(The following article appears in the latest issue of Collectible Guitar | Then and Now magazine.)
By Gabriel J. Hernandez
Perspective is everything. And sometimes something as trivial as a simple kind act by some anonymous individual can knock your perspective back to reality. Other times it can take getting hit upside the head with a rock to whack your perspective back into place. Hopefully the following story helps you avoid the latter.
Being able to own, play and collect guitars is a great thing. Some consider it a privilege, and rightfully so. Everybody that reads this magazine surely knows this, and the people that do play guitar for a living (we think) are some of the luckiest people in the world. Think about it … there’s not one guitar player out there – novice or professional – that hasn’t at least once in his or her life said, “One day, I want to be a rock and roll star.” The reality is that the odds are about one-in-a-million it ever happens, if not more. But it’s a nice fantasy world, for sure. How many of us haven’t drooled over old pictures of Led Zeppelin boarding their private, chartered and totally decked out airplane … you know, the one with the fur couches, fully stocked bars, velvet-lined covered beds, and – of course – the long-legged blonde and brunette bartenders and waitresses standing at attention waiting for their next whim-satisfying command.
But then there IS the reality of the guitar players that actually make somewhat of a living playing music. And for the majority it’s a job just like any other … they wake up at 6:30 AM, eat breakfast, kiss the wife and kids goodbye, battle rush hour traffic, work eight or more hours in a recording studio, return home to the wife and kids, have dinner, watch a little TV and go to bed, then wake up and do it all over again the next day. Some of these folks even work overtime in the bars at night, with most of them playing for mere tips and hoping to be “seen” or “heard” by that right person that can change their lives forever. Living in Nashville, I see it firsthand. Hundreds, if not thousands, of guitar players – most of them good enough to take Eric Clapton’s place without missing a beat – come to Music City USA to “chase the dream.” And while many give it a good try, a lot more of them end up going back home with broken dreams and empty bank accounts … some even minus the instruments and gear they came with because they had to sell everything to get back home.
But back in the 1970s life was different. If you were in the right place at the right time, those dreams of a rock and roll life came true for some. Jimmy Nalls was one of the lucky ones. In the 1970s, Nalls moved from his home in the Virginia suburbs to New York City to play guitar with Australian folk singer and Warner Brother artist Gary Shearston. Shearston’s producer was Noel Paul Stookey, who just happened to be the “Paul” in the band Peter, Paul and Mary. Nalls’ relationship with Stookey blossomed into a friendship and soon he found himself a pretty in-demand session guitarist at New York’s famed Record Plant recording studio. Over the next couple of years, Nalls played guitar alongside such notables as Chuck Leavell, Alex Taylor, Dr. John, Gary St. Clair, Mike Zack, and scores of other musicians who had “made it” in the music business as either sessions players, or players in well-known touring acts.
In 1976, however, Nalls got his biggest “break” when he teamed up with three musicians from the Allman Brothers Band – keyboardist Chuck Leavell, bassist Lamar Williams, and drummer Jai Johanny Johanson (better known as Jaimoe). Together they formed the legendary ensemble known simply as Sea Level. Though the band only lasted from 1976 to 1981, they managed to cement their place in rock and roll lore by recording five albums of some of the most innovative jazz, rock and rhythm and blues-blended music ever recorded. During their time they toured the world, lived the lived of rock stars, and Nalls became one of the most acclaimed and sought-after session guitarists in the business. When Sea Level disbanded in 1981 Nalls continued to play professionally, most notably in another highly-acclaimed band called The Nighthawks, which also toured the world relentlessly and released several albums of music still sought out today as some of the best in its genre.
Nalls continued to play professionally with The Nighthawks and several other projects until late 1994, when he started to experience the first symptoms of Parkinson’s disease – the progressive and irreversible brain disorder that causes tremors, poor balance, and other muscle- and movement-related symptoms. Unfortunately, the disease affected Nalls’ ability to perform the quick, voluntary muscle movements necessary for him to continue to play professionally. In a nutshell, his dream life was over. No more tours. No more recording sessions. No more guest appearances with some of the biggest names in the music business. Nothing. It all changed in the span of just a few short months, and his life hasn’t been the same since.
Since being diagnosed in late 1994, however, and with the help of several friends – most notably Leavell, Jack Pearson, Lee Roy Parnell, and his ever-present and devoted family – Nalls has managed to release a solo CD called Ain’t No Stranger, which he co-produced with Phil Dillon for MRL Records. He’s also written a book titled Wood and Wire, which he co-wrote with Bill Rust, and which details his life as a “Guitar Slinger” and his fight against Parkinson’s.
