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Interview:
Johnny NIcholas in Michigan, 5 Things To Know
 

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

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Back in 1970, Johnny Nicholas and his Boogie Brothers band came from Rhode Island to play at the first Ann Arbor Blues Festival. And Nicholas never went home again.

The blues guitarist and bandleader spent much of the early 70s in Ann Arbor as a fixture on the local scene, the launch pad for a career that included playing alongside legends such as Boogie Woogie Red, Robert Lockwood Jr. Big Walter Horton, Johnny Shines and many others. He then became part of Asleep at the Wheel in Texas through also launched a still-active solo career with 1977’s “Too Many Bad Habits” -- which has just been reissued with a dozen previously unreleased bonus tracks.

Nicholas, now 70 and living near Austin, Texas, celebrates the re-release with three shows in the Detroit metro area, backed by Bob Dylan bassist (and former Asleep At The Wheel bandmate) Tony Garnier and the Howling Diablos’ Martin “Tino” Gross, who played on the original album...

• Getting into the blues as a youth “was weird,” according to Nicholas. “I was a Greek kid growing up in a little mini Greek community among a heavy Italian population, Portuguese population mixed in with what they call the Old Swamp Yankees. I was introverted. My older brother was a hipster back then, when hipster was something cool. He was really into R&B, and we listened to several stations -- one in Providence, a couple out of New York, straight-up R&B stations that played all the hits. Then I met Duke Robillard -- he was Mike at the time -- and we’d hang out and I’d got to his house and he’d play stuff for me and we’d buy records when we could. It’s hard to explain; Rhode Island was a weird little place, but there were a lot of good musicians there, people that really dug straight-up R&B and jump blues. The Guild guitar factory was there, too, so it was just in the air or something.”

• Nicholas felt immediately at home in Ann Arbor after coming out to play at the 1970 blues festival. “We came out there and worked. It was unbelievable, man. We played seven nights a week -- Mr. Flood’s Party, the Blind Pig, Mackinac Jack’s, The Flip, The Alley. There were just all these venues, and it was a vibrant music scene. So I started bringing in all the guys I met in high school in the 60s -- Slim Harpo and Lightning Slim, Muddy (Waters), (Howling) Wolf, all those cats, and we’d back ‘em up. We’d play festivals. It was just a great place to be playing music back then.”

• The reissue of “Too Many Bad Habits” has been a long time coming for Nicholas, involving legalities from the original recording contract and from unauthorized versions of the album that had come out. After finally obtaining the rights, he was pleased to find more material from the recording sessions to include in the new edition. “I thought there would be maybe one or two alternate performances, but there were 20 songs I completely forgot about, and most of it was really good -- and a lot of that with just me and (Little) Walter and Johnny Shines. It was a real treasure trove. So I dug through everything and we digitized all the stuff and really made it a nice package.”

• Nicholas is happy to be working with Garnier and Gross -- as well as Scrappy Jud Newcomb from his own band -- for the upcoming release shows. “I knew Tony from the early days of Asleep at the Wheel, even before I joined the band, and when I joined he was still in the band. And Tino, he was a kid, man, when I was in Ann Arbor; He played with me and Big Walter and some great people and was part of the ‘Too Many Bad Habits’ project. It’s like coming home in a way. It’s gonna be a lot of fun to play with those guys again.”

• Nichols owns and operates a restaurant in Texas, and his music career is ongoing; His latest studio set, “Fresh Air,” was named one of 2017’s top albums by Downbeat magazine. “I’ve done a lot of good stuff over the years, man. Everything I’ve done in my career is really a natural progression. I’m a traditionalist; Blues was always storytelling and a very, very refined art form in that you have to express stuff in the confines of a simple, very basic forum. The masters did that. The guys playing today just play too loud and too many notes and have no idea what they’re doing, and all they do is play old songs.”



If You Go:

Johnny Nicholas plays three shows in the metro area this weekend:

• 7:30 p.m. Sunday, July 1, at the Ark. Tickets are $20. Call 734-761-1818 or visit theark.org.

• 8 p.m. Monday, July 2 at 20 Front Street in Lake Orion. Tickets are $15. Call 248-783-7105 or visit 20frontstreet.com.

• 5 p.m. Tuesday, July 3 at a private home, 2135 Burns St. in Detroit’s Indian Village. Admission is free.



Web Site: www.20frontstreet.com

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