We spoke with keyboardist Lewis Nitikman, about his start in the Canadian bands Stonebolt and Diamond in the Rough, his work in England with John Reilly, and the new album New Dawn as a key member of the band Stranded.
By Warren Kurtz
GOLDMINE: The first time I heard Stonebolt on Canadian radio, listening across the lake from Cleveland, was in 1978 with Adam Mitchell’s composition “Queen of the Night.” Adam recently told me that the style of the song was inspired by The Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “Third Rate Romance.” Then that fall, the ballad “I Will Still Love You” debuted in the U.S. Top 40, so I would play side one of Stonebolt’s debut album at our Peaches Records & Tapes store in Cleveland, which began with Ray Roper’s guitar on the catchy “Was It You,” reminding me of Daniel Boone’s “Beautiful Sunday,” and then went right into “I Will Still Love You.”
LEWIS NITIKMAN: Like you, I was a fan of the band at that time too. I was playing piano in a really nice Italian restaurant called Puccini’s in Vancouver. Ray and a bunch of people used to go in there, where I played when I think I was nineteen or twenty. I went up to them one time and said if ever you need a keyboard player let me know because I was a fan of their music. It was really melodic. At some point, after their third album, I got a call from Ray asking if I wanted to audition because their keyboardist John Webster was leaving. I passed the audition and Stonebolt became the first band I was ever in, playing on the fourth and final Stonebolt album Juvenile American Princess in 1982. So, I missed all of the experience of having to be in cover bands. From playing in lounges, I went right to touring and having roadies. It was great. Ray was one of my three mentors. Not only was he a great guitarist and songwriter but he was also a really good engineer. My other two mentors were the piano players Doc Fingers, known in Canada for blues and jazz, and Kevin Crowe, with more of a lounge classy act, who gave me my gig at Puccini’s. While on tour with Stonebolt, I loved playing “Was it You.”
Flip side: Was It You
A side: Love Struck
Top 100 debut: February 10, 1979
Peak position: No. 70
Parachute RR 522
GM: In addition to becoming the debut album’s third single, it also became the flip side of “Love Struck” from the second album. When Stonebolt was on tour, who else was on the bill?
LN: We toured with Burton Cummings. I was a big Guess Who fan and a fan of his solo work. All of a sudden, we were on the road together. Burton gave me a piano lesson that I requested in Victoria, showing me how to play the finale of “My Own Way to Rock,” which is the song he opened with. He must have shown it to me twenty times before I got it.
GM:While you were in Stonebolt, we moved to Texas and then Virginia before moving back to Ohio in the late ‘80s and I was excited to listen again to Canadian radio, on the way to work in downtown Cleveland, near where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now sits. At that point you were in the band Diamond in the Rough, with four singles from your 1988 album of which the final flip side, “Where is Love,” the flip side of “Thief in the Night,” sounds to me like a great ‘80s dance number in a George Michael style, and I really like Dave Buckthorpe’s voice.
LN: You know it cracks me up that you know about these albums. I have received emails from Austria and other places about that album. There is this one guy who runs the biggest online radio station in Athens, Greece and wrote to me about the Diamond in the Rough album and it just blows me away that all of you know Canadian music. The story about “Where is Love” is that I came back from Berklee in Boston, where I went to school, and I decided that I wanted to make a record, so I needed a singer. I can sing, but not brilliantly. I hunted around and came up with Dave Buckthorpe who used to sing in a latter day version of the Canadian band Painter. We started writing together and came up with three songs and we put them on a cassette. One of them was “Where is Love.” I flew to Toronto, and with the contacts I had made through Stonebolt, I was able to reach out to some record labels. I visited the offices, played the songs and everyone turned me down and then, just before the flight back, I went to Virgin. Doug Chappell was the president of Virgin Music Canada. I forced my way up to his office. I was told to leave the tape with them, and that they would get back to me. I told them no, that they had to listen to the tape, so they took me into Dave’s office and I told him I wouldn’t leave until he at least listened to the first song. He sat down to listen to the tape, and “Where is Love” was the first song. He said, “That’s a hit song.” The rest of the story was gaining a relationship with him over the next year or so and recording the album. The three girls who sing on “Where is Love” are the same ladies who sang on Bob Seger’s “Night Moves.” It was recorded in Toronto where Triumph recorded and produced by the people who produced Red Rider’s album at the time.
