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Politics

Johnny Nicholas Sings the Blues in Fresh Air

August 16, 2016
Eleni.Sakellis

Johnny Nicholas is not perhaps a household name, but if you’re a blues fan, you are well-acquainted with this talented artist. The multi-instrumentalist plays guitar, harmonica, mandolin, and piano, and has performed with some of the most famous American musicians of the last four decades. Nicholas’ latest album Fresh Air is scheduled for release on September 2 and features the authentic American roots sound blues fans will especially love. The soulful songs and world-weary vocals are the essence of the blues, though it may surprise some that Nicholas is Greek-American and not originally from the Deep South. He told The National Herald that his grandparents immigrated from the Peloponnese and Mytiline. Born and raised in Rhode Island, where he started his first band, Nicholas listened to rembetika from a young age. He said, “The Greek music I listened to as a kid was really spooky. I didn’t know at the time it came from a form called rembetika, Greek blues. Born in the prisons during the dictatorships of the Thirties and Forties – on handmade instruments. Haunting, moaning, soulful stuff,” as reported in the Austin Chronicle (AC). Nicholas told TNH, “I have toured extensively in Greece playing my music (Greeks dig the blues) and jamming with Rembetika artists there. I LOVE Rembetika and my Papou’s 78 rpm records that I listened to as a child had a deep impression on me.”

The blues transcend the limits of geography but Nicholas moved away from Rhode Island to pursue music and never looked back. He found inspiration in the music scene of college town Ann Arbor, MI in the 1970’s, landing a spot in the lineup of the 1972 Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival with his band Johnny Nicholas & the Boogie Brothers. Also performing at the same festival were legendary artists Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf with Hubert Sumlin, and Bonnie Raitt making her major label debut, as AC noted. Nicholas then spent time touring with various musicians and made a name for himself as a bluesman. The late musician Stephen Bruton, longtime collaborator and member of Kris Kristofferson’s band, said of Nicholas, “He is one of the best bluesmen ever, black or white,” as quoted on Nicholas’ official website.

Nicholas has performed with BB King, Eric Clapton, Pops and Mavis Staples, Delbert McClinton, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Jimmie Vaughan. He has also toured, performed, and recorded with numerous blues legends including Robert Lockwood Jr., Johnny Shines, Big Walter Horton, Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Pete Williams, One String Sam, Eddie Taylor, Billy Boy Arnold, Houston Stackhouse, and Boogie Woogie Red. He was a lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist with the band Asleep at the Wheel when they won their first Grammy Award. Nicholas took a break from music for a few yeras while he and wife Brenda opened the Hill Top Cafe in 1981 near Fredericksburg, TX and raised their three sons. Featuring a unique Greek/Cajun/Texas-influenced menu, the successful restaurant, a former 1920s-era gas station near Austin, TX, gave Nicholas the freedom to perform the gigs of his choice, even at his own venue. He returned to recording the blues in 1991. Since then, Nicholas has released studio and live albums and also returned to performing live shows. His music is available online at his website which also lists upcoming tour dates at venues in Texas and across the country.

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