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Talking About Lester Davenport and John Primer

XM Radio Interview by Bill Wax Vol. 3

BILL WAX: That’s Lester Davenport doing King Of The Jungle, which brings us to our next disc that was released by Earwig Records. And the man responsible for those, not necessarily the musician on all of them, but the one that made them happen, is my guest, Michael Frank.

Now Michael, Lester Davenport, When The Blues Hit You, how did that come all about? These are all original tunes by “Mad Dog,” which is his nickname. So how did that all happen now?

MICHAEL FRANK: Well, “Mad Dog” was a guy who I met in ’73 around when I met Kansas City Red, he was playing in Kansas City Red’s band in this little bar called The Rat Trap. And we just stayed friends, and he started playing in some of the clubs. And it was 20 years later before I got to the record, but he was just playing around, did a few gigs with me and Honeyboy. And occasionally I’d book him with Red. In fact, in ’84 when we were on that tour where I met Jackie Torrence, he was on that tour, that one-month long tour.

So I just was friendly with him, and getting him some jobs, and he was playing with Kansas City Red quite a bit. And he wanted to make an album and I thought I’d love to make a record with him.

And he had history that was fascinating to me. He had started under the tutelage of Homesick James and “Big Boy” Spires in the early 50s when he was a kid, had just moved to Chicago from Tchula, Mississippi. And then he played with Bo Diddley, him and “Billy Boy” Arnold were the two harmonica players on Bo Diddley’s early cuts, Bring It To Jerome and Pretty Thing were the ones Lester was on.

So he was just somebody that was around, and I admired his playing, and he was one of the nicest guys in the blues, one of the sweetest, most mellow guys. He got the name, “Mad Dog,” because he would sometimes play multiple instruments like, when I saw him with Red, during the course of a typical evening in that little bar, Red would get tired of playing the drums, so Lester would switch over from bass–which he was playing when I saw him, he was playing bass with Red–and then he’d play some drums, give Red a break. And then somebody else would come in and sit in and play bass, and he would play harmonica. And he also could play a little bit of piano and guitar.

So he got kind of known as being “Mad Dog” because he would move around on the bandstand like that. And also, I’m sure this had something to do with it, but he did Mojo Working, a very energetic version. And he was tall and lanky, so he would get up and shake his hips and his pelvis, and do Mojo Working. And the audience would go nuts.

BILL WAX: Especially the women.

MICHAEL FRANK: Yeah, and you know, you see this tall, skinny guy getting up and shaking his hips like crazy, and doing Mojo with this sort of smile on his face. And he was just a wonderful person. Great tone, you know, harmonica is an instrument, well, any instrument, you got to have tone and technique. And he was economical, but boy, did he have a sound.

And all the other harmonica players respected him. He was one of the elders at that point when I recorded him in, I guess it was ’92.

BILL WAX: Alright, the next disc then, is you pick up a guitar player, John Primer. 

MICHAEL FRANK: Yeah. [laughs]

BILL WAX: And it’s stuff you got to watch. Now, you had mentioned using John before for some other sessions. How did you go from using him for sessions, to moving him forward to being the leader, and do a whole record with him?

MICHAEL FRANK: John was another guy that I got friendly with while seeing him around the clubs. I’d seen him at Theresa’s Tavern at 48th and Indiana which was Junior Wells’, Buddy Guy’s hangout from the early 60s until Theresa died. And I would see him there starting out.

And we just became friendly. And he was starting to play the little blues clubs on the North Side, like B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted. And he was a young guy starting to get known having studied next to Sammy Lawhorn and the great players that would be around Theresa’s Tavern. And he was a really nice guy, John was a very nice guy. So we just became friendly.

And he didn’t have a record out in the U.S. He had started, I think, to record for Wolf Records in Vienna, Austria. But he had no U.S. recording. So I just approached him, and we were friends, and he said yeah, let’s do it.

And he picked the musicians and he and I, I mean, it was a collaborative process, in terms of who the musicians are in any of the records that I’ve put out. And he has proven to be a great bandleader, too. No matter who’s in his band, it sounds like John Primer, it’s consistent. So he learned his lessons well. He’s one of the best slide guitar players, electric slide players, and a very fine singer. And has turned out to be a pretty good songwriter in a classic, electric Chicago style.

BILL WAX: Now, he spent also a fair amount of time with Magic Slim.

MICHAEL FRANK: That was later.

BILL WAX: Right, after this he ended up taking a second guitar position behind Slim, or backing Slim or whatever. Co-guitar position for a long while with Slim.

MICHAEL FRANK: Right. Well, “Daddy Rabbit” Jr. Pettis, was the second guitar player with Magic Slim, and then when he died, John stepped in there and became Slim’s second guitar player. And Slim always gave his guitar players a chance to do part of their set where they were the front man.

And John was one of those guys, and still is, who could play perfect Chicago style rhythm guitar and the Lump. He knows how to play rhythm and lead at the same time. When you’re a strip down band, one of the things that you learn as a Chicago player is how to do that. Big Jack Johnson could do that, too. When they’re stripped down to three players, you know, or if you wanted a fuller sound, you learn how to play rhythm and lead guitar. And John could do that.

So we just had a meeting of the minds, and we’re admirers of each other, and we went in and did it.

MICHAEL FRANK: So now what tune you want to play off this John Primer? Title cut, Stuff You Got To Watch? There’s also Double Trouble, Lawhorn Special, and Cairo.

MICHAEL FRANK: You know, Double Trouble I like, I like all of them, but Double Trouble is a song Otis Rush had cut in the 50s. And John does a very nice job on that. It shows how fine a singer he is. It’s evocative of Otis Rush, but it doesn’t make you think, you know, he just copied that from Otis Rush.

BILL WAX: So let’s do that one. This is John Primer from Stuff You Got To Watch. That’s Michael Frank who is the man that helped make all this music possible. And we’re going to hear John and his band do Double Trouble.

Transcribed by Willitte Herman, WH Transcription

Listen to the interview HERE