Until capturing the award for traditional artist of the year in 2019, Nick Moss regularly referred to himself as the “Susan Lucci of the blues,” and why not? After all, in his estimation, he’d previously been nominated for Blues Music Awards about two dozen times without walking away with a trophy.
Well, he can retire that nickname for good now that he and his smoking-hot bandmates were tabbed for three more prizes in this year’s honors – band, traditional album and song of the year for the title cut on his CD Lucky Guy — which were handed out via virtual ceremony in early May.
“Who woulda thunk it?” he asked, still in disbelief more than a week after the event took place. “I’m still in shock. (Former bandmate and best friend) Mike Ledbetter’s widow, Kathy, called me about 20 minutes before the awards and asked me: ‘Are you gonna watch?’
“I said: ‘Yeah, I’m gonna watch.’ Then she asked: ‘Did you record anything?’ I asked: ‘What do you mean?’ She goes: ‘Like an acceptance speech?’
“I was like: ‘Ahhh…no.’
“She says: ‘How do you think they’re gonna do it for the winners? They probably prerecorded the acceptance speeches…’
“I said: ‘Well, if that’s what they’re doin’, then I didn’t win anything because no one asked me to prerecord anything.’ In years past (for live awards shows), the BMAs had done that for artists who’d won, but couldn’t be there to accept. So I thought that that’s what they did this year, too.
“I wasn’t expectin’ anything. I really wasn’t!
”When I won the first one early in the show — for best traditional blues album, I was like: ‘Wow! That’s f-in’ amazing!’ I said: ‘That’s gotta be it. They gave me one…I got one last year…that’ll be fine.’
“Then, at the end of the show, I was in the kitchen, and Rodrigo (Mantovani, his bass player) and Patrick (Seals, his drummer) – who are staying with me during the shutdown – were on the couch and going: ‘Holy shit, Nick! Get in here!’
“I walked in, and they were announcing the second one (song of the year). Rodrigo and Patrick were jumpin’ up and down because they hadn’t won anything before. I was just standin’ there, goin’: ‘Wait! What? What just happened?’”
Then came the big one, band of the year honors, too.
“I’m still in shock,” Moss says. “It’s great. But it would be ten times nicer to win these awards and be able to go out and play the next night.”
Life’s come full circle for Nick, who – at age 50 – is the last guitarist fortunate to have studied at the feet and tour with the men responsible for creating what’s now recognized as the classic sound of Chicago blues.
And it was also gratifying that Rick Estrin captured the BMA harp player trophy for harp player, too. After all, Estrin was on stage the night Moss made up his mind that he wanted to become a musician after his plan to pursue a career in sports came to a sudden end.
A Chicago native and the younger brother of Joe Moss, a gifted guitarist and recording artist in his own right, Nick started playing bass at age 12 and grew up with a deep love for the blues through the music of Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, Freddie King and Buddy Guy as well as proto blues-rockers Free, Blind Faith and Led Zeppelin. But he was a skilled athlete, too.
In addition to playing in bands, he was a state champion wrestler and football player who was fielding major-college scholarship offers as a senior at Hoffman Estates High School in the Northwest suburbs. But those dreams faded overnight after doctors discovered he’d been born with a genetic disorder that destroyed most of his kidney function. He required immediate, extensive surgery that made visiting college campuses impossible and landed him in a bed at Children’s Memorial Hospital instead.
He was recovering and still hospitalized three months later, when Joe fast-talked Nick’s medical team into granting him permission to take his little brother out of the hospital for a couple of hours for what purportedly was going to be “a good meal.”
Today, Children’s Memorial is situated in a major medical complex north of the Loop. Back then, it was much smaller and four or mile miles further north on Lincoln Avenue, about three blocks south of B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted sits today and virtually directly across the street from both the original Kingston Mines and Wise Fools Pub, where B.B. King, Otis Rush and other stars frequently played – and where Joe brought him to see Little Charlie & the Nightcats, fronted by Estrin, who were touring to promote their debut album on Alligator Records.
Young Nick was so blown away by their performance that it became the major turning point in his life – an encounter that was detailed at length in a previous Blues Blast interview. (Here’s a link: http://www.bluesblastmagazine.com/featured-interview-nick-moss/)
After discharge, recovering at home and working on his chops, Moss finally started sitting in at the regular blues jams that flourished across the city. He was still in his late teens when he took over the bass chair in Scotty & the Rib Tips, following in the footsteps of Joe, who served as the band’s rhythm guitarist. It was a great place to start musical training because the group was fronted by Buddy Scott, a member of one of the largest and most important families in the blues and soul communities in the city.
