It's been over 30 years since world-class musicians guitarist Little Charlie Baty and harmonicist/vocalist/songwriter Rick Estrin first teamed up and took hard Chicago blues, jump, Texas swing and jazz and mixed it with rockabilly, proto-rock'n'roll, jumping jive, bebop and Estrin's sharply original lyrics, creating a sound one critic described as "Charlie Christian playing in Little Walter's band." Their utter mastery of American roots music is fueled by Baty's jaw-dropping guitar acrobatics and driven by Estrin's captivating original songs, cutting vocals and brilliant harmonica playing.
With each new Little Charlie & The Nightcats release, it becomes increasingly clear that not only are these cats great musicians, but also that Rick Estrin is a songwriter of unparalleled skill. His songs stand shoulder to shoulder with those of Willie Dixon and the songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller. Estrin won the 1993 Blues Music Award for his composition, “My Next Ex-Wife” and has written songs for a growing legion of famous fans. Three of his songs found their way onto Grammy-nominated albums: “Don't Put Your Hands On Me” (from Koko Taylor's Force of Nature), “I'm Just Lucky That Way” (from Robert Cray's Shame + A Sin), and “Homely Girl” (from John Hammond's Trouble No More with Little Charlie & The Nightcats serving as his backing band). Other artists who have covered Estrin songs include Little Milton, Rusty Zinn, Kid Ramos and Mark Hummel. "I like songs that tell stories," he says, "songs that are well-crafted and meaningful." Besides Dixon and Leiber and Stoller, Estrin cites Sonny Boy Williamson II, Percy Mayfield and Baby Boy Warren as his major songwriting influences.
As a harp player, Estrin has few peers. His work on the reeds is at once deep in the tradition of harmonica masters Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Walter Horton and Little Walter Jacobs while at the same time pushing that tradition forward. "Rick Estrin sings and writes songs like the brightest wise guy in all bluesland and blows harmonica as if he learned at the knee of Little Walter," raves Down Beat. The San Francisco Chronicle sums it up this way: "Rick Estrin is an amazing harmonica player, a soulful lead vocalist and a brilliant songwriter."
Matching Estrin's prowess lick for lick are Baty's wild, seemingly impossible guitar excursions. From jazz to blues to rock to surf, Baty has all the styles mastered. He seamlessly blends various elements into a guitar sound that is his alone. Guitar World declares, "Baty's straight blues playing is eye-popping...he stretches solos to the breaking point, skittering on the edge, where one wrong note will bring the whole thing crashing down." "Little Charlie Baty plays as much guitar as Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy put together," raves The Village Voice. "He is one of the swiftest, most fluent guitarists working in any genre." Rounding out the Nightcats are drummer J. Hansen (who's been with the band since 2002) and bassist Lorenzo Farrell (who joined in 2003), both veterans of the Bay Area's Steve Lucky and the Rhumba Bums. Hansen, who has also toured with members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, makes his songwriting and singing debut on Nine Lives with his composition “Deep Pockets.” Farrell is a key member of the San Francisco jazz scene, equally adept at performing and composing Brazilian, modern and big band jazz. Hansen and Farrell combine to produce one of the most exciting rhythm sections in the Nightcats' history.
The story of Little Charlie & The Nightcats began back in the early 1970s when Baty--a harmonica-playing UC Berkeley student--first met Estrin. With Rick already an accomplished harp player, Baty decided to switch to guitar full-time and the two formed a blues band. After relocating to Sacramento, Baty quickly reinvented himself as a take-no-prisoners, one-of-a-kind guitarist. With the addition of a drummer and a bass player, Little Charlie & The Nightcats were born.
In 1986 the band sent an unsolicited tape to Alligator Records. Alligator president Bruce Iglauer was blown away. He flew to Sacramento to see the band perform and was sold. Their debut album, All The Way Crazy, was released in 1987 to overwhelming success. Almost immediately they went from playing small Sacramento blues clubs to performing concerts and festivals around the country and around the world.
The band's following albums, 1988's Disturbing The Peace, 1989's The Big Break!, 1991's Captured Live, 1992's Night Vision, 1995's Straight Up!, and 1998's Shadow Of The Blues solidified their reputation as one of the most adventurous and sophisticated blues bands around. 2002's That’s Big! continued their success, with reviews and features running in The Chicago Tribune, The New York Post, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, GuitarOne, Guitar Player and many other national and regional publications. The band also was featured in a 20-minute interview and performance segment on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition.
Guitarists, harp players, songwriters, fans and critics remain overwhelmed. "Can anyone name a better guitarist than Little Charlie?" asked Blues Revue. "Who can out-tough Rick Estrin? Little Charlie & The Nightcats play some of the deepest blues out there." Little Charlie & The Nightcats constantly criss-cross the country to play hundreds of live performances every year, including major blues festivals in Chicago, San Francisco, Cincinnati, New York and Portland. They've played The Montreal Jazz Festival, San Diego Street Scene, Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival and more recently at blues festivals throughout Russia and Turkey. "We're good at putting on a show," boasts Estrin. "People don't go out to see people who look like them. They want to see something special. I was schooled in this business to be a showman, and that's what you get when you come to see us."
With their CD Nine Lives and continued non-stop touring, the band, like their music, remains in constant motion, attracting new fans across the country and around the world. "The blues needs converts," noted The Village Voice, "and Little Charlie & The Nightcats make a few new believers every night." The Chicago Sun-Times declares, "It's tough for fans to stay in their seats when Estrin and Baty and their musical cohorts get cooking." Indeed, these cats jump, prowl and always come to play.