Music’s running rampant this spring and I’m packing for the next festival. Ran across a Gary Primich souvenir custom harmonica and it started me thinking about that rascal. I remember him dogging around, trying to get into my band a million years ago—his first one! We teased him about playing a “child’s toy” but he was just so GOOD we had to give in.
Gary’s a harmonica ace from Austin, Texas and he’s on the move. He tells me he once had three days off in 1978! As usual, he’s back on the road this summer, bringing his unique harmonica sound to clubs and festivals all across the country. Born in Chicago 39 years ago, his family moved to Hobart, Indiana, in the Gary/Hammond area of the state when he was a sprout. But it’s only a small jump from Gary to Chicago and that’s where he headed every chance he got. He flat-out loved the music. Gary spent a lot of time in Chicago, playing the blues as he was coming up, “head-cuttin” with the best, and becoming a regular at the clubs he could sneak into. At the famous Maxwell Street Market each week he made “quarter laundry money” playing with bluesmen John Henry Davis and L.V. Banks, around the corner from Homesick James and Big Walter Horton. They often sat in together, as did people like Floyd Jones, B.B. Odom, and Willie Williams. Primich found the “overwhelming majority” of musicians on Chicago’s southside “open and excited” about having him, or anyone else, play with them. And for Gary it was an important experience, exposing himself up to two new cultures—the black culture and the culture of the blues.
After honing his skills in Chicago and in Bloomington, Indiana (at Indiana University), he moved to Austin, Texas. Blues music in Chicago, it seemed to him, was moving away from his favorite Louisiana and traditional styles. He hoped Austin might be more receptive, and it was. Primich has been voted best harmonica player there for five straight years, according to the Music City Poll, and has just released his fifth album “Company Man” (his debut on Blacktop). Primich and his band, “Shorty Lenoir” (from Canada) on lead guitar, Steve Doughtery (Madison, WI) on drums, and Eric Pryzogcki (Austin, TX) on bass, regularly tear it up wherever they play. As for days off—they slowed down last year to do a mere 200 nights!
CATHI: Hi Gary…relax…breathe out!
GARY: (Whooshes air out—laughs.) Hi.
CATHI: Tell us what got you interested in blues.
GARY: I was an avid listener, not a player. But one day I heard Muddy Waters’ “Hard Again” album with James Cotton on it and it really got me. Right about then Johnny Winter did an album with Big Walter Horton on harmonica, and those two together really got me going. I started playing along with records and had a couple of “ah-ha’s” with the right key and soon I was hooked.
CATHI: So basically you listened to records to learn?
GARY: Yeah, exactly. And I just started buying anything with harmonica on it—didn’t matter what style. I read a lot about the blues too; spent a lot of time in the library at Indiana University. They have a lot of books on the blues.
CATHI: (Smiling.) So after you learned how to play, you just sort of weaseled your way into bands?
GARY: (Laughs.) Yeah—like yours! I’ve always been pretty good at that. But I mean—think about it. “Do you want harmonica in your band?” “Hell no!” “Well, do you want me to sit in every once in awhile?” “SURE!” (Laughs.) They don’t find out you’re an asshole ’til you’re already firmly ensconced in your position!” (Laughter.)
CATHI: Well now you’re really moving. You’ve made several albums and done many tours both here and abroad. You’re in contact with the heavy players around the country, like Juke (Logan), Jerry Portnoy, James Harman and all. That must be pretty exhilarating.
GARY: It’s great to be on friendly terms with those guys, like Harman, Portnoy, Piazza, Clarke (it tore me up when he passed), and those guys. There’s a mutual respect. I mean they are some of my favorite musicians, so it’s really an opportunity to hang out with somebody I have the utmost respect for on their instruments. Some musicians have attitudes toward other musicians, you know? But I really think it’s fun to enjoy somebody else’s playing. It’s an opportunity to gain something from somebody else with something to offer.
CATHI: Sharing tips? I know you were telling someone about using (Joe) Filisko’s harps on your album for a clear sound…
GARY: Yeah—sharing knowledge.
CATHI: Tell me about Filisko’s harps.
GARY: Well, he’s a technician that messes with ’em and makes ’em sound good. He gets them playing like you want them to play, you know? He has an idea what the perfect harp is, and he knows how to get it.
CATHI: Speaking of gear, you know you’re going to have to tell me about that (laughs).
GARY: (Laughs) Okay. My standard stage gear is an astatic JT30 microphone with a ceramic cartridge into a Fender Bassman Reissue amp with the solid state rectifier removed and a 5 U4B rectifier tube installed.
CATHI: Yee haw.
GARY: (Laughs) With a pair of matched SOVTEK 6L6’s. And the only other modifications I’ve done to my amp is take a bass guitar, plug it into the normal channel, turn everything up to 12 and beat on it relentlessly until the speakers loosen up (laughs). Otherwise, that was a really terrible-sounding amp!
CATHI: And your stage settings?
GARY: Treble=4; Midrange=3; Bass=9; Presence=4. That’s it!
CATHI: Tell me about your influences. Guess you can’t get around the classics like Big Walter, Little Water, and the two Sonnyboys.
GARY: No—you can’t. I mean you can’t call yourself a jazz musician if you aren’t influenced by Charlie Parker you know. You can’t say you’re a classical musician if you don’t like Mozart, or Chopin or whatever. And in my opinion, you can’t call yourself a blues harmonica player unless you’ve studied Little Walter and Big Walter Horton. As far a country-blues harmonica is concerned, my favorite artist is Jazz Gillum. Also Sonny Terry, Sonnyboy Williamson I, Hammie Nixon, Will Shade, and Robert McCoy. But there are so many influences—and Billy Boy Arnold is a special favorite.
CATHI: Well, your playing and songwriting have come a long way. Did you always think you had a talent for blues?
GARY: Well, I used to think I was good when I was just starting, and then I had a gig with Lewis and Dave Myers…
CATHI: Aw, the famous come-down.
GARY: (Laughs.) Yeah. They told me that I stunk—that I was the worst thing they’d ever heard (laughs). Back then I resented it and felt awful, but today I’m really glad I had that experience. It made me work hard and as I get better, my playing just gets simpler and simpler. As I get older I play less and less. Tone and phrasing are the two elements that really separate the…
CATHI: Men from the boys? (Laughter)
GARY: And the girls from the women! Those are the two main elements that I’ve tried to develop in my playing.
CATHI: Advice for beginning players?
GARY: Get a Sonnyboy Williamson recording; get Big Walter and Little Walter and learn how to play along note for note. Get with somebody that’s better than you and get lessons. Keep at it. I guess the only thing I can say about the music business is persistence pays off. If you’re meeting resistance, you either have to change yourself or change what’s resisting you. Go where the water is warm. Good luck! Oh yeah—and change the oil in the van every 3,000 miles (laughter)!
Cathi Norton — musician, songwriter, playwright, writer, and tough sailor girl. Member of Gary’s first band and co-conspirator in many of his hijinx until he took up with all those Austin ne’er-do-wells! Good friend to the end though he broke hearts by taking a long walk on a slippery slope without Velcro shoes, and left too soon. Also born in Indiana. Travels about as much as Gary did but unlike him landed in Indiana. Allows Austin-ites to visit from time to time and generally puts working bands up who come through. In love with musicians who never hold still long enough for home to come to them. Terrible habits she probably won’t break along with loving blues, music of many genres, and possessing the rare character-defect of revering harmonica.