Portrait by Brandon Aguilar Photography
“Johnny Nicholas is one of the best bluesmen ever, black or white.”
~ Stephen Bruton
Make no mistake: Johnny Nicholas knows from the blues. His credentials? Impeccable. Conviction? Immeasurable. And chops? If an instrument’s got strings, keys, or reeds, rest assured he can play the hell out of it. He’s also a consummate songwriter and no slouch of a singer, either, blessed with a warm, toasty growl of a voice that can roll from rumble to croon and back again with seductive ease. In the words of kindred musical spirit Marcia Ball, he “writes instant classics and sings them to break your heart and rock your soul,” while no less of an authority than the late, great B.B. King once observed, “[Johnny] learned from some of the same guys I did and he sings and plays the real down-home blues.” A lot of those “same guys,” in fact, welcomed a young Johnny Nicholas into their homes, treating him not just as a wide-eyed acolyte of the blues, but as one of their own: “They took me in because they thought a lot more of me than I thought they did, obviously,” he marvels today, “but then later on I realized that I just have this gift, you know? I can reach deep down in those blues and get way down to the bottom like those guys. And they treated me like family.”
But still, there’s something about the term “bluesman” that just doesn’t quite fit Nicholas. To quote the aforementioned Marcia Ball again, he’s far more of an “innovative traditionalist.” Some might call that an oxymoron, but for Nicholas, it’s a point of direction that’s given him a sense of purpose ever since his mentor Robert Lockwood Jr. — the stepson of Robert Johnson — set him straight way back in his salad days. “I got to spend a lot of time with him when I was really young, and, he admonished me early on, saying, ‘Hey, why you wanna be playing Little Walter and Muddy Waters songs? You don’t need to be copying other people’s songs. You’re Johnny Nicholas — play your own stuff, write your own stuff,’” Nicholas recalls with a smile. “And that really stuck with me.”
For the record, Nicholas never stopped playing other people’s songs outright. He spent a good bit of his early career from the late-60s on playing and touring with the legendary likes of not just Lockwood but Howlin Wolf, Roosevelt Sykes, Big Walter Horton, and Johnny Shines (among many others), all the while simultaneously fronting various combos of his own like the Black Cat Blues Band (with Duke Robillard), the Boogie Brothers(with Fran Christina), and Guitar Johnny and the Rhythm Rockers, a band that included Kaz Kazanof, Sarah Brown and Ronnie Earl . And of course you can still hear him honoring those blues roots both on record and onstage today. But if you’re looking for the kind of dime-a-dozen, stereotypical modern “bluesman” who wears that shopworn tired tag like a shabby black suit and and feigns cool behind a pair of cheap sunglasses, boy, have you got the wrong cat. That’s because Johnny Nicholas does not paint in one musical color. As befits a first-generation Greek American(like Johnny Otis) he’s spent a lifetime soaking up the flavor of myriad different vibrant music scenes across the country. His music is full-spectrum Americana — a rich gumbo of not just blues, but cajun, swing, folk, and barrelhouse rock ’n’ roll.
As a kid growing up in Rhode Island in the ’50s and early ’60s, Nicholas loved tuning into the country station on his radio dial nearly every bit as much as the one pumping out rhythm ’n’ blues. Elvis, Dylan, the Stones, and The Band would all help grease his muse, too. By his early 20s, he was playing with all manner of blues royalty on stages from Ann Arbor to Chicago to Detroit, but the ’70s also found him diving deep into the intoxicating musical gumbo of South Louisiana (he calls Cajun accordion great Nathan Abshire “possibly my second greatest influence, after Wolf”) and digging the Antone’s scene as well as the cosmic cowboy groove of Austin, where he closed out the decade with a two year spirited run mixing jump blues with western swing as one of the front men in Asleep at the Wheel.
“I actually first met the Wheel through Commander Cody in 1970 out on the West Coast, in the Bay Area, where they were living before they came to Texas,” Nicholas explains. “Then we all landed in Austin at the same time not long after that, only I didn’t stay at the time because I was still hanging in Chicago and Louisiana …” He can’t help but laugh at this, knowing how hard it can be sometimes for others to keep up with his timeline. Just like all the different influences coursing through his music, the cities, years, and memories all just sort of blend and run together, even for Nicholas himself. “I was in the river, man, and I was just flowing with it, you know?”
And he still is. Although Nicholas has now happily called the Texas Hill Country home ever since the early ’80s, when he helped his beloved, late wife Brenda open their famed Hill Top Cafe restaurant and roadhouse near Fredericksburg, his repertoire as a songwriter, band leader, and internationally renowned touring musician remains as adventurous and varied as ever. His recorded output over that span has proven especially satisfying; in addition to producing and playing guitar on Johnny Shine and Snooky Pryor’s W.C. Handy Award-winning album, Back to the Country, highlights of Nicholas’ catalog have included his 1978 solo debut, Too Many Bad Habits (originally released on Blind Pig but soon to be reissued with an entire disc’s worth of bonus tracks), 1988’s Broke Again, 1994’s Thrill on the Hill (recorded live at the Hill Top Cafe), and 2012’s Future Blues.
Nicholas dedicated Future Blues to his late friend and longtime champion Turner Stephen Bruton, the acclaimed Texas guitar player, producer, and songwriter who called Johnny “one of the best bluesmen ever, black or white.” It was through Bruton that Nicholas first met Scrappy Jud Newcomb (guitar, mandolin), Bruce Hughes (bass), and John Chipman (drums), the trio of gifted Austin all-stars who have been his go-to band now for six years. “The thing about these guys is, they understand the blues, but they also understand so many other forms and types of music,” enthuses Nicholas, who naturally puts their collective diversity — and his own — to gorgeous, evocative use on his latest album, 2016’s Fresh Air. “He’s someone who cares about being real, and the hell with everything else,” raved the esteemed writer Bill Bentley in one early review. “These new recordings feel like someone finding their way to the top of the mountain where everything they touch turns true.”
Indeed. Fresh Air showcases the hard-earned wisdom of a man determined to use his time left on earth not just to revel in the blues, but to plant seeds of kindness, humility and love. His end goal, as revealed in the sweet, spirit-lifting acoustic sigh of the closing title track, is to ultimately help listeners relearn how to just breathe in the thick of a materialistic and distraction-filled world. But the journey here is every bit as richly rewarding as the destination. From the lonesome howl of the opening “Moonlight Train” to the roadhouse stomp of “Red Light,” the soulful moan of “How Do You Follow a Broken Heart,” the slinky New Orleans groove of “Bayou Blues,” the wicked, sultry lick of “Play Me Like You Play Your Guitar,” and the righteously purposeful rock ’n’ roll swagger of “Working in the Garden,” it plays like a guided tour down every bend of the musical river that Nicholas has been flowing in his entire life. As Newcomb observes in the album’s liner notes, “There are people who seem to be able to stand in two places at once: Where they are now, and where it all began.” And with “this work” — arguably the best songs he’s ever written — Johnny Nicholas exemplifies that notion to a T.