Bluesman Johnny Nitro was a San Francisco treat, one that the rest of the world never really got much of a chance to enjoy.
"One time I asked him why he didn't go on tour," recalls Bay Area blues singer-guitarist J.C. Smith. "He said, 'That way people have to come see me in North Beach.' He was the king of North Beach. He can never be replaced."
Nitro, 59, was found dead about 7:30 p.m. Saturday in his apartment directly over the Saloon on Grant Avenue, the North Beach nightclub where he spent the past quarter-century playing blues nearly every weekend. The vocalist-guitarist-bandleader played there so often that his name and that of the club were nearly synonymous.
His death ends a lengthy battle with heart problems, which led to Nitro having triple-bypass surgery a few years back. Nitro is survived by his wife, Silvia Cicardini, of Antioch, and one daughter, Kirsten Moore, of San Francisco.
The Saloon announced Nitro's death through the website www.sfblues.net, calling it "the saddest news we've ever had to deliver." The club also hosted an impromptu tribute to the vocalist-guitarist Sunday night, featuring Tommy Castro, among other Bay Area blues musicians. Plans for a more official memorial, as well as funeral arrangements, are pending. Fans can go to www.sfblues.net for updates.
Nitro, who was born in 1951, and his band the Doorslammers had been a mainstay on the Bay Area blues scene for decades. He began his residency at the Saloon in 1984, going from performing one night a week to twice per weekend. Through good times and bad, economic booms and busts, locals could count on seeing Nitro at the Saloon.
"He was a good blues musician," remarks Myron Mu, owner of the Saloon. "He had a really good sense of humor. He could communicate with the audience."
Nitro released a number of CDs, but he was best known for his live shows.
His guitar work, which mixed rockabilly and blues with Memphis soul, was his signature.
Ronnie Stewart, an Oakland blues guitarist and bandleader, remembers driving with a friend past the Saloon one night and hearing Nitro's rollicking cuts coming through his car window.
"I said, 'That's Johnny Nitro in there,' " Stewart said. "And the person next to me said, 'How do you know that?' And I said, 'Nobody else sounds like that.'
"What I liked about Johnny Nitro was he was Johnny Nitro," Stewart added. "So many people spend their careers trying to be somebody else. There's a difference between being influenced by somebody and being a copycat. Johnny Nitro was Johnny Nitro. Johnny Nitro was an original."