Jimmy Nolen B.C. (before chank)

I love these early “bio label” Federal promo 45’s.

The Johnny Otis Show, Jimmy Nolen is seated to Otis’ right, behind Three Tons Of Joy.

Nolen gets a rare chance to play the blues with James Brown’s band, 1981.

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.

Johnny Otis

Johnny Otis, born John Alexander Veliotes on Dec. 28, 1921 in Vallejo, California is one of the most influential and profoundly important figures in the history of American music, and one of the last survivors of the golden age of rhythm and blues

and the birth of rock’n’roll. He’s also one of the most interesting characters in American popular culture.  Johnny Otis was and is an incomparable musician (drums/piano/vibes), producer, band leader, songwriter, talent scout, painter, sculptor (Dylan’s Malibu digs sports one of Johnny Otis’ oversize sculptures on its grounds), disc jockey, congressional aide, author, apple juice entrepreneur,preacher and more. The life of Johnny Otis should be the subject of a major biography and I cannot hope to cover more than a small portion of it here (in fact Otis has published two autobiographies, both excellent– Listen To The Lambs (W.W. Norton, 1968) and Upside our Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue (Wesleyan University Press, 1993) so I’ll just focus on my favorite recordings here.
Johnny, born of Greek immigrant parents in a largely black neighborhood of Vellejo, grew up in Berkeley where his father owned a small grocery store. At some point in his youth, taken by music and the vitality of the Afro-American ghetto life around him, Johnny decided that he would become black. With dark, swarthy Mediterranean features he could pass for something like an octaroon, but remember these were the days of Jim Crow, when being black brought more grief than benefits. (For an interesting look at the opposite side of “passing”, I suggest Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain, Houghton Mifflen, 2000). Music became the most important thing in young Johnny’s life, and soon, having taken on the surname Otis, he was pounding drums in a small, proto-rhythm and blues combo called Count Otis Mathews and House Rockers. Johnny remembered most of the set he played the beat that would later be identified with Bo Diddley (also known as “shave and a haircut/two bits”). Unfortunately Mathews never recorded.
     The 1940’s was the era of the big band and caught up in the excitement caused by Count Basie and Jimmy Luncford’s outfits, Otis headed east working his way through various “territory bands” (big bands whose geographic territory ranged through the mid to south western states), playing with George Morrison’s band in Denver, Lloyd Hunter’s band in Omaha (where he’d meet life long friend and sax player extraordinaire Preston Love, and run with wild man Wynonie “Mr Blues” Harris), and Harlan Leonard and the Kansas City Rockets in Missouri. It was with the latter outfit he hit L.A. where they became the house band at the Club Alabam on Central Avenue in Watts. Soon Otis joined up with Bardu Ali’s band headlining at the Lincoln Theater, also on Central Ave. This was his last job working in somebody else’s band.
In 1945 Otis formed his own big band, eighteen pieces, and they soon recorded for Leon Rene’s Excelsior label where they had a hit with their sublime arrangement of Harlem Nocturne.
They made quite a few good records before Excelsior went under including this one, a personal favorite featuring female singer Marylin Scott– Beer Bottle Boogie, but the days of the big bands were numbered, and by 1947 jobs were getting scarce.
   In 1947 along with now business partner, the aforementioned Bardu Ali, Otis opened his own nightclub, the Barrelhouse, located in L.A.’s Watts district at 106th St and Wilmington, spitting distance from Central Ave.  Here Otis come in to his own as one of the all time great talent scouts, he would discover Little Esther Phillips, the Robins (who morphed into the Coasters under the tutelage of Leiber and Stoller), Etta James,
