It was one of those things we had planned on doing. It had been a while since we’d seen Johnny Nitro and The Door Slammers in North Beach. We knew he had been in ill health. I heard that he had collapsed onstage in December. He was back playing the next weekend. It wasn’t a big shock to learn he had passed away. We had seen him a few times in recent years, but not in North Beach. It wasn’t a simple walk down the hill anymore. Johnny Nitro has been called a North Beach institution. I have to admit I thought he was indestructible. It was hard to realize he was gone. We thought he would always be there in North Beach.
Many say Johnny Nitro was the King of the North Beach Blues scene. He mentored many budding Blues stars. Nitro loved the Blues, but he was more of a Rocker. He played his stinging guitar night after night, most of the time in North Beach.
Johnny Nitro was John Newman from Sacramento. He got the name Nitro because he mixed the explosive fuel for race cars at the track. Nitro could be a scary looking guy. His long red hair, beard and goatee made him look like a biker. He had a raspy smoker’s voice and the pale complexion of someone who works at night.
Despite his gruff looks, Nitro was an entertainer. He played the Blues, but his band, The Door Slammers, were a rocking party band. After years of playing clubs in North Beach he had developed a humorous and entertaining stage patter. He told jokes and talked to the audience between songs. Tourists from around the world discovered and rocked with Johnny Nitro.
Due to circumstances beyond our control we missed the tribute at The Saloon on March 20, but we did know about the memorial to be held at Redwood City’s Little Fox Theater. My wife Kathy got us a hotel room. We may have missed a last chance to see Nitro, but we weren’t going to miss this.
We’d been to Redwood City and seen The Little Fox Theater. It was next to The Fox, a movie theater that booked some musical acts. Both theaters had closed, but had recently reopened. The Little Fox had been renovated and had a new name, Club Fox. It’s a small club with great sound. It has an Old West feel to it. A balcony wraps around the stage giving great views of the stage. It could be the perfect club. The Little Fox has been hosting Blues jams on Wednesday nights.
We showed up a little late and there was a line to get in. The bouncers said they were “at capacity.” When someone would leave, we would be let in. I thought it unlikely people would be leaving this early, but small groups in line ahead of us were being allowed in. Apparently they had room. Maybe they were giving up on people on the guest list. We could see inside a little. We were willing to wait. People inside and out were reuniting with old North Beach friends. There were warm greetings and big hugs.
It was a great night out, the first real break in the recent winter weather. It was in the eighties, even at seven p.m. Later in the evening, some just sat outside in the plaza across the street and listened.
A woman who had been inside went up to a friend in line. “You’ll get in,” she said, “The dance floor isn’t even full.” Another convention staffer saw me in line. We had been talking about Nitro just before he passed. She was a regular at his shows at The Saloon.
She was there on “the last night.” She had also been at what would be his last gig the night before. “Everyone was surprised,” that he passed away. He had been looking good. Nitro had health problems, but he had given up drinking and smoking some time ago.
“It was strange. We heard sirens, but you hear sirens all the time in North Beach.” Then they realized the sirens were stopping at The Saloon, and the sirens weren’t coming from squad cars.
An article in the Chronicle told the strange North Beach tale. Nitro had been living in one of the rooms upstairs at The Saloon. Legend has it that long ago the rooms were used as a brothel. EMTs carried Nitro’s body out of The Saloon. Those in the bar gave Johnny Nitro his last round of applause. The band played “Lean on Me.” They finished the set, saying that that was what Johnny Nitro would have wanted.
While we waited Silvia Cicardini, The Bride of Nitro, was onstage blasting with some of the modern day Door Slammers. We were let in. Admission was five dollars! Early arrivals had staked out the tables along the dance floor and in the balcony. Silvia asked for a show of hands, “How many were in The Door Slammers?” Few hands go up. “How many played with Johnny Nitro?” More hands went up. “Who got lessons from Johnny?” More hands. “Who has seen Nitro more than five times?” Many hands throughout the crowd are raised. This call and response was repeated later in the night.
Silvia wore a top hat and a jacket with a bright, psychedelic Sixties print. She says that Johnny told her she had to be as flamboyant as possible onstage. The top hat had been a Johnny Nitro trademark. Part of her North Beach act was “walking the bar.” She would get up on the bar playing the sax and Rock it from end to end. It could be startling for anyone sitting at the bar who was not paying attention. “Walking the bar” would get a crowd going. They did “Trouble” from Nitro’s last recording.
One thing you wouldn’t see in the old days of North Beach: There were TV screens throughout the club. Sometimes they showed Johnny Nitro’s quizzical face. There were also ads on the screens for future shows and how to get tickets. The screens around the club weren’t that distracting, but they did have one right behind the stage. Another difference from the old days: People were taking pictures with their cell phones. Couldn’t blame them tonight. It was a special night that many wanted photos of.
They played “Try Me.” It was a James Brown tune that Silvia had arranged with Johnny Nitro. It was a little more than a month ago that Johnny had passed, but it still had to be tough for The Bride of Nitro. It was a romantic Rhythm and Blues ballad they had worked on and made their own.
