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NOLEN, JAMES W. (1934–1983).

Often called “the Father of Funk Guitar,” James W. “Jimmy” Nolen was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, to James and Lola May Gay Nolen on April 3, 1934. “Jimmy” Nolen grew up with nine brothers and sisters on a farm near Wealaka, Oklahoma. There he began playing violin at age nine. He bought an acoustic guitar at age fourteen and began teaching himself to play by listening to blues music on the radio. His favorite musicians were T-Bone Walker and Lowell Fulson.

Nolen turned professional in the 1950s. At eighteen, living in Wichita, Kansas, he picked up an electric guitar and began playing with J. D. Nicholson and His Jivin’ Five. Nolen first recorded with Nicholson in 1952. In 1955 blues singer Jimmy Wilson discovered Nolen playing at a Tulsa club. He joined Wilson’s group, and when it disbanded, he settled in Los Angeles, California, where he joined trumpeter Monte Easton’s band.

Nolen’s first national exposure came in 1957 when he began playing and recording with Johnny Otis. Nolen contributed guitar to Otis’s “Willie and the Hand Jive,” a major hit in 1958. After also recording by himself into the 1960s, he left Otis and formed a nine-piece group of his own. They backed famous blues men, including B. B. King, who were performing in Los Angeles.

In 1965 Nolen joined James Brown (“the Godfather of Soul”) on tour and made instant impact with his ringing dominant ninth chords, long used in jazz circles and now known as “funk chords.” Nolen’s use of them, with a “chukka chukka” rhythm, set the benchmark style for all future funk guitarists, who called the technique “chicken scratch.” They are heard on Brown’s hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good),” and “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World.” Nolen and his band mates are also credited for converting the soul music of the 1960s into funk.

After leaving Brown in the early 1970s, he formed another group but often returned to “the Godfather of Soul,” playing live and on albums through1983. On December 18 of that year Nolen died of a heart attack. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in 1996 for his significant contribution to American music. In 2010 Masters Classics records released a collection of Jimmy Nolen’s early work, titled The Rhythm and Blues Years.

Hugh W. Foley, Jr.

See also: ELVIN BISHOP, BLUES, JOHN WELDON CALE, LOWELL FULSON, JAZZ, LEON RUSSELL

Bibliography

Hugh W. Foley, Jr., Oklahoma Music Guide II (Stillwater, Okla. New Forums Press, 2013).  

David Ruben, Birth of the Groove: R and B, Soul and Funk Guitar, 1945–1965 (N. p.: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2000).

Stillwater (Oklahoma) News Press, 30 May 1995.

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Hugh W. Foley, Jr., “Nolen, James W.,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=NO019.

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