Hank Ballard & the Midnighters, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John (the latter three all on the same night in Detroit), as well as two of the greatest unheralded guitarists in R&B history– Pete “Guitar” Lewis and Jimmy Nolan.  It’s also around this time that Otis’ discography gets a bit confusing, he would record for Modern, Savoy and its Regent subsidiary, Mercury, Peacock/Duke, Capitol, Okeh, King, as well as producing sessions for Ralph Bass at Federal (itself a subsidiary of Cincinnati’s King Records), Philo, United Artists, Kent, as well as his own labels– Dig, Eldo, Blues Spectrum, Hawk Sound. He also moonlighted producing sessions for various members of his band now dubbed The Johnny Otis Show and artists as diverse as Big Mama Thorton, Johnny Ace, Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris, and Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
       It was also around this time that Otis, who had switched from playing drums (a bad seat to drive from as Iggy Pop once said) to piano, accidentally chopped off several finger tips working in his wood shop.  This cost him some of  his manual dexterity and he would take up the vibes as his main instrument which gave his band a direct link to the sound of the great Lionel Hampton Band, who along with Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five where the most important precursors to the coming small band rhythm and blues  sound of the late 40’s and early 50’s.
    Shall we now delve into said discography and see what sort of incredible nuggets
Johnny Otis left us?
    Among my personal favorites, on the Regal label where he had a string of minor R&B hits we find:
These records, featuring Little Esther, male vocalist Mel Walker, and guitarist Pete “Guitar” Lewis were all good sellers on the R&B charts, especially in L.A. where Otis was packing them in nightly at the Barrelhouse.  Check out Lewis’ phrasing and sensitive touch on “Hangover Blues”, you can almost hear his headache.
 Pete Lewis, who was discovered at Amateur Night at the Barrel House had only been playing guitar for six  months when he joined Otis’ band.  He’d go on to cut solo sides for Federal including the incredible “Ooh, It’s Midnight” (that’s Little Esther cooing),”Louisiana Hop”, and a few vocal blues like “Chocolate Pork Chop Man“. On this 1953  Mercury session issued under Johnny Otis’ name, Lewis trades licks with former Duke Ellington tenor sax star Ben Webster, the sound of Lewis’ distorted blues licks against Websters warm, foggy, sax tone is pure genius, and I’d say “One Nighter Blues” is one of the greatest sides ever waxed. Lewis would eventually drink his way into the gutter, the last time Otis saw him was during the Watts riots, summer of ’66, he was living on the street as a wino. 
     Esther Phillips, another Otis discovery also began her solo career, as Little Esther,
on Federal with Otis moonlighting as uncredited producer on a handful of R&B sides including this one with the Dominoes, my favorite— “The Deacon Moves In”.
Another Otis discovery was fifteen year old Etta James who Otis took to the Modern label, producing her first hit “The Wallflower” an answer song to the Midnighters’ “Work With  Me Annie”, as well as such such classics as “Nobody Loves You Like  Me” (have you ever heard a bad record with the word Sputnik in it?), and “Tough Lover“.*
     By 1958 Pete Lewis had left the band and was replaced by the great Jimmy Nolen.
Here’s one of Jimmy Nolen’s best solo sides, also recorded for Federal, his version of Erkstine Hawkins’ “After Hours” (this was Roy Buchanan’s favorite record, and as you can hear, the one he based his entire guitar style on).  Nolen would stay with Otis into the early sixties before joining James Brown’s band where he would change his style, loosely choking the guitar’s neck and playing rhythm patterns with his right hand, rarely changing chords to create that “chank” style first heard on Brown’s “Out Of Sight” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”.  Nolen played on Otis’ biggest hits, including “Willie and the Hand Jive“, “Castin’ My Spell” and “Crazy Country Hop“, all done in the Bo Diddley style that Otis had been playing since his days with Count Mathews’ House Rockers.
   Around 1957 Otis started the first of several labels he would found– Dig.
Dig and it’s Eldo subsidiary issued around fifty singles and one LP (the LP, covers of current rock’n’roll hits circa 1957 can be found here) including some real gems like Preston Love’s “Wango Blues“, Otis’ own “Groove Juice” and “Midnight Creeper” (the U.K. Ace label has four CD’s of issued and un-issued Dig material under the name Dapper Cats, Groovy Tunes & Hot Guitars: The Legendary Dig Masters well worth acquiring, even buying).
    From 1952-55 Otis was signed to the Houston based Peacock label (which had just acquired the Memphis based Duke label) run by black/Jewish gangster Don Robey.
