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FEATURES -- The return of Rockin' Johnny

 

The return of Rockin’ Johnny

He’s back to reclaim his title as the

“Modern King of the West Side Chicago Blues Guitar”

Rockin' Johnny 2010
Rockin' Johnny at Chicago Blues Fest 2010. Photo: Michael Kurgansky

By Kevin Johnson

We’re excited to report that one of our all-time favorite Chicago blues guitarists, Rockin’ Johnny Burgin is back on the scene after a very long and somewhat mysterious disappearance, and sounding better than ever.  Johnny abruptly left the blues world to start a family, completely cutting off his ties to his blues family. It’s hard to believe that after seeing him play so well during this year’s triumphant comeback gigs that he hadn’t touched a guitar in almost a decade!  It hasn’t been an easy road, but he’s thankfully now back pouring out his true to life blues for his eager fans who have been waiting, wondering, and missing this one- of-a-kind talent.

 

Back in the ‘90s, a young blues band, then called Rockin’ Johnny and the La-Z-Boys, created quite a stir on the Chicago Blues scene.  Johnny Burgin (born in ’69, raised in Mississippi and S. Carolina) along with his band --University of Chicago buddy Martin Lang on harp, Sho Komiya from Japan on standup and electric bass, first Kelly Littleton (when Lil’ Ed was on hiatus) and then Kenny Smith (Willie Big Eyes’ son) on drums, and Rick Kreher (Muddy Waters’ last guitarist) on rhythm guitar -- developed a rabid and devoted following that centered around their weekly Blue Monday gigs at the Smoke Daddy BBQ in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood.  This was not your typical North Side Chicago blues band plowing through rocked up blues for the tourists; what a refreshing and much needed addition to the scene to have a young band playing traditional ‘50s/’60s styled Chicago blues the way it is meant to be played, with soul, sensitivity, strength, originality and feeling!  Oh yeah, and there were actually beautiful young Chicago women dancing to blues!  With the band’s encyclopedic knowledge, impeccable taste, and true feeling of post-war Chicago Blues, they were devastatingly good in a live setting. Burgin's singing is also damn good and really complements both his sensitive and powerful guitar playing.  This guy plays killer originals and many classics that he makes his own (both obscure and popular) and can quote from so many guitarist's guitarists, like Luther Tucker, Eddie Taylor, Jimmy Dawkins, Fenton Robinson, Willie James Lyons, Bobby King, Hip Linkchain, Hubert Sumlin and Magic Sam.   

Rockin Johnny & Lurrie Bell 
Johnny & Lurrie Bell. Photo: Michael Kurgansky

Although the band centers around Rockin’ Johnny and his guitar and vocals, one aspect that set this band apart from so many others is how well they all play together as an ensemble, knowing when to play and not to play, and improvising often, never playing the same set list nor the songs the same way. They truly nail down the power, finesse and swing of post-war Chicago bands like The ACES (the much missed Myers brothers, Louis and Dave and drummer Fred Below.)  In fact, the late bass legend, Dave Myers, went to go see the band so often that he was made an honorary member, and was always seen smiling and talking about how he loved the way these boys played. Special mention must go out to the best harmonica player you’re never heard of, the tremendously talented Martin Lang, with his monstrous tone and swing, heavily influenced by Little Walter Jacobs. These guys had done their homework and have collaborated with and learned from a who’s who of the elder statesmen of Chicago blues, such as the much missed blues royalty who have since passed away: The Myers Bros., Big Smokey Smothers, Little Arthur Duncan, Jimmie Lee Robinson, Johnny Dollar, Jumpin’ Willie Cobbs, Golden “Big” Wheeler, Barkin’ Bill, Eddie Burks, John Brim, Prez Kenneth, Robert Plunkett, and living legends such as Tail Dragger, Jimmy Burns, Sam Lay, Eddie C. Campbell, L.V. Banks, Lurrie Bell, Billy Flynn, Billy Boy Arnold, Mary Lane, Jimmy Dawkins, Johnny B. Moore, and many more.

