Featured Interview – Rick Estrin

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Cover photo © 2024 Joseph A. Rosen

imageRichard Saul Estrin was born October 5, 1949, in San Francisco, CA.

“My parents were square, nice people. I had an older sister who was kind of a beatnik, and of course this was San Francisco where it was a big deal.  Anyway, dad sold real estate, mom was a homemaker, and I also had a younger sister.”

The music mosquito bit him hard at an incredibly early age.

“My sister had a party downstairs in the house and her little girlfriends and guys came over, it must have been her birthday or something, they were playing all these records by Little Richard, Fats Domino, Elvis and Chuck Berry and I was just sitting on the step looking down in this room. I’m six years old and I’m checking out all the fine 12-year-old girls out there dancing and thinking that’s what I wanna do, I wanna be able to make people feel like that, you know”.

“So, when I was maybe 12, my sister was more like 17, she had these albums by Jimmy Reed, Big Bill Broonzy and Champion Jack Dupree, a bunch of cool stuff that was not the normal shit you heard on the radio, so I was hearing all that. I remember for my birthday I got this album called The Genius Sings the Blues by Ray Charles. I remember it was my 12th birthday and it was so great.”

Even at that age, the music connected, he was experiencing pre- teenage angst and as he says:

“I felt like Ray Charles understood me and what I was going thru even at that age.”

The music and the beatnik culture that produced it already held the promise of something cooler than a future in real estate. Along with that album, there was a defining event that would chart the future.

Dig: To enjoy or find meaning in something

“When I was about 10 years old, I went down to North Beach to where all the real beatniks were, and I brought a notebook with me. I interviewed these people man and I made a glossary of cool beatnik terminology.

That glossary would tell him that “to dig something” meant to really enjoy it.

There were other, less genteel references. He would learn that “having a monkey on the back” would not refer to owning a pet, but like Hipster comic Lenny Bruce, to having an addiction to heroin. Rick would learn more about that phrase all too soon. In the meantime, he brought his dictionary of hipness to Show and Tell:

“I took it to school and the teacher got mad at me for bringing it to show and tell. I didn’t know why but she was outraged that I would do it. She went and told the principal, they called my parents in, and my father, who I had an often-contentious relationship with, stood up for me. That was the coolest thing he ever did. He told the teacher: ‘Why would you want to discourage this kid from being curious and taking the initiative to do all this??’

“I’ll never forget it and I loved him for it.”

It would also prove to be a bright spot in a relationship that was becoming less and less amicable with frequent quarrels between the two of them, and then less than five years later, right after Rick turned fifteen, his father died.

image“I was devastated emotionally; I loved the guy even though we didn’t get along. I also felt guilty and relief and just a lot of confusion. I felt all fucked up and that’s when I started playing the harmonica. I tried to learn some of those songs on my sister’s Jimmy Reed records. Down the street from me there was like a house where a band lived and one of the guitar players owned the house. I would go down there; smoke weed and just get away from my family house. One night I was in there singing with this friend of mine and the guy whose house it was gave me a harmonica and told me:

‘You know you sound pretty good; why don’t you learn how to play this?’

“I walked into the other room; I decided I was going to learn how to figure out this instrument, from that day on, that’s been my focus.”

The Bay Area in the mid-sixties was a “Garden of Eden for young musicians.

He remembers: “Oh man, there were all these places in San Francisco like the Fillmore and the Avalon ballroom, and they had these shows with the Grateful Dead and Muddy Waters for the Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Mama Thornton. I got to see all those people and I stayed focused.”

He recalls the names, the places, and the twists and turns back then.

“I got to see all those people and I was putting in hours and hours on the harmonica, just trying to learn, you know. I had quit school and was just playing all the time. When my father died, I started cutting school. When I was about 15 I went back for about a month, then they suspended me for cutting school so I just said:

‘Well fuck it, I’m not going.’

“I went to 10th grade for about a month but that was it”.

