The Bionic Blues Man
Jimmy Nalls Battles Disease and Keeps On Rockin’
by Michael Buffalo Smith
Jimmy Nalls is one tough guitar player. For six years, he has battled the menacing effects of Parkinson’s disease and will soon undergo brain surgery in an attempt to regain the ability to tour. In an inspirational GRITZ exclusive, Nalls talks about his heady days with Sea Level, playing with Dr. John and Alex Taylor, his friends Chuck Leavell and Bobby Whitlock, recording his new solo album and life in general. In rock and roll, as in the Wild Wild West, you have both good guys and bad guys. This is a conversation with one of the good guys. Jimmy Nalls.
Your new album is really great. It’s one of the best CDs I have heard lately, and that’s no lie.
Well, God bless you, Michael. That’s awful nice.
Let me start out by asking you who some of your musical influences were early on?
Well, Michael, I’ll have to say that my first influence as far as guitar had to have been my father. When I was a little kid he used to get together with my Grandfather and my Uncle at my Grandparents house, and they’d play and sing and drink beer and smoke cigarettes. I just thought that was the coolest thing. Guitars and cool music. Outside of the family, and people who came from my home state in Virginia, like Link Wray, I guess B.B. King and Albert King, Duane Eddy, even bands like The Ventures. Lonnie Mack, everybody who could play guitar back then was an influence on us kids. We had a pile of us back in our neighborhood that played. We’d all get together and sit down and play our acoustic guitars, and try to figure out riffs like “Rebel Rouser.“
And of course, later on, with the British invasion, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, guys like that. They were hitting us with our own stuff in terms of reinventing black American blues, you know? But there are a whole lot of influences. Everybody I listened to. When I met Lonnie Mack about ten years ago, I took “Memphis” and “Wham,” those two 45s with me and got him to sign them. When I was with T. Graham Brown, we played with him up at the Bottom Line in New York. I had my picture taken with him, it was just big fun. I had my picture taken with Duane Eddy a couple of years ago. That was cool.
Some of my friends rag me about having my picture made with different people I meet or interview, but I love it.
Especially if he turns out to be a nice guy. It’s bad when you say, “here’s my chance to meet him” and he turns out to be a big jerk.
And you walk away with a Charlie Brown head hanging.
(Laughs) Right. Feeling like you’re about eight years old.
Tell us a little about your new album Ain’t No Stranger, the events surrounding that, and let’s touch on your Parkinson’s disease. A lot of people may not know about the battle you are fighting with that.
We’ve got to go back to the executive producer whose name is Rick Moore. He was working on a project a couple of years ago that he wanted me to co-produce. When I came down with Parkinson’s disease, I kind of took myself out of the musical arena for a few years to regroup. That was a big shock. But I had suspected that I had it for about a year. My Mother has it and I had some classic symptoms. But I had met Rick Moore sort of socially here in Nashville and we started hanging around together a little bit and writing songs. He told me that he was doing a little project and said that he would like for me to co-produce it. I said, man, "I really don’t think I have it in me right now." And he said, "no man, it’ll be easy." It turned out to be a pretty cool project. So, he said, "you’ve got a lot of fans out there. A lot of folks who love you, and you’ve been off the bus, as it were, for a few years now. People are probably wondering what in the world happened to you." He said you ought to think about doing a solo project. I thought about it, and I had a batch of songs I had been demoing here at the house -- I put a sixteen-track workstation-slash-studio here in my house -- and I had been writing and had more than enough material. We talked, and he kind of talked me into going ahead on with it. With this Parkinson’s thing, Michael, I kind of don’t know how I’m going to be from year to year. I figured now, while I still had the goods, obviously not like I used to have -- I’m not the gun slinger I once was-- but I still had the goods so, we decided to go ahead with the project. He said, "man, you got carte blanche. Anybody you want to use on it. just let me know who it is and we’ll make it happen." Of course I got Chuck Leavell on it, and Lee Roy Parnell, and T. Graham Brown, and Steve Mackey and all the heavyweights I could find here in town that were good friends that I thought would have a good time and lend a helping hand. It was rough at times but we pulled it off. I think the project speaks for itself. It’s a classy project and I think it came off pretty well.
Well, as far as your playing goes, you sound just as good as ever. I play guitar myself and I aspire to play like you. I never tried to play ‘too many notes,” instead trying to put feeling and emotion into the notes I do play. That’s one thing I learned from you.
God bless you, Michael. I appreciate that. I’ve always said, it’s what you don’t play that makes what you do play make sense. I like to leave a lot of breathing space in my solos. Even when I was a hotshot, standing on the edge of the stage -- which I am bound and determined to get back to the point, and I’ll tell you why in a second -- I still like some breathing space. You can admire all that fancy stuff for what it is but when it comes right down to it, for me it gets old quick. After about a song or two you go, alright, enough already.
