Blues Bytes


February 2018

Johnny Nicholas
Too Many Bad Habits
The People's Label

Johnny NicholasIn 1977, Johnny Nicholas released Too Many Bad Habits on the Blind Pig label, one of the label’s first. The album teamed Nicholas with blues legends Johnny Shines and Big Walter Horton, along with Ray Benson and original members of the country music band Asleep at the Wheel. Unfortunately, the label cut the album from their catalog in 1978, not long after Nicholas joined Asleep at the Wheel and stopped touring under his own name.

For years, Nicholas requested the original masters from the label and finally, in early 2016, he got possession of the multi track tapes, masters, art work, and photos. To his surprise, he also received a batch of never-before-released performances from the sessions in the deal that included additional tracks with Shines and Horton, along with piano man Boogie Woogie Red. He has repackaged and reissued the original album, along with an extra disc featuring the unreleased material on his own The People’s Label.

Nicholas, a native of Rhode Island, got his musical start playing with several different bands in the ’60s, joined by fellow classmates Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl, and sax man Kaz Kazanoff.  He  later spent time in Chicago, where he often played with Shines, Horton, Robert Lockwood Jr., Howlin’ Wolf, and Roosevelt Sykes. He played a huge role in building up the blues scene in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he lived for several years, bringing many legendary artists such as Shines, Horton, and Boogie Woogie Red to clubs, concerts, and festivals in the area.

Too Many Bad Habits was recorded at three different studios, one in Austin, Texas featuring Nicholas with members of Asleep at the Wheel. Though renowned for their forays into Western Swing and Country, the members of Asleep at the Wheel (Ray Benson –guitar, Link Davis, Jr. – tenor sax, Bill Mabry – fiddle, Lucky Oceans - drums, and Tony Garnier – bass) along with Nicholas, all shared a deep abiding love for the blues and it shows on their selections. “Mandolin Boogie” is a freewheeling jam that includes fiddle as well as mandolin, and the band is a perfect fit for the Mississippi Sheiks classic “Sitting On Top Of The World” and the rollicking Nicholas original “Got The Train.”

The remainder of the tracks were recorded in Michigan and find Nicholas playing with and backing Shines, Horton, and Red. Though Nicholas sings the bulk of these tunes, Shines gets a turn behind the mic on his own “Blues Came Fallin’ Down,” and his powerful, distinctive guitar work is heard throughout. Horton is one of the vastly underrated post-war harmonica players, and he gets ample opportunity to show his stuff on tracks like Nicholas’ “Blues Walk,” Tommy Johnson’s “New Canned Heat Blues,” ‘Careless Love,” “Gettin’ Outta Town” and “West Wind,” where he gets a turn on vocals as well.

Nicholas has a very soulful and expressive vocal style that fits these tunes to a tee, and he plays guitar, mandolin, and piano on these tracks. His unaccompanied vocal on Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face” is excellent, and his own compositions, including the clever title track and the wicked shuffle “Looks Can Be Deceiving,” are first-rate. The Michigan sessions also include Martin Gross on drums and E.P. Jones on bass.

The second disc focuses pretty much on Nicholas, Shines, Horton, and Boogie Woogie Red, backed by Gross and Jones. The Nicholas original “Move On Down The Line” is a fun romp with Shines and Horton trading vocals, and Red joins the group on piano for “Pump Jockey Blues,” also taking the vocal on Jay McShann’s standard “Hootie Blues,” and joins with Nicholas and Horton on the stirring closer St. Louis Jimmy Oden’s “Soon Forgotten.”

The interplay between Shines, Horton, and Nicholas is stunning at times. The instrumental “Apple Grove Rhumba” is probably the best example on this collection of their musical chemistry, but their collaborations on Nicholas’ “Believe I’ll Make A Change” and Jimmy Rogers’ “Money, Marbles and Chalk” are equally effective.

A wonderful listening experience from beginning to end, Too Many Bad Habits will be a welcome addition to the collection of any fan of traditional Chicago blues. While the original album is a masterpiece in itself, it’s made even better by the inclusion of the recently rediscovered tracks. It’s hard to believe that these songs haven’t been available for over 40 years, but thank goodness that’s not the case anymore.

--- Graham Clarke


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