Through the course of almost 20 years on Alligator Records, Charlie Baty of Little Charlie and the Nightcats has proven himself to be a one of his generation’s best blues and swing guitarists. That legacy continues on the latest Nightcats record, Nine Lives. So, what’s Charlie practicing these days?
“I’m really into accordion music,” he said. “I’ve been trying to convert accordion stuff to guitar. They spell out chords like we do, so…”
As a result, Baty says polka does enter the equation, in case you’re wondering. But he also points to the use of the instrument in jazz and Western swing.
But if you’re thinking there may be lots of oompah influence on the new Nightcats album, you’d be wrong. There’s lots of what you’d expect: R&B, swing, old-fashioned ’50s-style rock, and even a little bit of surf music (on the cut “Slap Happy”).
“Yeah, it’s funny, because growing, up I hated surf music!” Baty said. “But, irony of all ironies, I’m a big proponent of it now.” With a laugh, he adds, “It’s kind of that combination of reverb and hillbilly abandon and rock and roll. I guess what it amounts to is it’s just the way I play rock and roll.”
The record has the usual great songs written by singer/harp player Rick Estrin.
“Working with Rick is great, ’cause a lot of blues bands do covers or write songs that sound almost exactly like a blues classic, with a small change here or there. Rick doesn’t do that. He just tries to keep the tradition alive. It’s always a challenge, trying to find the best way of doing a song.”
The record presented other challenges, too.
“One of the first problems we ran into is that we still wanted to go analog, and there’s no more analog tape left in America! The supply houses are out. We managed to scrounge enough up to do the project, so that made things a little nervewracking.” The album’s full sound testifies to the quality of the tape. Charlie also points to engineering by Jerry Hall as another reason for the great sound. “He started out as a Motown guy back in the ’70s, and he prefers the older equipment, like we do. He’s done the last couple records, and I really like the sound.”
It might surprise some to find out that the Nightcats are the only band Charlie has ever played in. And he didn’t start out as a guitarist, but a harp player.
“I started learning guitar to show people how to accompany me. That helped me learn how to accompany Rick.”
Baty grew into the guitar by listening to different kinds of music – and by attrition. “The band started with two guitar players, but because of economics, we became a four-piece. When you get thrown into the fire trying to keep everything going, and you’re not that good, anyway… I was fortunate we didn’t have that many gigs (laughs)!”
It was the “big-ear concept” that helped Baty grow as a player. “The more I listened, whether it was vocal group stuff, swing, Western swing, rockabilly, bop, the more I tried to stick all that stuff in the band.” He never took any lessons, but did pick up lots of books and taught himself to read music. “I tried to learn different chords and inversions to help the band sound better. I always thought the guitar should take the place of the piano.”
His early influences remain his main ones to this day.
“I used to try to learn Charlie Christian runs on the harmonica. He’s probably still my main guy. Kenny Burrell is one, too. So bluesy… but he was playing so much more than the regular blues guys. When Duke Robillard came along, I was blown away by the different styles he could play, and how well he could play them. Then I really got into Charlie Parker and all the be-bop guys, on any instrument.”
Baty’s favorite guitars are Gibson hollowbodies, but he has been using a Strat more in recent years.
“The song really dictates it,” he said. “The Strat just sounds better on some of the rockier stuff.” He uses various guitars in the studio, including a Gibson ES-150, a reissue ES-295, and a Gibson L-5. His Strat of choice is a ’65. Also in his future is a guitar from Heritage. “I just signed a contract and they’re making one for me. I’m really looking forward to that.”
Onstage, Baty usually has a couple of Strats and an ES-295 or ES-175. And as far as amps go, “I’ve always liked the Fender Super Reverb. There’s a company now that’s making their own version of that amp – Vero, out of Joliet, Illinois. I like their Chicago Zephyr. It looks like some kind of Biblical treasure.” With a laugh he adds, “It’s all gold and glows.” He’s also fond of Vero’s 20th Century Limited, but says he tends to play pretty much anything in the studio.
The Nightcats will soon have a website (littlelecharlie.net) that will include an equipment section to let fans look at everything they use.
As any fan of the band knows, Charlie’s got chops to burn. How does he keep them up?
“You’ve gotta be immersed in music. You never get to the point where you think you know it all.”
Baty stays immersed by playing, including with friends when the band is not on the road. And like most of us, he has guitars lying around the house everywhere. As for his current listening and learning, “I have no avenue for polka music in the band. But, every time you learn any new music, it makes you appreciate everything else you’ve done.” With a chuckle he adds, “But it does clutter up your brain.”
Photo coutesy Alligator Records.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.