“I was into that whole San Francisco scene for a few minutes but then I started getting heavy into Blues. I started going to ghetto bars and nightclubs and sitting in with bands and things. I played all day, every day. I wasn’t that good but good enough to impress people that never seen a white guy do it.”

“So, I was going out and sitting in at all these ghetto clubs. I would still go to the hippie ballrooms while simultaneously getting into harder drugs. I became an intermittent opiate enthusiast. I did that for about eight or nine years. Anyway, I was just going out and sitting in, I loved the scene. When I was eighteen, Lowell Fulson (famous Blues artist) had a new record out on the radio called Blues Pain.

“I went to see him at a club in Hunters Point, in San Francisco.  Me and my friend were the only white guys there, so we sort of stuck out, but I had a couple of drinks and my friend asked me if I felt like playing? This was not some little ghetto bar; it was a really nice club. They had a house band that would play for dancers, it was kind of like a throwback to vaudeville days. Before the band played, they had a guy named Iron Jaw Wilson who would pick up chairs with his teeth!! Anyway, my friend asked Emmett Kennedy who owned the club if I could sit in with Lowell and he said: “Absolutely not,” but then Lowell said, “Oh no, let him sit in.” They were kind of laughing at me you know. Anyway, I got up there and started playing and after about halfway into one verse the place fell out and they were laughing, but laughing in a different kind of way, so after that Emmitt gave me a gig. He booked me for like 3 weeks. I was young and excited; it was great!”

“It was like somebody who just tossed me into the deep end of the pool, you know.”  Around that same time, young Mr. Estrin became friends with Soul singer, performer and songwriter Rodger Collins and world-famous pimp and recording artist Fillmore Slim.

imageHe remembers: “It was a great college education, we would just sit in the car maybe drink mostly, I would just listen to everybody talk about the music business, gossiping all kinds of stuff and it was just great. I felt lucky as hell.  Slim got a gig five nights a week at a place called the Playpen. It was only four blocks from where I was living at the time, and I got to be in the band. I wouldn’t plan all this stuff because it wasn’t appropriate, but I got to be around these people, they were my friends and it was just the greatest education in the world, man oh man.

April 4. 1968

“Before Doctor King got killed everything was OK but then after that everything changed. I could still go places, but you could just feel the vibe had changed, you know.”

Chicago Bound

“So, I’m still playing with Filmore Slim down at the Playpen, and I met this guy who is also just learning to play the harmonica. I met him at a record store where he was working. We were both looking at Blues records, and we became good friends. His name was Jerry Portnoy. Neither of us could play much back then, but we were both way into it.”

(Authors’ note: Portnoy would later play with Muddy Waters for several years.)

“So, the gig at the Playpen ran out, my girlfriend at the time got sick of me and some of my habits, and Jerry went back to Chicago where he was from.

“He started mailing me postcards saying:

“Man, you got to come out here, this is the best. So I said: “OK I can go to Chicago, I’ll kick the dope and I did. I started going out to the clubs and one night in particular, Jerry and I went to Teresa’s. I played and really upset the house; it was great. There were all kinds of musicians there, me and Jerry ended up riding around with Billy Boy Arnold and Louis Myers talking and telling stories about Little Walter and the Blues life in general. It was just so cool, and I started doing gigs. I was at Teresa’s one night and Cary Bell was there at the time. He was in Muddy Waters band, and invited me to come over to their gig the following weekend and sit in.

“Carey said: ‘If Muddy likes you, you can have the gig cause I’m gonna quit.’”

The young Californian went to the gig that night, but it wasn’t till the following night that Muddy would invite him up onstage to play on the classic Long Distance Call.”

The band went on break, Jerry and Rick were hanging out when Muddy Waters called him over. Muddy began shaking his finger at the starstruck Mr. Estrin and told him:

“You got that sound, you are outtasight boy. That’s my sound, I know when I hear my sound”.

