“I started going out to ghetto clubs.”
It was the dawn of the ’60s, and Rick Estrin was a white kid from the suburbs when he first took the street car into San Francisco to hang out on Market Street. He can’t remember whether he was 10 or 12 when he first ventured into a whole different world.
“I would hang out there on a Saturday afternoon. I went down to North Beach and did a thing for school. I interviewed beatniks. That was cool, but the teachers were pretty appalled. I would take the street car down to Market Street and put on slacks and some slick looking T’s – what I thought was slick looking then – and just trip on the people mostly.
“Here were places where I could sit in (on harp and singing), and even when I couldn’t play much – I wasn’t that good – I never played like an asshole. I tried to fit in with the music, and I always had in mind that I was trying to play the blues. All I wanted to do was be able to express myself in that language when I heard what moved me. For one thing, I was a novelty. I knew how to carry myself, and I always had some sense of how to fit in musically. Like I said, I never played like an asshole. I was just trying to play the stuff I heard that moved me.”
He was a white child in a very adult black society, an enticing world of forbidden fruit, and it beckoned him like a siren in the open sea. Meeting Muddy Waters’ white harp player Paul Oscher helped cement the young Rick Estrin’s fate. “When I first met Paul with Muddy, he was ahead of me in his development, but I aleady had that idea in my head. It was like, ‘Yeah, that’s the shit, man.’
“I don’t know if you ever saw that band. It was (guitarists) Luther “Snake Boy” Johnson and Pee Wee Madison. That was an evil looking band, and to me in my little teenage mind at the time, every one of those guys, especially Pee Wee and Snake, looked like they’d just as soon kill you as look at you, man, that wasn’t off putting to me. It was like I was just a twisted little sucker, man. I was like, man, I wanna be just like that.
“After a while I was really into it. White people can’t dance, can’t box, can’t play basketball, can’t play music, can’t sing. (The people I met) were so creative in their personal style and all that stuff. I don’t know. That’s beautiful culture. Can you imagine what a boring place this would be had it not been for the African people that got kidnapped or sold and brought here? Slavery was a horrible thing, but in the end it sure benefitted our culture.
“I would always go by myself, and that worked in my favor because they might have looked at me weird like, ‘What are ya doing’ here?’ But after a while it was, ‘You must just wanna be here!’ I can remember later on, especially when I was living in Chicago, being in a black club, and you’d see little groups of white people come in, and there was almost like a conspiratorial aspect to it, you know? So, I never had that. I think that gave me better acceptance. Then, too, back then, when I would get up and play and sing, I was blowin’ minds because it was such a freakish thing for a white guy to be doing.”
Estrin got his first harmonica at 15 and by 18 he was jamming with Lowell Fulson and opening shows for Z. Z. Hill. He played with guitarist Travis Phillips for a year in a band fronted by Fillmore Slim who was also a pimp immortalized in the film American Pimp. Slim introduced Estrin to singer Rodger Collins who would become Estrin’s first musical mentor.
“Rodger really pointed out a lot of stuff to me,” Estrin told me in 2009. “I wasn’t able to apply it until much later, (but) I think one of the key things is it has to be you. It has to be natural to you. You gotta develop it, and you gotta think about it and take some strategy and stuff like that, but in the end it’s gotta be you. Otherwise, it’s not gonna flow right. It’s not gonna come off right. People see though that shit, you know, instinctively.”
Estrin stands by that statement today and adds simply, “If I couldn’t be black, I wanted to be the only white guy.
“I remember when I was playing with Travis Phillips and the Wonder Boy, and he hired a white bass player. This was when I was 18 years old, so I was stupid, right? But the shit didn’t make sense. It’s just the way I was thinking at the time. He hired this white bass player, and on breaks and stuff I wouldn’t talk to the guy. I would be as far away from him as I could.
“I always tried to dress kinda slick. I had an uncle who was a rat pack kind of guy. He dressed slick and looked like Cary Grant, so I always tried to emulate him. That was part of me. I was too young to be able to utilize my personality like I do now. I hadn’t had enough exposure, but the seeds were about to be planted right then because of the Haight (Haight Ashbury section of San Francisco) and the Fillmore (Fillmore West, Bill Graham’s performing venue).”
