Nicholas Barron is a Blues and Folk musician and singer-songwriter based in Chicago, IL. He was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but his family soon moved to Morristown, NJ, then Columbia, MO, and then Marblehead, MA, where he spent most of his formative years. In his senior year of high school, Nicholas moved to Oak Park, IL, where he lived with his father and attended Oak Park River Forest High School-playing first chair guitar in the Jazz ensemble.
His earliest musical memories are of listening to his mother’s extensive record collection that included Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, BB King, Muddy Waters, Leonard Cohen, and Stevie Wonder – all artists who now make up Nicholas’ musical DNA. His mother also gave him a copy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s classic beat poetry masterpiece, called “A Coney Island of the Mind” which set Nicholas’ mind on fire with the idea of automatic writing.
Nicholas started playing guitar at the age of 15, studying with Carl Palleschi, a co-founder of the band “Boston”. Over a period of a year with Nicholas developing quickly, he told Nicholas he needed to start listening to Wes Montgomery if he wanted to become a great guitarist. At the same time, he started writing his own songs and poetry, as well as impersonating Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, and Elvis Presley. Soon Nicholas was the highlight of his high school’s annual talent show after his baseball coach heard him one afternoon after practice hamming it up as Elvis…! A couple years later he told this very same coach he was quitting the team to work on his music and guitar, after he was accepted to Berklee College’s music summer program.
The fall following that summer, Nicholas moved in with his father and completed high school at OPRF. He then was accepted to the third stream program at the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, where he spent one year. In 1984, at 19, he transferred to the University of Cincinnati’s Jazz guitar program. He discovered a little dive bar called “Cory’s” where he would sit in a couple nights a week with the house jazz band led by legendary Cincinnati Sax-man Jimmy McGary, a Charlie Parker disciple and friend. For Nicholas, this hands-on training and schooling was way more valuable than any formal education. He has always learned through experimentation rather than mere intellect…
In the summer of 1986, Nicholas travelled to Europe, which would forever change and inform his life. He ended up living in London and squatting with fellow buskers from around the world. He started singing the songs he had learned during his school years, adding new ones daily, and fell in love with being a busker! However, busking was illegal in the London underground. Nicholas was arrested and played all the songs he knew to the Police Chief in Camden… Nonetheless, he was sent to court to testify in front of white wigged men, was fined a pound, and was after all kicked out of the country for ten years! As usual, Nicholas had a colorful story to report and had made an impact!
While in London, Nicholas made the life changing decision to make a living with his voice. In January 1987, Nicholas returned to Chicago and began playing in the “L” and on the street. He played solo acoustically, had a Blues band, a Jazz quartet and duo with Jazz Virtuoso Tony Eaton who played Sax and Violin. He began to build his reputation, performing seven days a week for sometimes close to eight hours a day, losing his voice trying to sing over passing “L” trains.
During this period, the City of Chicago decided to ban musicians in the “L” and the street, initiated by Gold Coast Alderman Burt Natarus, whose wealthy constituency hated to see and hear musicians, who they considered beggars and vagrants. Nicholas went and gathered the names of all the street artists he could find as well as the signatures of the train riders who loved them. He then founded C.A.S.A. (Coalition for the Advancement of Street Art) to fight the city. Working closely with the ACLU as well as his fellow buskers, C.A.S.A. made it legal to perform in the “L” and on the street after acquiring a $75 license. The CTA now has placed medallions on certain columns in locations in the “L” where musicians and artists can set up and legally express themselves. From 2001-2005, the State Street council teamed up with C.A.S.A. and held an annual Chicago Street Performers month of all day long performances. What a sight to see “C.A.S.A. PRESENTS THE CHICAGO STREET PERFORMERS MONTH LONG FESTIVAL” on the Iconoclastic CHICAGO THEATER marquee!
While playing in the “L”, Nicholas was discovered by a big commercial jingle house producer named Manny Mendelsohn. He was first booked as Jazz guitarist, then also as a singer. Soon, many of the major commercial houses were hiring Nicholas as well. In the meantime, Nicholas was performing 5 to 7 nights a week around town playing both his original music as well as with his Jazz group, Blues band, and mainly as a solo One-Man band. He started a band with Chicago guitar Virtuoso Fareed Haque, called “Mind the Gap”, which regularly headlined at The Avalon, often sharing a bill with The Smashing Pumpkins. In 1989, a small Chicago Jazz label called Tee Ni Chee teamed Nicholas with Westside Hammond B3 Virtuoso Wayman Davis. They recorded a very solid LP of a mix of original Jazz and Classic tunes played in the style of their heroes Jimmy Smith and George Benson. Nicholas’ father, William Barron, did the drawing for the cover.
In the mid 90′s, Nicholas started his most successful music venture called “Swimmer” with his best friend and drummer Steve Gillis, who went on to play with “Filter”. They held a Thursday night residency at “The Elbo Room” for four years and built a huge following and reputation as the funkiest and best live band in Chicago. Nicholas collected antique and retro swim/motorcycle goggles as well as other crazy colorful eyewear, which he wore and changed for every song. Wearing leisure suits and bizarre clothing, he rapped and made up lyrics on the spot. The fans were blown away each week by a completely different set of spontaneous music!
