Unduly Under-heralded 60s Blues Pioneer

Guitarist, Singer, Songwriter, Producer

No blues singer comes up the same. A lot of the black guys were born on a plantation, and they made a diddley bow up against the wall and slid a bottle along. That's the Mississippi experience. Mine was totally different.

"The Greek"

I was born in Chicago in nineteen and forty-one,
I was born in Chicago in nineteen and forty-one,
Well, my father told me,
"Son, you had better get a gun."

Like Barry Goldberg, Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield, fellow blues musicians, that played his songs or jammed with Nick Gravenites at one time or other, he too was born in Chicago, Illinois; And like the Blues Hall of Fame song he wrote above, it was in Chicago, but in 1938 -- rather than the rhyme with 'gun' 1941. Unlike those last two, he has survived along with Goldberg (and played with him recently) -- as of this writing. If you are blessed to live in the San Francisco, California area, you can hear him play locally.

Greek Yogurt Candy

He was the son of first generation Greek immigrants, who named him Nicholas George Gravenites. The father's name was George Nicholas Grevenitis, (or alternately, Greveniti), named for the Northern Greek town of infamy from where they came, Grevena, where the Turks massacred many of the populace. He recalls how his family, like so many others, had to flee finally finding their way to the remote mountainous region of the Peloponnese's in the province of Arcadia to live in a deep cave. George had preceded his mother to America, inviting Nick's mother to join him as he was having a burgeoning success in the candy business -- eventually making candy and selling it in his own South side store called Candyland. Gravenites in his forthcoming book Bad Talking Bluesman: Nick Gravenites, My Life In The Blues by him and Andrew M. Robble, introduces us to the flavor of his early upbringing: that as a bluesman he kind of felt guilty he went against type:

I was born in the year 1938 on Thirty-Fifth Street in the Brighton Park area near Mayor Dick Daley's neighborhood of Bridgeport. It was, what I now call, a white ghetto. The ethnic mix of the neighborhood was German, Irish, Polish, Hungarian and Greek. We was honkies. While growing up there, I never met a Jew and the only black skinned person I saw around was the swamper "Smiley" who mopped the floor every morning at my family's confectionery. I know in the traditional blues story, the bluesman's family were blacks from the South, sharecroppers whose parents were probably slaves, and their first musical instrument was inner-tube strips nailed to the barn door.

His second generation story sounds familiar, the old world customs and superstitions (like home remedy blood-letting) became onerous and made the streets tempting. Being part of the "Silent Generation" his memories are unique:

I was seven years old when the second world war ended, but I still remember the ration books needed to buy food with. We made our own soap in the basement, we made our own wine, we slaughtered sheep and hung them on the basement ceiling beams to drain of blood and made sausages with the intestines, we canned peaches and pears, we made and bottled Greek "white lightning," we had a film darkroom down there. Talk about a busy place!

Bad Boys Whatcha Gonna Do When They Come for You?

He was only eleven when his father died, and he not only had to endure that, but the traditional over-the top metaloyias mourning of his mother. It was at this time he worked behind the counter in the store where he was less the one looking at the American customers as outsiders, coming in for the ice cream, sodas and jukebox, but instead like he was actually more like them. By the time he was 13, the peers he hung out with on the block were middle class at best, and most of them so poor they did not have running hot water. Extra money was to be found illegally, and their role models were Chicago's worst. He admitted to being part of violence and thievery with his juvenile delinquent hoodlum friends and which continually escalated.

When his mother finally had time, when not working, to deal with his smoking and tattoo, she would kick him brutally, while he toughed it out. "Are you through? Have you hurt your foot yet?" (Who knows what she would have done if only she had known what he was really up -- or down to?) In 1951, she sent the chunky acne oppressed youth to Saint John's Military Academy, or Delafield Wisconsin's "West Point of the West." When he hunkered down enough to please everyone academically enough to escape with weekend leave -- this one step up from reform school, he also learned was to keep his wild side hidden from mama.

Well, my first friend went down when I was seventeen years old,
Oh, my first friend went down when I was seventeen years old,
Well, there's one thing I could say about that boy, "He gotta go!"

