Photos by Laura Carbone
You could say Nick Black has the Delta Air Lines pilot shortage to thank for giving his music career a healthy foundation and a jumping off point for his solo career. Or you could dig a little deeper and find that a path was going to open up for this soulful young powerhouse to strike out confidently on his own one way or another. The former Victor Wainwright and the WildRoots guitarist grew up in Memphis, TN and music played a big part in his early upbringing. “Music was always a major influence on the mood in our house growing up. It always seemed like there was something pumping through the stereo,” said Black. He grew up singing in church and at school, started piano at nine and picked up both trumpet and guitar about the same time at age twelve.
Black reminisces about the “hair metal” bands he played in during his teen years. “I think the band went through four or five different names, all of which had more than four syllables, and none of which I actually remember. Parabolia, maybe? Sixteen year olds think a good band name can make or break you, so it’s best to make it as long as possible,” jokes Black. Hair metal segued into neo-soul, hip hop and later into R&B, coming full circle as Black “rediscovered” Memphis music. “I’d grown up hearing it all my life, but something just clicked as I got older and really began to understand it. It was blues, R&B and gospel from then on.”
As a Music Business major at University of Memphis, Black hoped to back up his love of music with some sound business acumen. “I met some lifelong friends in that program and it afforded me the time I needed to figure out how to make my dream of doing music for a living become a reality,” he said. The hand of the musical gods reached down for the first time while Black was a student interning at the Folk Alliance International Conference in Memphis, TN in 2009. Black caught Wainwright’s performance purely by accident and was transfixed. “He somehow got the entire room to be completely silent during one of the songs he did. I knew I wanted to learn how to do that,” recalls Black. The two met, ate barbeque and got along like old friends immediately.
Cue the Delta pilot shortage in the spring of 2011. “A gentleman named Greg Gumpel was Victor’s guitar player before I joined the band. He was asked to come back and fly for Delta because they were short staffed. I was in the right place at the right time, and got asked to come on as their permanent guitar player.” Black explains.
Touring with Victor and the WildRoots was a way for Black to not only prove his chops, but to gain exposure to a whole new world of influences. His early guitar idols included the proverbial Stevie Ray and Jimi. “During my hair metal days I tried to play as many notes as quickly as I could,” jokes Black. Those old faves made way for new ones when he started touring with Victor. “The moment I heard Albert Collins, my heart skipped a beat, and Freddie King knocked my socks off.” But no one made an impression that went as deep as the legendary B.B. King. “He was true simplicity and a downright gentleman on the guitar. He always seemed to surpass what you thought he would, and I think he was actually surprising himself most of the time! Even now that I’m transitioning toward my own music, I still play like B.B. It’s like an old friend you grew up with.”
Black refers to his debut album, “The Soul Diaries”, released in late 2012, as being “very Memphis-influenced”, an homage to Al Green, Otis Redding and B.B. King and the early voices of Stax Records. Early reviewers said the album was “like Frank Sinatra and Al Green had a twenty-five year old.” His second album, “Deep Blue”, circa Fall of 2015, is altogether different as Black leaves his love of guitar behind for piano and keyboards. “Sometimes the songs I write need a different emotion behind them. Guitar doesn’t always convey smoothness easily. That’s why I switch to piano on songs like “Don’t Leave Louise” and let my keyboard players take the lead on songs like “Let’s Be Glad” and “Ocean”. It would be plain old wrong of me not to feature the incredible musicians I work with day after day!”
Those musicians include Chris Styles on bass, a friend from Black’s neo-soul days, Darryl Sanford and Mike Sweep on keyboards, and Marlon Mitchell on drums. “Marlon is an asset for two reasons, his playing and his biceps,” said Black. Black’s horn section is Nathan DuVall on trombone and Randy Ballard on trumpet, both of whom have been with Black since the early years. “They’ve stuck through so much with me, and they’ll both play me under the table on a nightly basis. But they’re gentle about it,” he adds.
In the video for “Ocean”, Black goes on a tongue-in-cheek search for water of the “Water, water, everywhere and not a drop to drink” kind. He is a fresh-faced kind of handsome, rocks a man-bun, and gets chased hearthrob-style through the streets of Memphis by a hand held camera with surprising results. He is an old soul, an old-school entertainer and, yes, this guy can play guitar. He is at home in front of the camera, creating a semi-weekly video series, “Nick Black Friday, with a theme song reminiscent of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. His marriage proposal to now-wife Lena Wallace Black was done with the backing of a full orchestra in front of an audience of friends and family members and is now a YouTube video. Nick Black is finding his niche and having fun doing it.
Although he will join Wainwright for occasional gigs down the road, Black explains the timing of his decision to break out on his own and begin his career anew: “We don’t know what drives us to do the things we do,” said Black. “I’m trying to do something big and bring what I’ve learned from being in Victor’s band. I’m putting everything on the table, it’s just something I have to do.”