Born: October 2, 1938 in Chicago IL
He seldom gets the credit that he deserves, but singer, songwriter, and guitarist Nick Gravenites was one of the leading figures in the integration of the Chicago blues scene during the 1960s that found its most powerful voice in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, as well as one of the movers-and-shakers of the late-60s psychedelic-rock scene in San Francisco.
As a songwriter, Gravenites has had material recorded by Janis Joplin, Roy Buchanan, Pure Prairie League, James Cotton, and Howlin' Wolf, among others, and his "Born In Chicago," recorded by Butterfield, earned him a spot in the Blues Hall of Fame. As a producer, he's worked with blues giants like Otis Rush and Mike Bloomfield, and he's pursued a lengthy career as a musician, appearing on over 40 albums in some capacity through the years. Although he has recorded only sporadically on his own, Gravenites' fingerprints can be found all over west coast rock and blues music over the past four decades.
Born In Chicago
Born in Chicago the son of first-generation Greek immigrants, Gravenites grew up on the city's south side and would attend the University of Chicago during the late 1950s. It was here that he began to play guitar and, gravitating towards Chicago's many blues clubs, found kindred spirits in other white musicians like Paul Butterfield, Elvin Bishop, and Michael Bloomfield. Because of their enthusiasm and talent, they were eventually accepted by the older bluesmen and earned their degrees in the blues by studying under masters like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Buddy Guy, among others.
Gravenites would help Butterfield and Bishop form the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1963, and performed frequently alongside the group. Although he never became a full-fledged member, he contributed several songs to the band's groundbreaking first two albums, including their signature tune "Born In Chicago," and the acclaimed "East West." In 1965, after almost a decade of traveling back and forth between Chicago and San Francisco, Gravenites decided to relocate to the west coast.
Arriving in the San Francisco Bay area just as the local music scene began flourishing, Gravenites would become an integral part of the bourgeoning blues-rock and psychedelic music scenes. Gravenites worked with both Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother & the Holding Company, forming a long-standing musical connection with Quicksilver guitarist John Cipollina. His presence on the coast would also provide a foothold for the immigration of a number of Chicago-based musicians, including Mike Bloomfield and harp player Charlie Musselwhite.
Gravenites formed Electric Flag in 1967 with Bloomfield, keyboardist Barry Goldberg (also from Chicago), and drummer Buddy Miles. Before the band had even performed in public they recorded the soundtrack for the psychedelic film The Trip. Electric Flag made its live debut at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and released their debut album, A Long Time Comin', in 1968. The album's mix of rock, blues, soul, and jazz pushed it into the Top 40. The band would follow up with Electric Flag: An American Music Band later that year before breaking up in 1969. A 1974 reunion would include Bloomfield and result in an album.
Gravenites launched his solo career with the critically-acclaimed My Labors album in 1969 before joining Big Brother & the Holding Company. Gravenites recorded two albums with Big Brother – 1970's Be A Brother and the following year's How Hard It Is. In fact, Gravenites had his fingers in a lot of pies at this time: he produced albums by blues guitarist Otis Rush (the Grammy-nominated Mourning In The Morning) and Brewer & Shipley; wrote the score for the film Steelyard Blues; formed the short-lived but popular Bay area band Blue Gravy; and performed and recorded frequently with his friend Mike Bloomfield.
Gravenites became friends with John Cipollina when he produced the first Quicksilver Messenger Service album. They formed the Nick Gravenites-John Cipollina Band and toured Europe several times during the late 1970s and early 1980s, associating the band with Germany's Line Records label. Line would release Gravenites' sophomore album Bluestar in 1980 (recorded with Cipollina and Huey Lewis on harp), and his Junkyard In Malibu album in 1981. The Gravenites-Cipollina album Monkey Medicine would be released in 1982, and a live album featuring the two guitarists, Live In Athens At The Rodon, would surface in 1991.
Nick Gravenites & Animal Mind
Gravenites would join another of Cipollina's many musical projects, Thunder and Lightning, in late 1984 and although the band never recorded a proper release, bootleg tapes of live performances have circulated for years. After Cipollina's death in 1989, Gravenites would continue to perform around the Bay area, forming his band Animal Mind in the mid-1990s and releasing Don't Feed The Animals in 1996 and Kill My Brain on the local 2b1 Records label in 1999.
In 2005, Gravenites reunited with his former Electric Flag bandmate Barry Goldberg, Butterfield Blues Band drummer Sam Lay, guitarist Harvey Mandel (a veteran of Canned Heat and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers), singer Tracey Nelson of Mother Earth, and harpist Corky Siegel of the Siegel-Schwall Band to tour under the name Chicago Blues Reunion. The chemistry of this ensemble of Chicago blues veterans resulted in a live CD and the two-disc CD/DVD set Buried Alive In The Blues, released in 2005. Various line-ups of the Chicago Blues Reunion were performing shows as late as the fall of 2009.
Recommended Albums: They're kind of hard to find at times, lapsing in and out of print, but Gravenites' handful of albums are well worth the search to hear his soulful vocals, blistering guitarwork, and intelligent songwriting. Of the solo albums, Bluestar is the best of the lot, followed by My Labors; the first Electric Flag album is also a "must have" for any serious student of late 1960s blues-rock experimentation.
Nick Gravenites Select Discography
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- A Long Time Comin' [Electric Flag] (Columbia Records, 1968)
- Electric Flag: An American Music Band [Electric Flag] (Columbia Records, 1968)
- My Labors (Columbia Records, 1969)
- Steelyard Blues soundtrack (Warner Brothers, 1972)
- The Band Kept Playing [Electric Flag] (Atlantic Records, 1974)
- Bluestar (Line Records, 1980/Renaissance Records, 2009)
- Junkyard In Malibu (Line Records, 1981)
- Monkey Medicine [Gravenites-Cipollina] (Line Records, 1982)
- Live In Athens At The Rodon [Gravenites-Cipollina] (M.B.I., 1991)
- Don't Feed The Animals w/Animal Mind (Taxim Records, 1996)
- Kill My Brain w/Animal Mind (2 Burn 1 Records, 1999)