The Heart of Texas Rock and Blues
Words: Todd K Smith
“Almost everything I’ve ever done was never on purpose.” John Nitzinger
Before Ted Nugent moved to Texas to join the Bush campaign and reduce the varmint population, his counterpart John Nitzinger was blazing the trail of what has now been dubbed “Texas Rock and Blues.” Thin and wiry, with oversized glasses and a persuasion for old school blues, psychedelic meandering and brass-knuckled hard rock, the Fort Worth native has stirred up quite a legacy over the last 30 years. Critically acclaimed albums include the self-titled Nitzinger (’71), One Foot in History (’72) and Live Better Electrically (’73) all under the musician prestigious last name. A five-record writing partnership with FM boogiemen Bloodrock led to a gold disc award from Capitol records while his session work included whirlwind side projects, world tours and collaborations with ELP’s Carl Palmer, Alice Cooper and Texas guitar-slinger Bugs Henderson. Recently though, it’s been a fight. Eight years ago John was struck down with squamous-cell throat cancer, two years later - a debilitating stroke and then complications that led to pneumonia.
His health crisis was nearly fatal and many consider his recovery a miracle. John credits ten-years of sobriety, determination and his faith in a God for his amazing comeback. “My higher power didn’t save me from the ocean to drown in the bathtub,” he laughs in our recent conversation. We contacted John to get a retrospective look at his long, productive career. What we found was a man in good spirits, excited about life and eager to talk about his view of current music - but most of all his love for his new project, a summer workshop for kids called The Nitzinger’s Music Factory. “There is a superstar in every child,” he tells us. “My music factory will strive to set free the superstar in each child.” John teaches kids 8-18 (years old) the basic elements of songwriting, production and stagecraft. He hosts three to four classes a day and claims some of the songs “send chills down my neck.” One student wrote a song that actually made it on Nitzinger’s latest CD Kiss of the Mudman.
“I always give the kids homework,” says Nitzinger in his southern drawl, “and one student, she brings in a song for a MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) demonstration. She’s got half of it and I go home and dream the other half an aggressive riff that fits perfectly.” The song ‘Sarah’s Letter’ (co-written by Sarah Sutton) is about a girl killed by a drunk driver. There’s a dialog between the child, her parents and the drunk - Nitzinger plays the drunk. Another student, 14-year violinist Channing Hooper and 8-year old singer Ava Worm also contribute to the song’s skillful arrangement. Kiss if the Mudman attempts to pick up where Nitzinger left off pre-cancer with Deep Purple meets Grand Funk Railroad guitar hooks, yet it can’t shake the darker shadows of human experience. Pieces of Alice Cooper stain the devil’s dialog in “The Devil’s got the Blues.” Spousal abuse is addressed in the Beatlesque overtones of “Again, Again” and the ballad “You’d Bitch at a Cloud.” Suicide mars “The Long Sleep” with “Bad Day” and “The Beast” dealing directly with the composer’s cancer battle.
We talk briefly about how this record reflects his maturing singing style. Says John “Back in the day I was so young and dumb. I was trying to write and sing songs two octaves out of my range. With a little help from nature I was able to get that high but when I hear it now that whining voice coming in, I hate that.” Nitzinger’s blues record Didja Miss Me (’97) got him more comfortable in his natural range setting the stage for his more gritty approach. He adds up the years of experience from his first overdose on mescaline in the late ‘60s, through his big stage years to his current soul-searching. “I started eight years ago to record an album about my life. Just about that time they told me I had throat cancer. I underwent radical neck surgery and still can’t pick up my right arm sideways. But I can beat on the guitar just fine. Then I had the stroke where I couldn’t walk or talk. It took a year to recover. When I finally finished the album I had all these stories, the whole trip using songs that talk about it. The best material is the stuff that comes from your soul.”
A few years ago Akarma, an Italian record label contacted John about putting together a 3CD box set. They researched extensively his Capitol / 20th Century years, added several bonus tracks including songs from the ultra rare Thunder LP (’72) with liner notes by Nitzinger himself. It featured several of his finest moments including “L.A. Texas Boy,” “Louisiana Cock Fight,” “Control,” “Yellow Dog” and stage favorite “Jellyroll Blues.” The beautiful designed compilation was the first retrospective piece on the guitarist. “Some of the songs go way back,” says John. “Some wasn’t even me singing, but I was on bass, and guitar…and wrote the song. It sold like hot pancakes and that was real satisfying. I got a lot of real cool stuff I’d like the world to hear. I’ve got a couple unreleased records including one with Jim Rutledge (Bloodrock) and an orchestra; another called “Fingers in the Fan.” The later ones I recorded myself and put them out independently, sold them out of my car trunk and at gigs - but I’m most proud of the new Mudman CD. It has the fire of Live Better Electrically in songs like ‘Rock Your Block Off,’ ‘Revenge” and ‘The Beast’.”
Nitzinger optimism is infections. Honored by his peers and home state as a member of the Texas Tornadoes Hall of Fame his star get brighter as his legacy grows. “Since starting out at The Cellar with Bugs, Linda and Curly I knew music was what I wanted to do. It’s been good to me even when it’s unplanned. Almost everything I’ve ever done was never on purpose. My Capitol deal was because of Bloodrock, the Mar-Y-Sol show in Puerto Rico introduced me to Alice Cooper and Carl Palmer both I later recorded with. Alice I was with for three years, played on Zipper Catches Skin and did two world tours. I loved that weird shit, but it was all about cocaine with Alice then. My record deal with 20th Century was because I was sitting by the phone at the right time. I’m lucky to have so many dedicated fans that still remember and seek out my records. It’s strange that people I don’t even know can have such affection for me.”
For more information on John Nitzinger visit his website linked below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Most of his records are available through him directly; cost is $25 each and includes an autograph and shipping. T-Shirts are also available. Those interested in seeing Nitzinger live can join the guitarist at his upcoming birthday bash Sunday August 19th, 2007 from 4-8PM at McDavids Hall inside Bass Hall Fort Worth, TX. For more information click here.