CITYBEAT ARTICLE BY MIKE BREEN
Published March 30, 2000
When you talk to local pianist Ricky Nye about his long, storied career playing music, you talk about moments. Nye has an astonishing memory of the various twists and turns his career has taken. When he talks about specific, life-changing moments, the memories are so vivid, it's like they happened yesterday.
For example, the moment he knew he'd be a musician for the rest of his life? Five years old. Here in Cincinnati. His father and uncles played in a band together and little Ricky wanted to see what his dad was up to. "My mom took me to watch them rehearse one night and it was all over," Nye says. "It was one of those very vivid memories that just burned into my brain. I mean, I knew right then. I was gone. Right then I knew I was going to play."
Nye currently gigs around town as a solo act and with his two bands - the upbeat Red Hots and his trio The Swingin' Mudbugs - exhibiting a New Orleans boogie piano style so impressive it has led to invitations to international festivals in France and Belgium this fall. But there's a profound diversity in Nye's past and even present that makes it hard to pinpoint Ricky Nye as anything more specific than a musician. The man simply loves to play.
After starting on accordion (and soon realizing it "wasn't cool"), Nye father bought a piano, and shortly after a Hammond organ. But, oddly enough (or perhaps not so, considering New Orleans musical percussive nature), Nye picked up the drums and stuck with them through high school. Still, he never stopped playing keys, inspired listening to his father's Stax and Atlantic sides. The crucial "first record ever bought"? A greatest hits collection from hard boppin', Soul/Jazz organist Jimmy Smith.
After high school, Nye headed for Boston's Berklee School of Music, where he chose to make piano his main instrument over percussion. Going for a composition degree, Nye finished three years worth of classes in two years and found himself suffering from severe burnout. "I'm writing all of this 20th Century classical music that was all very 'math' oriented," Nye recalls. "I was walking in front of cars- a real zombie. I told my folks that I wanted to take a semester off because I was getting really wacko. So I did, and I never went back."
Nye stayed on the east coast for a couple of years, working the bar scene, playing all kinds of music and auditioning for bands in New York (including David Johansen of The New York Dolls and Buster Poindexter fame). Around this time, Nye's brother started telling him about a cool band back in Cincinnati called The Raisins. "I'd been thinking in my mind about what kind of band would I want to be in," Nye says, professing a big influence from Todd Rundgren around this time. "What it would be like in approach and instrumentation. I had come back to Cincinnati to visit in '78 and I saw The Raisins and I said 'That's the band. That's the band in my mind.'" "They were such a heavy, heavy band. And they were all little kids. So talented and focused it was scary."
Nye soon moved back and eventually joined the soon-to-be local Pop/Rock icons. While the band struggled for a while to get gigs, Nye began to play with Raisin drummer Bam Powell in some Roots/Country side-projects to make rent (including an early incarnation of country band Stagger Lee). The Raisins released their legendary self-titled debut in '83 and the hit single "Fear is Never Boring" meant no more scraping for gigs. But the roots music bug came back and bit Nye. As The Raisins began moving in different directions musically, they eventually split in '85. Nye took on various projects to keep working, but eventually, a call to fill in at a gig with local Blues guitarist Big Ed Thompson led to a three year stint in Big Ed's band, another revelatory experience.
"That was the most life-changing musical experience I ever had," Nye says. "He had such a great impact and influence on me - the way he played, the way he ran the band, his gentle way, the kind of person he was. I learned so much just from being with him."
Nye next went on to do gig work with Robin Lacy (back to the accordion!) and former Pure Prairie League members The Goshorn Brothers, but then a friend and fellow pianist turned him on to his current fascination. "I hadn't been into New Orleans music really at all, and (a fellow pianist from New Orleans named Cindy Chen) had seen me play and she said, 'Where'd you get your New Orleans stuff from?,'" he recalls. "And I was, like, 'I don't know.' And she said I did stuff that sounded like Booker and I asked, 'Who's Booker?' She was speaking of the “bayou maharajah” James Booker, a musical father to pianists like Dr. John and Harry Connick Jr. So the next day, she gave me tapes of three of his albums and that was it, it was all over." That was about seven years ago, and today (though he may not admit it) Nye has all but mastered the style. His "Piano is Fun!" CD is a rollicking and, yes, fun journey into the genre. But even though Nye has discovered what might seem like his "true calling" now, it's still not safe to limit your expectations of him.
Nye still sits in with bands of all styles, having recorded on albums by local artists such as Tracy Walker and The Simpletons. And recently he did a show in Atlanta, playing with a glam rock band opening a club night called Glitterdome, put on by Pat Briggs, leader of Psychotica and founder of Club Makeup in L.A.
Wanting to have these kind of options, it might seem a little more appropriate for Nye to live in a town that would seem a little more bustling with opportunities than his conservative hometown of Cincinnati. But Nye will have none of that. "I think it's amazing," he says of Cincy. "I've never felt like, 'Oh man, I got to get the hell out of here.' Even to this day, I'm still playing with new people all the time. This city has world class musicians of every genre."
And Nye also appreciates the ability living in Cincinnati has give him to discover, meet and work with idols and mentors like Pigmeat Jarrett, H-Bomb Ferguson and Big Joe Duskin. "Working with people like that, it's a history lesson," he says. "You're not just getting notes. When we we're playing (legendary Cincinnati Blues club) Cory's years ago, k.d. lang was playing around the corner and some of their band came in. They were so delighted. They said, 'Man, we're from Vancouver. We don't see real blues people up there.' They said, 'You are so lucky to be able to work side by side with these guys.'"
Just try to stereotype Nye as your average working Blues/R&B musician- it simply (and blissfully) can't be done.