Rocker Nardini better than ever after 50 years
This week’s Music from Three Rivers features an interview with Pittsburgh’s self-proclaimed Uncrowned King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Norman Nardini. Now 66, Nardini’s passion and love for music is unparalleled. He’s boisterous and loquacious, but also one of the most genuine and nicest people you’d ever want to meet. He performs every Friday at the Starlite Lounge in Blawnox, in addition to various gigs in the area.
Question: You’ve said 2016 was a very good year. Was there any single event that gave you momentum, or was it a series of things?
Answer: On the surface, not much happened, but throughout the year little signs that I’ve been spending my time doin’ the right things kept happening. I can’t say that one thing made my year. I can say that all the work I’ve been doing to try and make myself into a singer has been payin’ off, I can hear it and feel it. I can tell that my song writing skills have grown, my band has been playin’ real well, my guys buy into my system more and more as time goes on, we’re growin’ together. I seem to be aware of how lucky I am to still be alive and healthy enough to continue to study….
Q: You’re doing a weekly gig at the Starlite Lounge in Blawnox. How has that affected your performances at other venues?
A:I’ve been doin’ every Friday at the Starlite Lounge for about 6 months, really enjoy these shows. Very casual, lots of conversational stage time, I love to use the spoken word as part on my presentation.Playin’ the same room week after week is a great way to learn how to develop a stage character that people can relate to. It’s also a way to keep your tools sharp and get and stay gig ready. … We opened up for Robin Trower at the Palace Theatre in Greensburg this year, I wasn’t permitted to use a drummer so I went on with just Harry, my bass player. You might think that this would be a tough situation to be in, but, for us, it was a walk in the park, we’ve developed the songs and the spoken word presentation so well that we had a (great) show with just me and Harry onstage.
Q: Is your music influenced by literature, film or even sports?
A: Being a huge sports fan is a huge influence in all that I am. My father was a total Pittsburgh sports guy, so we were brought up to be sportsaholics. Dad was at the seventh game of the 1960 World Series and also at the Immaculate Reception Steeler game. We’re stone Black n’ Golders. I think that my competitive edge is a definite result of my sports nut mentality. I want my band to be the best, always did. I wish the other bands in town felt the same way, it would be good for us all to compete toward greatness. It’s healthy, it’s manful. I run my band like a football coach, I try to understand all my musicians and try to get as much as I can outta them. I game plan for gigs, on Monday I think about last week’s gigs and start the game plan for the new week.
Q: You’re known as the Uncrowned King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Pittsburgh. How did this title come about? Is it still true?
A: I gave myself the title the “uncrowned king” more than a few years back. It started out as a joke like my other titles: the wop wit da bop, the ginny wit da skinny, da guido in da seedo, da greeza who’s a lady pleeza. The high priest of the church of rock n’ roll, the black sheep, it’s all stage schtick. I’m paintin’ a picture for people. I’ve been playin’ my own music since 1979. My music doesn’t get played on the radio so I have to find ways to trick people into stickin’ around long enough to fall in love with my music. I’m a carnie, a snake oil salesman. I use every trick in the book and some that are not even in the book.The “uncrowned king,” I ain’t exactly sure how or why it started but it relates to the fact that I’ve been excluded from all things that the evil empire touches. I use the term “evil empire” so that I don’t ever say their call letters. It’s been goin’ on for over 20 years. Not much I can do about it, so I’ve turned it into a joke…. I would say that, yes, I’m still the “uncrowned one,” but I also need to say that folks like Jeff Bobula, Frank Czuri, Bubs McKeag, Glenn Pavone, Byrd Foster and more, helped me to know that greatness is real. … To be 66 years old and still be an outlaw is a huge honor.
Q: You are planning to release a new album in 2017. Anything you can say about it?
A: Ain’t sure of the title yet, haven’t spent any time thinkin’ ‘bout it. Eleven songs will be presented. My ole bud Brice Foster plays drums and co-produces with me on this collection. Brice also does the engineering. “Pittsburgh PA” and “Ole Number 21” are tunes that have been around since the ‘90s that find new life, other tunes that have been played live many times like “The Tree,” a song I wrote for my father; “Wonder,” a song that Mike Vale cut for his solo record a few years back; “Me n’ Josey Wales,” which gets huge applause every time we play it live; “It Is What It Is,” which is about the Constitution of our great nation; “The Devil,” “Three Kings In Memphis.” New tunes like “Girl With a Gun,” “The Horse” and “Life Is What You Make It.”
Q: If you could share a stage with any musician, alive or dead, who would it be and why?
A: Levon Helm, would love to feel the greezy grooves that he cooked up on drums as well as his authentic American singin’ voice. Steve Earle, love his songs. Louie Armstrong, American history. Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Toots Hibbert, Peter Tosh, the reggae masters. Would have loved to play with The Texas Tornados. Gotta say that I’ve been lucky enough to play with Warren King, Glenn Pavone, Frank Czuri, Bubs Mckeag — playin’ with them guys was always a big up.
Q: You’ve been a working musician since the 1960s. Does it ever get old?
A: I started giggin’ in 1964, more than 50 years ago. It NEVER gets old. I’m more into it now than ever. I’m really enjoying it these days because I’ve been able to build my skill level up. It’s so much fun to perform at a high level when all the musicians understand exactly what they need to do to achieve the sound and feel that I’m lookin’ for, it all comes together in a beautiful way. Maybe that’s why I’m doin’ two and three hour shows nowadays. I don’t wanna stop. I spend all week preparing myself to be a part of a simple musical miracle. That don’t get old. I think it gets old when you’re goin’ thru the motions. I’m still reachin’ for the stars.
Shows of note
Big Thief, Club Café, Jan. 9, Club Cafe, South Side
Adrienne Lenker sings with a keening intensity, as if she is inhabiting her songs. The lead singer of the Brooklyn-based band Big Thief fronts a band well-schooled in emotive, irresistible rock. 412-431-4950, clubcafe.com
Machinae Supremacy, Jan. 10, Cattivo, South Side
As its name suggests, Machinae Supremacy tends to play music that is forceful and dominant. The Swedish band’s base is the Scandinavian metal that’s popular in Northern Europe, but the mix also includes techno and pop. 412-687-2157, cattivopgh.com
Reel Big Fish, Jan. 11, Stage AE, North Shore
Along with No Doubt and Sublime, Reel Big Fish was one of the original ska-punk bands to emerge from Southern California in the ‘90s. But unlike most of those groups, RBF is still touring and making new music that’s danceable, irresistible and ingratiating. Pittsburgh’s Anti-Flag is the opening act. 412-229-5483, promowestlive.com
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.