“Swimmer” was truly a freestyle band like no other – an integrated group of West- and Southside virtuoso gospel cats married with Northside jazz and rock musicians. “Swimmer” released two records, both called “The best record from Chicago” by WXRT’s (93.1) Local Anesthetic host Richard Milne. Playboy Magazine called them “the best band in the Midwest”. They opened for Maceo Parker, Average White Band, The Meters, Groove Collective, Medeski Martin Wood and others. In 1999, they had to sell the name to Maverick records (Madonna’s label), which had a band named Swimmer that they were promoting. Maverick wouldn’t allow them to even say “formerly” Swimmer and over time they lost their momentum but were paid well enough to record their second CD called “Frequency Gel” at Rax Trax. When Nicholas later signed with Candyrat Records, they put out a “Best of” Swimmer CD, called “Nicholas Barron – The Swimmer Years”.
In the early 2000’s, Nicholas recorded a record at The Pass in L.A. with well-known mixer/producer Dave Way (e.g. Macy Gray, Fiona Apple, etc.) featuring the Memphis Horns, called “Love Soldier”. Dave had heard Nicholas and his trio of Steve Gillis and Hammond B3 player, Vijay Tellis Nayak, at The Long Room (where they held a Sunday night residency for 8 years). Love soldier was recorded live like a Jazz record in one of the best studios in L.A. The Memphis Horns were brought in later, and Nicholas spent 3 amazing days with them. Trumpeter Wayne Jackson told story after story about his best friend Otis Redding and other Stax legends like Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Al Green and more. Wayne told Nicholas that he had an “authentic” Soul voice, which changed Nicholas’ life forever!
In January of 2007, James Taylor introduced Nicholas and his band (by then, The Nicholas Barron Band) as launch artists for the New York Times’ Emerging Artists Series at “Joe’s Pub” in NYC. James Taylor called him and the band’s new record “Undeniable”!!
Soon after that, Nicholas signed with Milwaukee record label Candyrat Records, who are a huge viral You Tube sensation because of guitarist Andy McKee, who has gone on to have over 100 million views! In 2007, Candyrat released a Live Solo Acoustic CD called “As I Am”, and in 2008, “Live in Transient Sound” with his four-piece band that includes “Swimmer” members Steve Gillis, Vijay Tellis Nayak, and Shawn Sommer.
In August 2008, Nicholas ventured out into an additional creative outlet…! He began painting after recording a video with his longtime friend, famous painter Jeff Zimmerman, in which both of them are painting live for his song “Honey Lemon Tea”. The song is for and about Nicholas’ father, well-known painter William Barron.
Nicholas is now a painter as much as he is a musician. He paints on masonite (wood), canvas, and old rustic windows with oil pastels and oil paints. Nicholas had his first show in March of 2012 at The Chicago Art Exchange, during which he sold an amazing 8 paintings! He constantly releases his endless creative energy, e.g. by drawing on boxes he recycles, filling what would have ended up in a dump with a mix of automatic-spontaneous language and doodles. His work is abstract in nature… certainly unorthodox like Nicholas himself!
On the music side, he began a relationship with legendary Chicago Producer Jim Tullio in 2010. They started writing together and in 2011, Jim asked Nicholas to record the song “Angeline” for the John Martyn tribute record that was released on August 16, 2011. The tribute record “Johnny Boy Would Love This” includes artists like David Gray, Beck, Phil Collins, and Robert Smith of The Cure, and many more. Jim was John’s producer for the last 20 plus years (John Martyn died in January 2009).
In the summer of 2012, Nicholas and Jim decided to record a compilation of their favorite classic and obscure covers. Some of these songs are part of Nicholas’ repertoire for 25 years or so, e.g. Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine”. Both Jim and Nicholas are heavily influenced by John Martyn, and it was only logical that they recorded three of John’s tunes. During the recording process, Nicholas kept saying “these songs are so beautiful, they’re scary beautiful”… and that became the title of the record: “Scary Beautiful”!
On the side, Nicholas has sung on many local and national spots over the last 20 plus years, including: Comcast, Coors Lite, Miller Lite, Cherry 7-Up, McDonalds, Coca Cola, Applebee’s and more. He has been recording voice-overs as well as auditioning as an actor for TV shows and commercials since 2009, and is exclusively represented by Grossman and Jack Talent in Chicago. His head-shot and voice-over demo are available per request.
Nicholas has recently opened for: Dave Mason, Shawn Colvin, Shemekia Copeland, and Buddy Guy, and over the last 25 years for: John Martyn, Al Green, BB King, Joan Armatrading, Johnny Cash, War, Average White Band, Michael Bolton, The Meters, Neville Brothers, Tuck and Patti, Charlie Hunter, Nelly Furtado, James Taylor, Eleni Mandel, Tommy Emmanuel, James Cotton, Doobie Brothers, Groove Collective, Liquid Soul, Karl Denson, Medeski Martin and Wood, The Subdudes, The Rebirth Brass Band, and more!
Throughout the last 26 years, Nicholas has mostly played as a Solo artist. He developed his incredibly fluid and unique style of mouth percussion, funky acoustic bass lines, and his one-man soul explosion style – Nicholas sounds like a whole band! This skill derived from trying to capture a crowd on the street to a room full of unsuspecting listeners. When he testifies on classic 1970’s Soul tunes like Bill Wither’s “Use Me Up” or Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” with a deep constant bass line and mouth percussion, people are convinced he’s using background effects!!
Check out Nicholas’ gig schedule and come out! If you can’t, check him out here: