From Mississippi to the Middle East: Jimmy Burns Brings the Blues to Tel Aviv

Despite the fact that he’s in Israel as the guest of the Israel Blues Society, Burns insists he’s not a 'true bluesman'

Blues musician Jimmy Burns in Tel Aviv, May 30, 2019.
Simon Spungin

People who like blues music are an intolerable bunch. If they’re not arguing over which of the hundreds of available versions of “Dust My Broom” fully encapsulates the humor of Robert Johnson’s original, they’re out there trying to convert nonbelievers. No other genre of music, it seems, inspires such proselytizing zeal among its fans.

And it should come as no surprise that blues is enjoying a global revival. When everything is complicated and nothing can be taken at face value, the blues are simple and unpretentious. When societies are increasingly riven, the blues taps into a rich vein of universal emotions. As B.B. King, generally accepted as the greatest bluesman of all time, said: “As long as people have problems, the blues can never die.”

Among the many individuals and organizations keeping the blues alive is the Israel Blues Society. This weekend, it’s celebrating its 10th anniversary with three days of live music, performed by local bands and guests from overseas. Mike’s Place, a famed bar and music venue, will be hosting the shows at its branches in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Herzliya.

Guest of honor

The guest of honor is Jimmy Burns, a Chicago-based musician whose career trajectory could be the subject of a blues song its own right. He was born in Dublin, Mississippi, in 1943, the youngest of 12 children and was raised on the Hilliard cotton plantation. According to Burns, his father was a sharecropper, who performed in medicine shows.

“He was a good musician, but not a professional,” Burns tells me as we sit at a Tel Aviv beachfront bar. “But I grew up with all the blues music. My father played guitar, harmonica and piano. This first instrument I played was the diddley bow: just one string, made out of broom wire, and using a bottle as a fret.”

When Burns was four, his eldest brother, Eddie, headed north from Mississippi to Detroit, where he launched a seven-decade music career.

Eight years later, the rest of the Burns family made the same northward journey and ended up in Chicago’s West Side. “There weren’t too many blues clubs in that part of Chicago,” Burns says, “so I used to listen to the radio a lot. I’d listen to Big Joe Turner and the like. They all influenced me.”

Throughout the 1960s and the early ‘70s, Burns recorded several doo-wop songs and issued his one commercially successful record, “I Really Love You.” Soon after he and his wife, Dorothy, married Burns took a long break from the music business. They ran a barbecue restaurant and raised six children, but Burns insists that he never gave up his love for music.

“I kept on playing my guitar – in church,” he says. “I love gospel music. I was in the choir and I sang solo.”

He laughs, though, when I ask if he is religious. “Not really,” he drawls. Embarrassed to have caused such mirth, I try to cover myself. “Well, you know,” I stammer. “Blues is a very spiritual genre, isn’t it?”

I apparently hit a nerve.

“What you have to remember, now,” Burns tells me, “is that gospel came from the blues, not the other way round. Blues is always at the root of everything. Now, you may not associate rock ‘n’ roll with black people, but it came from us. Most people,” he adds, “don’t even know what rock ‘n’ roll means. It means sex.”

So how did the blues, a raw, sexual music, find its way into the church?

“The father of gospel music was Thomas Dorsey,” Burns explains. “He was a blues musician who suffered a terrible personal tragedy. He lost his wife and his child right around the same time. That’s when he turned to gospel. But because they wouldn’t allow musical instruments into churches – they called them the devil’s instruments, and crazy shit like that – people started singing like barbershop harmonies.”

Burns and his wife sold their restaurant in the mid-1990s and he relaunched his musical career. While he was playing at Smoke Daddy, a Chicago barbecue joint with live music, Burns was signed up by Delmark Records boss Bob Koester. He released his first album in 1996.

Now he tours with his band, playing the music he loves to audiences in Turkey, Kazakhstan and Russia. He flew in to Israel from Moscow, where he says he played to an appreciative audience. “They don’t know blues from my shoes,” he chuckles, “but they got into it.”

At this stage in our conversation, I get to fulfill a long-standing fantasy: sharing geeky blues talk with a real-life bluesman. When I ask his musical heroes, Burns refers reverentially to B.B. King as the “world’s greatest,” and seems a little moist-eyed when he tells me that his mother’s favorite B.B. King song was “When My Heart Beats like a Hammer.” I tell him that I’ve been listening to a lot of Keb’ Mo’.

I also tell him about my visit to Kingston Mines, a famed blues club in Chicago, hoping to impress him. “I played there for eight years,” he says, deadpan. I up the ante: I also visited Buddy Guy’s Legends blues club, I say. Burns, it turns out, played there for 20 years.

‘The blues is different’

Despite the upsurge in the popularity of the blues, and the huge number of new blues artists on the scene, Burns says that he still mainly listens to “the old stuff, the stuff I listened to as a kid.” And despite the fact that he’s in Israel as the guest of the Israel Blues Society, Burns insists he’s not a “true bluesman.” I press for an explanation.

“See,” he says, “I’m a rhythm and blues guy doing blues and an R&B interpretation of it. The blues is different. There’s no other music like the blues. I love the blues. There’s nothing like the blues when it’s played right. There’s so many different genres of it; it’s not just one thing. People play it different ways and they’re working out the way it should be. You can take the blues wherever you want to go with it.”

What is it about the blues, I want to know, that makes it such a universal and influential genre?

“The blues belongs to everybody,” he says. “I don’t believe in this talk about ‘You shouldn’t do this or that.’ The music belongs to everybody and everybody can have their interpretation of it. There’s no right or wrong with the blues; it’s whatever you feel.”

And what will you be playing for your audiences here in Israel?

“Well, I don’t really work with a set list. Music is a mood thing. I play what I feel and I read the audience. Like, when I play “Cold As Ice.” I can’t do it the way that Foreigner did it; I want to do it my way. So I stripped it down so I can do it solo.”

Jimmy Burns will perform with the SOBO Blues Band at Mike’s Place in Herzliya May 31 and at Mike’s Place in Tel Aviv June 1.