Rockin' Johnny suit 
Photo: Michael Kurgansky

Rockin’ Johnny is thankfully now back, busy with his own band again and also backing up his long time friends and mentors, vocalists Mary Lane and Tail Dragger at some of the last of the funky West Side black neighborhood taverns. One of these taverns, Rooster’s Palace, is featured in a 2009 release Delmark recording from the one and only Howlin’ Wolf protégé’ Tail Dragger. This very exciting DVD and CD, Live at Rooster’s Lounge, features Rockin’ Johnny and Martin Lang, along with special guest, the legendary Jimmy Dawkins on menacing-toned guitar.

 

Rockin' Johnny with Tail Dragger
Backing Tail Dragger at Rooster's Palace. L to R: Kevin Shanahan, Rockin' Johnny, Tail Dragger, Martin Lang. Photo: Jennifer Wheeler

Johnny was recently featured in the fantastic Dutch blues magazine run by Rien Wisse called BLOCK. It is an extremely impressive eight-page, full color article (wish I could read it though!) that is chock full of amazing photos of Johnny and his many blues legend collaborators, and his full discography, including his early 45 on Trixie “Lonely Guitar/Frog Hop!”  This article helped lead to a triumphant return of the Rockin’ Johnny Band to Europe for the 2010 Highlands Blues Fest in The Netherlands in June.

 

Rockin’ Johnny was a big highlight for many during this year’s 2010 Chicago Blues Fest weekend, especially for a lot of his fans who hadn’t seen him in a while. He did a fantastic job backing up Mary Lane at the Fest, and then absolutely tore it up at the After Fest Party at Reggie’s with his own set, and backing up the wild jazzy, funky blues guitarist Smiley Tillman (who is also back on the scene after a very long absence!) Then he was seen the very next morning jamming at the Jazz Record Mart/Delmark Blues Brunch with Eddie C. Campbell, Tail Dragger, John Primer, Mississippi Heat, Willie Buck, Dave Weld, and Little Al Thomas! 

Rockin' Johnny wild man
Johnny tears it up at Reggie's post Chicago Blues Fest jam in 2009. Photo: Michael Kurgansky

 

Just in time for the Chicago Blues Fest, Johnny and Band -- Rick Kreher (rhythm guitar), John Sefner (bass), Rob Lorenz (drums), along with Greg Sefner (piano, organ) -- put out an exciting new studio recording called, Now’s The Time.

 

On this comeback CD, his guitar work is superlative and he digs out some wild obscurities to cover, but it is his vocals that really standout from all of his previous recordings.  This CD (done in six hours this past March!) truly captures his much improved emotional vocals and shows us he is truly a complete bluesman with a diverse and vast repertoire.  There are many highlights on this anticipated recording, but special mention must go to his four obscure covers in the middle of the CD, Son Seals’ raving wild, funk blues classic instrumental “Hot Sauce” into Luther Tucker’s intense minor key obscurity, “War Boy” into T-Bone Walker’s strutting “I’m Gonna Build Me A Playhouse” into Lowell Fulson’s deep groove “Pico.” You must check out this special recording for yourself and don’t miss Blues historian/scholar/producer Dick Shurman’s eloquent liner notes: “This is a stirring reminder of what we missed during Johnny’s absence, and hopefully the start of a lot more good things to come!”

Rockin' Johnny by Jenn
Photo: Jennifer Wheeler

Now that Johnny is back and rockin’, what are his plans for the future?

 

“As far as plans and goals for the future-- I just want to play a lot of good Blues.  I think my playing and singing is deeper now than it was my first go around.  I'm savoring the moment more,” said Johnny. “I've done some sessions for music being sold to TV networks, and I'm looking forward to a variety of session work.  Hoping to make a trip to California and hit some new European countries in the future.  I'm back in rotation in a lot of my favorite blues clubs, and playing some great new venues like Chuck's in Burbank and Honky Tonk BBQ in Pilsen and others.  It's been a lot of fun connecting to the old fans and making new ones too. I left music for family reasons.  I think the blues scene is stuck with me for life now,” he declared.

 

As Johnny also says in the new CD’s liner notes, “That first decade on the scene felt like a whirlwind love affair, but to go deeper into the music I had to lose it for awhile. Playing again after being away for seven years, I find that my notes seem to count for more and I can get straight to the most meaningful part of my song.”  Johnny, we are so happy you are back on the scene, and keep on doin’ what you’re doin’… makin’ those notes count!

 

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