It was time for another upbeat Rocker. Silvia yelled, like Nitro used to, “Somebody scream!” She had everyone yell “Nitro” up to the sky.
Jan Fanucchi comes onstage and does a couple of numbers with The Door Slammers. Musicians changed through the night. Some played early in the night, and came back onstage with other groups later. Shad Harris played keyboards with Fanucci. He would later play a “keytar.” Burton Winn, a modern day Door Slammer played bass for Silvia and Fanucchi.
Mari Mack is up next, and she says that Johnny Nitro was her first friend in San Francisco. That’s something you don’t forget. What will she miss the most about Johnny? “His mischievous smile.” Daniel Castro joined her onstage and they did “Cold, Cold Feeling.” Bruce played a great keyboard solo.
Mari starts the next number:
“Hey everybody, let’s have some fun!
You only live but once, and when you’re dead you’re done!
So let the good times roll!”
The song rings true tonight. There are a lot of smiling faces and partying for a memorial. It’s said several times through the night, and there’s no doubt, that’s the way Johnny Nitro would have wanted it. This was certainly his scene. There were times tonight that I expected him to walk in the door.
Kathy Tejcka played keyboards and organized the musicians that shuffled on and off the stage. She would read off the names of those who would be onstage next: “Tommy, Johnny and Perry. Please come to the stage.” She slipped once and called for “Mr. Hacker” but quickly corrected herself. She apologized to the crowd. It was a hard role for her, “I’m the creative type. It’s hard to organize and find musicians when you’re a musician yourself.”
She announced that there would be “a real memorial” in May at The Great American Music Hall. That was the last place we’d seen Johnny Nitro play at. It had been a benefit for The Blue Bear Music School. Nitro had been very involved with the school. Students played onstage that night. The Beat goes on!
Announcements were made for contributions to The Blue Bear Music School. Someone had donated a $500 check. “I hope that’s not the biggest we see.” It costs $2,500 to send a student through a year at the school. “If we don’t help, there will be no Blues musicians in the future.”
A tip jar circulated through the crowd, like in the old days. “That’s the only way The Door Slammers are going to get paid tonight.” A share of this split couldn’t amount to much. It was a labor of love tonight. There was a parade of former and present Door Slammers all night.
Steve Freund took the stage. He played in Chicago for years, but moved to the Bay Area. Freund said that Nitro had still been a Hippie at heart. He had still believed in the spirit of the Sixties. Nitro had a laid back attitude about money.
He did have some songwriting success. Albert Collins covered his song, “Dirty Dishes.” Nitro once toured with Albert King. Nitro didn’t tour much. He played in North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf and had the world come to him. A fellow Blues musician said that, “If the world was fair, Johnny Nitro would be famous.”
Freund said that Nitro was more of a Rocker than a Bluesman. They did talk about the Blues for hours. He played some rocking music for Nitro and then the song maybe best remembered as a Howling Wolf song, “Going Down Slow.” It was a chilling, appropriate song for tonight.
We were on the dance floor during Freund. It’s been a while since I jived with the hep cats. We used to go to the Blues bars on Grant Street often, when we lived in North Beach. There was a little scene going on there in the Eighties and Nineties. The Grant and Green and The Lost and Found were next to each other and sometimes they would alternate sets. The Saloon was just down the street.
The bars looked rough. Some would call them dives. There was hard drinking going on, but there was still a bit of the Sixties camaraderie. The musicians and fans were dedicated to preserving the Blues. Some of the early musicians of the Bay Area Sixties explosion still played an occasional gig in North Beach, or popped in to jam: Nick Gravenites. Charlie Musselwhite. Norton Buffalo. Barry (The Fish) Melton. Many of the survivors still do an occasional gig in North Beach. Johnny Nitro was a big part of this scene, and it’s mentioned by several onstage tonight that no one knows how much he did to help the scene keep going.
I didn’t spot many faces I recognized. I lived in North Beach for fourteen years, but I’m just a blip on the radar. There’s a lot of history in North Beach. The Saloon, Nitro’s home bar, was founded in 1861!
It was fun to see musicians who had just played mingling in the crowd and socializing. The organizers must be praised. There was little time between sets.
Several musicians mention that they usually don’t like doing Johnny Nitro songs. They say his songs are too much his own. Freund, and later Tommy Castro, say they don’t mind doing Nitro songs tonight. They want to do great versions to honor him at his memorial.
Daniel Castro is a tall amiable looking guy. He has long black hair pulled back in a ponytail. Like so many playing tonight, Nitro was his mentor. He wrote a song to honor Nitro. “I don’t play guitar fancy, I play it mean. I’m the King of the North Beach scene!” After the song, keyboardist and organizer Kathy Tjecka said it was hard to keep the secret that Daniel Castro had just written the song.
The owner of the Saloon came onstage. Myron Mu is a middle aged Chinese man. “Twenty-seven years! Twenty-seven years he played for me.” He said few people knew how great Johnny Nitro was. There were many stories, but he’d tell just one.
Nitro played The Saloon on New Year’s Eve for years. A local restaurant, Rose Pistola offered him five thousand dollars to play on New Year’s Eve. The Saloon was paying him one thousand.
