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.

Pete "Guitar" Lewis

Pete “Guitar” Lewis, far right with the Johnny Otis Show, early 50’s

Our subject today: Pete “Guitar” Lewis, is another man of mystery. A brilliant guitar player whose style could be primitive and aggressive or subtle and jazzy, he sounded like himself and no one else. His sound is immediately recognizable, his touch was immaculate, and today, nobody except his one time boss Johnny Otis even remembers that he even existed.

Lewis was discovered by Johnny Otis at amateur night at the Club Alabam which Otis was the co-owner of, and was soon added to the Johnny Otis Show, appearing on all their recordings from 1951-55. Virtually all of his recordings (except his last) where done under Johnny Otis’ tutelage, and when he left Otis’ group in 1955 he returned to obscurity. We know he was born somewhere in the South, and that he died in L.A. in the early 70’s, where and when he was born are unknown at this time. With Otis he made his mark in a big way, appearing on all his Regent/Savoy recordings, his guitar is featured most prominently on Harlem Nocturne, Boogie Guitar, and Hangover Blues, as well as sides for Peacock (Shake It being the best), and Mercury (more on those later). Working for Otis, who was then doing A&R and producing for Don Robey’s Peacock label, he backed up Johnny Ace and Big Mama Thorton– whose first session produced Hound Dog, Walking Blues, Nightmare and Hard Times, tunes which all feature Lewis’ guitar front and center. Lieber and Stoller remember the original arrangment of Hound Dog being written around a riff that Lewis developed in the studio. He was recorded as a leader for Federal, eight titles recorded over two sessions in 1952 resulted in these four singles: Louisiana Hop b/w Crying With The Rising Sun, Raggedy Blues b/w Harmonica Boogie, The Blast b/w Chocolate Porkchop Man and Ooh, It’s Midnight b/w Scratchin’. Peacock recorded him a year later and issued one single– Goin’ Crazy b/w Back Door Troubles (this one is so rare I’ve been looking for it for twenty years and still haven’t seen a copy).
Perhaps the highlight of his career came when the Johnny Otis Show recorded a session for Mercury with the great tenor man Ben Webster, the Duke Ellington alumni
responsible for countless great jazz sides. The four song session includes two tunes where Pete Lewis trades off riffs with Webster– One Nighter Blues and Goomp Blues,
stunning performances (the other tunes cut that day in ’51– three takes of Stardust,
Basie’s One O’Clock Jump and a goofy novelty tunes called Oopy Doo don’t have guitar solos). One might imagine that this session was a chance for Lewis to really prove himself as a musician, one able to hold his ground with the best of ’em, and Ben Webster was certainly the best of ’em. Listen to their exchange on One Nighter Blues– Webster’s warm fog of a tone sounds so good pitted against Lewis’ jagged, distorted blues riffing. It’s a shame they didn’t record more together, or that this trend didn’t catch on. Had this record been a hit, Lord knows what sax-guitar duets we might have seen– Lester Young and Guitar Slim? Charlie Parker and Gatemouth Brown? The mind boggles. But it was not to be, it was an experiment whose time had not yet come, and we wouldn’t hear anything remotely like it until Miles Davis’ A Tribute To Jack Johnson eighteen years later (fans of peculiar jazz/rock fusion and/or guitar-sax duels might want to check out Albert Ayler’s Drudgery where he jams out the blues with Henry Vestine of the Gamblers (Moondawg/LSD-25) and Canned Heat fame, a most perverse piece of trash which I love) .
Otis also recorded him for his own Dig label with Get Away From Here, a track that was un-issued until the 90’s. He appears on other Johnny Otis Dig recordings like Midnight Creeper, Ali Baba’s Boogie, and Groove Juice and Country Boogie, released under Preston Love’s name. In late 1955 he left Johnny Otis after an argument (his replacement was Jimmy Nolen who was later replaced by Otis’ son Shuggie Otis), Lewis recorded only one more time, backing up Willie Egan on the Vita label, he can be heard on the rocker Come On. From there, who knows? Johnny Otis said the last time he saw Pete Lewis was during the Watts riots in the summer of ’66, he was a wino on the street. He hadn’t worked in music in years.
There ya go, another great one, lost to time, except for the incredible recordings he made. Pete “Guitar” Lewis was a monster.
ADDENDUM TO TODAY’S POST: Barry Soltz checked in to remind me of a great Pete Lewis solo that I forgot about— Little Esther with the Dominoes on Federal– The Deacon’s Movin’ In, and also that Ben Webster and Pete Lewis play together on Little Esther’s Better Beware (also on Federal, I didn’t realize that was Ben Webster)— thanks Barry.

Johnny Otis part two: Black Comedy LP covers

These are some of my favorite album covers. They are all issued on the Laff label in the 1960’s, and all are recorded live in night clubs and feature the Johnny Otis Show as the backing band. Honestly, the covers are the best part. Pardon the crummy reproductions, the LP covers are too big for my scanner so I had to photograph them using existing light. Since I don’t have a great camera, the flash would cause a ugly glare on the reproduced image or else get kinda fuzzy. You still can see them and I assume you get the idea. Or you don’t. I hope you agree with me that as “art” they are infinitely more interesting than anything such big buck art frauds like Julien “I’m fat but I’m hairy” Schnabel, Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons have ever produced. Listening wise they don’t hold up as well as their covers, here’s the best track, Skillet & Leroy’s The Republicans 23rd Psalm/The Boss.
These LP covers were all designed by Howard Goldstein with photography by Bud Fraker.
Unfortunately, one of the best covers– Skillet & Leroy’s The Okra Eaters I no longer own as Lester Bangs borrowed it from me back in ’81 then promptly dropped dead two days later*. John Morthland who was the executor of Lester’s estate refused to give it back to me when I asked for it, along with a book he borrowed: Persecuted Prophets by Karen W. Carden and Robert W. Pelton (A.S. Barnes, 1976) about Kentucky snake-handling religious cults. The book I’ve replaced, the LP eludes me still, 27 years later (partially due to my refusal to pay more than $10 for a copy). I don’t know if Mr. Goldstein or Mr. Fraker are still alive but their work together deserve a retrospective at Moma (Museum Of Modern Art) or at least the Whitney.
Art, politics, religion, music, medicine, literature, history, let’s face it, they are all just branches of Show Biz. And American Show Biz was invented by P.T. Barnum. Need I say more?

* I think it’s funny there’s someone out there bragging about “having Lester Bangs’ copy of Metal Machine Music” and evidently paying big bucks for it. Lester owned over one hundred copies of MMM at the time of his death, including two copies I sold him when I ran into him on Astor Place where I was hawking promos a week before his death.
Evidently someone is selling them for highly inflated prices as “Lester’s personal copy”.
I’ll bet all together he went through 2-300 copies (he was also always giving them away to folks who missed it the first time around in ’75). A copy of MMM that wasn’t owned by Lester is probably rarer than one that was.

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