While in school he endured hazing, participated in sports, attended chapel, and of course, drilled, marching in formation, losing quite a bit of his fat (not to worry, he has gotten more than enough back). Even taking up poetry while back at school, he continued his thuggery during summer breaks but now he did not just escalate to stealing liquor. He admitted to:

... dropping reds, whites and yellows, smoking reefers, driving around at night listening to the radio, but my mother found me summer jobs through her relatives which kept me away from any serious trouble. I was seventeen years old when a member of the gang was shot to death while trying to stick-up a tavern. His experience didn't change me. I understood nothing.
He admitted he was too full of rage and repression and its isolation to take time to feel any real kind of love.
Work me Lord, work me Lord.
Please don't you leave me,
I feel so useless down here
With no one to love,
Though I've looked everywhere,
And I can't find me anybody to love,
To feel my care.

Oh please, please, oh don't you go and
Forget me down here, don't forget me, Lord.
I think that maybe you can ease me,
Maybe I can help you, said... uh whoa,
Oh please, please, don't you go and leave me Lord...
--Sung by Janis Joplin, written by Nick Gravenites

From High to High School to Higher Education

Groovin's so easy, baby, if you know how.
You don't have to keep yourself forever, baby,
Go out and chase whatever you're cravin',
It doesn't have to be,
No, no, it doesn't have to be,
So hard on you.
--Electric Flag, Nick Gravenites

Gravenites strangest but not most nonsensical confession is how this bad ass behavior led him to the blues scene. It did lead to his expulsion from St. John's, just short of graduating. He managed to enroll at the loop area's Central Day Y.M.C.A. high school, and his fate or destiny, or whatever you want to call it, found a catalyst in his English teacher who foresaw his talent. This "vivacious red-head," with higher education connections, also arranged for him to take the University of Chicago admissions exam; which he passed and which counted for High School credits.

While at the University in 1956, although surrounded by the white abandoned neighborhoods of Hyde Park and its blues clubs, and in 1956 at the University's Rockefeller Chapel Martin Luther King spoke; furthermore it was one of the more progressive campuses, but he still was not yet involved in the black culture.

Beatings to Beatniks

At school, while a Phi Kappa Psi frat boy, he also belonged to the largest campus organization, The University of Chicago Folklore Society where he became part of...
...folk music fanatics, banjo players, guitar pickers, mandolin players, dulcimer, autoharp, harmonica players. They held affairs called Wing Dings and Hootenannies, giant group sing-a-longs, and they exchanged the latest records of Carlos Montoya, Leadbelly, Lightnin' Hopkins, Josh White, Harry Belafonte, Big Bill Broonzy, The Carter Family.

This new endeavor had one important result, he became acquainted with Paul Butterfield, just beginning to try harmonica at one the hootenannies, and guitarist Michael Bloomfield in a music shop specializing in folk, the Fret Shop. The 16 year-old Bloomfield's connection with the University was not as a student, or even that his mother worked there, but hanging with the Folk Society. The more naive Bloomfield, kiddingly called "Jive Paul," took the brunt of the the street smarts Gravenites' pranks, but was prevented from getting stoned with him and his fraternity friend, "Goon". The irony was this straight kid would later be a more serious addict than them later on.

Me and Brownie McGhee

At that same Rockefeller Chapel where King spoke, Gravenites would enjoy classical music, while he began learning the finger picking style that was obligatory for folk musicians at that time. Though he left home, and stayed here and there, he found time to play duos with Butterfield that emulated blues harpist Sonny Terry and guitarist Brownie McGhee. He not only was listening and learning by that blues duet's records, but also tried Ramon Montoya's Flamenco style while he attempted ballads recalling the Spanish Civil War or the Boer War. His inspiration came from a wide variety that included cowboy campfire ditties, Appalachian  bluegrass and gospel music, while his jazz interests numbered Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Shirley Scott, as well as others. He remembers his foray into performing:
My academic life was practically non-existent. I was burning the candle at both ends with endless partying, and I hadn't even started getting into the southside blues culture. That all changed when I met John Reiland and he took a group of us to the 708 Club, the club where Bo Diddley lived near and played at. My first live club blues experience was a Battle of the Bands, Little Jr. Parker's band versus the Otis Rush band with Louis Meyers. We were seated at a large round table in a high-backed booth directly facing the stage. When the bands started playing, alternating sets, my ears hurt so bad my brain went numb. It was the loudest music I had ever heard in my life, and after two sets, I was glad to get out of there.

