Make no mistake: Johnny Nicholas knows from the blues. His credentials? Impeccable. Conviction? Immeasurable. And chops? If an instrument’s got strings, keys, or reeds he can play the hell out of it. He’s also a consummate songwriter and a great singer blessed with a warm, toasty growl of a voice that can roll from rumble to croon and back again with seductive ease.
Marcia Ball calls Nicholas “an extremely engaging innovative traditionalist” who “writes instant classics and sings them to break your heart and rock your soul.” But the key word there is “innovative,” because as deep as his roots go — and we’re talking about a cat who learned firsthand from the likes of Robert Lockwood Jr., Howlin’ Wolf, Big Walter Horton, and Johnny Shines (to name but a few of the legends he studied under early in his five-decade career) — Nicholas does not paint in one color.
As befits a soul who’s spent a lifetime soaking up the flavor of such vibrant music scenes as Ann Arbor, Chicago, South Louisiana and Texas (which he’s called home now for nearly 40 years), his music is full-spectrum Americana — a rich gumbo of not just blues, but cajun, swing, folk, and barrelhouse rock ’n’ roll.
As an artist and performer he can mesmerize a listening room crowd or bring a festival crowd to their feet with his rollicking boogie woogie piano and his stellar band.
For proof, just take a listen to Nicholas’ most satisfyingly eclectic collection of original American roots music yet, 2016’s Fresh Air, which finds him drawing on all of the above and deep into his soul for words of wit, wisdom, and heart. As the esteemed writer Bill Bentley puts it best, “He’s someone who cares about being real, and the hell with everything else … .”