Bluesman Jimmy Burns prefers sensitivity over shouting, and since he moved to Chicago from Mississippi in 1955, several sources outside the blues have shaped his fluid guitar tone—including gospel quartets and arena-rock bands. He turns 80 on February 27, and for the occasion he sat for a Reader interview that digs as far back as his childhood and looks forward to his new Live in Copenhagen (to be streamed via Danish music company Krudtmejer Productions). Burns harmonized in the 1950s doo-wop group the Medallionaires and strived for R&B stardom in the ’60s. He also participated in the 1970s folk scene, and from 1989 till the early 2000s he ran a west-side barbecue spot. By the 1990s he’d become a quietly assertive regular on the stages of local blues clubs, and with the help of Chicago label Delmark Records he finally started releasing full-length albums—many of which featured his imaginative compositions, alongside his versions of songs by such former associates as Curtis Mayfield.
Burns will play two sets, two days before his birthday. Admission to the first set allows patrons to stay for the second, but a ticket for the second set does not grant access to the first. Sat 2/25, 9 and 11 PM, Rosa’s Lounge, 3420 W. Armitage, 773-342-0452, early set $25, $20 in advance, late set $20, $15 in advance, 21+
Burns continues to participate in the Delmark All-Star Band whenever a new incarnation convenes, and he’s working on a single with longtime collaborator Rockin’ Johnny Burgin. Meanwhile he’s built a strong European following—he’s been to Denmark often enough to have a regular band there, and British record collectors have long sought out his 1965 soul 45 “I Really Love You.” Burns spoke over the phone from his home in the North Austin neighborhood.
Aaron Cohen: Happy birthday in advance. How do you feel?
Jimmy Burns: You know, 80 is really something. I thought turning 50 was a big deal. And it was—all of them are a big deal. I don’t have any monetary gains, but I’m happy I can still perform. So far, I’m pretty strong, and thank God for that—that He let me see this.
Do you feel that audiences in cities like Copenhagen are more appreciative of your music than people here at home?
I enjoy the [Danish] band that I work with—I’ve known them for many years, because I’ve been to Denmark quite a few times, and I love Copenhagen. I’ve been all over Europe, but it’s one of my favorites. I love the people; I love to dance. I never really think about differences with the U.S.—people here are appreciative also.
It’s different in Europe in the sense that over there it reminds me a lot of us here back in the day. I remember when I was in Mississippi, when people go to see somebody, it’s a big deal. Same thing when I go to South America. Probably the lifestyle is a little different than our lifestyle.
Your father was also a musician. What did you learn from him?
I used to hear my dad play, but I never really sat down and just talked to him. I remember different stuff he played, and when I hear stuff now it brings back memories: “Oh, my daddy used to play that.” And I remember him and my mama talked about the musicians back in their day: Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake. I remember my father talking about Blind Lemon Jefferson and his tune “Matchbox Blues.”
My father was a multi-instrumentalist. He played what’s been called a diddley bow, but we didn’t call it that—we called it a guitar. I learned that from my dad, and he also played piano, harmonica, and he played guitar. He probably played guitar in open tuning. My mama messed with the guitar; I also learned from her. The first music I played was blues, and I didn’t learn how to play standard tuning until later.
When I first started, I was playing open tuning, but I didn’t know what it was. I was in Mississippi, and I asked a guy to let me play his guitar when I was probably about nine. He let me play it, but I couldn’t do nothing with it, because everything I played was wrong because he was in standard tuning, and I wasn’t used to that. I’m used to hitting it where I hit it, and where I hit it was right.
On the cover of your 2003 album, Back to the Delta, you’re walking on a rural road, and you’ve also mentioned working in southern cotton fields as a child.
That was common for everybody. Poor people were poor people. It had nothing to do with color or nothing like that. When you were poor, you were poor. The powers that be were fucking everybody. I think about that because I watch a lot of programs, and it’s like what they do to the migrant workers. They want to keep the people divided, because if they rose up, they’d be against them. Don’t get me wrong, though—I ain’t against my country. The two things I love are Chicago and the United States.
