Rick Estrin, the clever and prolific songwriter, virtuoso harmonica player and dapper, flamboyant showman, let us in on his secret: “It ain’t easy making it look easy.”
The 67-year-old bluesman is as funny and self-deprecating off the stage as he is upon it. His accounts of what’s happened during his long career are fascinating and delivered with such humor that any blues lover would love to read his autobiography. But that probably won’t happen.
“It’s hard enough just writing a song, man,” Estrin told Tahoe Onstage. “Trying to make a tune sound natural and conversational usually requires a lot of editing.”
Estrin writes most of his songs when he is on a deadline.
“It’s like the great songwriter Yip Harburg said when he was asked, ‘How do you come up with all that stuff?’ He said, ‘It’s easy. I just sit and stare at a blank piece of paper until blood comes out of my head.’”
Rick Estrin & The Nightcats made their first appearance in several years at Bluesdays at Squaw Valley on July 18.
When he first started out, Muddy Waters literally called Estrin a mannish boy, and since then he’s had at least 15 albums. But he’s still trying to make a name for himself. His band is called Rick Estrin & The Nightcats, but for three decades he was the frontman for Little Charlie & Nightcats, which led to some confusion. Little Charlie Baty was the guitarist.
Concertgoers often assumed Estrin was Little Charlie.
“After a while, I even quit correcting people,” Estrin said. “Because if I wanted to correct everybody, I’d spend my whole life correcting people. Only in the last three or four years when somebody yells ‘Charlie!’ I don’t instantly turn around. But I might still reflexively turn around.”
When Estrin and guitarist Little Charlie Baty parted, Estrin self-released a harmonica-heavy solo album.
“I needed to teach people my name isn’t Charlie,” Estrin said.
During a show in upstate New York, a woman asked Estrin, who she called Charlie, to sign his CD. Drummer J. Hansen corrected the woman, who became angry: “I don’t care what you call him, he’ll always be Little Charlie to me!”
After the one solo album, Rick Estrin & The Nightcats signed with Alligator Records, the same label that had Little Charlie & The Nightcats. The blues label is based in Chicago, where Estrin, a San Francisco native, lived off and on from 1970 to 1975.
Bay Area blues
Estrin had played in San Francisco’s Fillmore District and South San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point, near Candlestick Park.
“Hunter’s Point was out by the bay, a more isolated ghetto,” Estrin said. “I went out there to see Lowell Fulson when I was 18. I ended up getting a gig opening for Z.Z. Hill and that really started my career. I met a couple of guys that really were instrumental in my development, Fillmore Slim and Roger Collins, an R&B singer who had the hit record ‘She’s Looking Good.’
“(Collins) really helped me a lot on the road. Looking back, I probably thought I was hot but I was pretty useless. He took me on the road. He helped me with songwriting and show business savvy. He took me under his wing and took me to school.”
Estrin also befriended fellow harmonica player Jerry Portnoy, a Chicagoan who lived for a while in the Bay Area. After Estrin’s regular gig at the Playpen in the Fillmore District, he decided to follow Portnoy to the Windy City.
“I got a girl who liked me to buy me a plane ticket,” Estrin said. “I wasn’t the most upstanding citizen at the time.”
The first week Estrin was in town, he sat in on a Blue Monday jam at Theresa’s, a funky little corner tavern with no bandstand, just linoleum and a rug for the drum kit. The house band included guitarists Buddy Guy and Sammy Longhorn and drummer Freddy Below. Carey Bell, who was the harp player in Muddy Waters band, was impressed with Estrin.
“He told me he was going to quit,” Estrin said. “He said to come down to our show next weekend and if Muddy liked me I could have the gig.”
Waters’ set lasted until 4 a.m. and he did not invite Estrin to the stage.
“I got the nerve up to ask him, and he said, ‘Oh, I forgot. Come back tomorrow.’ Later, I realized he just wanted to know how serious I was.”
The next night, Waters called the young harp player up for one song, “Long Distance Call.”
“On break he was sitting in a booth with a couple of women,” Estrin said. “He beckoned me over with his finger. I was bent over to listen to what he was saying and he sort of stood up and he was shaking his finger in my face and he said, “You play like a man, boy! You got that sound. I know that sound when I hear it. That’s my sound.”
Estrin told Waters he was contemplating moving back to San Francisco.
“That girl who bought me the plane ticket, I just wanted to get away from her,” Estrin said. “Muddy said, ‘Don’t leave town for at least three weeks.’ I gave Muddy the phone number at the place we were staying and he gave me his number, too. But I didn’t have the balls to call him and I didn’t hear from him.”
Estrin went back to California, and the next time he was in Chicago, Waters’ harp player was Mojo Buford.
Bass player Calvin “Fuzz” Jones told Estrin, “What happened to you? You was supposed to be with us. You lamed out.’ So it didn’t work out but everything turned out OK. For me, personally being as big a nut job as I was at the time, I probably didn’t need Muddy Waters co-signing how cool I thought I was.”
But while in Chicago, Estrin teamed up with another legend, drummer Sam Lay, who was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Lay was the longtime drummer for Howlin’ Wolf.
Primary colors are blues
Lay’s band toured with Democratic presidential primary candidate George McGovern.
“We had Eddie Taylor on guitar, he played on Jimmy Reed’s classic records, and two singers, Lucille Spann, who was Otis Spann’s widow, and Johnny Twist, who was a wild performer. We had a lot of fun.”
“McGovern was the anti-Vietnam War candidate and 18 year olds had just gotten to be able to vote. You could vote if they didn’t kill you first. Believe it or not, at the time the young people loved the blues, so we toured the Midwest playing at colleges. We would play and then Warren Beatty the movie actor would introduce George McGovern, who would give a speech to these kids.”
Flash forward to 2017 and Estrin has collaborated with another blues legend. Jerry Jemmott, who played bass on B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone,” and on numerous Aretha Franklin and Freddie King records, appears on the upcoming Rick Estrin & The Nightcats album, “Groovin’ in Greaseland” (Aug. 18, Alligator Records).
Kid Andersen operates Greaseland Studios, and he is the guitar player in Estrin’s band. Andersen produced an album for Jemmott and brought him in to contribute to the new Nightcats’ record.
“Greaseland is becoming really popular, probably bordering on legendary in our little sub genre,” Estrin said. “(Andersen) is the best engineer I’ve ever worked with.
“He’s fast. You can describe an idea for a sound and he knows what you are talking about 95 percent of the time. He knows just what to do just to get that sound. Things go quickly and he captures the feeling in the moment better than anyone I’ve ever worked with and I’ve been around a long time.”
Andersen also is responsible for recruiting the newest Nightcat, drummer Alex Petersen, who like Andersen, is a native of Norway. Petersen replaced J. Hansen. Lorenzo Farrell remains on bass, although he now plays it with his left hand on a keyboard.