Monday, November 24, 2014

"Strollin’ With Nolen" by Jimmy Nolen

Acclaimed axeman Jimmy “Chank” Nolen showed off his prodigious guitar skills on this smokin’ rhythm-and-blues instrumental. This jumpin’ groove no doubt had folks cuttin’ a mean rug way back in the day. And you can’t go wrong with a hot sax solo. Nolen wrote and arranged the track, which was released in 1956 on Federal Records, a subsidiary of Cincinnati-based King Records.

Nolen is widely celebrated in the funk community as one of the genre’s most influential guitarists. During his long tenure as lead guitarist for James Brown’s band, he played on a number of seminal tracks that helped launch funk music—which became an important and integral part of contemporary music. Nolen is credited with inventing the chicken-scratch guitar lick, a signature of the rhythm-driven funk sound. He played his famous chicken-scratch lick on Brown’s 1965 classic “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” which is considered by many as the first funk record.  Due to his creation of the chicken-scratch lick and his pivotal contributions to a slew of influential funk tracks, Nolen is known as the “Father of Funk Guitar.”

Nolen was born on April 3, 1934 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He became interested in music at a very young age and began playing the violin when he was nine. And after listening to records by legendary blues guitarist T-Bone Walker, he picked up the guitar at age14. Before long, Nolen was impressing audiences at local clubs with his considerable guitar chops. He was eventually discovered by blues singer Jimmy Wilson, who caught him playing at a club in Tulsa. Wilson quickly recruited the talented young guitarist for his band. Shortly thereafter, Wilson brought Nolen to Los Angeles, where he began playing guitar for trumpeter Monte Easter and tenor saxophonist Chuck Higgins.  During this period, Nolen was also cutting his own tracks on Federal Records, including “Strollin’ With Nolen,” “It Hurts Me Too” and “Movin’ On Down The Line.”

Nolen joined Johnny Otis’ band in 1957, replacing guitarist Pete “Guitar” Lewis. Nolen played on Otis’ R&B smash “Willie and the Hand Jive,” released in 1958. Nolen left Otis’ band in 1959 to form his own R&B outfit, called the Jimmy Nolen Band. The band gigged around California and Arizona’s “chitlin circuit,” playing small clubs and ballrooms. And the band backed several big-name blues acts who came through Cali. The band only cut one track in the five years that they were together, as their key purpose was to make a name for themselves as a great backing band. By the early ‘60s, Nolen was backing blues harp legend George “Harmonica” Smith and leading his own band.

Nolen’s soulful, gritty playing style would eventually catch the attention of James Brown. He joined Brown’s band 1965 and helped the legendary artist/performer make music history by playing on tracks that ushered in a new dynamic sound known as funk. Nolen remained with Brown for pretty much the remainder of his career, save for a two-year period (1970-1972) in he which played with Maceo & All the King’s Men; Brown’s controlling, mercurial behavior and tightfistedness got to be too much for most of the original members, which resulted in a mass defection in 1970. However, Nolen rejoined Brown’s band in early ’73, where he would remain until his death on December 18, 1983. 

The stoic axeman quietly made his mark on the music world. His contributions to funk are undeniable, and his influence as a guitarist is massive.

The Rhythm & Blues Years CD by Jimmy Nolen at Amazon

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