John Brim

Chicago bluesman
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The Independent Online

John Brim, singer, songwriter and guitarist: born Hopkinsville, Kentucky 10 April 1922; married (three sons, seven daughters, and one son deceased); died Gary, Indiana 1 October 2003.

John Brim was one of the last links with the classic era of 1950s Chicago blues. Although not a prolific recording artist, he was a fine guitarist and penned several standards of the genre including "Tough Times" and "Ice Cream Man". The latter, a blues staple, was co-written with the great Elmore James and found an even greater audience when it was covered by the rock group Van Halen on their eponymous début album in 1978.

He was born, in 1922, near Hopkinsville, Kentucky, an area that just a few years earlier had been a hotbed of nightrider activity during the infamous Black Patch Tobacco War. As a youngster he was drawn to the music of established blues stars such as Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red, and began to teach himself to play the harmonica. He met a musician named Homer Wilson and together they played in neighbouring towns before, in 1941, heading for Indianapolis in search of work.

There he learned to play the guitar and worked alongside several former associates of the charismatic pianist Peetie Wheatstraw, including Harmon Ray and Scrapper Blackwell. In 1945 he headed to Chicago, where he performed with a string of future blues legends, among them his former hero Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson and Memphis Minnie.

Two years later Brim married his wife, Grace. A singer and harmonica-player, she became one of the finest drummers in Chicago and they became mainstays of the Chicago club scene. In 1950 the pianist Big Maceo Merriweather arranged for the Brims and the bassist Alonce Tucker to join him in Detroit at a recording session. His career was in serious decline, following a stroke in 1946 that had left him without the use of his right hand. Although he was still able to contribute the bass rhythms, the treble flourishes were supplied by a protégé, James Watkins. The numbers the group cut, including "Have You Heard About It?" and "Without You My Life Don't Mean a Thing" have, even today, a poignancy about them.

The next few years saw the Brims return to the studio on a regular basis. They worked alongside Little Walter, Jimmie Reed and Eddie Taylor, and John played guitar on Albert King's début session. Brim produced some of his most enduring records with the Chess label, including "Rattlesnake", "Ice Cream Man" and the hit "Tough Times" (all 1953). In 1956 he recorded the menacing and masterful "I Would Hate To See You Go (Be Careful)". Legal problems, however, meant that the label was unwilling to release the majority of his discs and it wasn't until the late 1960s that many of them eventually surfaced to take their place as acknowledged classics.

He spent the next few decades in the steel town of Gary, Indiana, made hundreds of club and festival appearances and returned to the studio only sporadically. The year 1994, however, saw the release of a full-length album, Ice Cream Man. Featuring re-workings of some of his old hits, and fine support from Muddy Waters's former sidemen Bob Margolin and Jerry Portnoy, it was nominated for Best Traditional Blues Album of the Year at the annual W.C. Handy Awards.

Grace Brim's death in 1999 briefly curtailed her husband's performing activities, but in 2000, supported by his road band, he released a final, acclaimed album, Jake's Blues.

Paul Wadey

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