Bob Stroger may be the only contemporary blues artist who can match Estrin’s stage costumes. Dressed to the nines and topped with a pencil line mustache and pompadour, Estrin comes off as a blues answer to Snidely Whiplash, Dudely Do-Right’s nemesis on the Rocky The Flying Squirrel cartoons. Once in full regalia, including $600 alligator shoes, he has a standing policy not to be seen in the men’s room of any club in which he’s performing. “If somebody looks under the stall and sees my shoes, I’m no longer larger than life.”
At age 19 Estrin moved to Chicago to be closer to the home of the blues. “All of a sudden I had developed a small drug problem, and I thought I needed a change in scenery.”
And Chicago was going to help him with that?!
“Well, you know, I never said I was the smartest mother fucker in the world. What happened was a couple of years earlier I had met Jerry Portnoy. We were both trying to learn how to play the harp, and he’d come down to the Play Pen (in San Francisco) and saw me play the job with Fillmore Slim, and we were learning together.
“One of us would discover how to do something and call the other guy up and run over there. We’d kinda share our learning process on the harp. And he’s from Chicago, and when he asked to get himself out of the Army, he moved to San Francisco and was living there, and we were pals. Then, he had to go back to Chicago because his father was sick.
“He would send me post cards from Chicago. He was sitting in with The Aces and all this stuff. He was encouraging me to go there. I wasn’t doing so many gigs in San Francisco, and it sounded exciting. So, when I found this girl who liked me and had this job, I got her to buy me a plane ticket. That’s how I ended up in Chicago.”
By 1976 Estrin had gotten himself “in a real bad place” in Chicago and moved back to San Francisco where he hooked up with guitarist Little Charlie Baty. “He was always super talented. He might not have had as many chops (in the beginning), but if you’ve got that “thang,” you don’t need a bunch of chops, but I could tell right away when I started playing with him that he was special. He always could develop really exciting solos and stuff. He just loved the music, and he understood it emotionally, and also he understood it in some way that I can’t define, but he’s a soulful player, man.
For 32 years and nine LPs for Alligator Records, Estrin fronted Little Charlie & The Nightcats as their singer and harp player. In that time, they were nominated Band of the Year four times in the Blues Music Awards. Never mind that everybody thought singer and harp man Estrin was Charlie. It was a tradeoff.
“After a while people would call me Charlie and I’d just go, “Hey, how ya doin’?” I got sick of explaining. And if I felt really good, I would tell ’em, ‘Let’s hear it for Charlie on the guitar’ 50 times a night. ‘He’s Charlie, and my name is Rick,’ and they’d go, ‘Oh, ok, Charlie!’ So, I gave up, man.
“I was so glad I was playin’ with somebody who loved the same stuff, and who was into it the same way I was, and I had an opportunity to move out of the city and up to Sacramento and kind of get my shit together because I was a mess, man, and I really was wanting to change and he (salvaged) my life. I moved up there, and I could see it was a much slower environment. I didn’t know any dope fiends up there. (They) were like innocent kids that smoked weed and drank beer, and to me at that time that was just normal.”
In 2008 Little Charlie decided to retire. “His wife had died and he was having some health issues, and he’d threatened to retire. I didn’t believe it at first. I thought he was saying like he always said it. Then, random people in the audience started asking me, ‘Hey, what are ya gonna do?’ and I asked him, ‘Man, are you serious?’ And he said, ‘Yeah!’ So, I knew I’d better do something because I couldn’t be Charlie anymore. I had to teach people my name somehow, you know? It shows that even a lazy fucker like me, man, can get off his ass when he has to.”
For a while, Estrin went to Brazil and worked with Igor Prado and began to think of himself as a “low budget Chuck Berry.” The Nightcats’ keyboardist Lorenzo Farrell and drummer J. Hansen wanted to keep the band going. “I had no idea who to get on guitar because the one thing I really know is I did not want it to be a diminished version of Little Charlie and the Nightcats. If we were gonna keep it going, it had to be somebody that could really play, and I couldn’t think of anybody like that. I had worked with (guitarist) Kid Andersen on my little solo CD because he was just startin’ to be a recording engineer then. We were friends, but he was Charlie Musselwhite’s guitar player. He was a little more reserved with Charlie Musselwhite than he is with us.
