You really have to love a guy who smiles as much as Charly Baty does as he snakes his way across the stage, spurring his jump blues band, Little Charly and the Nightcats, through wild stylistic changes.
Pulling jazz lines out of a Gibson ES-295 in the middle of one tune, then doing out-of-phase Texas blues licks with a Strat in quick succession, only hints at the versatility of this well-rounded guitarist.
“Yeah, I enjoy all kinds of guitar music,” Baty said. “Although I really spend most of my off time listening to jazz. I’ve played those old blues records so many times I literally have thousands of them memorized. And now, I guess, not only do I enjoy some of the old great jazz artists, but they definitely have inspired and influenced my playing.”
Baty got his first instrument (a department store guitar) when he was 12, along with the ever-familiar Mel Bay book.
“Actually, I really just couldn’t get very far with it, you know. I fooled around for awhile, and then I was attracted to harmonica – blues harp – and I pretty much stuck with that during my teens.”
At age 19, he moved to Berkeley, California, and went to work on a degree in mathematics. Originally from Birmingham, Alabama, he’d spent most of his childhood in California, and about the time he started on his B.A., he ran into the recordings of Charlie Christian.
“Well, that stuff really turned me around. To this day, I love Charlie’s music, and I started wanting to learn chords and constructed parts and this led me back into the guitar. I was listening to a lot of the blues groups out there and gigging where I could, and in the fairly early ’70s I ran into Rick Estrin (ace harpist who had submitted his dues living in Chicago and working the Southside blues joints), and we started playing together, and it’s been about 20 years now.”
Little Charly and the Nightcats is a great live band – it has something for everybody. For all you gone cats who like to just stand there and gawk at superlative guitar mastery, Baty is your man. Always right at the edge and sometimes straight over the top, he wrangles more voicings and turnarounds out of the standard I-IV-V changes than most musicians get out of any repertoire, and his tone simply smokes with a dead-on righteous attack, whether he’s creaming thick chords down a cascading wall of distortion or backing off the volume and caressing sweet little harmonics out of the upper register. And the band is great example of Zoot suits done by the book, with the neat pleat and complete seat of lost era-styling that makes Estrin look positively wily fronting the quartet of fashionable gents. Together, they’ve scored several W.C. Handy awards on the strength of their playing and Estrin’s catchy, memorable lyrics.
Baty says that usually, equipment picks and players from the past are the most useful to him, and he prefers practicing at home on an old Epiphone Triumph.
“Yeah, it’s a nice blond one. Very fine condition, and I’ve been careful not to mar it or put any extra holes in it, so I fitted it out with one of those pickups built into the pickguard (a Joe Pass model), although I usually play it unamplified, anyway. I also have a nice Super 400 that sounds just great and I gotta tell ya’, I really love the necks on those big old archtops. In fact, I had John English at the Fender Custom Shop make me up a one-of-a-kind Tele, or at least it’s a Telecaster of sorts.
You know, it’s a thinline, hollow, with a quilted maple top, just gorgeous. But then it’s fitted with soap-bars, and it has the neck diameter of a Gibson ES-350. You could call it my signature model; it has ‘Charly’ inlaid on the fingerboard.”
For the sake of practicality, Baty has a number of new guitars and a few reissue Strats.
“Yeah. I mean [professional musicians] essentially all feel the same way. You hate to go on the road and take your favorite pre-CBS with you and have it stolen or damaged while you’re doing a gig 10,000 miles from home. I have a seafoam green Strat, and another one, a ’57, that was pretty obviously owned by a lefty. I mean, it’s a right-handed guitar, but you can tell quite clearly from the fret wear, the pick marks down across the body, and the entire way that the finish has been rubbed off in spots, that it was worked pretty good by a lefty for a long time. So it plays differently, to my mind. But I love that guitar, so I’d hate to lose it, and I prefer taking a few nice newer ones with me, which are replaceable.
