Nick Charles: Laying the Foundation

When Buddy Guys Legends learned of the passing of Nick Charles we were deeply saddened. In an effort to remember his life, Legends in conjunction with John Fountain were able to uncover from our archives an article interview from 2009. Rest in Peace Nick Charles, you will be missed. -Ed.

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Quick: name a bass player – any bass player. Can’t do it, can you? That’s because bassists, as important as their contributions are to a band, hardly ever get their names in the spotlight. Bass guitarists traditionally establish the musical foundation for their bands, keeping time with the drummer. But it is a role that rarely gets much recognition.

This is true for Chicago-based Blues bassist Nick Charles, one of the most highly regarded musicians in the country. But Charles is comfortable with his role in the background since being one of the most durable and dependable players on the Blues scene has afforded him a comfortable living and an opportunity to travel the world.

In a career that has spanned more than five decades, Charles has made quite a name for himself among people who know the Blues. Nik Skilnik, a graduate of Columbia College in instrumental performance and an aspiring bass player himself, calls Charles an “inspiration.”

“Nick Charles is one of the best in town and that phaser (kind of distorter) is awesome,” Skilnik says. “Not only is he a great pocket player, but he also rips solos. I take his philosophy and apply it to my own.”

NickCharlesCharles has backed up some of the most recognizable artists in the pantheon of Blues stars. Legendary performers like Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Magic Sam, Earl Hooker, Buddy Guy and Son Seals have all counted on Charles to lend some bottom to their Blues. His current gig is as the principal bassist for Chicago harmonica player Billy Branch and the Sons of Blues.

His performances have taken him on band tours of Europe, Asia and Africa and have enabled him to put two children through college, buy a stately bungalow in Chicago’s Mtarquette Park neighborhood and indulge in his three non-musical passions: collecting toy cars and Mickey Mouse paraphernalia, and restoring his red 1947 Chevy Fleetmaster.

It is a solidly middle-class existence, one that Charles never could have imagined when he was a poor youngster picking cotton in Vicksburg, Mississippi. And he certainly never could have imagined that playing bass guitar would help him afford it.

[pullquote]“They’ll yell out ‘make it talk to me’ and I’ll just laugh and make it talk.”[/pullquote]

To look at him these days – the epitome of urban cool – you’d never imagine that Charles picked cotton a day in his lifetime. He has a swagger, both onstage and off. He is 5-foot-9 and walks with a limp like something out of a 1970s blaxploitation movie. He tends to sport black leather vests and pants, usually coordinated with the type of electric bass he plays. A Mickey Mouse pendant dangling from a gold herringbone chain completes his getup.

He prefers a 5-string Fender electric bass because that’s what he grew up playing. He owns around 30 of them, the four-, five- and six-string variety. He looks a lot younger than his 65 years. Standing on stage picking at his guitar and grinning, you can tell he enjoys his job.

He also clearly knows he’s good. When it’s time for him to step from the shadows and fire off a solo, he starts with slow picking and then progressively moves his fingers across the fret board faster and faster, building to a searing climax. At the height of it all he steps on a distortion petal and it seems as if the bass starts to talk.

NickCharles“The women love that,” he says. “They’ll yell out ‘make it talk to me’ and I’ll just laugh and make it talk.”

You could say music was in his blood. His mother was a jazz singer in Vicksburg, who took him around to the bars where she sang. He danced for the crowds as the music played. His father was absent for most his childhood; Charles only knew that he was somewhere in Chicago.

Money was tight. Charles and virtually every member of his family, like most black families in the Jim Crow South, tried to make ends meet picking cotton on huge plantations. It was backbreaking work–hunched over in the hot sun separating cotton blossoms from the stalk and stuffing them in bags, collecting pennies for a 10-pound sack.

“Being in the field was rough,” Charles says. “We would leave at 4a.m. and wouldn’t get back ‘til 5 in the evening.”

But there was relief in music, and everyone flocked to it. Vicksburg was a regular stop on Southern entertainers’ circuits. “Everybody used to come to Vicksburg,” Charles recalls. “Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, L.V. Banks, Eddie Shaw, B.B. King. I Thought L.V. was the best guitar player in the world.”

Charles was drawn to the music and proved to be a natural. He picked up a bass for the first time around 15-years old and began learning to play, solely by ear. He would listen to records or watch the hand movements of a friend who was his first teacher.

[pullquote]Upon Howlin’ Wolf’s insistence, Charles came up to Chicago. Eddie Shaw invited him to live in his house rent free while making $35 per night.[/pullquote]

“Now, I’m getting good,” says Charles. His bass teacher owned an electronic shop where Charles would go and take lessons.

It wasn’t long before Charles began to establish himself as a musician. He still could not read music, but was making progress just by listening and practicing. With only a tenth-grade education and limited opportunities in Vicksburg, he saw a way to work with his hands and be the crowd-pleaser that his mother was.

Eddie Shaw noticed him playing around Vicksburg, Mississippi and invited Charles to play in his band. “I remember my first gig,” says Charles. “At the end of the night he handed me $9 and I remember thinking this was three days worth of picking cotton in the field.”

BluesFestHighlights_39But as vibrant as the Vicksburg music scene was, the next logical step for Charles was to head North for the better clubs and paychecks that awaited in the bigger cities. By 18, he had already played behind people like Tina Turner, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf. But he was afraid of tackling life up North.

“Man, I wasn’t going to the city,” Charles says. “Seem like every time people dying up there, just going through the alley. I wasn’t never going to no city.”

Upon Howlin’ Wolf’s insistence, Charles came up to Chicago. Eddie Shaw invited him to live in his house rentfree while making $35 per night.

“Shit, that changed everything,” Charles says.

Not quite. He still had difficulty committing to Chicago despite the opportunities that awaited him here. He came up in 1962 and couldn’t deal with the winters. He went back to Mississippi twice before finally deciding to make Chicago home in 1964.

[pullquote]Charles’ bright, permanent smile stays fixed, even after 50 years.[/pullquote]

Not only was he reluctant to move to Chicago, Charles had another fear to conquer before traveling around the world with other musicians—fear of flying. Finally he took his first flight to Los Angeles with his wife. He has one regret that came from his phobia.

“Junior and Buddy were getting ready to go to Egypt, and I asked Junior about how we were getting there and he told me flying. Hell, I asked him were we driving. He said, ‘Man, we ain’t driving to no Egypt, we flying.’ I said, ‘Well, you know I don’t get on nobody’s airplane.’

” A member of the musician’s union since 1966, Charles has augmented his club gigs playing in commercials for the likes of Pizza Hut, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and McDonald’s.

He also believes in giving back to the next generation of Blues players. He gives bass lessons at The Better Boys Foundation in North Lawndale on the West Side and is actively involved in the Blues in the Schools program based in Seattle.

He’s encouraging to youngsters with bass-playing aspirations. Yeah, you get blisters toiling away in the background, but Charles also says that a young bass player can make about $75 to $100 a night. “And if they could read music, they can go farther than me,” he says.

Charles’ bright, permanent smile stays fixed. Even after 50 years, Blues remains his way of life. He even hangs around clubs on his nights off. Although he’s pretty effusive (he will tell you with whom he has toured and crack jokes about funny times) he never violates the code of the road: “Thou shall not discuss the times on the tour bus or the happenings in the hotels.” What happens on the road, stays on the road.

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