“He from time to time would sit in with us, and when he sat in I knew that guy could do it. I knew he just don’t give a fuck, man. He can play his ass off. He’s a real entertainer on the guitar. It’s like having a co-fool in the band. Anyway, he called me up about something else right after Little Charlie quit, and we were talking, and he said he had left Charlie Musselwhite. I asked him, ‘Hey, man, do you want try playing with us?’ And he said yeah. So, it was serendipitous. It was perfect. It was just perfect.”
Rick Estrin and the Nightcats picked up with Alligator Records where Charlie and the Nightcats left off. “(Alligator head) Bruce (Iglauer) was super helpful. He didn’t sign us right away, but he was really helpful and got us a booking agent, and we did a tour. Bruce came and saw the band. I don’t know if you could call it a suburb, but it was about 50 miles from Chicago, and that was as close as we could get booked.
“He came out and saw us and, man, there was nobody there, and I was nervous. He said, ‘Yeah, let’s make a record.’ Looking back as a senior citizen, those associations with Bruce and Little Charlie and just the pure dumb luck of meeting and hooking up with those guys changed my whole life, man. If it wouldn’t be for those two guys, I’d be pushing a shopping cart looking for cans and sleeping on a cot in my sister’s basement.”
There are certain white guys like Dr. John, Paul Oscher and Bob Margolin that just belong “with the band.” Rick Estrin is one of those guys. He doesn’t have to show a birth certificate to get into a dice game on the West Side. You can hear it on the Nightcats’ new album Groovin’ in Greaseland, their fourth Alligator album due out in August. On songs like “Dissed Again” and “Looking for a Woman” he sounds like The Coasters coming to grips with being taken advantage of yet again. Listen to how close Estrin’s vocals are to the Coasters’ original on “Clothes Line” on The Nightcats’ You Asked for It….Live CD. It’s interesting to note that Leiber and Stoller who wrote most of the Coasters’ material and coached them on their delivery were two white guys from Brooklyn. But that’s a story for another time. Suffice it to say, Groovin’ in Greaseland contains 13 original songs that reflect the character of – well – a character.
On “Dissed Again” he grouses about a gig where he has to wait while some 10-year-old kid who sounds just like Stevie Ray does his thing before the band can play. “Oh man, if you don’t have a sense of humor in this business, you’ll strike out, man. You gotta – I mean, I’ve always had a weird way of looking at things. Even in my darkest and most lost times in my life, I always had the ability to have some laughs, and I think that’s a lifesaver.”
Estrin’s major influence Rodger Collins wrote Wilson Pickett’s “She’s Looking Good.” Collins was Estrin’s Leiber and Stoller. “A couple of things he just pounded into me was you don’t settle for the first thing that pops into your mind, that easy rhyme, if you want to have the song develop and say something and make sense and to want to toe the line, meter-wise and all that. It’s gotta be consistent, and he also instilled in me that meant editing is key.”
“The Blues Ain’t Going Nowhere,” the first song on Groovin’ in Greaseland, is not the kind of plea you might expect from today’s “average white band” (my quotes, not Estrin’s) for the genre to stay around, but rather a statement about the sad state of the world offering fervent fodder for a continuing plethora of blues songs. “I Ain’t All That” is a more mature “I’m A Man” with a tad less braggadocio.
“I think the thing that I had naturally is a good internal compass, and I think I’ve said what I’m trying to say. Rodger was a soul singer and a rock and roll singer and an all-around entertainer. He could sing. He could dance and write songs, play guitar. I don’t know why he took me under his wings. Maybe he could see I was really paying attention to the things he was tellin’ me, and he just befriended me and took me to school and taught me a lot about show business and how to entertain people, also about songwriting and just that he always encouraged me to write, and he taught me not to settle.
