The career of guitarist Jimmy Nolen can be divided into two parts, the first as an R&B and rock’n’roll guitarist, best known for his stint with The Johnny Otis Show (1957-59), and as a solo artist, and a second part spent playing behind James Brown where his style changed, starting with James Brown’s recording of Out Of Sight (1965), when Nolen developed a new style of playing, using the guitar as a percussion instrument, loosely barring an A chord, and whacking away it it, it was a style which he’d play for the rest of his life. Literally, he played that A chord for the rest of his life. It was from this latter style he got his nickname “Chank”, which was the sound he made hitting that chord. It was this later part of his career for which he is often celebrated, having virtually invented the funk style of guitar playing, but today, we, make that I, shall survey the early part of his career, since no one else seems to care much about it.
James Nolen was born in Oklahoma City in 1934, he began playing violin as a kid, and influenced by blues giant T-Bone Walker got himself a cheap Harmony guitar and taught himself to play the blues. Jimmy Wilson, best remembered for the minor hit Tin Pan Alley, spotted him playing in Tulsa and hired him, bringing him to Los Angeles.
In L.A. he played with local R&B acts like Monte Easter, with whom he made his recording debut appearing on the Aladdin disc Blues In The Evening b/w New Orleans Hop (there’s a copy on Ebay
right now, minimum bid $200), and also with sax honker Chuck Higgins, rocking away in fine style on his Dootone sides like Wetback Hop
, The Rooster, Oh Yeah
and Lookin’ For My Baby. He recorded his first single for the local Elko label (it was later leased to Imperial) in 1955- Slow Freight Back Home b/w Let’s Try It Again
, the b-side being his debut as a vocalist. Another disc issued on Elko– Strangest Blues b/w I Used To Love A Woman under Nolen’s name is actually by Jimmy Wilson according to the latest edition of The Blues Discography 1943-1970
(Les Fancourt and Bob McGrath, Eyeball Productions
, 2007) He also cut some excellent sides for Federal in two sessions held in 1956. Between 1956 and 1957, Federal issued five Jimmy Nolen singles- I Can’t Stand You No More
b/w You’ve Been Goofing
, Strollin With Nolen
b/w After Hours
(this is the version sighted by Roy Buchanan
as his main inspiration, he would go on to record it several times, always using Nolen’s arrangement as the template), Strawberry Jam b/w The Lost Train, Move On Down The Line
b/w The Way You Do
and It Hurts Me So b/w How Fine Can You Be. These sides leave no doubt that he was an passable singer and better than average songwriter, but it was as a guitarist that he really stood out as a truly original stylist. Charly re-issued all his Federal recordings (with alternate takes) on the CD Scratchin’
along with seminal sides by Pete “Guitar” Lewis and Cal Green (of the Midnighters) in ’91 (CD 268).
In 1957 when Pete ‘Guitar’ Lewis
left the Johnny Otis Show, Nolen was a natural choice as his replacement. Otis had recorded him for his Dig label, although the recordings– Jimmy’s Jive
and Come On Home
went unreleased until the 1990’s. With The Johnny Otis Show he can be heard on classics like Willie & the Hand Jive
, Castin’ My Spell
, Crazy Country Hop
, Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ Baby
, playing mostly in a style similar to Bo Diddley, although Otis claims he had been playing that hambone beat since the late thirties as the drummer with Count Otis Mathews’ House Rockers, the Bay Area combo he began his long, illustrious career with. Nolen stayed with Otis until 1959 when he struck out on his own, recording for the Specialty subsidiary Fidelity that year, the result being an extremely rare two part instrumental– Swinging Peter Gun Part One b/w Part Two. I’m still looking for that one.
Nolen spent the next five years leading his own band, touring around the south west, backing up bluesman George “Harmonica” Smith, and struggling for a break. Finally, in 1965 he joined James Brown’s backing band, developed his “chank” style (sometimes called the “Scratch” or “Chicken Scratch”), staying with Brown until 1970, when he quit along with the whole band who walked out en masse, rebelling against Brown’s draconian system of fines and low pay. With Maceo Parker as leader, they soon regrouped sans Brown as Maceo and All the King’s Men. Urban legend tells us when Brown was auditioning Nolen’s replacement he asked one picker, “Can you play an A chord”?, followed by “Can you play it all night”? then, “You’re hired”. Nolen would rejoin James Brown’s band in 1972 and stay until he died from a heart attack in 1983. With Brown he rarely got to solo, although the above clip shows he still had the heart and finger tips of a blues man until the end. His rhythmic playing was featured prominently chanking away on his like Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag and I Can’t Stand Myself (When You Touch Me), and plenty of other guitar players were listening. Today his style totally ingrained in the sound of modern music, but we shall forgive him, it wasn’t his fault music got so crappy.
And that readers, is pretty much what I know of Jimmy Nolen’s story. Anyone with copy of Fidelity 3015 to sell or trade can e-mail c/o this website.