“When you’re as active as I used to be, this condition is really hard to accept,” Nalls said from his Nashville home. “But I had to accept it or else I would have gone crazy a long time ago. As much as it hurts sometimes, this is something that I have accepted and it’s now a part of my life. So as much as it does hurt, yes I have come to terms with it.”
As for playing the guitar, Nalls said, “I can’t play for a long time anymore, but I do still get enjoyment out of it. With the brain stimulators I had recently put in, they do cut down on the shakes a lot and they do take away some of the immobility that’s associated with Parkinson’s. But if it wasn’t for the brain stimulators I’d probably be in a nursing home or some other type of assisted living facility right now.”
Nalls has played several guitars throughout his career, but the one he’s always gone back to time and time again is the 1961 Fender Stratocaster he purchased in New York City in 1974 for just $300.
“I got it just the way you see it [natural with no finish on it whatsoever], but it used to be [fiesta] red at one point,” Nalls said. “If you look inside the cavities you’ll see the original [fiesta] red finish that was once on it. The pickups are a set of hand-wound pickups that Joe Barden did for me back in 1984.”
Probably the coolest aspect of the guitar, however (other than the fact that it belongs to Nalls), is a very faint signature on the back of the guitar. Nalls explains:
“There’s a signature on the back of it that you can barely read anymore, but it’s the signature of Bill Carson, who was the guy that Leo Fender designed the Fender Stratocaster for. I met him on an airplane out in California one day and I had the guitar with me so I had him sign it for me.”
Carson told Nalls that his personal Stratocaster was a 1959 model, also with a Fiesta Red finish with matching headstock. The neck was personally shaped by Carson to suit his own playing preference (1 7/16″ nut width, shallow depth), and also had a thick slab rosewood fingerboard with “Carson” stamped in the neck pocket.
But despite the memories, the guitars, and the lifestyle he had to leave behind not of his choosing, Nalls is still a very grateful man today. His wife of 39 years, Minni, has remained by his side through thick and thin. He also has a son and daughter, and three grandchildren – all of whom live in the Nashville area and visit him on a regular basis. And while moving around gets more difficult every day, Nalls is not a broken man. In fact, he still plans on finishing his second solo CD which he started recording several years ago while his fingers were still cooperating with his once stellar guitar-playing abilities. And for a man that seemed to be on top of the world at one time and is now limited to just a few steps a day, Nalls has the mindset of a man that is, of course, realistic of his condition, but also a positive attitude that keeps him going day after day … no matter how bad some days can get.
“There are times that I get really depressed,” Nalls said. “And sometimes I do feel like a burden to my family. I used to be the alpha male of this family … the top dog. I was traveling the world, going to places like Australia and Japan, Europe, pretty much all over the world. And when I lost it all of course it was devastating, to say the least. But my wife still loves me, even after 39 years of marriage, and I have my kids and grandkids.
“And I really want to finish my second solo CD. My studio is down right now, and I need a new computer. But I am trying to get it all back up and running so I can finish it,” Nalls said. “The tracks are all there, and I play the bass and guitar on almost all of them. What I need to finish are the lyrics and the vocal tracks and then put it all together. If someone wants to help me put it all together and help me finish it, I’m all for it. But it is my stuff, and I still want to be a part of the final process. I would really want the chance to be able to complete it, and hopefully someday I’ll be able to do that.”
For a man in his condition, Nalls is a pretty amazing human being. He’s also an incredible inspiration to anyone he comes into contact with. So the next time you’re debating what finish you want for that new Les Paul, or whether to buy that limited edition Martin acoustic or some other vintage guitar, think about Jimmy. I know he’d probably appreciate it. But I guarantee you’ll be a better person for it. And your perspective will have definitely been realigned.
For more information on Jimmy Nalls, visit his web site at www.jimmynalls.net. His book is also still available through Amazon, as is his solo CD and all the music he recorded with Sea Level and The Nighthawks.
Gabriel J. Hernandez is the owner of Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., a shop in Nashville, Tennessee, specializing in the buying and selling of vintage and newer high-end guitars and gear. He is also an accomplished writer, having earned a B.S. in Journalism from The University of Florida in 1988. Over a 25-year career he has worked as an investigative journalist for several news organizations and publishing companies, as a staff sports writer for The Palm Beach Post, and most recently as the Web Editor for Gibson Guitars at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Nashville. Hernandez has played guitar since the age of six, and been fascinated (some say obsessed) by the instrument – and music in general – ever since. You can reach him any time at 1-615-613-1389, or visit his company’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/bluesvintageguitars.