Here he cut some excellent rock’n’roll sides, the best being this one– “Shake It“.
At Peacock he had more success as a producer/arranger, working with Big Mama Thorton whose “Hound Dog” he produced and co-wrote  (although he was later screwed out of his writer’s share by Leiber & Stoller), and other killer sides like “I Smell A Rat”. His biggest hit for Robey, and one of R&B’s most enduring and ghostly tunes was Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love” which hit #1 on the R&B charts in the months after Ace’s  1954 death from either Russian roulette or shot by the aforementioned Ms. Thorton, depending on whose story you believe. Sorry I can’t seem to keep to a chronological order here.
Otis was still going strong into the 1960’s,  he had a minor hit with the LP Cold Shot (Kentand his son, guitarist Shuggie Otis would join the band, replacing Jimmy Nolen.  Shuggie, who Information LP (on Columbia) has become a major cult item among the disco/sampler/funk collector crowd, you can find it here.
     Of his sixties work, perhaps his finest moment came in 1969 when Johnny, Shuggie and singer Mighty Mouth Evans recorded under the nome’ du disque Snatch & the Poontangs (Kent) an LP of the filthiest, nastiest, most x-rated rock’n’roll of all time.  It was Otis’ successful attempt to preserve the part of Afro-American folk culture sometimes called toasting or the dozens, in which traditional oral history is handed down in the most profane manner possible.  Hip hop grew out of this and field recordings made in prisons in the 1940’s and 50’s uncovered a rich oral tradition of hilarious boasts and insults.  My favorite track is “Hey Shine” which tells the tale of the black ship mate Shine, the best part of the Titanic story (of course it was left out of the movie). The story of the “Signifyin’ Monkey” is told in two parts (part one, part  two), I especially like the “true whore’s oath” section of the second part. And cuz I’m a nice guy here’s an un-issued outtake from that brilliant disc– a version of the “Dirty Dozens” which features Johnny’s barrel house piano and vibes as well as  lyrics that could make Redd Foxx blush. Otis had quite a backround in stuff like this, the Johnny Otis Show having provided the music for dozens of black comedy  LP’s by Skillet & Leroy, LaWanda Page (Aunt Ester from Sanford & Son), and others on the Laff label throughout the sixties.  
    Otis also hosted many radio shows both in the L.A. area and the Bay Area where he returned in the 1990’s, settling in Sebastopal, north of Frisco. Here’s his theme song. Somewhere I have a funny tape of Frank Zappa as guest DJ, spinning classic R&B discs while Johnny tells personal antidotes about each artist.  Unfortunately I don’t think I have  a working cassette deck in the house, but if I get one I’ll try and post it.  For a short time he had his own TV show (clips above), he was also an aide to Congressman Mervyn M. Dymally in the 1980’s (his younger brother Nick Veliotes was the U.S. ambassador to Jordan and Egypt). 
Otis kept going through the 70’s and 80’s, touring occassionaly (the last time the Johnny Otis Show appeared in New York City was at Carnegie Hall in the late 80’s, I ended up meeting Johnny and Mighty Mouth Evans in the bathroom, they both laughed when I requested tunes from the Snatch & the Poontangs record). He ministered at a church he founded in Santa Rosa– the Landmark Community Baptist Church, marketed  his own brand of apple juice, spend a lot of time painting (that’s one of his paintings on the cover of Upside Your Head pictured above) and doing giant sculptures of African-American images (his artwork can be seen here), and kept himself quite busy. A visit to Johnny Otis World Website is well worth your time.
These days Johnny is in poor health and it’s unlikely he’ll ever perform again.
Airchecks of his final radio shows can be found here.  I know it’s drag to get old and sick, but I sure hope Johnny Otis has a happy birthday, he deserves that and much, much more.  If anybody alive has left the world a better place it’s been Johnny Otis.
* I noticed there’s a movie out there with Beyonce playing Etta James, that would be like Whitney Houston playing Bessie Smith.  I read the non-fiction book (so bad I refuse to mention its title  or author here) the flick was based on and counted 24 factual errors in the first chapter. Amazing how Hollywood always gets it wrong.
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