The sweaty club in Tucson was only half full, but everyone inside was happy. Although the take at the door wasn't overwhelming, the drinks were going down fast, so the club owner was smiling.
White men who normally wouldn't or couldn't dance were bouncing and giggling and having a hell of a time making fools of themselves. The slow dances were blurry shuffles of groping and alcohol-fueled lip locks.
Onstage, a blues band called the Mannish Boys was laying down a crackling Texas blues. Sounding a bit like Little Walter, harp player Gary Primich was wailing. Near the end, with the well-oiled crowd hooting for more, Primich sat down on the edge of the stage and ripped out a long, improvised harp solo that held everyone spellbound. Then the band kicked it in for one last jam. It was the kind of gritty, whip-it-up evening the band was capable of inciting nearly every night.
But a couple of months later, the Mannish Boys were no more. The band couldn't wait for success. The members had scattered to the winds. They didn't want to pay the years of dues that most blues bands, those without a one-in-a-million virtuoso, have to go through before they start selling out tours and impressing the blues record labels. "It takes a long time. Look at James Harmon," Primich says, referring to the veteran harmonica player and jump-blues bandleader. "He's 46 years old and he just got on Blacktop Records. Blues bands are relegated to slugging it out.
"When it came down to it, people in the Mannish Boys got disappointed. Because of that, personal things began coming out. It got to the point where people in the band really didn't like each other anymore."
Being a blues musician in an age when there are more blues musicians than ever before takes immeasurable patience and a willingness to do almost anything to succeed. The archetypal image of the itinerant, urban bluesman who sleeps all day and gigs all night has been replaced by up-in-the-morning guys looking for work. These days, with an explosion of bands to compete against, it takes longer to get signed, longer to build a reputation and longer until the money rolls in. Musicians often have to become their own booking agents, tour managers, accountants and publicists.
There are now as many different blues lifestyles as there are players. Blues musicians come from every corner of the country, in every shape, size and background. Most were rock 'n' roll fans long before they heard of the blues. Many went to music school instead of playing by instinct. They learned about the blues, more often than not, from records by second- generation bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. The many directions they are taking the blues reflects that jumble of upbringings.
How Gary Primich began playing the blues harp is typical of those in his generation. Now 33, Primich had your basic white-kid-in-suburbia childhood. Growing up in Gary, Indiana, Primich began hanging out in blues joints in nearby Chicago. Slowly, he absorbed enough technique that local heroes like Sunnyland Slim and Big Walter Horton let him sit in. Sent off to college for a classical music education at prestigious Indiana University, Primich moved to Austin, Texas, he says, "the second my last class was over."
Unlike early bluesmen who hardly knew other musicians' work, Primich counts saxophonists Lester Young and Charlie Parker among his most important influences.
After a few months in Austin scuffling to find work, Primich hooked up with former Frank Zappa drummer Jimmy Carl Black, guitarist Gil Hardman, and standup bassist Frankie J. Myer to form the Mannish Boys. (Coincidentally, David Bowie once used the same name, taken from the famous Muddy Waters tune, for one of his early groups.)
The band went on to become a prominent part of that town's large music community. The Boys toured Europe several times and recorded two excellent electric blues records for Austin-based Amazing Records, A Lil' Dab'll Do Ya (1986) and Satellite Rock (1989). Although both records sold respectably and got airplay, it was clear that it was going to be a long haul to fame and fortune. The waiting took its toll.
Primich stayed alive after the Mannish Boys broke up by wearing a whole closet full of hats. He did studio work for people like Willie Nelson, Peter Rowan, Marcia Ball, and Lou Ann Barton. He toured with unknown- outside-Texas singer and mega-talent Tish Hinojosa. He cut background tracks for commercials. That's his harmonica you hear in the latest Bud Light commercial. He continues to do all of those things to this day. Primich looks at that as part of the bargain.
"If I had to wait tables, which I have, that would still be part of the territory," he says. "Nothing's easy. There are doctors who've done a lot worse things than I have because they wanted to be a doctor. I feel real lucky that I've been able to make my living by playing and staying close to music."
The farthest Primich had to go from the stage to make a living was into the classroom. Some blues players get nicknamed "professor" out of respect. But when people called Gary Primich that, it was because they were afraid of getting their knuckles rapped. For two and a half years, Primich taught harmonica at the University of Texas at Austin. It was the kind of course that could only happen in a town where music is king.
"Because it was Austin, courses like beginning and intermediate harmonica would fill up," Primich says during a phone conversation from his home in Austin. "I think in most people's minds in the music school, this class belonged next to underwater basket weaving. My students weren't really serious. They were what I'd call `the harmonica curious.'"
At the same time he was checking off attendance and lecturing on the finer points of Charlie Musselwhite's style of blowin', Primich was carrying on with his musical career. Eventually, he was able to give up the readin' and writin' for rhythm.
From the pieces of the Mannish Boys rose another touring band, the Midnight Creepers. This time, it's Primich's band. He's the center of attention. In case anyone had any doubts that he is doing it his way, he has also made a solo record on Amazing titled Gary Primich.
Released this week, Gary Primich is a sizzler. Loaded with accomplished Austin studio musicians, this solo debut serves up wicked versions of jump-blues tunes like Juke Logan's "The Sound of Money Talking." The disc also makes it clear that Primich has simplified the problem of goals.
"The new record and what I'm doing with the Creepers are more a reflection of my tastes," he says. "It's rawer, more traditional blues. And it's also more relaxed on the business end. The only expectations I have to deal with this time are my own. And I'm here for however long it takes."
But even if the new record and the new band flop, Primich doesn't think he'd ever go back to the chalkboard and the polished apples.
"I always thought being a musician was bad," Primich says, "but what they pay teachers is obscene."
Gary Primich and the Midnight Creepers will perform at Chuy's on Tuesday, July 16. Showtime is 9 p.m.
"I think in most people's minds in the music school, this class belonged next to underwater basket weaving."
"It got to the point where people in the band really didn't like each other anymore."
The image of the itinerant, urban bluesman who sleeps all day and gigs all night has been replaced by up-in-the-morning guys looking for work.
That's his harmonica you hear in the latest Bud Light commercial.