“A lotta songs to me now, especially in blues are, ‘Ok, we’ll write this song, the quickest route to a guitar solo.’ and you know, he clued me to – I don’t know how to say it – but I want each song to be a whole little thing, man. I’ve always appreciated songs. My sister had records by Mose Allison, Jimmy Reed, and the Coasters, great songwriting. Stuff like that really tripped me out, and I love that as far as being able to write songs that tell a story.”
Greaseland is the name of Kid Andersen’s San Jose studio. Andersen took home a 2017 Blues Music Award for his studio work with artists including Elvin Bishop, Wee Willie Walker, John Nemeth, and three Nightcats CDs. He wrote the instrumental “Mwah” on Groovin’in Greaseland as an homage to the late Lonnie Mack, best known for his seminal Wham of the Memphis Man LP released in the 1960s.
“Actually, the title “Mwah” is almost like “Wham” backwards,” says Estrin. “He loved Lonnie Mack and wanted to come up with a tribute song. Lonnie Mack was kind of underappreciated. I mean guitar players dig him, but Kid just felt like he doesn’t have the legendary status he should have, and he had the misfortune of dying the day Prince died, so he didn’t get much attention.”
Estrin’s “co-fool” on keyboards Lorenzo Farrell is an extremely versatile and eclectic keyboardist who adds texture to the Nightcats’ sound. He has a philosophy degree from Berkeley and studied religion in India. “He’s the best, man. Lorenzo’s the key to this band’s longevity. He really is. He’s just a leveling factor in the interpersonal dynamics. Yeah, he’s great, man. Obviously, he’s really smart, you know.
“He went and lived in India because he was studying philosophy I think when he was a teenager. He was 17 and living by himself and back packing in India. I told him, ‘Man, once you’ve wiped your ass with your bare hand, and just rinse it off. Man! That’s some character building shit there, man.’ He’s just cool, man. You know?”
The day before I talked to Estrin, he’d played at a memorial service for James Cotton in Austin along with a coterie of legacy harp players including Kim Wilson, Jimmy Vaughan, Annie Raines and Paul Oscher.
“Of all the players I know, Cotton was the guy I would see most often. He could play old school 1960s Chicago blues, and then later on he got a pretty funky band, that band with Matt Murphy and his harp playing in that type of group he was modern and totally traditional at the same time. His timing was like Johnny Guitar Watson on the guitar or Albert Collins, Albert King, too. Those guys play the same stuff over more modern beats, and it would work. It lends itself to transcendence all the time – you know, stylistic changes of time. So, speaking for myself, whenever we do songs that are a different kind of groove, that’s my kind of reverence. That’s what I automatically think of. I go into my old Cotton bag. I can’t even imagine what I’d play like or what I could have even made a career out of his stuff, man, without Cotton.
“When I first heard that record (Chicago The Blues Today) I understand something I never understood before. I don’t know how to explain it, but after that I had it. It was very clear in my mind. I got this idea that I wanted to be able to scare people. As a kid, that’s how I felt. I’m not saying that’s a goal now. But at the time that was how I felt at the time ’cause I felt like there was such an aura of menace to his playing. It was so awesome in the true sense of the word, you know.
“At the memorial Paul Oscher was saying he got these records as a kid, and when he would read the back of the record, it would talk about somebody at these bars where somebody pulled some knife and the police – you now – and gambling and guys sitting around on their knees shooting dice and stuff like that. He was like. ‘I wanna be there and that’s the shit to me,’ I wanted to be a part of that, you know?
“I’m gonna keep doing it until I either can’t do it, or nobody will come to see me. That’s my life. I don’t know what I would do otherwise. I got no hobbies. My job? I got a job being myself. And I still love writing new songs and even though I hate to – the beginning of the process I’m always really resistant to it, but I still love doing it, and I love when I’m in it. And I love the results.
“You gotta keep active. You must know because you’re still active. I believe once your prime reproductive years are over, mother nature starts trying to kill your ass in all kinds of different ways. Some of ’em are very subtle and insidious and it’s just like telling me, ‘Well, you can take it easy. You’re tired. You earned it.’ It’s like Satchel Paige (African American lifetime best pitcher): Don’t look back. Somebody’s gaining on your ass.”
Visit Rick’s website at: http://rickestrin.com/
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.