A week with NICK CHARLES
Days 1 and 2
When Nick Charles left his home in Vicksburg, Mississippi for the big city of Greenville, he found more than just work. He found the future. He found Aladdin’s lamp in the shape of a bass guitar. His fascination with the music scene and with the bands touring the South helped to create the avenue on which his natural abilities and his youthful passion for playing would flourish. The result is the formidable thump that now backs up Billy Branch and the Son’s of Blues.
”When I was in high school, well, I didn’t quite finish high school but I got there. Anyway I had a lot of friends in Greenville. Like this guy, Booby Barnes. He died. He was from Greenville. I wasn’t playing music but I used to get out. I heard this guy L.V. Banks and I thought he was the greatest, and Booby Barnes was next, right down the street. Back then I used to do a lot of dancing and back then my hair was all down my back People thought I was a musician with the bands anyway. I just started doin’ roady for ’em just so I could go with ’em when they go out. One time this guy stopped me and said I should be playing with them. I told him I wants to play. And he started me off to playing.”
This was the beginning of the kind of luck and life of grace waiting for Nick in the future. Between sixteen and seventeen Nick tried to enlist in the army but was repeatedly rejected. By eighteen the army wanted Nick but he didn’t want them and he didn’t have to go. That fortunate turn of events led to a career that would support Nick the rest of his life and make having a day job almost unnecessary. ”I got to Greenville about October of ’61 and by December of ’61 I was playing music. By ’62 I was with Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Tina Turner, all these people. I was lA (a draft classification) but I had four sisters and I was the only boy. So when they sent for me I didn’t have to go. I said, flaw, when I tried to go they wouldn’t take me. Now, I’m not going. I was always pretty lucky. I always had plenty of work and a good piece of money. And I saved, ’cause, you know it wasn’t as good as it is here because it was the South.”
Nick toured Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas mostly, with whoever was bringing music to the South. The road to Chicago wasn’t quite as smooth however, and mainly due to Nick’s fear of the North. ”I wouldn’t leave. I had my line I wouldn’t cross. I was kinda scared to come North ’cause I heard about the murders and all, and I said, naw, no city for me.”
Even with his father already living and established in Chicago, it took Howlin’ Wolf to send for Nick and Eddie Shaw to talk him into coming to Chicago before Nick would give it a try. ”I came in ’62 in February but it was so cold. I said, well, I’ll give it til March. You know, ’cause by March all the little birdies and the flowers start coming out. But it seemed like the coldest month of the year and the snow was this high.” He raises his hand about three feet from the living room floor in slight exaggeration. ”I was gonna try to stay but by Valentine’s Day I got my little bag and headed back down South.” Nick stayed South until Earl Hooker came and took him touring again. They played all the same southern night spots and even returned to Chicago. But Nick didn’t return to Chicago for good until April of ’64. This time he came to the west side to a place named Curly’s, where he met ”everybody, all the musicians.” He also spent time hanging out on the south side at Pepper’s, where the music played seven nights a week and he could always meet someone new.
Nick landed his first and only day job while living on the west side with a buddy from down South and his sister. The buddy had a job moving boxes on a refrigerator truck and got Nick a job doing the same. ”I used to get there every morning around ten ’o clock and everybody else’ll be there since eight. They used to call me music man. They’d say, hey music man, what happened to your clock? And I’d say, yeah, I got to get me a clock. That went on for a couple of months and then one day I got a check with a little pink slip in it. I said, hey, I got a raise. They said, yeah, you got a raise alright. They just cut me loose. You know, even when I would get off work at twelve, I would still hang out til morning. I couldn’t make it at eight. I slept for days after that.”
It’s Monday, September 6, 1997, and while the SOB’s are working Artis’s, a south side Chicago blues club, they are also enjoying a birthday gala with Nick and Billy Branch as the honored guests. Artis sits near the rear entrance. She is wearing a sharp silver-gray suit and very high heels. In her hand is a long, black cigarette holder. She oozes moxie. It takes only a smile and a ”hello” however, to reveal a warm personality and a very gentle boss lady.
It’s time for the music to kick off and Nick is running a jazzy blue bass line on the group’s first number. Billy’s harmonica blow seems extra cool tonight as well. The overall crowd response is one of satisfaction and celebration.