Join the Clubs

Well, my second friend went down when I was twenty one years of age,
Well, my second friend went down when I was twenty one years of age,
Well, there's one thing I could say about that boy, "He gotta pray!"

Gravenites turned 21 in 1959, and was due his father's estate. Gravenites actually did know the guy that put his name on Frader's Juke Box Lounge, the blues club he hung at, and wound up going to prison for shooting a musician. He then frequented Pepper's Lounge where he could watch Muddy Waters in awe. He remembers how Muddy took charge of the place in more ways than one, and how it had the funkiest bathroom in the world, even by the grungy norm of those type of juke joints. His street education and rough bar scene prepared him for the equally brutally competitive and corrupt world of the music business.

Time For My Bootheels to be Wanderin'

On the Road by Jack Kerouac was the finishing touch on the wannabe beat 21 year-old Gravenites, so they drove that summer of 1959 with his friend Ben (he had the car) to San Francisco. He became acquainted with folk songwriter, Hamilton Camp, and picked up his song, "Pride of Man" for himself and others later. After hanging out at coffeehouses there, he then traveled around the country playing in them. His Jewish friends got him a job at a summer camp in Boston, Massachusetts, where he was inspired to bring back to Chicago what he was amazed to hear from a group called the Green Men, who played rock and roll. He saw John Lee Hooker in Boston, and later in interviews observed that the blacks' blues tastes in the East coast were more of the big band variety, not the plantation derived blues, or even the amplified Chicago style. Graventites introduced himself as from Chicago to Hooker after a show, and the elder statesmen told him about his first time coming to Chi-Town invited from Detroit by Little Walter, at one time more famous than Muddy Waters.


His connection to Janis Joplin started in 1962 at the Coffee Gallery on Grant Avenue in North Beach. Though he would write some songs for Janis, more importantly he married her clothing designer friend Linda McClean, done beatnik style. That same year, while Nick was staying in Inverness, California, he learned that Goon, who on the positive side was trying to finish his college education, but on the not so good, paid for it from armed robbery, was shot and killed. The real trouble began when he went back to the Windy city to confront people. Somehow he, who was going to be a new father, and Paul were arrested with drugs in the main witness' car; Fortunately Butterfield's lawyer father got the "right" police testimony with counter offers to the others' side. He would comment later that there was an unfair racial element to it, that even with money, if they had not been white, the outcome would have been less favorable. This was yet another tragedy that made his songwriting evocative of real gut wrenching pathos.

Around the same time the beatnik Gravenites was traveling back and forth between Chicago and San Francisco, Paul Butterfield visited his girlfriend Ruth's family in Los Angeles, and thus was more convenient to come see Nick in the Bay area. At a gig at a The Cabal coffeehouse in Berkeley they were united musically, but more importantly for Paul as he had received the attention of Elektra Record's Paul Rothchild, a New York folk music expert. Rothchild, who would make his fame with the Doors, invited Butterfield to record, and the producer kindly told Paul to come anytime he was ready after the harmonica player admitted to not having a band.

To Quit or Not to Quit One's Dayjob

Elvin Bishop had came from California to attend Chicago University in 1959, where Fate would put Bishop together with Bloomfield and Butterfield taking in the blues music, and eventually helping James Cotton and Boy Arnold in session. A year later when Gravenites returned to Chicago, and securing steel work for a day job, he found Paul, his roommate, had been better suited to fit into the Chicago blues scene because of his temperament and improvisational talent. In 1963, because Michael Bloomfield, who already played at Big John's (and turned it into a blues bar) band quit, Elvin Bishop and Paul Butterfield were prompted by Paul Rothchild to play together there. Thus, they formed the beginnings of the Paul Butterfield Blues band by adding Howlin' Wolf's drummer, Sam Lay (at 78 still jams with Nick today) and his bassist, Jerome Arnold (now 77 and name changed to Julio Finn). Bloomfield had also been accepted into the blues culture by having his own club, The Fickle Pickle, and jammed as a virtuoso with many of the greats.

