An Interview with unique bluesman Rick Estrin (& The Nightcats), a leading figure of the blues nowadays

"Blues will never go away completely because the feeling of the blues is about universal human emotion."

Rick Estrin: The Blues, saved my life

One day back in 1970, a 20-year old Rick Estrin had the opportunity to play harmonica with Muddy Waters and his band at the Sutherland Hotel on 47th and Drexel on Chicago's South Side. During the break, Muddy called Estrin over, shook his finger in his face, and shouted, "You outta sight, boy! You got that sound, boy! You play like a man, boy!"
Rick Estrin ranks among the very best harp players, singers and songwriters in the blues world today. His work on the reeds is deep in the tradition of harmonica masters Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter Jacobs, while at the same time pushing that tradition forward. His award-winning original songs have been favorably compared with those of Willie Dixon and the team of Leiber and Stoller. And his hipster, street-smart vocals are the perfect vehicle for driving his songs home.
For more than 30 years and nine albums, Rick fronted the jumping, swinging Little Charlie & The Nightcats, featuring guitarist Little Charlie Baty. With Baty's recent retirement from touring, Estrin - along with the Nightcats longtime rhythm section of J. Hansen and Lorenzo Farrell and a new member, fiery guitarist Kid Andersen - takes the lead on his own.
In addition to his harmonica and vocal skills, Rick Estrin is a songwriter of unparalleled talent. Critics have compared him to Cab Calloway, Louis Jordan and Willie Dixon.
Rick Estrin & The Nightcats will release their new Alligator CD, One Wrong Turn on Tuesday, July 3, 2012.
As a testament to their talent, the audiences at their performances are always peppered with musicians wanting to glean a lick from these musical masters. Now, with One Wrong Turn and continued non-stop touring, Rick Estrin & The Nightcats continue to reinvent, redefine and revolutionize modern blues.

Interview by Michael Limnios


How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
I’ve been playing more than 45 years, so naturally the music business has changed a lot…the whole world has changed a lot over 45 years! One of the biggest changes affecting performing musicians is the fact that there are almost limitless entertainment options today.  When I began playing, there were three TV channels. There was no Internet, no DVDs, no streaming of movies, no YouTube. The good part is that these technological innovations make all music more accessible. Unfortunately they also create a situation where it’s no longer necessary for people to seek out live music.  Also, in the US, over the last 15 years or so, most radio stations have come under the ownership and control of huge corporations. The result is that radio programming is tightly controlled and limited to an extremely narrow range of only the most popular music, so the casual listener never gets exposed to any music outside of the mainstream.


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
Blues will never go away completely because the feeling of the blues is about universal human emotion. The blues is also the musical foundation for many forms of popular music, so I can’t imagine it will ever disappear completely. My wish for the blues is that people will always have the opportunity to be exposed to, and experience the beauty and power of the real blues through the recorded works of the true, original, mid-20th century, blues masters.   


What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician…and songwriter?
I think I’ve naturally got a good rhythmic feel and I think I’m a pretty good listener. I can hear how the small details can make big differences. I was also lucky enough to have been around some of the very greatest musicians when I was young. That experience gave me the opportunity to observe and feel what goes into quality musicianship. Songwriting also has a lot to do with being a good listener. I think I have somewhat of a gift for it, but I also had some great, early, informal coaching from a songwriter/performer named Rodger Collins. He wrote and recorded the hit “She’s Looking Good”. The song was later covered by Wilson Pickett. Rodger taught me how to edit songs and instilled in me some basic principles of songwriting that still guide me today. Some life experience and a little wisdom to go along with the talent are also important assets for a songwriter.  



How do you get inspiration for your songs & what experience has influenced you most as a songwriter?
Inspiration and ideas can come from anywhere. Sometimes I’ll hear myself say something in conversation (or hear somebody else say something) and think, “That might be a tune!” When that happens, I better write it down or record it right away or I’ll inevitably forget it. Rodger Collins is very disciplined in that way. Often a phrase will suggest a certain rhythm and a melody I my mind.  I’m naturally a little lazy, so usually my biggest inspiration comes when I need to make a new CD.   Sometimes I just noodle around on the guitar until I arrive at something that seems to sound cool and yet doesn’t seem to sound too much like any other song.              