Several gentlemen musicians are out tonight to honor their friends and to possibly sit in with the band later. Among them are J.W. Williams, Felton Crews, Ronnie Brooks, Manuel Arrington, Mike Peavy and Roy Hightower. As I try to work the room in search of Nick’s long time associates who will offer some insight on him, I find that I will have to wait for the break. I am finally able to talk to Billy Branch. ”Nick Charles is one of the baddest bass players there ever was. He’s played with everybody from Howlin’ Wolf to Slim Harpo and Muddy Waters. He’s a mellow fellow and the best there is. He understands the language of the blues and knows how to take it to another space. Good cat. He’s been with us for two years but I played with him off and on for over fifteen years. We played everywhere.”
J.W. Williams had accolades for Nick Charles the man as well as the musician. ”Nick Charles is a beautiful person, a good bass player, and I’m very happy to be here to help him celebrate his birthday.”
As the second set begins I’m able to sit with Artis and talk about the history of her club and her love for the blues. ARTIS’S opened in 1982 but she didn’t figure on having a blues club with live entertainment back then. Artis owned the High Chapparell back in the ’70’s. It was a larger place with a more central location and provided all types of live entertainment. ”When I opened up here it was more like, just a neighborhood lounge so I didn’t think about live entertainment. You see I really don’t have the space for it. But after about two years I went to another friend of mine’s place and Billy and the boys were playing there. And they were so good. And I said I’d like to have them play at my place. Then there was this other one, Big Willa, and he approached me about having live blues and I said, why not, since I always have loved the blues. So Big Willa played first and Billy started sitting in with him; Billy and J.W. Then Billy started in about ’84 on Monday nights and J.W. started on Sundays. At first it was Billy and J.W. and then they broke up. But I loved them both so much that’s when I decided to have one on Sunday night and one on Monday night.”
Back in the hey day of blues on the south side, Artis liked to frequent Chicago’s Queen Bee. Though back in those days she never really intended to have a blues club herself, she is delighted with her current status. ”I really and truly believe that everybody else has been trying to take the blues away from us. But back when I first started people said they didn’t like the blues. But since other people have gone and revived it, people on the south side want to hear the blues.” Will she continue the south side tradition? She says with confidence, ”As long as I have Artis’s.”
As the night progresses several of the musicians in the club begin to sit in with the band and display their appreciation for the birthday boys by shaking up the sound waves. Ronnie Brooks is excellent on guitar and Felton Crews does justice to Nick’s bass once he hits the stage. Roy Hightower performs a slow and raw little number in the spotlight. But the highlight of the evening is Nick’s vocal solo, delivered modestly and slightly off key, but with the bubbly exuberance of one celebrating his own birthday.
Near the end of the festivities Carlos Johnson appears after finishing a gig of his own and joins the SOB’s for the final jam. The indisputable integrity of the music driven by the synchronicity of over fifteen years of association becomes more than evident, placing a smile on every face in the house, taking every spirit a bit higher and enchanting us as only a group of blusey choir boys could do.
Days 4 and 5
Nick Charles lives in Marquette Park, a once racially divided neighborhood that was predominantly white. His home is a neat bungalow type with a modest decor.
Today Nick has set out just more than a dozen guitars in almost as many brilliant colors and, of course, we are duly impressed. Also, in a glass display case are about one hundred-forty classic model cars. On the dining table are placed a noticeable number of hunting knives. The feel here is not one of a collector whose purpose is showy display. Nick Charles is a man who preserves things. Everything; from his funky and rare assortment of Mickey Mouse paraphernalia to the various inoperative pieces of studio equipment in his basement to the group of amplifiers housed in an extra bedroom and finally to the volumes of photographs which are prologue to his life and his career.
Nick shows us a photograph of a group of very young men standing in the front yard of a large house. Some of them have big pompadour hair and all of them have skinny, bare chests propping up colorful guitars. They are wearing sunny smiles, carefree attitudes and confident body language. ”This is with Roy Hightower. This is in Miami Beach. We played at this big club. This is where I met the Billy Lattimore Band, too. We played here from ’72 to ’77, off and on. I met Roy while I was playing with Johnny Drummer. Johnny lost his guitar player and I had met Roy down at Pepper’s. I played with him a bit and I said to him, why don’t you come on and play with Johnny Drummer. So he did and he stayed about a year. One day he said he was leaving and had another job down south. So I just left with him.