Those black superstars of blues did not pay as well as their white counterparts, making it easy for Lay and Arnold to jump ship making bi-racial history as well. Arnold had enough money from working not just at the Chicago Housing Authority, but owned a restaurant, the Bear, and his own highly lauded folk club, the Gate of Horn. Gravenites played enough at Big John's to quit the steel mill, while Big John's would be a musical home away from home for others such as Steve Miller, Barry Goldberg, Charlie Musselwhite, Harvey Mandel, Boz Scaggs, Jim Schwall, and Corky Siegel. One thing that happened with these young musicians, they learned from the older masters that you had better learn how to play your instrument, unlike some other start-up rockers.

Blues with Hurt Feelings

Gravenites recalls when the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, now working with Albert Grossman, was invited to the 1964 (Gravenites meant 1965) Newport Folk Festival, and at this time was when Michael Bloomfield was added to the roster. (Grossman was the one who first started with partner George Wein in 1958 the Festival in Freebody Park, originally for baseball in 1897.) Some of his other musician friends were invited to come along, like Barry Goldberg, and Gravenites. Nick recalls an incident:
Alan Lomax Jr. gave Paul Butterfield's band a desultory and condescending introduction, almost apologizing to the audience for their presence at the festival, he introduced the question "Can a White Man Play The Blues?", and this so infuriated Albert Grossman that he confronted Lomax and they wound up punching it out, rolling around on the ground in the dust of the backstage area. Hey, it was good to see dirt under their fingernails.

And Gravenites got his chance to play at an afternoon blues workshop, as he was considered "a member of the Butterfield-Grossman entourage," before Dylan's turn came later. One must realize that just the year before, Dylan was considered not part of the dirty rock and roll scene, and was identified with the "topicality" purists. They were concerned with not stooping to crass commercialization; which was more grotesque to them than just the greasers in jeans. More significantly, it was the brouhaha the next day, with Dylan having those Chicago musicians become his electrified back-up, which horrified die hard folk fans.

Later Gravenites would learn from Paul that Grossman was not really taking care of him and Mike in New York in the studio, and elsewhere on the road, as Grossman concentrated more on the money makers, i.e. Bob Dylan. Gravenites' successful contribution would in 1965 when the Paul Butterfield Blues Band released their album on Elektra. The first thing one hears is his signature song recorded that year, "Born in Chicago." This cut would make itself known to the world again later in The Blues Brothers' 2000 movie soundtrack.

Blues Inferno

Meanwhile Jeff Spitz, who had recorded Gravenites with other musicians on an under-marketed album, joined him in their own jointly operated blues club, The Burning Bush. Here he was able to front his own group, the Chicago Folk Quintet, made up of Nick on guitar and vocals, helped on guitar by Bob Perry, and Gilbert Moses; Roger Wundershide performed duties on the drums, his bassist was Lou Hensley, who helped with songwriting with him and Gilbert Moses. Gravenites had to borrow Spitz's Fender Mustang electric guitar to be plugged-in for a change from his acoustic habit. From a guy that was around shootings and heavy drugs, it is kind of strange he tells this story:

One time between songs the guitar brushed up against the microphone stand and there was a big explosion and a blue flash that melted the strings off of the guitar. Luckily, I had the guitar hanging loosely from my neck with my hands not touching or I would have died from the electric shock.

I've been living with the nightmare of death by electric shock ever since. Being a singer keeps you close to the microphone and I've had a lot of shocks over the years, but nothing to compare to that one experience at the Bush. If running your fingers across steel strings gives you calluses on your tips, constant electrical shocks gave me calluses on my lips. Every time I get on a new stage and I look at the microphone I'm thinking, "is this the big one?" If I could, I'd have an expendable, tax deductible slave whose job it would be to touch the microphone while holding the guitar to see if it would kill. It's a crap shoot every time you get on stage.

