Call it what you want, but to Johnny Nicholas it's the blues
Johnny Nicholas has it sweet.
His 6pm Wednesday sets at the Saxon Pub have been standing room only since they began in June. As a musician, he's earned emeritus status among bluesmen black and white. Topping it off, he and his wife of more than 30 years, Brenda, own and operate Fredericksburg's ever popular Hill Top Cafe (see "Hill Top Cafe").
Yet lives well spent are seldom normal. For Nicholas, a crazy quilt of cultures fed his hunger for the blues, coloring it with vibrant influences. He needed that when family tragedy left a vicious hole not even the blues could fill. Making matters worse, the very music that's driven his life now flounders, taking with it the names that defined it.
Whatever the circumstances, one constant remains. Johnny plays that guitar just like ringing a bell.
Come midweek – hump day – Johnny Nicholas journeys some 70 miles from Fredericksburg to South Lamar's knighted nightclub. The 90-minute drive is unseasonably green, compared to last summer's parched landscape. This year's good weather brought back the famed peaches from Fredericksburg and Nicholas brings a box full of them to the Saxon weekly, as long as the crop lasts, free for the taking.
Nicholas has driven to and from gigs for much of his 64 years. And driven is the right word. Whether by vehicle or passion, he's followed his restless instincts, always. It led Nicholas, from a Greek family in an Italian Rhode Island community, to leave home in 1966 and never move back.
"The Greek music I listened to as a kid was really spooky," says Nicholas, leaning forward. "I didn't know at the time it came from a form called rembitika, Greek blues. Born in the prisons during the dictatorships of the Thirties and Forties – on handmade instruments. Haunting, moaning, soulful stuff."
Rembitika had slid into Nicholas' past by the time he ventured to a popular college town that started with the letter "A" and boasted a notable music scene. In the Seventies, Ann Arbor, Mich., teemed with youthful creativity, a lively and politically aware music populace, and the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. That was all it took to convince Nicholas, who returned to New England, completed bookings, and hopped the fence along I-95. With a duffel bag and guitar, he hitchhiked to Ann Arbor.
Once there, he jammed seven nights a week with old and new friends, and Johnny Nicholas & the Boogie Brothers landed a slot at the town's 1972 festival. Live double record Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival 1972 glitters with soul and blues stars Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf with Hubert Sumlin, Bobby Blue Bland, Freddie King, Koko Taylor, Willie Dixon, and Sun Ra. Nicholas' band got its shot too, plus they backed Johnny Shines for "Dust My Broom." Also making her major-label debut with Sippie Wallace was Bonnie Raitt.
"[Festival producer] John Sinclair of the White Panther Party decided to rename us because he thought it was cool we had a chick playing bass in the band," recalls Nicholas. "The poster came out and there it was: 'The Boogie Brothers with Sister Sarah Brown'!"
He still chafes at the slight, while laughing, decades afterward, "It was supposed to be Johnny Nicholas & the Boogie Brothers!"
Separately, Brown and Nicholas ended up in Austin within the decade, but at that juncture, life in Ann Arbor was joyous. Drumming for the Boogie Brothers was another friend, Fran Christina, future Fabulous Thunderbird. In that small town, Nicholas also met a Texan named Stephen Bruton.
"Bruton was playing with Geoff Muldaur, who we were opening up for. Stephen and I became fast friends, used to exchange letters, before the cell phones and email. And that's how I met Geoff, through Stephen.
"Years later, the Texas Sheiks project came about because an old blues patron named Roger Kasle wanted to do something to bring Stephen's friends together when he got sick (see "Sheik to Sheik," Feb. 19, 2010). And Stephen is how I ultimately connected with Bruce, Scrappy, and Chipman."
A cardboard box of ripe peaches rests on the end of the bar at the Saxon, a sure sign Johnny Nicholas is in the house. At stage right, Scrappy Jud Newcomb listens to his guitar, drummer John Chipman tests a snare, and first-call steel player Cindy Cashdollar sets up stage left. The load-in door opens; bright light streams into the room's dim recesses and across Chipman's drum kit as Bruce Hughes hoists his bass onstage. Few seats are left in the audience by the time Nicholas steps onstage.
Nicholas in performance is a call to action, a way of demanding attention to the music. He's easy to watch, the handsome bluesman come calling, playing guitar, piano, and harmonica. Onstage, he brings authority to the blues: The kid who sought out Mississippi Fred McDowell, took a bus to meet Hubert Sumlin and Howlin' Wolf, and became a man who played with Snooky Pryor and Big Walter Horton. Playing blues gave him the right stuff to join Asleep at the Wheel for their first Grammy, prompting his move to Austin in 1978.
That move heralded a period of good fortune. Nicholas married his sweetheart in 1980, after which the couple opened up the Hill Top Cafe outside Fredericksburg and spent the next 20 years raising three sons. The restaurant was successful: enough to allow Nicholas to be picky about gigs and play in his own venue if he wanted, and release a string of fan favorites such as last year's Future Blues.
Then tragedy struck. Two weeks before Christmas 2001, their son Rio died at college, a death ruled as an accidental overdose by the Colorado School of Mines.
"My son was murdered," believes Johnny Nicholas.
The college's assessment rankled Nicholas. He knew drugs from years as a musician. The grief-struck parents reviewed the reports and found them lacking. Dissatisfied, the Nicholases filed suit against the school. In 2006, the suit was dismissed on a statute technicality.
"There's nothing worse than losing a child. It's the open wound that never goes away."
Johnny Nicholas slides into one of the Saxon's chairs by the pool table. He tips back his hat, drapes an arm over the chairback, and nods as he talks. These are conversations he's long had with friends, with family, with himself. He finds himself in a brotherhood, the fraternity of lifers bonded by friendships, history.
"I have strong opinions about the state of the blues today," he states. "Future blues is to carry forward the soul of the blues. I call it 'pre-Blues Brothers.' No offense to those folks, but it kinda made me cringe. Yes, great musicians got to play in that band and make good money and be in a movie, but whether Belushi and Ackroyd knew it, they did a lot of damage to a great art form. If that sounds too harsh, I'm sorry. I can't parse it any other way.
"Real blues is spiritual. It's Zen. You can't flip a switch on and off it. That's playing with the form. There's a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan wannabes who stole those licks without acknowledging where he got them. Stevie had the advantage of being around the real cats, sitting on the edge of the stage at Antone's like we all did, watching Albert [King] and Hubert [Sumlin].
"Stevie understood those nuances and took the blues to his level.
"Stevie had that greatness like Albert or B.B. that just shines through. A lot of artists call themselves blues bands and play the form, but are as far away from blues as any rock & roll band. Maybe further."
He stops talking for a moment. A fan stops by the table, wants to shake his hand, says thanks for the good blues. Johnny Nicholas is happy to acquiesce.
"Call me a purist. I'm always the blues guy."