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If you’ve seen him, you remember him.
Even sans his slick sharkskin suits, Rick Estrin cuts a remarkable figure in his Buddy Holly specs and perfectly coiffed pompadour. You may even have seen him cruising in a vintage Cadillac, and looked to see how soon the rest of the parade would follow.
These days, the cars spend most of their time in the garage, but for the past few years, Estrin has been leading Rick Estrin and the Nightcats through performances from Tennessee to Turkey
I’ve been a fan since the eighties when Little Charlie and the Nightcats used to play Melarkey’s and Sutter Street Saloon with great regularity. The band had drew was a friendly and familiar crowd, who weren’t concerned about their lack of dance skills, a relief during an otherwise dance-crazed decade. Charlie Baty played a mean guitar and managed the group, bringing the Nightcats from a successful local band, to an Alligator Records act that was in demand around the world.
If there were times—and there were many—that audience members mistook Estrin for Little Charlie because he and his harmonica and vocals fronted the band, he graciously deferred. Today, given that Charlie’s name no longer even appears on the marquee since his retirement in 2008, Estrin has been known to handle fans requesting Charlie’s autograph or a picture with him, differently.
“Sometimes I try to correct them,” he says, but then he chuckles, “Sometimes it’s just easier to give them what they ask for; avoids a lot of fights.”
Like so many life-long musicians, he taught himself to play, “I heard these Jimmy Reed records, and something about it really moved me. I got myself an instrument and listened to those records over and over till I could play ‘em.”
He grew up in San Francisco, a part of all of the social chaos that defined the era and its music. Exciting for a musician, but a little over the top, at times on a personal level, so he headed for Chicago to explore new sounds.
In 1976, he caught a Greyhound to Sacramento with an invitation to play in a band called the Nightcats, and a relationship with heroin he was pretty sure he wanted to leave. Fortunately, both plans worked.
I asked him if he was aware that he was a fairly well-known role model for musicians trying to get into and stay in recovery?
I told him if I was aware of his influence, not being an addict myself, the word must be pretty well out there.
“That’s cool, I guess, if it helps people. I’ve had twenty-six years without any drugs or alcohol now, and I’ve just kept doing the same thing that works for me. My dad died when I was fifteen, so in the beginning, a lot of what I got from going to meetings was just how to operate like a man. Those old timers probably had no idea what to think of me, ‘cause I was this young musician and they were businessmen. But I’d never been exposed to those kind of manners and lifestyles. They helped me buy my first car, and my first insurance; they taught me social skills.”
As most musicians will attest, making music a lifestyle, and making music a living seldom happen simultaneously or as soon as they would like. Estrin sold men’s clothing, worked as a janitor—a job he says he particularly liked at the time—and as a longshoreman, which after a few lousy assignments, became the most convenient way to earn good money with his union status. He admits, it wasn’t his best gig, though.
“The most successful times were when I had a girlfriend with a good job,” he smiles, “That worked pretty good.”
I asked him when he first realized he’d be able to earn money as professional musician. He thought about it for a minute. “I don’t think I ever had that moment, exactly. I think more what happened was that I couldn’t face doing anything else anymore.”
He pauses, as if remembering the former grind, “It was about five years before we started making records and really took off. But we were playing a lot regionally, pretty regularly, doing good. I was working as longshoreman, paying my union dues. And one day I just couldn’t do it. It was just too depressing. I guess that’s when I decided it was all or nothing. I just couldn’t go back.” It seems to have been a good decision. “It’s worked out all right, I guess,” he says with a grin.
Rick Estrin and the Nightcats will play The Palms in Winters Saturday 8/13 at 8:30pm. More information on Estrin and the band can be found at rickestrin.com