Since his bunch were not quite ready, he gave a venue for a Muddy Waters' musician, James Cotton, and his new ensemble, to open the weekend before his own group. Gravenites admits the audience was not ready for the eclectic mix from their debut. His anecdote about Steve Miller is pertinent and worth relaying here:

I remember doing a show in Madison, Wisconsin, and on the same bill was Steve Miller and his New Music. When it was time for Steve's show, he came out on stage with three guitars, two tape recorders, and a microphone for his voice. He started up his tape recorders playing pre-recorded tracks and he picked up his guitar and started to play and sing, up there all by his lonesome. More of the "look." Steve Miller was doing a lot of experimental things with his music, doing a lot of wild things in the blues clubs, and he was getting complaints about the weirdness, he was being requested to stop playing that sh*t and get back to the blues. The griping finally got to him and he went back to his family home in Dallas to work things out in his father's studio. I called him in Dallas and told him that we were opening a new club in Chicago and if he wanted to play there, he was more than welcome to play any kind of music he wanted. Steve took me up on the offer and returned to Chicago and formed a new music group to play at the Burning Bush.

Down on Me

He had another encounter with Janis Joplin when she came to Chicago with Big Brother and the Holding Company looking to find a more receptive audience at the club Mother Blues. Gravenites first welcomed the group more as a guide and bodyguard as the mellow Californians were way out of their element on the streets of Chicago. Gravenites had previously known James Gurley during his forays to Frisco. This billing was set up by the Family Dog dance club owner Chet Holmes, who regularly featured Big Brother. Chet was in a losing ended competition with Bill Graham and his Fillmore Ballroom, furthermore San Francisco was not ready in 1965 for their blues approach, that was a bit different from the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Gravenites, when he saw them at their gig, saw a struggling and tired bunch:

They were living in cheap hotels, eating lousy food, Janis was sick and her voice was shot, the sound system was way overloaded, the guitars were too loud and slightly out of tune, their musical style was an amalgam of folk, blues, children's songs, and psychedelic tomfoolery. Their clothing was a mix of home-made bead work, Indian leather work and feathers. Janis was wearing a madras bed sheet dress, her hair was unkempt and ratty, and she stank of patchouli. Her voice, because of the bad sound system and her terrible cold, sounded like a chicken about to die.
These hippies (they were some of the first in even San Francisco) were not well received by either the folk or the blues crowd, though Graventites looking back, sensed their potential; especially the raw talent of Janis, who sang from deep within her soul.
He's a bad talkin' blues man,
A bad talkin' blues man,
He don't play music for infantile minds.
He's got funky rhythm, he's got mellow line.

He's a bad talkin' blues man,
A bad talkin' blues man,
He don't play rock n' roll, he gives it a lumps,
He don't make money rippin' off young chumps.

He's a bad talkin' blues man,
He's a bad talkin' blues man.
Put him on stage, he will raise the roof,
He will wiggle like a snake, he will howl like a wolf

Some bad politics and management would eventually spell the end to Chicago remaining a blues mecca in its heyday. Gravenites did not mention how Detroit's Mo-town sound and rock and roll had catalyzed that decline. After business partner Jeff Spitz subsequently divorced, remarried, and died on a motorcycle, Gravenites made the decision to move back to the Left Coast in 1965, ending his resident part of the Chicago blues story. He explains how his mixed bag style was part of emigrating:

It certainly wasn't Chicago blues; this was our music, our own expression, a mixture of blues, folk, flamenco, and jazz. We had other musicians show up to dig the band, and I saw a lot of slack-jawed gaping going on. Chicago didn't take easily to change, and I think that was the reason so many of my contemporary musicians left town for greener pastures. If the music wasn't straight blues or jazz or folk, people didn't cotton to it.
He had another important reason to make a new start as he later recalled his self-realization:
One wee morning at about a quarter to four I was stumbling down North Avenue, drunk and violently angry, a pistol in my belt and hate in my soul, looking for someone to take it out on when, for some reason, I saw myself for what I really was, a drunk, a thief, and a thug. The toughest thing in the world is to see yourself, and what I saw I didn't like at all. I made a decision to leave Chicago and go back to San Francisco and leave all my bad-luck blues behind.

