Boppin' the Blues
 
Little Charlie and The Nightcats

by Adam St. James


They was pushed! I’m talkin’ ‘bout those rippin’ hot bop-blues lines some witnesses might say fell from the stage last night, wherever it was that Little Charlie and the Nightcats were playin’. I’m sayin’ they was pushed, and I know who done it too: It was those shady characters always hangin’ ‘round guitarist Little Charlie Baty and his partner in crime, singer/blues harp master Rick Estrin. And I think it’s Rick who brings ‘em around too.

I mean just think about the kind of folks he associates with all the time (and then glorifies in his lyrics too): the no-good, the bad-news, and the fast-talkin’. He seems to have a never-ending supply of tales of the perennial louts, the ones always lookin’ for a free ride or a quick buck, the ones with one hand in your pocket and the other on your best girl’s bottom. Troublemakers, the lot of ‘em. And it’s Rick who brings ‘em around too. Sorry, Charlie.

Of course they might just be a collection of personalities straight outta some ’40s Hollywood private eye flick, or maybe even Rick Estrin’s wild imagination? Ah who cares, we love ‘em, and we love Charlie Baty’s jazz-meets-Chicago Blues fretwork too. With his band’s latest release on Alligator Records, Nine Lives just out (May, 2005), BluesQuest.com tracked down “Little” Charlie Baty to discuss some of the shadier elements of society – namely us musicians. So there. Tag, you’re it.

BluesQuest.com: Hello Charlie. We’re calling you early – or early for a musician.

Charlie Baty: Yeah, well… The secret to my success in terms of all my traveling is that I try to stay on East Coast time, even though I live on the West Coast. It smooths out all the jet lag, so I get up pretty early. But I have a hard time staying up until two in the morning anymore, at least in California.

BluesQuest.com: Then aren’t you a little worn out by the end of a late night set?

Baty: Well, the adrenaline always kicks in. It seems like more and more, the gigs are a little earlier. When we were strictly doing the bar scene, there’s that 9:30 to 1:30 mentality, where you have to bang out three or four sets. Now we basically do two long shows, and if we do an 8 o’clock show, we’re done around 11. So that’s a lot easier. Plus I think people appreciate it more that way, instead of it just being background music.

I have a harder time when we’re over in Europe and my body is so confused as to what day and time it is and all that kind of stuff. Lately when we’ve gone overseas it’s been really good. But back, maybe 15 years ago, when we’d be doing some place out in the middle of nowhere, and you’re playing for about 20 people, you start thinking, “Why am I here?” But I guess that’s just what you’ve got to do. I’m pretty lucky to be able to get out there and play the music in front of all the people I do.

BluesQuest.com: So tell us what excites you most on the new disc, Nine Lives?

Baty: I like the whole disc, on one level, because we’ve had the same engineer and we’ve been using the same studio pretty much for the past five years. We changed the studio where we did our basic tracks (drums), Shadows of Blues – and then we went back to Bayview. And we really like the vibe at Bay View. After awhile you get so comfortable in a place that you can just go in there and just make music, and not deal with all the stress of being in the studio and under the gun to be creative in a small amount of time.

I also felt good about the record with the new guys on it. They’re great – Jay and Lorenzo are great players. We’ve been touring with them, but they hadn’t really been on record. But then there’s some songs on there that are really special too. I like “Cool Johnny Twist.” It had Jay play drums more in the style of “Shopping for Clothes,” by the Coasters. It almost sounds like the guy’s playing bongo drums, because of the way he’s using his hands and part of the stick to get that real quiet accent sound. That’s a really nice tune about a real guy, Johnny Twist, who lives in Chicago still.

BluesQuest.com: What’s Johnny’s story?

Baty: Rick toured with Johnny Twist back in 1972, when he was doing this tour with George McGovern, with this blues revue that had a bunch of different people. Rick was the harp player. But Johnny Twist was one of the guitar players on the original “Wang, Dang Doodle” by Koko Taylor. He’s a guy that’s been around the scene for a long time. Right now he owns a record store on the south side of Chicago. So Rick wrote a ballad about him.