“Same thing with amps, although you don’t worry as much about nicks and scratches with those,” he adds, saying again how he prefers the older stuff. “Yes, I have a few Fender Supers, and a couple of Vibroverbs, a few have a 15″ [speaker], and a couple are set up with two 12s, and I have a brown Vibrosonic with a 15.”
And speaking of weird gigs far from home.
“Well, we were booked in Australia, and we played a job way out in the outback, place was called Garra Dunga,” Baty recalls. “So, you know, we pile into this van, and I’m telling you, we’re going farther and farther into all these miles of sugar cane fields, just a deep-rutted dirt road, bouncing around with the cane so high you couldn’t see but 10 feet in front of you, taking forever, and it’s like 100 degrees out there.
“So we finally get to this warehouse set up in the middle of nowhere, and this is Garra Dunga, just a big, empty shell fixed up for the band, and we’re playing in the middle of this joint and they have a bonfire going inside and it is just sweltering and gnats and mosquitoes are divebombing us during our set and you can’t go outside because there’s crocodiles wandering around out there and it’s already way more than nuts.
“Then, some girl belts another girl over the head with a beer bottle and the fighting starts! We’re just sweating bullets, trying to play through this melee, and this was one strange booking! My guitar was so soaked from sweat and humidity and whatever all else in there that it swelled and took weeks to dry out! So who wants to bring a rare collectible to those situations?”
Again, it’s important to keep in mind just how powerful Charly’s playing is, and the way it affects listeners. That’s where the variety really kicks in, and helps the band go over in a wide range of venues. In the last year, I’ve seen Little Charly and The Nightcats bring the entire audience to its feet at Buddy Guy’s Legends, (which still has a serious blues cutting gunslinger feel to it), along with the same results at Fitzgerald’s and Shades, two popular Chicago suburb night spots known for more eclectic entertainment, and also on a sold-to-capacity blues cruise in the Caribbean.
And, it’s always the same, it happens in the middle of one of Charly’s Surf-guitar-from-Mars-meets-Flamenco-master-bebop-artist solos! In terms of theory, arrangement and composition, Baty goes way beyond the average blues guitarist who knows a few jazz chords.
“I’d say my main sources of inspiration are Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker. It’s all there. I always tell young players, ‘Learn lots of changes, get your fundamentals and your theory down, get as much playing experience as you can, and keep listening to that good old music.’
“And it’s not that there aren’t great artists today – there are! But the music, especially the blues, that came out of Chicago and elsewhere during the early ’50s and a while after, I mean it was exciting and you can still hear that. Those guys were on to something new, reworking acoustic Delta blues with electric guitars and amps, they were hot. You know, listen to Robert Jr. Lockwood if you want to understand how to back a harp player, check out Jimmy Rogers. Now obviously, if you were to back Jazz Gillum, you’d play differently than if you were working behind Little Walter, but there is so much to learn and to hear from those early players.
“By the way,” Charly reminds us, “I have a little list of guitars I’m still looking for. I’d love a nice late-’30s L-5 Premier, and I also have my heart set on finding an old ES-250. I’ve worked up a little jazz number on our latest release, the CD is called Straight Up, and the tune is entitled Gerontology. What’s cool is that it’s getting a lot of play on jazz radio stations and jazz programs, and Bruce Iglauer (head of Alligator Records) has given me the green flag to crank out a really unusual release for his label. It’s gonna be a straight-ahead jazz recording, so watch for that one!”
The Nightcats’ disks are all a lot of fun and full of hot chops, but like a few other exceptionally dynamic guitarists, Baty might best be heard in a live situation. He definitely feeds off of audience reaction and is very sensitive to the response he gets and shifts gears accordingly. Therefore, songs change length and solos vary, which is typical and all the more reason to put Charly Baty on your calendar of must-sees! It’s great to watch a musician just loving his guitar every second he’s playing it; it makes you feel good all over.
Charly Baty cuts loose at the Bayfront Blues Festival, Duluth, Minnesota, August, 1996. Photo: Ward Meeker.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jun. ’97 issue.