Nick Colionne, who spent his childhood listening to Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, and George Benson, never planned to play the guitar. "My stepfather played the guitar, but we were never allowed to touch it. He caught me banging on it one day, and he said, "You want to learn how to play?' I was too afraid to say no."
At the age of nine Colionne started performing at parties, then at schools in his west-side neighborhood. The more he played the more he loved it. By the time he was 14 he was playing with grown men and getting paid $30 a night. "I always played with older guys, because I knew how to play jazz. That's what my parents listened to at home. Most people in my age group played R & B and rock."
Which isn't to say he didn't play R & B and rock. In the late 70s he played with the Impressions, did studio work for Natalie Cole, Curtis Mayfield, and Al Green, and toured with the Staple Singers. He also had his own bands, which played heavy metal and funk, mostly as the rhythm section for other groups. They played at the Cotton Club, the Jazz Bulls, the Backroom, Jazz Oasis, Pyramid of Cairo.
But he got tired of always backing other people. "When I was playing behind everybody it was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to record a solo album. I didn't want to be 60 and saying, I coulda', I shoulda'."
Colionne met his manager, Carol Ray, at a Cotton Club show, and she encouraged him to go for it. They put out his first album, It's My Turn, in February. "The title is because it's time for me to step out of the background," he says. "I was always writing songs the whole time I was playing with other people."
The 11-song CD--which includes classics like Montgomery's "Bumpin' on Sunset" and an uncanny vocal interpretation of Brook Benton's "Rainy Night in Georgia," as well as Colionne originals--was picked up by the local Lake Shore Jazz label. Then WNUA FM started giving it consistent airplay, and it climbed to the number-two slot on the radio station's top-20 countdown.
Last spring Colionne was having problems with his Gibson guitar. "I brought it into the Guitar Center, and the president of Gibson was visiting town. He called me to tell me they'd send the guitar to Nashville if they couldn't fix it and that everybody in the store was raving about how great I play. He told me that I sounded like the type of person that they'd like to represent their product. He asked me to send him my CD."
The president, Jim Rosenberg, liked the album so much that he decided to include Colionne in the company's summer and fall ad campaign, along with Chet Atkins, John Lee Hooker, and Matthew Sweet.
"When they told me I was going to be with Chet Atkins and John Lee Hooker, I jumped out of my skin. They were going to put me in the same company with Chet and John Lee?"
Colionne's now working on his second album. He already has a title: Arrival.
Colionne plays the Metropole, Fairmont Hotel, 200 N. Columbus Drive, 8:30 PM to 12:30 AM on Tuesday, August 29 (no cover); 6 PM to midnight Wednesday, August 30 ($7 cover, one of the stops on the Jazz Club Tour); and 8 PM to 12:30 AM Thursday, August 31 ($7 cover). Call 565-6665.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Randy Tunnell.