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That’s a different kind of thing, because a lot of his songs are about humorous things that happen in life. And this is more like looking at a guy, as a legend – especially for Rick, thinking back now about what a great guy Johnny was, and that he’s still alive and goin’ after all that time.

And then we have the piano player from Lavay Smith and the Red Hot Skillet Lickers. Chris (Siebert) played on our last record too. He’s a great piano player and he came up with some nice ideas. He plays on the guitar instrumental, “Tag “You’re It)” and the other guitar instrumental, “Slap Happy,” a real raunchy rocker.

And that song was a lot of fun too, because it was almost the last day of mixing and we all felt like playing some loud, screaming rock ‘n’ roll. So we did “Slap Happy” in one take. It’s loose and it sounds like drunk people at the end of the night – which we weren’t; we were tired. It was a good experience.

BluesQuest.com: “Slap Happy” has that Johnnie Johnson piano kind of treatment.

Baty: Yeah, exactly. And then do you remember when I did that video with you in the back of Fitzgerald’s, and I was using one of those Vero amps. [Editor’s note: Charlie is referring to a guitar video lesson we shot together, available at Guitar.com.] I’ve used the Vero amps on the road a lot because the one I had before was just too loud for the studio. So he came up with a new one called the 20th Century Limited. It’s a 1x15 old, Gibson-style amp. I used that on the record, and I think it’s got a real nice sound to it. That’s on “Tag…” It’s got a real nice, warm sound to it.



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BluesQuest.com: Isn’t that amp builder out of Illinois, near me somewhere?

Baty: Yeah, he’s out of Joliet. He’s got a new amp called the Chicago Zephyr that I use on the gigs. I didn’t have it up and going when I did the record, but I’ve been using it on pretty much every record since then. He’s a great guy, and he’s really into making the amps exactly right.

BluesQuest.com: And these Vero amps are beautiful works of art too.

Baty: Yeah, his brother is a carpenter. I went over to his house, and he’s got all this really elaborate stuff, and his brother was making furniture that was designed by an architect. He had all these blueprints, and he was making this huge book case. He’s a talented guy.

BluesQuest.com: Now this isn’t the same guy that builds the Victoria Amps, is it?

Baty: No, there are several guys around Chicago that are building great amps, and Victoria is a nice amp. But for me the Vero has the punch the old Fender’s had. To me, a lot of these so-called “boutique” amps, they look really nice, but then, when they get on the road, either they’re not loud enough for bigger stages, or they’re not durable enough for road work. When you’re van-ing things around the country like I am, I’ve got to have something that’s not going to fall apart when it’s being bounced up and down. We can’t always bring road cases, they’re just too hard on your back. But anyway, that’s the difference to me. I guess people got tired of everyone spending big bucks on old Fenders.

BluesQuest.com: What’s the guy’s name at Vero Amps?

Baty: His name is Steve Fazio. His website is http://www.veroamps.com/.

BluesQuest.com: The song “Tag (You’re It)” is sort of a T-Bone Walker kind of groove.

Baty: To me, it’s a combination of Charlie Christian – and everybody says Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker studied from the same guitar teacher, so they have a lot of similarities. So it’s got that bop kind of a sound, but it’s got that swing-blues stuff too. And it’s got a different format. It’s got an AAB song format, which is just a little different. And we play in odd keys – we play in the horn keys a lot of the time – and that song is in A-flat. And it didn’t slow down the piano player at all.




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BluesQuest.com: Why do you do that?

Baty: Part of it because when I tried to learn how to play bebop, listenin’ to records, all the songs were written in horn keys, usually in B-flat, F, E-flat, and sometimes A-flat. And after awhile I started playing that way and I realized, it’s the sound. A-flat has a really cool sound that C doesn’t have. And there’s a certain darkness and certain richness about it. I don’t know how to explain it, but sometimes you can just feel what the right key is.

BluesQuest.com: You know, I’ve never thought about it before, but now that you mention it, it may very well have something to do with the tone of the guitar strings at those particular frets. Just like people talk about thicker strings having better tone, or how you could play a riff on the higher strings, but you like the riff better on the thicker strings up a few frets (not an octave down). This may be part of that same thing.