Rick wasn’t ready for what happened next.  Muddy paused and simply said:

“You play like a man, boy.”

Rick’s voice still rises an octave when he tells me: “Man, I was levitating.”

imageUnfortunately, plans changed, the job didn’t materialize just then, and the next two years found him playing with various Chicago artists, but none of that mattered. Muddy had given him a blessing that few artists would ever attain, and the course was set for good this time. He would never again hear Long Distance Call without remembering that night.

Although he did not play with Muddy himself, Rick was able to play with other great Blues legends who would serve as additional mentors and teachers. He mentions the time that he spent working with guitarist Johnny Littlejohn as being particularly memorable.

Recalling those times, he says: “Johnny was the greatest; he was just so soulful, man oh man, it was so much fun, it was more than that. Everybody loved him, I remember one night when T-Bone Walker sat in with us…on piano!! Johnny was a real Blues man.”

1974

Back in the early 70s, Disco was all the rage, and Blues was still found in the back bins of records stores, next to Folk and International favorites. Meanwhile, Rick Estrin had found his way back to the west coast, playing music, struggling financially and with the Monkey. Guitarist Charlie Baty was living in Sacramento and called about doing some playing. Rick was not in good health and wasn’t particularly interested in doing anything that didn’t involve immediate funds and/or dope. However, Baty told Rick that he had obtained a bootleg copy of “Don’t Have to Hunt No More” by Little Walter. At that time there were only six actual copies known to exist. It worked, they talked, and all went well, but as Rick puts it “I had other priorities. He and the Monkey went back to Chicago and then came back to the city by the bay. He happened to run into an old musician friend one day in front of the Methadone clinic and ended up going to see Luther Tucker at a club that night. They ran into Charlie who offered Rick a spot in a new band he was forming.

“I was mad at myself because I felt like I was wasting my life, so I called him back and he said to come on over to Sacramento.”

Two bus trips later, the author of A Ten-year-olds Guide to Hipness found a couch courtesy of another musician and started playing with Charlie full time.

Right from the start, they connected. Blues wasn’t all that popular back then, but there were a lot of places to play. Biker bars, servicemen’s clubs.

“We were raggedy back then, but little by little we started getting better. I also started getting my shit together. I transferred to the Methadone program up there, this town was a lot slower that San Francisco and that was just what I needed back then. I felt good, I felt like my brain was coming back. I started being able to implement some of those writing lessons I had learned from Rodger Collins. We started getting pretty popular and then there was a whole scene developing. Robert Cray came down and hooked us up with some gigs in Oregon.”

Rick had played music with some of the best musicians on the planet, but when he began playing with Charlie, it just felt different.

“Charlie was an exciting guitar player; we would just always kill it man. It made me feel like I needed to really get it tighter so I could with him. I wanted to separate us from the pack so right away, I started dressing. We did songs that no one else did. Songs like the original Shopping for Clothes by Boogaloo and His Gallant Crew. And Right Around the Corner, by the Five Royales.

He was succeeding in his own life as well. He kicked dope, and all systems were on “Go.”

There was one afternoon, that he remembers vividly:

“We were onstage at the Gilroy Garlic Festival. I was standing by the side of the bandstand, wearing the suit that I had bought, and I was waiting to go on. Little Charlie was playing the first song. It was one of those great instrumentals. Anyway, he was just playing and he just sounded so f-cking good. I was just looking at him up there, seeing how the audience was completely into it and how they were feeling. I was just so proud to be associated with that man and I just felt like ‘Well we got something here, we really got something.’”

imageAlligator Shoes and Alligator Records

“I just started writing songs and we ended up recording our first album.  Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records called and said:  ‘Please don’t sign with anybody else. I’d like to come out there and give you guys a listen.’ That was in 1986; he came out and saw us and then ended up signing us. He wanted to produce it for us, so we recorded a different record, but it was basically the same songs. We called it All The Way Crazy.”

