peace shows in NYC and Washington, D.C. were cancelled the day of, due to bizarre, tragic and unforeseen events that unfolded.

Packer recounts what happened at Blues for Peace, along with other true stories about last chapter of his life, on his final release I Am The Blues/ My Story Vol. 3 on Iris Music Group Records. He lost his battle to liver cancer on May 6, 2017, but was able to hear and approve the completed master for this 14-song album just days before his death. The CD also includes a live track recorded during the 2015 Chicago Blues Hall of Fame® event featuring Packer backed by Mike Wheeler, Willie “The Touch” Hayes, Melvin Smith and Roosevelt Purifoy.

“Michael was an incredible human being.  I recommend that everyone listen to his life story told in song and narration on his CDs, I Am The Blues/ My Story Vol.1-3,” said Marolt.

Yes, Michael Packer lived the blues. He was passionate about the power of the blues to heal and to help bring about social justice because it was the blues that healed him and helped him to get sober and live a good life dedicated to helping others. Before he passed, Packer expressed his final wish that both the NYC and Chicago Blues Hall of Fame® inductions would continue in his absence. He also requested a special resting place for his favorite guitar: Buddy Guy’s Legends. Packer’s guitar will find a home alongside autographed guitars from the likes of Keith Richards, Johnny Winter, Stevie Ray Vaughan and other blues greats.

Michael Packer touched many lives and his spirit surely will be present at Buddy Guy’s Legends on October 15 for the 5th Annual Chicago Blues Hall of Fame® Induction Ceremony that will be emceed by TV broadcaster Jeanne Sparrow with host musicians the Mike Wheeler Band. Honorees include: Benny Turner, Barry Goldberg, Erwin Helfer, Eddie C. Campbell, Gene “Daddy G” Barge, Carl Weathersby, John Primer, Holle Thee Maxwell, Katherine Davis, Big Llou Johnson, Li’l Ed & The Blues Imperials, Vance Kelly, Sugar Blue, Peaches Staten, Pierre Lacocque, Carlos Johnson, Smiley Tillmon, Zora Young, Shirley Johnson, Big James Montgomery and many more.

View it live starting at 2 p.m. here:

Michael Packer links:

Memorial Facebook Page

CDs and downloads: Amazon

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