In Mississippi and Chicago, you gained a lot from singing in church. Which churches did you attend?
I went to a bunch of churches. As soon as I got here I got hooked up with a guy who lived in my building, and he was in a quartet—and I still like that music, like Mighty Clouds of Joy. I usually went to church around the neighborhood. Mainly Baptist and storefront churches. Back in Mississippi I would go to town on Sunday, Church of God in Christ. Ever been to Clarksdale? I was always fascinated with guitars, and they used them in Church of God in Christ—Sanctified. Those guys just had the guitars talking. I loved it, and the closest I heard to it since was the guy playing on Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” That’s what it reminds me of, the Sanctified music. To me, that’s still the best music.
When you were growing up in Chicago, you sang with the vocal group the Medallionaires and rehearsed in Seward Park near Cabrini-Green. What do you remember about that time and place?
The most important thing was being in Chicago and thinking you got a chance to become a big star. And I chased that dream for years. At first I started off in the church. I left that in 1958 and started hanging out in Seward Park, where everybody rehearsed. It was basically groups, as opposed to bands—maybe one or two with instruments, but it was mostly all a cappella. That’s what I also remember about singing in church. These guys were powerful and could turn a place out even with no guitar, no instrument.
Seward Park was walking distance from where I lived—I was raised around Oak and Wells Streets. Naturally, everybody was good, but everybody didn’t make it. I didn’t know the Impressions at that time, and we were walking distance from each other. Later, Curtis Mayfield’s sister Carolyn became my girlfriend, temporarily.
I got to know Curtis just by hanging out at his house with my group. Everybody in the neighborhood knew him. I don’t know if it was an imposition, but I just started hanging out over at his home. I still remember the address. The building is still there: 966 North Hudson. There was only about a year’s difference between us. We also used to go to the same barbershop on Wells, Dreamland. One time he auditioned with us down at Chess Records, since back in those days you had to do a live audition and we didn’t have a guitarist at that time. He was just a nice guy, but he probably knew more about the business than me, was probably more mature than me at that time.
I was the youngest guy in my group. I was tenor. Sometimes we could do three or four different parts, depending who was there. I could do tenor, baritone, second tenor. I didn’t do bass. I have a song on Night Time Again [Delmark, 1999] where I’m doing all of the parts, “1959 Revisited: A Tribute,” and this is a tribute to the group.
Late-1960s Chicago went through some big changes. What were your experiences?
When Dr. King was killed, I was out there that night when it happened. I remember it quite well. It was a Thursday evening, and I used to be a driving instructor—I was on Roosevelt and Sacramento and I had a student, a white lady, from that Italian area near there, and for whatever reason the radio was on. I usually didn’t have the radio on when I had students. As soon as I heard that, I knew what was going to follow. But nothing happened that night. That Friday, all hell broke loose, all up and down Roosevelt Road, they were burning and looting and taking shit, and I didn’t approve of that. They fucked up everything in the hoods—they tore up a lot of stuff. I remember seeing all that. I never will forget it. A lot of things were happening in 1968—the riots in downtown Chicago, the Weathermen. At the time, I was militant too. I knew a lot of guys who had been in Vietnam, and I knew I wasn’t going. I supported Muhammad Ali, a lot of that stuff. Not that I was active—I was just running my mouth.
When did you switch from singing primarily R&B and folk to blues?
Truthfully speaking, I’m not a true bluesman in my playing or my singing. I get by with it, but I know the difference. First of all, I play blues pretty good, but I ain’t really raising no hell with it. I’m what you would call an R&B singer singing blues, similar to Johnnie Taylor. A bluesman’s voice is a little bit different. I don’t have a voice like Muddy Waters. I wish I did. Or John Lee Hooker, who can run rings around me. I love the music, and I wish I could do it like them.
Yes, but your strength is that you have your own approach.
I’m a smooth singer. Even if I wanted to be rough or harsh, I couldn’t. Because it’s not me. I can’t compete with a true bluesman. Same thing with my playing. I play what I play, but if you put me up against a regular bluesman, I couldn’t hang with him, playing. Believe it or not, I’m still struggling with that, in my opinion. I do all right, but not like those guys.
