When the guitar player quits, most bands just plug in another one. But when he's been there for 30 years, is the guy the band's named after and can play virtually any style from jump blues to swing jazz, you have a serious problem.
"I needed somebody who could really fuck 'em up like Little Charlie," says Little Charlie and the Nightcats harpman Rick Estrin, who now heads the band. "Somebody that could just wreck a house like he could, and I got somebody like that."
Estrin's search yielded Chris "Kid" Andersen, who honed his musical skills as a teenager in his hometown of Telemark, Norway backing visiting blues legends before moving to California at age 20 and ending up in Charlie Mussselwhite's band.
"It's a little different style, he's got his own sound, but he has a knowledge of blues and jazz and swing and the things that we need," Estrin says of Andersen. "He's got that same excitement level that Little Charlie had."
Showmanship and excitement has always been a big part of the Nightcats' dynamic. Though the band bore his name, guitarist Charlie Baty wasn't the frontman. That has always been Estrin's job. The harpist is also the band's chief songwriter, cranking out wise-ass, double-entendre lyrics that harken back to the 1950s style of the Coasters.
Estrin looks like a '50s hipster with his pencil thin mustache, dark glasses and pompadour, frozen in time in the era he sings about. "I don't change much," Estrin says. "If you see a picture of me when I was 12 years old there's no mustache, but I look about the same. My hairline keeps ascending, but other than that, I evolve really slowly," he chuckles.
He plays a comic role, but Estrin is a serious harp player, tapped in 1970 by the king of the blues to join his court.
When he was 20, Estrin was living in Chicago when harpist Carey Bell, who was playing with Muddy Waters at the time, called Estrin saying he was leaving the band. If Estrin came down to the club, sat in and Waters dug him, the job was his.
The harpist went and sat ... and sat ... until the club closed at 4 am, when he confronted Waters. "He said, 'Oh yeah. I forgot. Come back tomorrow.' I know now what he was doin' was seeing how serous I was," Estrin says. When he returned the next night, Waters called him up, and Estrin played -- one tune. But that was enough.
"When he went on break he called me over to his table, beckoned me over with his fingers, and I can see it even today, the look, and he was shaking his finger at me and going, 'You playing like a man, boy!'" Estrin says, emulating Waters' Delta growl. "'You got that sound, boy! I know that sound when I hear it, that's my sound!'"
As unbelievable as it sounds, Estrin blew it off. "I was a pretty fun lovin' guy," Estrin says. What he calls "other priorities" led him back to his native San Francisco after Waters had told him not to leave town for three weeks. "I waited until it was exactly three weeks and he didn't call and I didn't have the balls to call him even though he had given me his phone number, and I just left town," Estrin says.
But he's not bitter about it. "The kinda nut I was back then, I don't think it would have been a good thing for me to have Muddy Waters co-signing how cool I thought I was, because I was a pretty wild person and it's possible I would have ended up dead or in the penitentiary," the harpist says. "Everything turned out for the best."
Estrin's return to California set up a run with Little Charlie that lasted three decades and still continues with him on special occasions. "We did a tour in Spain in June with Charlie and Chris Anderson," Estrin says. "We may do more stuff like that. Depends if somebody wants to pay the special event price."
Even without Little Charlie, the sound won't change much. Estrin, ranked as one of the top traditional harpists in the country, has shaped the band with his style and his lyrics. He intends to pass along style tips on a DVD later this year. "It's more how to not play like an asshole, cause it's not about licks," he says. "Playing is not like an Olympic event, man. A lot of people like listening to that, but I don't."