A ten brothers, the Scotts floated in and out of several family bands. The most prominent member, Sir Walter – who passed earlier this year, was the guitarist on all of Chi-Lites’ hits. And their legacy endures today through Scotty’s son, Kenneth “Hollywood” Scott, former band leader for both Otis Clay and Mel Waiters, among others.
The lessons Nick received served him well. And the three stops that followed are even more impressive, beginning with a two-year apprenticeship beside ‘70s superstar Jimmy Dawkins, who taught him how to play with fire and passion.
Next, he joined the Legendary Blues Band, where Willie “Big Eyes” Smith – the former drummer for Muddy Waters who spent his final years as a vocalist and harp player – became like a second father and convinced Nick to switch from bass to guitar, while proving invaluable lessons about timing, style, how to play off of other musicians as well as practical instruction about what was needed to run a band successfully.
Post-graduate studies came at the feet of Jimmy Rogers, one of the top guitarists and songwriters the golden era of Chicago blues, before Nick started his own band, the Flip Tops, in the late ‘90s. His debut CD, 1998’s First Offense, featured a lineup that included two other players that went on to greatness: Willie’s son, Kenny “Beedy Eyes” Smith, on drums and Richard Duran, aka Lynwood Slim and already a rising star, on harp.
Moss launched his own label, Blue Bella, to release it, naming the imprint after his beloved car, a 1970 Lincoln Mark III, and one of the tunes he recorded, “Mistakes from the Past,” won song of the year honors in the Blues Blast Music Awards later that year.
The Flip Tops’ lineup on albums through the years included a who’s who of talent, including guitarists Lurrie Bell and Anson Funderburgh, drummers “Big Eyes” and Bob Carter, vocalist Curtis Salgado, bassist Bob Stroger, Piano Willie Oshawny and harp player Sam Myers as well as a host of rising stars, among them keyboard players Barrelhouse Chuck, Harunobu “Hal” Tsushida, Bob Welsh and Brother John Kattke, multi-instrumentalist Gerry Hundt and Nick’s talented wife Kate on bass and guitar.
Primarily a straight-ahead blues outfit, the band’s sound changed noticeably with the release of Here I Am in 2011, an album that marked the debut of Ledbetter, the operatically trained singer and rhythm guitarist who – as Nick describes him – burned like a comet and before suddenly succumbing to complications from epilepsy at age 33 in 2019.
Three more interesting, well-received albums as Moss ventured into new territory, delivering more roots and extended arrangements that enabled him to attempt bookings on both the blues and jam band circuits. But his sound returned to the strong blues root in late 2016 after Ledbetter announced his pending departure.
About to initiate a new partnership with guitarist Monster Mike Welch, the former teenage wonder kid who spent 25 years as a member of Sugar Ray & the Bluetones, he planned to make his Moss band swan song when sailed on the 2017 January Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to enjoy the success of Right Place Right Time, released under the name Welch-Ledbetter Connection, which earned him vocalist and entertainer of the year honors at the BMAs four months after his passing as well as band of the year honors, too.
Two days after Mike announced his planned exit, Moss received a call from harp player Dennis Gruenling that would eventually lead to the lineup they enjoy together today.
A double honoree in 2019 as both the Blues Foundation and Society for the Preservation and Advancement of Harmonica (SPAH) harp player of the year, Dennis was booked for a gig in Grand Rapids, Mich., and needed a band to back him, and Moss agreed to join him. The chemistry proved so strong that he continued touring with Moss for the band’s remaining dates that year and through the cruise, finally cementing the relationship.
“When Michael moved on and Dennis joined the band, the obvious choice was to go back and play traditional blues, which is something I’ve always loved,” Nick says.
“I’m most comfortable backing up a harmonica player and playing in a band with the traditional sound of harp and piano,” Moss says. “It was real easy when Dennis got in the band to go back to that. And then having Kid Andersen produce both CDs is, for me, the key to all the success we’ve had.”
Andersen had sailed with them, Nick says, and kept complimenting them on how well sounded together and telling them how he’d love to produce them. He was at the controls when the Nick Moss Band Featuring Dennis Gruenling recorded both of their award-winning CDs.
