Photo courtesy of J. Henry Stuhr Chapel
Nik Pappas was my best friend. We played together in bands and at jam sessions for about 25 years. I had to think about this carefully as there are a few people I feel very close to, but I know one thing for sure: I never had a better friend.
First time I recall seeing guitarist Nature Boy Nik (short for Nikita, not Nicholas), was at the old blues club Cumberland’s, a place that saw many famous bands and legendary performers. They had a blues jam once a month put on by the Lowcountry Blues Society, which was really Gary Erwin and his wife, Laura. They had a house band, and people would get on a list and Gary would jockey the people around to try and let people jam sort of in the order in which they arrived, while at the same time trying to keep a decent band together on the stage so the place would not empty out. Easier said than done.
Nik was part of Gary’s core band, a.k.a. Shrimp City Slim Band, as it is today. He had his hair slicked back and didn’t smile much. I came in with my harmonica hoping to play, and I went up to the stage and asked him if I could. He gave me a look. The look said, “No”. About 1:30 in the morning, after a three-hour wait, I got to play for three or four minutes. I was about to take another lead when the drums and cymbals made that unmistakable end-of-song drum signal, and everybody hit that one long note followed by the resounding thump of the drummer’s last whack.
I went back the next month and every month for several months with similar results. I tried to step up and lead the band a little but no one would listen or pay attention to my paltry signals and frantic arm and hand waving. One month I learned some common blues songs and tried singing. I lasted about one extra minute. I watched how bands worked. I watched how somebody led the band. Say the key and tell them how you want the song to start and give a strong tempo with your arm. No wishy washiness. I was a little better but not much. The other, let us say, lesser-experienced, wannabe musicians like myself formed a band, which we called The Blues Crabs. After a year or so practicing in a storage facility and getting cheap gigs at pizza joints the leader and singer and guitarist quit. I had to take over the singing and the bandleading. I watched the other bands at the time. Juke Joint Johnny and the Hurricanes. Mick Mercury and the Meteors. Shrimp City Slim. The Wolfpack. Straight Laced. Swell.
I bought cassettes and listened. I walked my dog on the beach at Folly at 2 a.m. and sang out loud on the beach. I played harmonica on loudly on the beach. The dog walked far, far ahead.
I went to another more informal and less threatening jam on Folly Beach at Robinson Crusoe’s, the present site of the Crab Shack. Nik was always there. I got to play with him a bit. Then at Cumberland’s, they started letting me in earlier and for a little longer. I had to tell them exactly what I wanted to do, what key, how it was going to start and at what tempo or speed the thing was going to be. You had about 10 seconds to do it, and you had to be assertive but not aggressive. In other words, look like you know what you’re doing, whether or not it’s true. I got to where I was a regular at both jams. One day after I sang and played, Nik said, “Weiner, you’re for real.” When he said that, a feeling went through me. It was the same feeling as when I was six years old and took my first successful solo bike ride without training wheels. Nik did not throw around compliments or bullshit.
I started Smoky Weiner & the Hot Links in ’94 and went through a parade of members and the makeup of the band was often dependent on who was available that particular night. Nik agreed to fill in, and after a while became the regular guitar player on most gigs.
He had the most unique style of any guitarist I have ever played with. I have played with a few and still play with a great guitarist, but it is true that Nik was unique. He had a sound you could easily pick out of a crowd. He practiced jazz chords and would lay the jazz chord or scale over a blues melody. He had a great sense of what is known as phrasing, which is sort of the grammar of music. When to pause slightly, when to accentuate or soften dynamics, how to put groups of notes together while maintaining a straightahead melody line.
We recorded a concert that featured Nature Boy Nik, Juke Joint Johnny, guitarist Dr. Kim May, myself, and Miss Wanda Johnson on May 30 of this year. It was professionally filmed with three camera angles by filmmaker Thomas Oliver and an incredible live sound recording by Clayton Stuckey. It was quite a show and far and away the best live sound recording I’ve ever heard. It should be out in a couple of weeks here
— check back soon, and you’ll easily hear what I mean.
Finally, Nik was so much more than a musician. He was a historian, an expert on Greece, Turkey, Byzantium, the Roman Empire. and world history. His father was a beloved professor of history and Spanish at the Citadel. In fact, our own jazz master Oscar Rivers was his student. He was a lover of politics. He was Bernie Sanders' greatest defender. His religion? It is known as The Miami Dolphins.
I don’t know what I will do now. I don’t know what to play. All I know is my life will never be the same.
Rest in peace, Nik. Go Fins.
The funeral of Nik Pappas is on Sat. August 27 at 1 p.m. at the Greek Orthodox Church on Race Street in downtown Charleston. Visitation is Fri. Aug. 26,
at J. Henry Stuhr Downtown Chapel at 5 p.m. For more details, go here.