The mission of the Music Maker Relief Foundation has long been to preserve the blues-roots traditions of the South. That includes assisting the musicians from the region that have helped cultivate those sounds through the decades.
Trombonist Lil’ John Burton, who doubles as emcee for the long-running Music Maker Blues Revue, is among those artists even though he hails from an entirely different Southern region – specifically, the Southside of Chicago. But it was a lifelong pursuit, even when playing with blues icons like Junior Wells and B.B. King, to head to the real South where the blues, and Music Maker, took root.
“I came up in the projects in Chicago, so it was a little rough,” said Burton, who will perform with the Music Maker Blues Revue tonight at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. “The idea was to get the hell out of there. So my mother had me play the horn as a deterrent, to be out of the gangs.
“Because I was a little kid then, when I got out of school, I would take the horn and go to the candy store. I’d be playing for my schoolmates and the candy man would give me candy for pay. I thought, ‘Oh, wow.’ Then as I got older and older, the candy turned to money. After that, I never looked back.”
Upon relocating to Atlanta nearly 20 years ago, Burton teamed with Music Maker, the North Carolina-based organization whose intent on enforcing Southern blues tradition meant locating a generation of musicians whose careers – and, quite often, lives – had been forgotten.
“They give everybody a platform when they wouldn’t normally have one,” Burton said. “Some of the musicians have fallen on bad times and haven’t recorded in years. Music Maker gives them the opportunity to, as they say, get back into the game.”
That involved the formation of the Music Maker Blues Revue, a rotating lineup of players whose credits includes tenure with Ray Charles, Clarence Carter, Bo Diddley and many others. The ensemble has given Music Maker its most visible performance presence outside of the South. The organization has also undertaken ways of financially assisting these players in day-to-day needs, from assisting with healthcare to helping with housing and basic transportation. For Burton, that meant helping cover the costs of hip replacement surgery.
“Yes, they did. Yes, they surely did. We’re looking out for a friend of ours now. His name is Eddie Tigner. He’s been with Music Maker quite a long time and is 90 years old. He was supposed to come to Kentucky with us, but he’s not able to because of an illness that keeps him from traveling. But he’s one of the superstars of Music Maker (Tigner’s diverse resume runs from work with blues pioneer Elmore James to the vintage vocal group The Ink Spots). He’s here in Atlanta now, so Music Maker takes good care of him. Everybody is looked after at Music Maker. Everybody.”
As emcee of the Revue as well as one of its performing members, Burton takes pride of introducing his fellow blues journeymen to audiences throughout the United States and Europe.
“I love having that responsibility because I do feel like I’m guiding the train. It’s wonderful to introduce these great, great musicians each night. It’s an honor and a privilege. I get such a thrill out of introducing them and then listening to them just explode like they do onstage.
“It’s a pleasure because these Music Maker artists are phenomenal. They didn’t just get to this point. They have years and years of experience and all have real kind hearts. They’re all really beautiful people, so we have a good time together. We’re like a big family.”
The Music Maker Blues Revue performs at 8 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St. in Danville. Tickets: $20-$28. Call 877-448-7469, 859-236-4692 or go to nortoncenter.com.