“When I was producing my own stuff, I was coming pretty close to what I wanted to hear in my head, but I didn’t have the equipment,” Moss notes. “When we did the first CD, High Cost of Low Living, he came here (Chicago), but brought some of his stuff with. He said: ‘I can make it work, but I’m gonna have to take it back with me and do the rest on my equipment.’”
Nick admits that he generally isn’t someone who likes to be told what to do in the studio. But Andersen, who’s a Keeping the Blues Alive honoree at age 40, is so adept that the intricacies of production, Moss says, that he’s achieved skills usually found only in professionals nearing the end of their careers, not in someone so comparatively youthful.
“I was a little worried at first that we were going to clash,” he remembers. “The first day of recording, though, things were going so smooth that by the third song, I realized: ‘Oh, man! I haven’t questioned one thing that he’s been doing!’
“I’d already forgotten that I was worried that me and him were gonna have a problem. It was like he was in my head! Then he said: ‘Oh, this is going swimmingly! I wasn’t expecting this!’
“I don’t know where Kid got the ability to store the information he has in his brain. When does he have the time to learn all the stuff that he knows? Everything he does to a record is exactly what I want without having to tell him.
“In the studio, we’d stop in the middle of something, and I’d think: ‘Maybe we should try it this way.’ Before I could get the words out of my mouth, he was already making the suggestion. And the guy plays every fucking instrument, too!
“He’s not from Norway. He’s definitely an alien!”
Moss followed Kid’s advice and laid down the next album at Kid’s home base in California. The end result proved to be three new trophies on Nick’s mantelpiece.
In addition to Andersen, Nick gives his new label big props, too.
“You can’t discount the fact that being on Alligator Records was like bein’ a huge jump in visibility for me,” he says. “I thought throughout the years that doing my own records, havin’ my own label, we were doin’ really well. And, actually, we were. We kept building and growing and growing.
“But there’s still an old-school element out there – radio deejays, publications, promoters, club owners – that don’t consider you to be ‘bonafied’ unless you’re on what they consider to be a ‘real’ record label before they’ll give you a second glance.
“Although we had played all over the world and played some prestigious blues festivals, clubs and shows and were being distributed widely, there were still some places that wouldn’t give us a second look. But as soon as we got on Alligator, all of them started sayin’: ‘Oh, you’re on Alligator. No problem!
“The top part of the equation was that Bruce Iglauer was gonna sign us. The second part was that Kid was going to produce us. And the third part was what me and Dennis had done separately for 20 years and then puttin’ it together. All of that is the reason why the last two CDs have been so successful.
“I’ve been very fortunate with the cohesion of the group. Patrick’s been with me goin’ on 11 years now. Who has a drummer that’s been playin’ with him for that long? And now, Pat has the bass player of his dreams alongside him.
“I’ve always had wonderful bass players. But Rodrigo is the best – I don’t care what anyone says! He’s got every component. He’s dedicated, he loves the music like he was born into it, he respects where it came from. He’s highly educated about it, does his homework. He knows about all the great bass players…jazz, blues, R&B…what those guys added to the music, the little intricacies that they play that make them sound the way they do.”
Moss met Mantovani about 14 years ago at a festival gig in Spain when Rodrigo was touring with longtime bandmate and fellow Brazilian Igor Prado, the left-handed jump blues guitarist who’s now based on the West Coast. They met again years later when he visited Chicago with their mutual friend, Lynwood Slim, stayed in Nick’s basement and jammed with him while in town.
“He’s literally part of my family now,” Moss says. “His wife got stuck in Brazil because she went home two weeks before the pandemic hit to go visit her parents. Right now, they closed all the borders, and she can’t even come back.”
Mantovani has an innate ability to reinterpret multiple styles in his own way through feel and tone, Nick adds. “Some of that comes from your instrument and amplifier, but a lot of it comes from your technique and your own fingers. There are some amazing upright bass players out there, but I can’t name one guy who has better acoustic tone than Rodrigo.
“The tone and volume he gets acoustically without amplification is absolutely amazing! And he’s a wonderful person to boot.”
Moss has been busy during the lockdown on a couple of different projects. He’s teamed with Mike Zito to launch Paying the Blues Forward, a GoFundMe campaign that puts $1,000 payouts in the hands of blues artists who needed it the most. “My last road show happened on the 15th of March,” he says, “and we were in New Orleans. The mayor basically shut down the city that day, which was really surreal. There were cops on horses in the French Quarter tellin’ people to leave.”