The two people I love: Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I love John Lee Hooker too. But Lightnin’ played guitar so good—he really made a guitar talk and was a hellafied singer too. I’m trying to find out what in the hell they’re doing, even now. You’d be surprised how many tutorials I got here, trying to learn this stuff. Blues is hard music to play. A lot of people don’t get that. I have a smooth voice, so I taper it to fit in with what I’m doing to make it smoother, so it’s more digestible. [Laughs.] I got tricks and stuff I use, but I listen to my buddy John Primer—not only does he play it, he sings it, and it’s good.
When you started recording again in the mid-1990s with Leaving Here Walking, you also wrote its title track. When did you start composing?
If you sing or play, you write. What made me write “Leaving”—I tried to write something that was a cross between Delta blues and early blues that had elements of modern stuff in it, like R&B. I got something from John Lee Hooker. I got other changes from rock. The opening lick is a Lightnin’ Hopkins lick, but you might not recognize it. Working with Rockin’ Johnny and them [on that album], when I heard them for the first time, they were playing all what they call Chicago blues—and they were playing it right. It’s so hard to find people who play that stuff and play it right. So I was definitely impressed with that. Johnny knows all that stuff; he’s the master at it.
You’ve also put your own stamp on a wide range of material, including reinterpreting Foreigner’s “Cold as Ice” on Stuck in the Middle [Velrone, 2011].
When it comes to music, I’m not prejudiced, I’m not a purist. I can never do it like Foreigner did it—that’s a great tune. But they got so much shit going on in there, I can’t do all of that. I figured out a way to strip it down. I started doing it with just me and then with the band. I played it all over the world and people love that tune. But you can’t compare to Foreigner, I loved their version and not trying to outdo them, I’m just trying to do a version that fits with me, that’s all.
Along with music, you also ran Uncle Mickey’s Barbecue.
I had always wanted a barbecue house. I came up with seasoning and my sauce. See, I never liked sweet barbecue sauce. The barbecue I remember down south in Mississippi was more vinegar based. The only place that’s got it like that now is Smoque. I don’t know where he got it from or who showed him, but to me he’s got the right idea. One time I was down at my wife’s home in Arkansas, and the place had the best barbecue. Now I know what it was: coriander. I still use it when I cook. That’s how I learned how to use different spices.
That whole idea of trying out different ideas is what you also do in music.
That’s what it is. I like that Elmore James tune, “Sunnyland.” I took that and [brought it into] a Smokey Robinson tune, “Get Ready” [on Live in Copenhagen]. But I did it as a 12-bar, because Smokey didn’t write it in 12-bar. It’s different, and people seem to like it. Usually when I do stuff, I’m not doing it for the sake of changing it. I’m doing it because I hear it a little bit differently. After somebody hears me do it, they might take it a step further. That’s the way music is.
When you think about automobiles, obviously the first car didn’t have windows. Then they had windows, then they added wipers. Same with music. And that’s a good thing about it. I’m not stuck in the past: “You shouldn’t do this, shouldn’t do that.” If you hear it and it feels good, do it. I’m not a purist. There’s only one kind of music—good music.
What are you anticipating with the upcoming birthday celebration and new release?
I don’t get excited about that, except thanking the Lord for letting me be here. I don’t like to get out front. I want to be here, of course—I like longevity. But I’m acutely aware of the fact I’m at an age when we leave here. Mama would always say, “I’ll see you at such-and-such if the Lord says the same.” I still follow that model. I don’t think too much about where I’m going.
I definitely know where I’ve been and I’ve enjoyed it—don’t get me wrong. I’m not afraid to live. I live, but I don’t take it for granted. I’m not an egotistical guy. I don’t have a big ego—I’m just happy for where I’m at. My thinking is, I’ve seen the first Black mayor of Chicago elected not once but twice. The first Black president of the United States, which I knew was coming but I didn’t know how soon. My niece worked for Oprah Winfrey, one of the billionaire African American women. Back when I was a boy, if you had a thousand dollars you were doing good. If I leave here today, I die a happy man.