As his usual luck would have it, Nick found himself working the Miami Beach gig at $750 a night, six nights a week. He also days in Miami Beach with a band playing beach tours. Nick worked as their drummer. ”Yeah, I can play the drums a bit.” Nick toured the States, with Roy Hightower’s band, playing Dakota, Colorado and Arizona. The tours were mostly driving tours as had been the case in the early days touring with Earl Hooker, Johnny Drummer and Junior Wells. Nick’s mother had a fear of flying that transferred to Nick as a child. He didn’t conquer that fear until 1977 when he flew to California with Junior. Once his fear was eradicated the tours never Stopped coming. In 1980 he toured Europe for the first time with Jimmy Witherspoon and Johnny Dollar He also did some recording there. In 1982 he toured Europe again with Junior Wells and Lowell Fulsom. The list is endless: Canada with Son Seals, Europe with Buddy Guy and Syl Johnson and the States with Bobby Mcfarland and Tommy McCraken. The list of recordings credited to Nick Charles is impressive as well. ”The first recording I ever did I didn’t get credits on. That was with Earl Hooker and A.C. Reed back in ’63. I did some recording with Jimmy Reed in ’71, too. My first credits probably came with Roy Hightower, though. That’s the time that probably changed my career the most. But I got credits with Detroit Junior and this guy, Top Hat, he was a drummer. That did very well. I remember it because it was so big in Europe and I used to get royalty checks from it every month. I got credit with Son Seals in ’91 for Bad Axe.
Though Nick traveled extensively and enjoyed the crowds at large festivals and the scenery of foreign lands, nowhere held for him, the mystique of the blues and the high of performing more than the clubs of Chicago. ”I like playing in Chicago the best. I played the Queen Bee and Teresa’s when Lefty Dizz and Junior Wells and a lot of other people were hanging around there. Teresa always gave everybody work and you could see everybody there. Sometimes there’d be more musicians in the house than audience. I really like playing R&B, too. Blues is laid back and you don’t get a lot of changes. With R&B you get to change up a lot.” Nick attributes his big bad thump to playing with so many different bands. ”I like playing with a lot of different bands ’cause I get to fit their stuff and play a lot of different rhythms.” Not only does he prefer Chicago clubs to big festivals he prefers the old days to the new. He pulls a picture from a photo album of Lefty Dizz and Pat Scott sitting in the old Queen Bee. ”Here’s Lefty and Pat Scott. She was about sixteen or seventeen. We used to tell him, man, you goin’ to jail. I liked that club a lot. ’Cause you know, I came up playing in clubs with people real close and wooden floors and good sound you get from that. Things changed around ’76 or ’77 when the disco came in. People stopped using the bands. That’s when I started going to the north side.”
The most touching reminiscence Nick recounts is his brief and inspired association with blues singer, Valerie Wellington. ”I had heard of her and she heard me play a bit, and one day she called me and asked me to play bass for her. I said ok, but she didn’t really have enough work for me then. Then one day I saw her doing a Tribune (newspaper) commercial on TV. Then she called and said, are you ready for me now, Nick. So we put a band together and started working. Everywhere she went she took me.” The photos of the Japan tour seem to confer upon the memory a sense that here was a band held together by some intangible glue behind the work. Nick goes on. ”One night we has this gig and Valerie called to make sure I would pick her up. I said yeah But when I got outside her apartment I was waitin’ and waitin’ in the car and she was taking so long. I knew that wasn’t like her. One of the neighbors told me she had been taken to the hospital. So I went but when I got there the doctors told me she had died. I was so shocked because I had just talked to her. She had an aneurism. She used to have a lot of headaches but we didn’t know something was wrong.”
Nick quit the blues after that and began playing with a rock band called ”Euphoria”. They played the north side, Rush street and the suburbs. ”I stopped playing the blues for a while after Valerie. I just couldn’t do it anymore, ’cause when Valerie died it really hurt me.”
As we peruse more photos, the charmed evolution of the life of Nick Charles becomes strikingly clearer. There are carefree smiles from five to fifty years old. His road trips appear to be as much fun as work. His associations with other musicians have remained good ones. The self taught, freelancer who could always find work is still in the same position. Finally we return to the photos of the very young bare chested boys with low slung guitars. The clean shaven smiling faces seem barely old enough to supervise themselves. One can’t help but wonder how it was that Nick Charles remained in control, remained focused and was not whirled in by the undertow of freedom, popularity and youth. He smiles, sweet and southern style. ”Oh I always, I always had a cool head.”
[Thanks to Chicago-based Michelle Seals and Rita Hillfon for their great job in fulfilling former editor Tommy Löfgren’s proposal about following the life of a working musician in the Windy City- Ed].
Michelle E Seals, photos by Rita Hillfon Jefferson #117