Baty: Yeah, I think that’s part of it. But even just other instruments sort of sound right in those other keys. I don’t know what it is, but it’s odd. When you listen to country and all those open string keys are good for that sound too.

BluesQuest.com: So by this time you’ve probably recorded something in almost every key.

Baty: Well, I make the guys in the band learn all the different keys. I don’t know if we’ve actually recorded in every key – but I know we’ve played in every key. We always open sets in odd keys. And it’s really been hard when you have a new bass player come in, and all the sudden you’re playing in D-flat or something, if they’re not used to thinking that way. But they learn how to do it. They learn the advantages of playing in different keys – because each key has certain little advantages to it.

But I think there’s probably a couple of different keys we haven’t gotten to, because a lot of what we record has to do with Rick’s range. He has sort of a lower voice, and he’s not going to sing in some of the higher keys.

BluesQuest.com: And most of the time, your bassists are playing stand-up, fretless basses.

Baty: Yeah, and that’s the challenge. You can’t be off in your intonation if you’re playing in D-flat.

BluesQuest.com: Yes. And they’ve been playing D all their lives, and now you’re throwing a D-flat at them. That’s a new learning experience all together.

Baty: Yeah.

 

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BluesQuest.com: I’ve got to ask about Rick and his characters that he sings about. A lot of them are straight out of the school of John Steinbeck – the scoundrels. I’ve just got to hear either the truth, or a real good, made-up story: Is that really Rick, the scoundrel? I love the characters he sings about. Where do they come from?

Baty: (laughs) You know, that’s interesting. I don’t know. Maybe he likes to think of himself as a scoundrel (laughs), but deep down he’s a pretty nice person. I think that the characters that he sings about are either his way of looking at things, or maybe he’s picked up a story from a friend of his, or somebody he’s run into who just had a chance line – and he’s written a story about that person. But I think the key thing, and somewhere between him and Steinbeck, is that they’re both telling stories. It’s not just writing rhymes and trying to hurry up and write a song based on another old blues song. He’s just looking at it sort of like Leiber and Stoller would do: Come up with a catchy theme, then tell a story, and hopefully have a melody that people want to hum too.

For instance, from what I know, his songwriting idols would be Leiber and Stoller. He likes Willie Nelson a lot. He’s played me some pretty obscure Willie Nelson records that had great stories to them. And Percy Mayfield – Rick loves his voice and some of the songs he wrote. He’s into that whole kind of thing.




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BluesQuest.com: And how do you put his stories to the right groove?

Baty: That’s always a bit of a challenge. He usually has an idea of what he wants the accompaniment to be. It usually revolves around a simple bass line, or some chords. And then we try to orchestrate a little bit, or work with it. Usually the best thing is to have a couple rehearsals, get a groove for it, and then take it out on the road and see how it works. We’ll see if people dance to it, or react to it, then maybe we’ll speed it up or slow it down a little, maybe change it around a little bit. And sometimes maybe adjust the key a little. Sometimes maybe he can sing it at home, but when he gets out on the road it may be a little too high or too low for him. It takes us about a year to really get the songs honed in.

Even then, in the process of making a record you learn so much about the song. You hear it back so many times, that you get new ideas. And by the time you’ve finished the record, it’s almost like you’ve changed the song. You’ve honed it even more. The process is really good. I don’t think we’ve ever had a song where we sort of just snapped our fingers and said, ‘It’s got to be done exactly this way.’

BluesQuest.com: So do you guys play a lot of gigs around Sacramento when you’re not on the road?

Baty: Not as much anymore. We’ve gotten to a point that, when we’re home we might play a couple of high-profile gigs during the year, and then maybe a smaller gig. But we don’t do a week run some place. Or even weekends at the same club, like we used to. Now when we’re home, anything up and down the West Coast is a local gig. We can drive up to Oregon for the weekend, or something. But when we’re on the road, we’re basically working six or seven days a week.

BluesQuest.com: So my next question is, are all those Sacramento people hearing the early versions of all your songs before they come out, or are people world-wide hearing them before they hit a CD too?