Moss and his band spent the night hanging out at the home of Crescent City resident Jason Ricci and couldn’t help but noticing that the internet had come alive with musicians who were posting horror stories about the experiences they were dealing with around the globe.
“I saw a post from Mike that his tour in Germany had gotten cancelled and he was flying home,” Nick remembers. “They’d lost 30 dates on their tour had to turn around and come back after doin’ only four shows. Then John Primer posted almost the same thing: that he’d just gotten in to Europe and had only done two shows before coming back.”
Shortly thereafter, Zito – the co-owner of Gulf Coast Records – announced the start of a GoFundMe campaign he was calling “Quarantine Blues.” It would serve two purposes: to provide needed income and support for himself, his bandmates and their families and to fund a CD that would generate money for fellow musicians who needed it most – folks not tech-savvy enough to do online shows or streaming and/or who weren’t comfortable to ask for help on their own.
Zito and his bandmates donated ten original tunes in exchange for the support they anticipated to receive from the blues community, compiled a list of artists in need and asked that they contribute one tune to the project for which they and their bandmates would receive $1,000 and put out a call for other potential recipients, too. And he enlisted Moss to join him in the project.
“He kinda jumped on that GoFundMe thing,” Nick says, “and me and Jason and Dennis were talkin’ about it…like…‘man, it would be great if everybody could have a GoFundMe campaign. But I don’t think that’s gonna fly.’ There’s not enough blues fans in the entire world to fund every musician.
“So I got hold of Mike Zito that week. I said: ‘How ‘bout we piggyback off your GoFundMe thing, and let’s do something to help all our friends?’
“I knew that I’d lost all my dates,” Moss says, “and – at that point – it was just for the next two months. Now it’s for the summer. Every day, there was a new post from somebody going through the same thing. Chris Cain’s girlfriend post that he’d lost his whole tour and then Josh Smith go: ‘Oops, there goes my whole European tour,’ too.”
After some brainstorming, Nick decided: “Why don’t we ask touring musicians whose only income is music to contribute a song. We’ll post it on a link that people can download after they’ve donated. We’ll try and raise money that way. We figured giving $1,000 to a musician would be ideal. It seems like a lot of money for a minute, but it doesn’t go very far at all. But it’s better than nothing.”
When Blues Blast spoke with Moss, his project had already come to the aid of 24 other artists with four more scheduled, “and we’ve had some really, really nice donors,” he says.
But with so many other folks launching other, worthy campaigns that he and Zito have come to realization that their initial goal of assisting 50 musical families was optimistic. As this story was being written, they’d stopped enrolling new artists until everyone currently on their list receives their promised benefit.
He’s also working with Patrick and Rodrigo at home and Dennis via the internet, recording music videos and other content for a series of shows they plan to launch sometime toward the end of May, beginning with a thank you for the BMA awards, which includes several songs off of the new CD and a cooking segment in which Nick shares his recipe for Italian sausage and peppers and his mother’s basil sauce. Next up will be a tribute to one of his heroes, Jimmy Rogers, followed by a planned all-Freddie King instrumental set. And Gruenling is busy planning another jump blues segment.
“I’m going to either upload them to my website (address below) or YouTube – maybe Facebook,” Moss says, “kinda like what Dennis is doin’ with his Q&A thing on Saturdays. I’m gonna have more cooking along with performances and video interviews with some of my friends.
“And I’m doing a little series of five- or ten-minute interviews with young, up-and-coming blues artists: Jontavious Willis, Sean McDonald, Jon Hay, Brooks Mason, Austin John, Brett Brandstatt, Ben Levin and McKinley James (son of Los Straitjackets drummer Jason Smay).
“I don’t know what we’re gonna call it yet…‘Blues at the Moss Ranch?’…I dunno. But it’ll be a lot of fun.”
He’s also hard at work, writing new material for his next Alligator CD getting ready for a stint as a guest deejay on SiriusXM’s B.B. King’s Bluesville.
Meanwhile, he’s got a special message for all of his fans: “Thank you for all of you who voted for us. Thank you to every fan who’s come out and seen us. I don’t want to be recording any of these videos. I’d rather just be out there playing live.
“I can’t wait to see everyone again! Like Tracy Morgan told Howard Stern the other day: ‘When this is all over, I don’t care what your religion is, what your race is, what your color is – because I just wanna go kiss and hug ya!’”
Check out Nick’s music, his new video project and where, hopefully, he’ll be playing next by visiting his website: www.nickmoss.com