Wednesday, June 28, 2017

My Sweet Mother FIRED My Guitar Teacher

July 15, 2012 by  
Filed under Random Notes

The back of the neck on his guitar was bare wood.  His rough leathery hands had removed the finish over a period of years of wear and tear.   His hands were rough from whatever “day-job” he was working.  His name was Louis “Snowball” Nichols.  Like most Mississippi Delta bluesmen he possessed two things, a paying day job and a nick-name.  Louis Nichols went by “Snowball”, but I called him respectfully Mr. Nichols.  He was the best guitar player I knew when I was nine years old and he came to my home every Wednesday afternoon after I got home from school.  My mother was a piano teacher and I was used to seeing other children coming to our home for lessons, so it was natural for a teacher to be in the same living room teaching me.

The year was 1964 and the British Invasion had taken the US by storm.  All little boys wanted to play an instrument and the guitar was the “front man” instrument of choice.  I knew that the British artists were playing Rock & Roll.  I did not know, however, that their version of Rock & Roll was emulating the style of music that had its roots in the Mississippi Delta.  Artist like Muddy Waters from Issaquena County and Robert Johnson of Leflore County strongly influenced groups like The Rolling Stone, The Who, The Beatles and artist like Eric Clapton.  Little did I know that my early lessons were so deeply rooted in the roots of Rock & Roll which was rooted in the blues.

So Mr. Nichols would appear at my home on Wednesday afternoons.  I hate to say he fit the prototypical blues icon, but he did.  His early 1950s Buick had almost no paint.  It’s exterior was somewhere between flat black and rust.  It sputtered and spit when he shut it down as he arrived.  It sputtered worse when he started it up after each lesson.  I don’t know how many miles per gallon he could drive in his Buick, but he always asked my mother for a little extra change for gas money when he got paid at the end of each lesson.  My sweet mother always obliged.   Mr. Nichols also reeked of the smell of whiskey when he arrived.  This was certified 1960s blues and I got to witness it first hand!   Mr. Nichols was never famous, but he did perform regularly at popular Delta Juke Joints.  He also played for the elite country club crowd when he could get the gigs.  Recently Louis “Snowball” Nichols was featured in Delta Magazine as they featured The Highland Club on Lake Washington.

Louis Snowball Nichols

Teaching little boys guitar was certainly a core business for Mr. Nichols.  During the period in which I took lessons, he also taught Joe Dantone, my cousin Joe Sherman, my brother-in-law-to-be Mickey Peacock and Ken Turfitt.  Joe Dantone continues to play and compose music and is an extremely talented artist.

The first few songs I learned from Mr. Nichols were ALL authentic Delta Blues and his early influence continues to impact my playing style.  There was no printed music.  No music theory.  No polka-dots on sheets.  No dotted eight notes.  Mr. Nichols, like all of his blues counterparts, played by ear.  So he taught a crop of little boys across the track to play by ear, like him.

After several lessons he taught me something else.  At the end of a Wednesday afternoon lesson he told me a joke about four boys.  Forgive me but this is all true.  It goes like this.  He wrote out “S I I I I” on a small piece of paper.  He told a story about a snake and four boys.  The snake was the letter “S”.  When the boys saw the snake, they got scared.  The first two boys held hands. He drew a line between them forming the letter “H”.  The next boy put on his hat, forming the letter “I”  The last boy ran home.  That action created the letter “T” with a long cross piece.  He laughed. I laughed.  He laughed even more.  Unfortunately I had no idea what that word meant.  I only knew that Mr. Nichols thought it was real funny!

So what did I do next?  I told that simple story to my mother.  There was no laughing and she apparently redirected my attention to another activity.

As I prepared for my lesson the next week I had no idea why Mr. Nichols did not show up.  Then he did not show up the next week, or the week after that.  I eventually found out that there was a connection between that joke and my sweet mother firing Mr. Nichols.

Although my lessons with Mr. Nichols were few in number, I can honestly say I learned some valuable lessons.  I learned some early blues guitar licks from Louis “Snowball” Nichols, and I learned some life lessons from my sweet mother.

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Thanks to cousin Joe Sherman for providing the picture from Delta Magazine, July/August 2012.

See related story of Saturday sessions with blues legend Sam Chatmon.

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