“He turned them down! Can you believe it? I asked him why. He said he had committed to playing The Saloon.” The owner said he appreciated his loyalty, “It’s good to be loyal, but don’t be crazy. Next time take the big money ... and he did!”
Tommy Castro is one of the biggest stars to come out of the North Beach Blues scene. I saw him play wild shows at The Grant and Green. He was another young musician under Johnny’s wing. Tommy has matinee idol looks, rare for a Bluesman. Kathy was jostled a bit by females making a bee line to the stage. People had been taking pictures earlier but now a phalanx of cell phones came out in front of Tommy’s spot onstage. He’s still got it.
After the first song, Castro tells us that people ask him why he sings the Blues. “Why do you play the Blues and get sadder?” Why wallow in misery? Castro says, “They don’t get it. People like you understand.” The Blues makes you feel better. Castro was saddened by Nitro’s passing, and knew he had to show up tonight and play the Blues to feel better. He also says that Nitro was more of a Rocker than a Bluesman. “No one knows how much Johnny Nitro did to keep the North Beach Blues scene going.” I see Johnny Ace come in the front door just as they page him to the stage. He still looks like the ultimate hipster. His frizzy hair sticks out from under a beret. He runs around to the back of the club to see and talk to people. He looks like a man on a mission.
Both Nitro and Johnny Ace had quit drinking and smoking years ago, but Nitro wouldn’t spoil the party. He had still used the lines: “Keep drinking triples till you’re seeing double, feeling single and getting in trouble,” and, “When you’re not too sure, have two more.”
They play “Big Legged Woman With the Miniskirt.” Tommy Castro told a story about a night they played the song at Lou’s Blues Club on Fisherman’s Wharf. Nitro added some raunchy lyrics. Some tourists at a front table were offended. They got up and left. The crowd cheered and applauded. “Don’t like it? Get out of here!” Nitro watched the offended tourists leave with his devilish, mischievous smile. “He just smiled,” Castro said.
Johnny Ace joins Tommy Castro onstage. Johnny Ace was one of the original Door Slammers. The crowd knew this could be the highlight of the night. Johnny Ace is a wild live performer, especially for a bass player. He stalks the stage and Rocks. He looks emotionally charged tonight. Like the other musicians, he wants to play his best in tribute to Johnny Nitro.
During a song, he simulates rolling and smoking a joint. He prepares and does an invisible line and then raises his head with comic eyeballs popping. He taps his arms, as if he’s just shot up. It’s a daring display these days. The funny thing is, Johnny Ace has been clean and sober for years now.
Perry Welch, another original Door Slammer, joins them onstage and plays some great harmonica. Tommy Castro says that this is almost the original lineup he saw when he arrived in San Francisco.
The band hits a big chord and holds it in Gospel style. They’re testifying for Johnny Nitro. After five or six long chords, each one building a bit, they launch into “Funky Broadway.” “Every town I’m in ...” I remember the Door Slammers doing this one in North Beach. Blues bands played long hours night after night. The band needed a long song to jam on and fill time. They usually played it late, when the crowd was looser. It was always a crowd favorite. The band plays a great Rocking version. Johnny Ace yells to the sky: “Johnny Nitro! We love you, where ever you may be!” He flips his bass in the air and catches it!
Ron Hacker was on next and did a rocking set. Hacker’s sound is more Rockabilly than Blues. He plays a great driving slide guitar. His hair is slicked back and he’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt. They play a Rocker, “I’m Eighteen.” Andy Just plays some great harmonica. At the end Hacker says, “It’s a train wreck, but nobody got hurt.” Two modern day Door Slammers, Burton Winn on bass and Robin Roth are the rhythm section. Hacker plays more slide on “It Hurts Me Too,” the classic Elmore James song.
Mz Dee is a large Black woman with long dreads. She has quite a stage presence. Modern day Door Slammers Burton Winn and Robin Roth play while she belts out “Twenty-Nine Ways (To Get To My Baby’s Door.)” Between songs she tells us that she remembers hanging out with Nitro at The Saloon. “Almost everything was good with Johnny.” They play “Rock Me Baby.”
Ads for the memorial had a show time of 7 to 11. I thought the 11 p.m. ending was a bit early, especially for the night owls of North Beach. Was there some kind of school night curfew in Redwood City? The crowd had started to drift out after Johnny Ace and Tommy Castro. After Mz Dee’s set, an announcement was made. They’re going to let us stay, “As long as we buy beer ... Or until 1:30,” it was quickly added.
Dave Noteman led another group of musicians for a few tunes. They played well, but the crowd had lost a little steam.
It was a great night of music and certainly a fitting tribute to Johnny Nitro. Seeing the two Castros perform on the same night was a big treat. The musicians wanted to sound good and give Nitro a proper sendoff.
Near the end of a set, usually before the last song, Nitro used to say,“Please, please, if you’re going to be driving, make sure you have a car or a truck or a motorcycle or something.”
Johnny Nitro’s Sunday night slot at The Saloon is being filled by Silvia Cicardini, The Bride of Nitro.