Blue Notes

Bluesman Johnny Nicholas Fans the Flames of a Second Career

Bluesman Johnny Nicholas, who plays Mucky Duck Thursday night, is enjoying quite a career resurgence at 67. Nicholas grew up in Rhode Island, where he formed a band while still in high school that included Duke Robillard and one-time Fabulous Thunderbird Fran Christina. After a brief stint in San Francisco 1972-73, Nicholas relocated to Chicago to work for legendary harp master Big Walter Horton. He released his first solo album, Too Many Bad Habits, on the Blind Pig label in 1978, and would stay immersed in the blues even after relocating to Austin in 1978 to join Ray Benson’s Western Swing band Asleep at the Wheel.

It wasn’t long before Nicholas met his sweetheart, married and, by 1981, quit the road and the life as he and his wife opened the Hill Top Cafe in Fredericksburg and undertook the arduous task of raising a family. But events would eventually cause Nicholas to challenge some of his assumptions and choices and to jump back into the blues life.

“The first big shock that made me re-examine what I was doing was Doug Sahm’s passing,” Nicholas recalls. “Doug actually stopped here and talked about an hour on his way to New Mexico that last time. He ate a bowl of my wife’s gumbo and talked nonstop. A week later he was dead, and that was a real wakeup call for me.

“But the one that really shook me down deep was Steve Bruton [who passed away May 9, 2009]," he says. "Coupled with Doug’s passing, Steve’s death brought me back to thinking about the men who were the biggest influences on my life — not just my music but the way you live life — and I got to thinking about Roosevelt Sykes and Johnny Shines and Robert Lockwood. Each one of them — and especially Robert — really got on my ass about ‘why you want to play that old shit, why you want to copy Muddy Waters?’ They were always pushing me to come up with my own material, something that was real and from inside me, not someone else. That was what pushed me to start writing my own songs and recording my own records again.”

Nicholas released Future Blues to rave reviews in 2012.

“I just can’t believe how well it was received,” Nicholas laughs. “We’ve sold a shit-ton of those things and it’s still doing well. And the band with me now — Scrappy Jud Newcomb, John Chipman and Bruce Hughes — are the same people who are on the record, along with Cindy Cashdollar, who recently left Austin.”
These days, besides performing, Nicholas gets his kicks supporting the Texas All-Star Big Band Bash, an annual charity show at Hill Top Cafe that provides instruments, instructions and scholarships for kids. Marcia Ball is a co-conspirator.

“We've done a benefit show every year for the past 16 years,” Nicholas explains, “and we’ve been able to contribute over $60,000 for instruments and teachers and scholarships. We’re getting ready to go do some workshops with kids in Hawaii with Marcia and my band.”

While he’s not exactly a household name, Nicholas says he has plenty of Houston history and roots in his past.

“I was in the Rhythm Rockers for years and we’d play the Opry House in Houston all the time. Then, after the Opry, we played a bunch of gigs at Rockefeller’s,” says Nicholas. “I never could figure out why it was, but for some reason it seems like every time we’d play a gig in Houston, I'd always get a request for that song 'Cherry Pie.' I never could figure out what it was about Houston and that particular song, but it was easily the most requested song in Houston.”

He also recalls a recently bulldozed legendary hardcase Northside nightery, the Cedar Lounge.

“I played the Cedar with Link Davis and with Joey Long,” Nicholas laughs. “Joey was fucking incredible; he was like the other Jimi Hendrix to me. It blows my mind how little remembered Joey is because he was easily one of the most talented guys of his era. Just a monster player and singer and showman. I’ll never forget the Cedar.”

Although Nicholas hails originally from Rhode Island, he notes he has family spread all over the Gulf Coast from Mississippi to San Antonio.

“I hooked up with Link Davis Jr. via family connections and he took me to record with guys like Nathan Abshire, Dewey Balfa, these legendary Cajun musicians, and I loved every minute of that. What an education. They play the blues, but they play it a little differently than the rest of the country. I’m just grateful that they exposed me to that side of things.” Nicholas also notes one particularly historic Houston relative, his uncle Steve Panos, who owned the world-famous Capitol Boot Shop on Caroline Street. Politicians and movie stars came from all over the country to buy custom boots at the shop until it closed in 2005.

“Uncle Steve was a tough, hard, fair man, and he had a great reputation as a straight businessman,” Nicholas recalls. “That’s why people like Paul Newman would come to town to have their boots made by him. I’ve always been really proud to be related to Uncle Steve; he was a real Houston-type cat.” 

These days, Nicholas is trying to spread his music into wider circles as part of this "second career" stage of his life. He recalls a Mel Tillis quote that appeared in an article about Nicholas awhile back in Texas Monthly, something along the lines of 'a show business career is something that's easy to leave behind but very hard to restart.'

"Yeah, I was playing with Ray Benson the other night and we got to talking about that again," Nicholas laughs. "Sure, I want to get my music out there to everyone I can; I'd like to draw bigger audiences, play bigger rooms, all the stuff you wish for when you go into this. But I've already done this once, and this time it seems like it's more fun, more natural. Hell, honestly, I feel like I'm just getting started sometimes."

Johnny Nicholas performs at 9:30 p.m. Thursday, November 5 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Portsmouth.
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William Michael Smith