The West is the Best

It was not hard coming back to the beauty that surrounds the San Francisco Bay area, that first enthralled him when he initially visited crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. This time it was not to rejoin the West Coast beatnik folk scene, that he had already departed from musically in Chi-town, but to bring his version of the blues to Frisco.

Sunday morning everybody’s in bed, I’m
On the street, I’m talking out of my head,
This dumb brick wall ain’t heard a word
That I’ve said,
I’m buried alive in the blues...

I’m buried alive, oh yeah, in the blues
I’m buried alive, somebody help me, in the blues

I beg for mercy, I pray for rain,
I can’t be the one to accept all this blame,
Something here’s trying to pollute my brain,
I’m buried alive in the blues.

Hoist the Colors, (They're flashing) Man!

In 1967 there was finally the big recording break when "Gravy", as Gravenites was sometimes known, hooked up with his old Chicago pals, Michael Bloomfield and keyboardist Barry Goldberg. Bloomfield had just left the Paul Butterfield Blues Band after they had finished their second album, East West, And along with Goldberg who had previously been working with Steve Miller they brought in Peter Strazza on tenor saxophone. With the addition of the formally session players Harvey Brooks, (who had worked on Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited with Mike) and Buddy Miles (Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett), they brought up the bottom and percussion. They secured on trumpet, Marcus Doubleday, (who did studio work for Bobby Vinton, the Drifters, and Jan and Dean, then obtained experienced journeyman Herbie Rich for baritone sax.

The Electric Flag's first work was a soundtrack for the Jack Nicholson screenplay directed by Roger Corman, psychedelic film project, the Trip that starred Peter Fonda, Susan Strasberg, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper. For this movie exploring the trials and tribulations of LSD, they were able to proceed no holds barred, musically. Their first live show was mid-June at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and if you replay the movie documentary over again thinking you missed them, gone, it was swept up off the cutting floor. That August they were the opening act before Cream at the Fillmore West.

Long Time Comin' to the Studio

For the Electric Flag's first album produced by John Court, they added Stemsy (Stemziel) Hunter on alto saxophone and Michael Fonfara on keyboards. Mixing jazz, big band, pop, blues, rock and psychedelia, they had a fusion sound before Chicago Transit Authority, Tower of Power, Weather Report, and Blood, Sweat, and Tears. The debut album, A Long Time Comin' made to number 31. Released in 1968, it continues to have mixed reviews, mostly less than exemplary, I happen to like Gravenites pleasant voice, which sometimes is one of the complaints: but he does not try to be what he is not. There are enough tracks, where the music is strong, even if lyrics are not Shakespeare's, to have something to please most anyone: some with more pure rhythm and blues, others a bit more avant garde. They are listed here. Like so many great artists, some fell to the temptations of self-medication, ego-tripping and add to that their lost leadership, especially when founder Bloomfield left. Buddy Miles remained and those with him managed to release the weaker, Electric Flag: An American Band where Nick sings on  "Nothing To Do"  "See To Your Neighbor" and "Hey, Little Girl." It did make it to number 71, however, the band did not -- dissolving in 1969.

He played at the Fillmore East and West with Al Kooper and Bloomfield and those recordings came out later in albums named for the venue, and again re-released in 2012. He does his "Born in Chicago," and a couple others he penned, "Wintry Country Side" and "Work Me Lord."