GM:Another singer you have worked with is Britain’s John Reilly. He has a very nice voice.
LN: He has a brilliant voice. He is my performing and writing partner here in the UK.
GM:I enjoy your piano playing on “Not Alone,” reminding me of fellow Clevelander Eric Carmen.
LN: We are really proud of that song. It got a bit of airplay in the UK and internationally as well.
GM:“Building Avalon” is very exciting.
LN: I sent that to CBC radio, too, and it ended up on power rotation for eight weeks in Canada. It was also on the playlist here in Sheffield, England and a few other BBC stations.
GM:What drove you to relocate to England?
LN: I kept coming over here to work with John, back and forth so often over a four year period, that I thought I would take a shot at living here, so I moved here in 2010 to Sheffield, the home of Joe Cocker, Arctic Monkeys and Def Leppard, and my first experience coming here was playing with Joe Elliott and Rick Savage from Def Leppard at Sheffield City Hall. John produced a concert for a big charity here. We had the singers Paul Carrack and John Parr, too. I ended up playing piano for the whole show.
Lewis on keyboards as a member of John Reilly’s band, courtesy of Lewis Nitikman.
GM:Your new album, from the band Stranded, brings you back to your Canadian roots. You are reunited with Ray Roper from Stonebolt and another Canadian, Troy Reid, from Agent, who also had an ‘80s album on Virgin in Canada. From their three singles, “Surrender” is my favorite Agent flip side. It is so exciting, where Troy’s voice reminds me a bit of Steve Perry mixed with Bryan Adams. Your new album, New Dawn, opens with a song with a great title, “Not Enough Sorry in the World.” It is great to hear Troy’s vocal delivery.
LN: I think Troy’s voice is a bit more like Michael Bolton. He and I have been really close friends for over 30 years and I asked him to sing on this new album. He was a studio singer for a number of years, too. I wrote “Not Enough Sorry in the World” in Nashville with Daryl Burgess, who is a great songwriter and a first class drummer. It is actually a country song and was on hold with the country band Lonestar for about six months. Ultimately, they didn’t use it, so we did the version heard on New Dawn.
GM:The next song on the new album, “I’ll Be the One,” features electric guitar and congas that remind me of Santana and the bridges remind me of Toto.
LN: Exactly. I was a huge Toto fan. On the Diamond in the Rough album I did try to emulate Toto. “I’ll Be the One” certainly features Ray’s guitar playing.
GM:His guitar playing on “I Believe in This Love,” is equally great.
LN: Ray played that solo, note for note on an old guitar, unrehearsed, in one take and it was amazing. He has a knack for finding the right accent for a song. It was one of those magic moments.
GM:With the guitar and background vocals, that recording is Clapton-like.
LN: That solo is beautiful and probably one of my favorite tracks on the album. I think it sounds massive. Daryl Burgess is playing drums and we have a bunch of big session singers in Vancouver.
GM:You mention favorite songs, I think my favorite on New Dawn is “Power of Love,” with a wonderful melody and your outstanding piano playing.
LN: That is a beautiful song. I wrote that with Corey Abrams, a singer from Chicago. He co-wrote four of the songs on the album.
GM:Another piano driven song that I enjoy is “Arrow.”
LN: I wrote that one with John Reilly. He also did a version on his album. On New Dawn I took it and turned it into a big pompous sound like you would want to hear with a symphony, a bit over the top.
GM:Big piano driven songs make for some of my family’s favorites.Not only did “Arrow” remind me of Elton John, but also the melody on “Cindy” reminds me “Bad Blood,” that Elton did with Neil Sedaka and it builds so nicely.
LN: That song was written about my then girlfriend who was driving me absolutely bonkers! I went to the studio, just thrashing away on this piano and that is what came out.
GM:You, Troy, Ray and the rest certainly have created such an entertaining album. Congratulations on New Dawn.
LN: Thank you very much. Support from you and Goldmine is really appreciated. It was great speaking with you.
Photo courtesy of Lewis Nitikman
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.