Baty: People world-wide. For instance, last fall we went to Poland, Austria, and then Russia and Turkey for a long tour. It was like months long. And this was right before the record, so we were going to iron out a lot of this new material on the Russian and Turkey tour. But what happened was – we didn’t know exactly what it would be like – and we thought we’d be playing for a few hundred people every night, and we could sneak in a song here or there. Well, it turned out that we were playing in front of thousands of people – as much as 10,000 people. And then…

BluesQuest.com: In Turkey?

Baty: Well, in Russia. And in Turkey it was more like a couple of thousand.

BluesQuest.com: Wow!

Baty: It was this big blues festival sponsored by a beer maker in Turkey.

BluesQuest.com: Beers ‘n’ Blues – what a concept!

Baty: Yeah… So they brought us around to all the big cities in Turkey and Russia. It was part of this big American or International blues festival, or whatever they called it. It was a younger crowd, and they loved it. So we were trying to work out this new material, but we were playing in front of all these people. And so the songs that we thought were strong enough to fit into that slot got a lot stronger, because everyone got used to playing them in front of big audiences. But with some of the newer ones, we didn’t think it was right to break it out. You really want to put your best stuff out there when you’re playing in front of that many people.

BluesQuest.com: So what’s up for the band now that Nine Lives is out (May, 2005)?

Baty: Unfortunately it came out about a month too late to coincide with our Spring tour in the Midwest and New England, but we’re going to be going back out and doing a couple of short trips in June and July. So we’re just working. The record debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard blues charts – that’s the highest we’ve ever had a record debut. So that’s exciting, and especially in a week when they had Marcia Ball come out too – and her’s did No. 3! So Alligator Records is pretty stoked about that.

So right now we’re just in this Goldilocks environment (laughs), where everything is just perfect. The band is sounding great. Everyone gets along – usually there’s one guy who is unhappy or something, but not right now. Everyone is enjoying each other’s playing. For two of these guys it’s their first major record to come out, so they’re both really excited about that. Our bass player, Lorenzo Farrell, has played in all these different jazz groups. We’ve got to be one of the only blues bands that has two guys who went to U.C. Berkeley. These other guys are like 20-something years younger than Rick and I so it’s sort of strange, after all these years, we almost have this sort of generation thing going on in the band: the young guys who have all this energy and are still excited about touring and all that, and the old guys who’ve seen it all and done it all.

BluesQuest.com: So is there anything out there you haven’t seen that you’re going to be looking for this time around?

Baty: Well, I don’t know… We haven’t been to Africa yet. I think that’s about that only continent that has music that we haven’t been to yet. But I think we’ve played in just about every different kind of setting. But each time you go out and play it’s fun because you see the way people react to it, and how important music is to people out there. And just the excitement of being creative, and the reward of the applause and all that.

It’s a wonderful career to be in. And it’s nice to be in a position to inspire people. I’m seeing more of that, more younger people who are getting into blues and the guitar, and they’re coming up and asking questions. I always try to be helpful with that because you never know who the next B.B. King or Stevie Ray Vaughan is going to be. I feel like that’s part of the responsibility of bands like ours who are accessible to the audience.

BluesQuest.com: What kind of guitar-related questions are people asking you?

Baty: Sometimes they ask what kind of scale I’m playing, or what kind of guitar strings do I use. Sometimes it’s just the local musician who wants to know what it’s like to tour all the time. I think people have this idea that it’s like the perfect existence. It’s got it’s tough things. You can’t have the same kind of home life that other people have, and you can’t ever call in sick. There’s definitely downsides to it.




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But I guess the questions I’m most interested in answering are, “Who should I listen to?” or “Who do you listen to?” Then I realize that they’re more serious about it, and I’ll try to find out what it is they want to do, and I’ll give them some suggestions. And sometimes I’ll come back a year later and the same person will say something like, ‘Yeah, I listened to that Charlie Christian guy you told me about and boy, it’s really helped my guitar playing!” Then I feel good.

BluesQuest.com: Well, Charlie, your playing sure makes us feel good around here, and we look forward to your next visit to Chicago. Thanks so much for your time!

Baty: No problem, Adam. Thank you!


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Related Links

LittleCharlie.net The band's official website.

Alligator.com The band's record label.

BluesLessons.com

TrueFire.com