Me, Myself and I, and Friends

1969 was not the totally bad year as Gravenites as he was for a short time contracted to Capitol, and he and Bloomfield produced a Chicago blues guitarist, Otis Rush's Atlantic Records' Cotillion album, Mourning For The Morning, and another one 1971, (but held back until 1976), for Otis on Capitol, Right Place, Wrong Time. He helped produce A & M songwriters Brewer & Shipley's  big hit, "One Toke Over the Line," just before Tom Shipley and Michael Brewer headed back from L.A.to the quiet of Missouri. More importantly, Gravenites brought many of his associates into the studio for Nick's first solo album, (and only one on a major label), My Labors:


1. Killing My Love - 5:19
2. Gypsy Good Time - 4:30
3. Holy Moly - 3:55
4. Moon Tune - 8:55
5. My Labors - 2:55
6. Throw Your Dog A Bone - 2:57
7. As Good As You've Been To This World - 2:41
8. Wintry Countryside - 13:12
9. It Takes Time (Otis Rush) - 4:14
10.Blues On A Westside - 15:32
11.It's About Time - 7:02
(All Songs written by Nick Gravenites except Track 9.)


-- Michael Bloomfield - Lead Guitar
-- Mark Naftalin - Piano
-- Ira Kamin - Organ
-- John Kahn - Bass
-- Bob Jones - Drums
-- Dino Andino Conga
-- Noel Jewkis - Tenor Sax
-- Gerald Oshita - Baritone Sax
-- Snooky Flowers Baritone sax
-- John Wilmeth – Trumpet
-- Nick Gravenites – Vocals, Guitar

After that project he was ready to rejoin his brothers and sisters of Big Brother again since the original big sister, Janis, had reformed elsewhere in 1968. It was at this time he wrote many more songs, and helped vocals with Kathi McDonald on an album in 1970, Be a Brother and followed it the next year with How Hard It Is, and they toured a bit, finished in 1972. He later wrote "Hey, Didn't You Used To Be Somebody?" in honor of Janis Joplin dying. New Year's day, 1971, he reunited with Rothchild and Butterfield for Electra to finish Janis' last album at Bearsville. This was the  famous studio at Woodstock, NY, and founded by Albert Grossman where much of the sound engineering was done by a young Tod Rundgren. The Band also used this studio, now the last analog one.

Somewhere during this period he found time to help John Cipollina and Quicksilver Messenger Service get a release, where one can hear "Pride of Man", and formed a band that lasted in nano time, Blue Gravy and a Taj Mahal/Mike Bloomfield live album. He and Bloomfield did a soundtrack for the movie Steelyard Blues. Gravenites helped John Kahn produce the album "Not mellowed with Age" by Southern Comfort on Columbia, in 1970. There was a feeble attempt by Bloomfield at a 1974 reunion of the Electric Flag that never got hoisted, but resulted in the vinyl, The Band Kept Playing. For it Gravenites wrote "Earthquake Country," and co-wrote "Doctor Oh Doctor (Massive Infusion)" with Phil Mogg and Michael Schenker

Well, now rules are alright,
If there's someone left to play the game.
Well, now rules are alright,
If there's someone left to play the game.

All my friends are going,
And everything just don't seem the same.

Matey's in the Eighties

He  joined his guitarist friend from Quicksilver, John Cipollina he helped him on Nick's second release in 1980, Bluestar. On this project he had Pete Sears, who would become his regular pianist, and it featured Huey Lewis on harmonica.  Sears joined the Nick Gravenites-John Cipollina Band, and when on their European tour in 1983, they recorded their album Monkey Medicine in Hamburg Germany. 

The decade of the eighties brought more news of friends dying, 37 year-old Michael Bloomfield was found dead from an overdose in his car that February of 1981. Gravenites helped Cipollina again in a San Francisco project called "Thunder and Lightning" And while he was having a paid vacation of sorts, visiting the Old Country, in Rodon, Greece, and putting on a concert there, (recorded but not released until 1991), his old friend Paul Butterfield, 44, had either a fatal heart attack or a heroin overdose, as in different reports, in May, 1987. Not too long afterwards, he finished working with Cipollina, that guitarist friend died in May, in 1989: lifelong chronic emphysema catching him at only 45 years old. Their album had his original songs, “Funky News, Anna”, “Small Walk-in Box,” “Four Floors Or Forty,” and a kind of defiant “You Can’t Hurt Me No More.” Sears was back with Nick and his Animal Mind band and they played before one hundred thousand souls for Earth Day 1990 at Crissy Field, San Francisco.

