A native of Pennsylvania who grew up in Mississippi and attended the University of Chicago before trading in his books for an education at “Blues University,” better known as the club scene on the West Side of Chicago, Johnny Burgin has become one of the country’s foremost blues guitarists and harmonica players.
Known among fans and peers alike as “The Worldwide West Side Guitar Man,” Burgin has earned his reputation as both a hard-charging blues master and an inexhaustible performer by playing up to as many as 250 shows a year in Europe, Japan and American cities from coast to coast. Since 1997, the 50-year-old Burgin has released seven recordings under his own name and played on numerous other recordings as a sideman to many blues legends.
This weekend, Burgin will be visiting Southern California, taking the stage at the Arcadia Blues Club Saturday night.
“I’m a straight up Chicago blues player and I learned from the folks who were part of the great black blues scene there, where it was part of the culture,” Burgin recalls. “I love to connect with the audience and get everybody feeling the same thing.”
Burgin says he got his start while still in college due to a chance encounter in 1988 with fellow campus deejay and harp player David Waldman, who played and recorded with Tail Dragger, Smokey Smothers and other blues artists. Waldman turned him on to the Howlin’ Wolf-style singer Dragger at a club on the Windy City’s West Side. Dragger, Burgin says, took the youngster under his wing and gave him his first professional gigs. Within a few years, Dragger hired Burgin, who, according to his online bio, began playing at West Side clubs with such seasoned performers as Eddie Burks, Mary Lane, Johnny B. Moore, Lurrie Bell, Little Mack Simmons, Little Arthur Duncan, Jimmy Dawkins and Johnny Littlejohn.
From those experiences, Burgin said he learned quickly and went on to tour and and perform with such blues legends as Pinetop Perkins and Sam Lay. Since then, he’s been praised by the Cascade Blues Association for his “stunning guitar playing — the pure Chicago styled sound,” and his fans seem to enjoy Burgin’s take on the intense, stripped-down “West Side Sound” of Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Buddy Guy.
Burgin rattles off the names of people who have influenced him and his work over the years in such a way that one might think they were actually members of his family.
“My favorite player is Earl Hooker,” Burgin says. “I also love Jimmy Rogers, Eddie Taylor and Luther Tucker. … I played with Dave and Louis Meyers who played on some of Little Walter’s most famous recordings, and I toured with Sam Lay for two years when I was in my early 20s coast to coast. Sam played with Howlin’ Wolf and Paul Butterfield,” he notes proudly.
But it is his father who he credits with his budding interest in performing and playing guitar.
“My dad was an actor and a musician and I was in a play ‘Bus Stop’ where I had to play a guitar on stage for a part. After that, I played guitar all the time,” he recalls. “I never thought I’d end up a musician though — I thought I’d be a teacher or a journalist.”
Burgin’s currently a Delmark and Vizztone recording artist. His most recent CD is “Johnny Burgin Live,” featuring Charlie Musselwhite, which debuted at No. 3 on the Living Blues radio chart. Burgin was nominated for a BMA for Best Traditional Blues CD of 2017 for “Howlin’ at Greaseland,” a Howlin’ Wolf tribute
“I was playing every week on the North Side, just passing the hat, with some older blues masters who were kind of obscure. But once I graduated I started playing four or five nights a week, and I played the Chicago Blues Festival with some of those guys we’d be passing the hat with,” Burgin says. “I called my parents and told them I made my rent in an hour and a half. I just kept saying, I’ll try it for a year, then the year ended and I said, let’s do it another year, and here we are. I love the lifestyle, the camaraderie and the music.”
Johnny Burgin performs Saturday at Arcadia Blues Club, 16 E. Huntington Drive, Arcadia. Doors open at 7 p.m. The show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10. For more information, call (626) 447-9349 or visit arcadiabluesclub.com.