“Charlie was an unusual guy. He could be a little bit of a challenge to get along with, especially early on.  After a while, being on the road could get stressful. I sure loved that guy and I know he loved me too, in his own way. We knew we had a good thing going and when we got mad at each other, we would be mad and then we hit the bandstand and took out all that anger and that emotion on our instruments and then at some point, you acknowledge that it’s just bullshit and everything’s going to be OK.

“Charlie passed away in 2020 but he left the band in 08. Now we have a Little Charlie scholarship at Cal State University in Sacramento. He was just tired of the road; he was tired and he thought he wanted to just kind of hang out here and play jazz in restaurants. What he found out pretty quickly, I remember he told me: ‘You don’t know what it’s like; you do a few gigs like that, then all of a sudden, you’re playing these restaurants for locals and they just kind of ignore you; they just carry on talking, I don’t know if he regretted it. I think the way we changed the business model, he might have stuck with us, but we used to work man like 225 nights a year, maybe even 300, we worked a lot; we were gone all the time.”

The Serendipity Swingers

“Charlie was a special guy and I never got tired of hearing him play. When he said he wanted to leave, I accepted it. I thought maybe I could be like a low budget Chuck Berry and play with pick up bands.

One day Kid Anderson called me about some whole other thing, and I told him about Charlie leaving the band. I thought he was still playing with “Charlie Musselwhite, but he had just left that band. I asked him if he’d like to maybe play together because I knew that he would fit. In his own way, he was like Charlie, he didn’t’ give a Fuck about what people thought about his playing, he would play anything that he wanted and make something out of it.”

It was indeed the perfect fit; the new band began touring and never looked back.

These Days

It’s still there. “It” being the sound and energy he felt so many years and so many gigs ago with Charlie in Sacramento. Rick’s love for the music and the players he works with these days is just as intense and heartfelt as it ever was.

“I never knew how things were supposed to run out to begin with, know what I mean? I just do my thing and I’m so glad to be a part of it. I’m glad I’m old, but I’m digging it and i wanna stick around as long as I can. I appreciate it more than ever. This band is so good, and we get along offstage as well. We have an enjoyable time just hanging out in airports. There’s no petty bullshit and you can feel it in the performances. Everything just feels right.”

imageThe Hits Keep Coming

The songwriting lessons that he learned from Roger Collins and the others back in Oakland have borne fruit again and again over the years. The new album The Hits Keep on Coming on Alligator Records continues in this tradition. There is (to my ears) a Percy Mayfield vibe and sophistication not often found in modern Blues music. Rick admits:

“There’s a common thread that kind of runs through it.” However, in the hands of Kid Anderson and the rest of the players, that thread never becomes monotonous or predictable.  Not only are the songs well done, but the production and engineering by the Kid makes for a thorough professional sound and presentation.

Great Blues writing has always featured a heavy dose of irony and a resignation to reality; there are several songs in this collection that feature just that.  A couple of the best examples:

Somewhere Else: Starts off nice but turns a sharp corner.

The Circus is Still in Town: Brings back our old friend the monkey.

Whatever Happened to Dobie Strange:  A spoken narrative portrait of road life and encounters with friends and fans over the few years.

There’s even a Leonard Cohen tune on here, Rick admits that covering the song was a bit of a shock, but once again The Kid made it work. They must be doing something right; the album went straight to Number One on the Billboard Blues chart in its first week of release.

Monkey Business

There was a time when it looked like the monkey would be riding Rick’s back forever, but a trip to Sacramento and the chance to play with Charlie Baty changed all of that.

Since then, it’s been a heck of a ride and won’t be ending anytime soon, if the young author of that Hipster dictionary has his way.

There have been many great moments. You get the feeling there will be many more great moments to come.

In his own words, ”I joke about the fact that it keeps me out of the labor pool and all that. But I love this life. I love the music, and I love the musicians.

“I just love all of it.”

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