Chicago to Tahoe, Johnny Burgin plays the blues

Walkin’ Johnny: Johnny Burgin strolls through the Tuesday Night Blues crowd at Lake Tahoe on May 18. Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Here’s an epiphany no musician wants to have: It’s time to start all over.

Johnny Burgin, who’d played guitar in bands since he was in high school, moved to Chicago, went to a club and had the revelation.

“All I had was a grab bag of a bunch of licks,” Burgin told Tahoe Onstage. “It’s like searching in the kitchen drawer. There’s a flashlight, a corkscrew, some tape. But none of it goes together. I realized nothing is adding up to anything and it’s not cutting it.”

Flash forward 33 years and Burgin, now 52, is on the road with the artist who first gave him the blues humbling with a feeling. Tail Dragger Jones, given his stage name by bandleader Howlin’ Wolf, provided Burgin an opportunity.

“He was the first guy who hired me,” Burgin said. “He’s a true bluesman but he’s very glamorous. It always feels like an event and I am just trying to put gasoline on the fire.”

Tail Dragger and Burgin toured California May 7-15. Then Burgin visited South Lake Tahoe for a solo appearance, guesting with the Buddy Emmer Blues Band at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe’s Tuesday Night Blues.

“Buddy’s a great player,” Burgin said. “I always enjoy that set at the casino. That’s where all the blues fans come out to on a Tuesday. Those are my people.”

Buddy Emmer and Johnny Burgin trade licks at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe. The Buddy Emmer Blues Band has hosted Tuesday Night Blues since 2014. Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage

Since moving from Illinois in 2016, Burgin has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland, Oregon, New Orleans and now Virginia Beach. But he will always be a Chicago bluesman.

The Chicago style has interlocking guitars and a harmonica,” Burgin said. “It’s more of an ensemble. It’s not like, look at me while I play lead guitar. It’s an organic interlocking rich style. That’s my main thing. Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf.

“You look at it back then, there were plenty of great guitar players but it was never about the whole guitar hero worship thing. … Even though there were plenty of great guitar players, like Earl Hooker. Everyone said he was the best guitar player in Chicago, and he’s my favorite guitarist. But he was an outlier. He was an exception that proved the rule because it was about the groove, the singer and the song. It wasn’t about, look at me play guitar.”

Burgin is a rare non-Chicago resident to serve as an instructor at the May 29-June 3 Chicago Blues Bootcamp. He will teach alongside Windy City artists such as Joanna Connor, Billy Branch and Dave Specter. “I teach people how to improvise, how to make it make sense,” Burgin said. “Not that there can’t be some spontaneity and creativity in it, but it still has to make sense.”

Burgin also will be an instructor at the June 21-24 Pinetop Perkins Workshop Experience in Clarksdale, Mississippi, which develops young-yet-talented musicians. “Maybe I’ll meet the next Kingfish (Christone “Kingfish” Ingram). Who knows?” said Burgin, adding that Cincinnati pianist and Pinetop Perkins intern Ben Levin is well on his way to stardom. Pinetop Perkins alum Kingfish Ingram, 23, won the 2022 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album.

While Tail Dragger was Burgin’s first mentor, touring with drummer Sam Lay also guided him to success. “It was quite a tough school, but I am very grateful to him. I honestly feel if it wasn’t for him, I’d be just another ordinary guitar player.”

In addition to being a bandleader, Lay was a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, which backed Bob Dylan at the famed, controversial electrified performance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Lay died at the age of 86 on Jan. 29.  

“He just had a lot of discipline, and he knew exactly what he wanted, and he gave everything he had on the bandstand all the time,” Burgin said. “He always set that example. He always organized the show really well, and the show was little bullet points of his incredible musical resume. He didn’t talk about it, he just proved it, one song after the other. You can’t learn that just fumbling around on your own.”

Burgin has played alongside Chicago greats Billy Boy Arnold, Big Smokey Smothers, Jimmy Dawkins, Blyther Smith, Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater, L.V. Banks, Pinetop Perkins and he sat in with Louis Myers of the Aces during his last performance.

A definitive Chicago blues history book was released earlier this year, “The Blues Dream of Billy Boy Arnold.”

“I read it in one sitting. It was mind-blowing,” Burgin said. “Billy Boy Arnold is the only person in the world who has been a part of the entire history of Chicago blues. Starting with the Bluebird Records era, the ‘30s and ‘40s. Big Maceo and Tampa Red and all of that. And then through Muddy Waters and Magic Sam, the string-bending era, and then through Alligator Records to today.”

Burgin appears on a soon-to-be released album by Louisiana harp player Johnny Sansone, “Into Your Blues.” Burgin plays his Chicago style guitar which is complemented with Dallas-flavored, six-string licks of Mike Morgan.

Burgin plans to release his 10th album in 2023. Two years ago, he released “No Border Blues: Japan” on Delmark Records. All of the supporting musicians on the record are Chicago blues-influenced Japanese players. Burgin has toured Japan four times, the first in 1996 as a side player for Tail Dragger.

Burgin and Tail Dragger co-headlined the May 7 Topanga Blues Festival with Chicago legend John Primer. From there, Burgin and Tail Dragger played Long Beach, Tarzana, Sacramento, Pacifica, Grass Valley, San Jose and Berkeley.

-Tim Parsons

Kim Emmer and Johnny Burgin share a smile in Tahoe onstage. Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage
Buddy Emmer watches Burgin play guitar while holding the pick between his thumb and middle finger. Tim Parsons / Tahoe Onstage
  • Harrah’s Tuesday Night Blues
  • House Band: Buddy Emmer’s Blues Band
  • When: 8-11:30 p.m. Tuesdays
  • Where: Center Stage, Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, Stateline, Nevada
    Featured artist
  • May 10 — Alvon Johnson
  • May 17 — Johnny Burgin
  • May 24 — Terry Hanck
  • May 31 — Andy Santana
  • June 7 — Mick Clarke
  • June 14 — Mighty Mike Schermer
  • June 21 — Jeffery Watson
  • June 28 — Myles Schon
  • July 5 — Kyle Rowland
  • July 12 — Richie Blue
  • Aug. 30 — Chris Cain
Related stories
Japanese artists, Johnny Burgin blend Chicago blues
-Billy Boy Arnold’s ‘Blues Dream’ a Chicago story of a lifetime
Drummer Sam Lay dies at 86; played with Dylan, Waters, Wolf
-‘Genuine Houserockin’ Music roars: Alligator turns 50

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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