Would you like to tell something about making this new album? What is the difference and similarity between One Wrong Turn and the previous Nightcats albums?
I need to differentiate between our 2009 CD, Twisted, and the previous nine albums. When Little Charlie was with the band, we had a more conventional, retro swing approach. When he left, I thought it was important to establish a new, unique sound.  I also needed however, to remain true to who I am and maintain the basic integrity of my view of the blues. The sound we began developing on Twisted feels fully realized on the new CD. It feels like we’ve really put our own stamp on the blues.  


Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
I haven’t had a dull period in my life yet! I’ve lived a life beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve performed and continue to perform all over the world (but never in Greece yet!) I’ve recorded for Alligator Records for 25 years. Still, maybe the most exciting time for me was in my late teens and early twenties.  That was when I got my most important lessons in music and in life. I had musical mentors like Rodger Collins, Fillmore Slim and Travis (Wonderboy) Phillips. My father had died just after my 15th birthday and people like Rodger, Fillmore and Travis were really like father figures for me. I remember riding all up and down the west coast in Rodger’s Lincoln Continental while he schooled me on music, songwriting, performing and show business. I remember going with Fillmore after we got off our gig, and riding around in his Fleetwood Cadillac checking on all his girls and thinking, “This is the coolest shit in the world!”  Then, when I was 20, I moved to Chicago and had the opportunity to play with legends like Muddy, Eddie Taylor, Johnny Young and Johnny Littlejohn. I remember my first night in Chicago, sitting in at Theresa’s Lounge and the house band was Buddy Guy, Sammy Lawhorn, Freddie Below and some bass player I can’t recall! I thought I died and went to heaven. I still really miss those times, and those people who’ve gone on. It’s great that Rodger and Fillmore are still alive and doing well. Travis died around 1971 or ’72. Muddy’s been gone since ‘83. Buddy’s still around but Johnny Littlejohn, Johnny Young, Eddie, Sammy, Below, Louis Myers…all long gone! Another guy I really miss who passed more recently is Robert Lockwood.


What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
The scene is tougher now than ever before. Do it if you have to do it…otherwise, have fun playing, but don’t pursue it as a career. Some of the very greatest musicians I know live their entire lives in real poverty.


What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?
When I first heard the blues, it was like I discovered a name for the way I felt. I think I always felt the blues but I didn’t have a name for it or any way to express it until I heard Ray Charles and Jimmy Reed. I’m pretty sure that music, and more specifically the blues, saved my life.


Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues & what characterize Rick Estrin’s blues?
I can think of a couple reasons why the harmonica is connected to the blues: First, it’s a relatively inexpensive instrument and in the early days of the blues, a harp was really cheap…like 25 or 50 cents! Because of that, almost every poor country boy had one. Some of those poor country boys got into it and achieved a level of real mastery and high artistic expression, made records and the whole thing started to spread. The harmonica is also perfect for blues because it can sound so vocal. A harmonica can moan the blues like no other instrument besides the human voice. To me, blues on the harp are all about the groove, the feel, the tone and the story. In my songs, in my lyrics and in my delivery, again it’s about the feel and the story. I’m trying to deliver the message so the listener can identify and feel a little bit of what I’m feeling.


Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Travis Phillips?
I have so many…you know Travis made the original “Eyes Like A Cat”, the song I recorded with Little Charlie on our first album. Joe Louis Walker cut it a couple years ago too.  Some of the stuff I remember, I can’t really talk about, but here’s a good one: We worked at the same club, the Playpen on Divisidero street in San Francisco, 5 nights a week for almost a year.  When we started gigging there, we were Fillmore Slim’s band, with Travis on guitar. Then, after a couple months, Fillmore had to leave town. He went to Alaska for a while, so we became Travis Phillips and the Wonderboys. The club would be packed toward the end of the week, but Wednesdays were generally a little slow. One Wednesday when there were very few people, I sat down at a front table, and Travis got back on the bandstand and started playing, going through all these different styles and talking to me about it on the mic. He started with “Here’s how B.B. would do it, Ricky”…then he began demonstrating the guitar styles of everyone from B.B. King to T-Bone Walker and everyone in between, all the way up to Grant Green!
Then he ended up with some great Lightnin’ Hopkins type stuff saying: “And here’s how my daddy used to do it.”  It was an unforgettable, private show. He would say some funny shit too… When we started at the Playpen, we had a great drummer, Bro Brougham, (who was Joe Louis Walker’s cousin). After he left, the next guy wasn’t nearly as good. We tried using him for a week or two and one night he asked Travis, “How am I doing?” Travis told him, “Man, that drum kit is kickin’ your ass nightly!” Another time, the bass player, this guy Ed Wilson, asked for a raise. It was 1967, or ’68 and we were probably making fifteen dollars a night, so he wanted a raise to twenty. Travis told him “No man…and matter of fact, if you really want to know the truth, you ain’t playin’ but about seven dollars worth of bass!” Later on in the early 1970s, after Travis had died and I was living in Chicago, I went to see Freddie King play. This was after he had made his first Shelter record with Leon Russell, the one with “Goin’ Down” on it, so he had already crossed over into the white market and was playing the hippie ballroom circuit. Freddie’s old drummer from the 1950’s was a guy named T.J. McNulty, and he owned a west side bar called Tom’s Musician’s Lounge, on Roosevelt Road. As a special, one-time thing - I guess to help T.J. out and for old times sake, Freddie did a weeknight show there with his old trio, T.J. and Big Mojo Elum.  On the break, I asked Freddie if he had known Travis and he told me, “Man when I first went to Houston, Travis Phillips had the baddest band in town!” He said, “It’s a damn shame that cat died so young. He was a great guitar player and a great singer. He could’ve really made some noise out here.”
There’re not a lot of Travis’ recordings available but I think you can find his original version of “Eyes Like A Cat” on some Texas/Louisiana compilation. He was only 17 or 18 when he cut that record. I think he was part of Clifton Chenier’s band at the time. He cut a few more back then, “Imitation of Love” and “Y’ Know Yeah” “Travis Stomp”. Later on he had a 45 that was out on ABC. One side was a version of “That’s Alright” and the other side was called “Doin’ Everything”.   



What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from the black clubs around the SF at your youth years?
You said it right! The “feel” is what I miss the most! I miss the feel of the music. I miss the way it was presented. I miss the look. I miss the music in the way people spoke, I miss the fashion, the ladies, the food, the smell…the whole scene! It was a beautiful time, man! It was really all about the “feel”!


What's their experience been from “studies” in South Side at 60s - 70s?
Chicago back then was another great scene with it’s own “feel”. I already talked about Theresa’s a little bit. That was an incredible place and time. Pepper’s Lounge too – on 43rd and Vincennes… It had real long, shallow bandstand and I remember one night when Cotton’s band was playing – He still had Luther Tucker and Bobby Anderson – There were a bunch of harp players there and during the last set, Cotton started something like “Teenage Beat” by Little Walter, but in the key of F, and everyone got up at the same time. There was Junior Wells, Cotton, Big Walter, Cary Bell, Charlie Musselwhite, and one other guy and me. We kept passing one Bb harp up and down the line, everyone trying to play the coolest shit they could come up with, until Big Walter wouldn’t give the harp up, so Cotton finally ended the tune. Back then, in Chicago, you could go out to 50 different clubs, any night of the week and see great people – living legends!

Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most? What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?
The older I get, the more I admire survivors. Guys like Robert Lockwood, Rodger Collins, Fillmore Slim, Johnny Twist…guys who made it through tough times and persevered and thrived.  A lot of great talents have passed and gone from nothing more than self-neglect and self-abuse. I had my party days too, but I recognize now how lucky I was to live through all that stuff. I’ve gotten lots of good advice over the years. Johnny Twist once told me that the main two things I needed to watch out for in this music business were “ego and psychologicals”. He told me that back in 1971. I never really understood what he meant until after Little Charlie retired and I had to take over the business end of the band. Twist sure knew what he was talking about. You need an advanced degree in street psychology to deal with all the personalities and back-stabbers in this business. Some of the best practical advice I ever got was from Robert Lockwood. In the 1990’s he asked me what I was doing with the money I was making and he told me I needed to buy myself a house. I took his advice and couple years before he died, I was able to tell him I had paid the bank off and owned the house free and clear. I could tell he was proud of me for taking his advice.

Rick Estrin & The Nightcats - Official website

                            Rick Estrin & The Nightcats Photos by Kent Lacin

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