I was the guy singing with that heavyweight chick,
She was twice fast, twice as quick.
She could lay a rock on any blues change,
And take your mind and rearrange it.

But things, oh don't always happen,
The way you want them to.
Still you have your dream,
But sometimes, the darkness comes pushin' through.

Oh, she died all alone down in a motel room,
Down in Hollywood.
Oh, I don't how other people took it,
But I'm still cryin', yeah, today.

Hey, didn't you used to be somebody?
Hey, didn't you used to be somebody?

And when she died, it was a terrible scene,
The fans deserted, the critics got mean.
Couldn't find a job, Lord, couldn't find a friend,
I'm down here spirlin', Lord, off the deep end.

I started drinkin', yes, and wound up on the skids,
My memory's faded like I never lived.
I keep bummin' for change, people look right past me,
And once in a while, some little kid would ask me.

Hey, didn't you used to be somebody?

Still Paying, Still Playing

I'm living in this right-hand world with my left-hand soul...

His Animal Mind band continued to play around the Bay area, and they released an album in 1996, Don't Feed the Animals, and another one, with Huey Lewis assisting on the mouth harp, Kill My Brain in 1999. He said in his "Bad Talkin' Bluesman," column in 1995 and 1996 Blues Revue, he would actually retire, but he still needs to pay the bills. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2003 for his biographical ditty, "Born in Chicago."

The next year he was part of the touring and recording Chicago Blues Reunion which was another homecoming for Barry Goldberg, Sam Lay, Harvey Mandel (previously with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and Canned Heat), singer Tracy Nelson of Mother Earth, and harmonica player Corky Siegel of the Siegel-Schwall Band.  They put out in 2005 a live CD and the two-disc CD/DVD set Buried Alive In The Blues, title song was written for Janis Joplin. He was a hit with his old buddy Barry Goldberg at the 2007 Monterey Pop festival with an Electric Flag reunion with Roy Blumenfeld on drums, John Beckwith on bass and the Tower of Power horns. (Buddy Miles, who was touring at the end of 2007, died in 2008 at 60). Alternating members kept this Reunion going on through the fall of 2009. He was there again at Grant Park, for the 27th annual Chicago Blues Festival, 2010, dedicated to Howlin' Wolf, however this time, without Tracy Nelson, it was with harpist Charlie Musselwhite and James Cotton, the latter of whom, helped with "Got My Mojo Workin'."

In 2013 the documentary, Born in Chicago was in theaters, to great joy of blues fans. Not only did it have all of the musicians mentioned earlier, it included vignettes by Marshall Chess of the record company, Keith Richard, Eric Burdon, and B.B. King. Fast forward to today, 2014, though he still plays, it is preferably in the local Bay area clubs.

He has one son from the first marriage, and another boy from his second and present wife Marcia, whom he lives with in Sonoma County, California.

Select Discography

A Long Time Comin', Electric Flag; (Columbia Records, 1968)
Electric Flag: An American Music Band, Electric Flag; (Columbia Records, 1968)
My Labors, (Columbia Records, 1969)
Steelyard Blues, soundtrack (Warner Brothers, 1972)
The Band Kept Playing, Electric Flag; (Atlantic Records, 1974)
Bluestar (Line Records, 1980/Renaissance Records, 2009)
Junkyard In Malibu (Line Records, 1981)
Monkey Medicine, Gravenites-Cipollina; (Line Records, 1982)
Live In Athens At The Rodon, Gravenites-Cipollina; (M.B.I., 1991)
Don't Feed The Animals, w/Animal Mind; (Taxim Records, 1996)
Kill My Brain, w/Animal Mind; (2 Burn 1 Records, 1999)
Buried Alive In The Blues (live, 2005)


http://www.bluespower.com/a-ngbtb.htm ("Bad Talkin' Bluesman,"  Blues Revue magazine; issues #18-26; July-August, 1995; through December-January 1996-7) -- excerpts from the forthcoming book Bad Talking Bluesman: Nick Gravenites, My Life In The Blues by Nick Gravenites and Andrew M. Robble.
ALittleHawk, who personally knew Paul Rothchild and Paul Butterfield, as well as many others of that time.

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