Johnny Nicholas

Johnny Nicholas

Three decades ago, the R&B singer and guitarist stepped back from the music business and ended his tenure with western swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel to open the Hill Top Cafe, just north of Fredericksburg, with his wife, Brenda. Over the years, he’s ventured back into action. His new album, Future Blues, features such prominent Texas musicians as Cindy Cashdollar, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, and Jimmie Vaughan.

You started your first band in 1963 in Westerley, Rhode Island, as Beatle­mania was revving up. Yet you were playing rhythm and blues.
There was a station out of Providence that played Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, and that’s what we grooved on.

And you gravitated toward like-minded Rhode Island musicians—[future Roomful of Blues leader] Duke Robillard and [drummer] Fran Christina.
I’d go over to Duke’s house after school and we’d be turnin’ each other on to stuff. We formed a band for a while called the Black Cat Blues Band. I went out to Ann Arbor and formed the Boogie Brothers, while Duke got a couple of  horns and started Roomful of Blues.

Why Ann Arbor?
We were beating our brains out playing in dives in Providence, and there were four clubs in Ann Arbor that booked blues regularly. We backed up everybody at the Blind Pig—Roosevelt Sykes, Robert Junior Lockwood, Arthur Crudup. Ann Arbor was a happenin’ town.

Then you moved to Austin. Did you have the Asleep at the Wheel gig already set up?
Nah, I came down first around ’74. Jimmie Vaughan had heard our broadcast from the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, and he said, “Man, this club just opened. You should come down to Antone’s.” The Wheel moved to

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