There is obviously a lot of New Orleans influence cropping up on this record. Weren’t you heavily influenced by Dr. John?
The influence was the direct result of a playing experience I had in a band we had with James Taylor’s brother, Alex Taylor. Chuck Leavell, me, Charlie Hayward -- who is now the bass player for Charlie Daniels and has been for years, Paul Hornsby, who is a big producer. He produced a lot of Marshall Tucker. He still lives in Macon. We had a huge band, man. We had two drummers, two keyboard players. Well, Alex freaked out and decided to get off of the road. It just so happened that Phil Walden had signed Dr. John to some kind of recording situation or something. This was back in 1972, so the details are starting to get a little sketchy. We knew that Mac was moving to Macon and he needed a band. Phil said, well, look, you guys are looking for a lead singer. So we became Dr. John’s band. We actually played with him on one album, an Ann Arbor Jazz and Blues Festival album. I tell you man, I was a twenty-year-old kid and he scared the hell out of me. We practiced every day for about two weeks trying to learn to play that New Orleans thing, that second line feel. And all the grooves he had on the Night Tripper album. Man, we thought we had it down cold. We were in tall cotton. We said ‘we got this.’ And Mac arrived in town and he came to the little rehearsal space where we were playing. He said, “Y’all sound pretty good, but I’m gonna have to show y’all how to play some second line.” Talk about busting your bubble. The thing about Mac is he could go to each guy and show them what to play. He could play all the instruments. He’s a helluva guitar player. He’s a great drummer, he’s a good bass player. So he went around to each man and if he was having trouble with a chord or a feel he could show you first hand what to do. But he was kind of a scary guy back then to us kids. But I’ve seen him since and he’s not so scary any more. I guess it’s because I’m older or whatever. That was like going to college. You couldn’t have gotten that education in college or off of records. That was learning at the knee of the dude that invented a lot of that stuff. Of course, he influenced Chuck’s playing tremendously. Chuck is an incredible piano player. All of that Professor Longhair stuff that Mac does kind of rubbed off on Chuck.
Chuck has one of the best resumes in the business, doesn’t he? He’s played with everybody.
It’s a shame he can’t keep a job. (laughs)
While we’re on the subject, tell us about Chuck Leavell.
When I first met Chuck he was seventeen years old and he was already Alex’s band leader. He was so focused for such a young man. See, I left Virginia and moved to New York City and started getting session work when I was nineteen. I was real lucky. And through Peter, Paul and Mary -- I met Paul Stookey up there and played on his first solo album-- and he knew Tommy Talton from Cowboy. I heard that Alex was looking for a guitar player because Joe Rudd was quitting, so that’s how I got the gig and met all those guys. When I met them, they were rehearsing up on Martha’s Vineyard cause that’s where Alex and all the Taylors lived. But when I met Chuck, he was such a mature, focused, schooled, street-wise player at such a young age, it was incredible. We became fast friends very quickly. In fact, we became roommates. He was a vegetarian and he talked me into being a vegetarian. They used to call us “The Omelet Brothers.” Because that’s all we’d order. Cheese omelets. So anyway, Chuck has just grown into one of the most sought after, respected players in the business. You can hear his influence everywhere. All the playing he did with The Allmans, and of course with Sea Level. He’s just a phenomenal player. And what a human being. He’s got a heart as big as Georgia. He’s a genuinely nice guy. Like we talked about earlier, meeting people that you admire, I think he’s one of the ones who doesn’t disappoint somebody when they meet him, if they like his playing and have been following his career. When he speaks to you, he is genuinely interested in what you have to say. He’s been a real friend through this Parkinson’s thing. Somebody that I could talk to. Shoot man, I just can’t say enough good things about him.
Going back to the song “Hey Brother,” how did that come to be?
The album had already gone into production when the co-producer, Phil Dillon, saw that I was really struggling to complete the project, as one does struggle when one has Parkinson’s, especially if one is a guitar player. Phil got together with a songwriting buddy of his name Bill Edwards and wrote “Hey Brother” about my struggle with Parkinson’s. He demoed the song at his home studio. He played it for me and I said “I think it’s a great song, and I know where you’re headed with this.” He said, “Yeah, I think it ought to be on your record, and I think we ought to get a couple of guest singers to do it. Either Delbert or Lee Roy or Brown. I said, “I think it’s a great song, but I don’t want it on the record. It’s not a pity party.” He said okay, but he kept badgering me until I said, “Okay, I love the song. Let’s cut a track and see how it sounds. You do the rough vocal and we’ll see what happens.” So, we did it. It just turned out super. So I called Lee Roy and T. Graham, and they both said they’d love to be involved in the project. As a matter of fact, when Lee Roy first heard the track, he came out to where I was talking to Brown, and said, “I heard you didn’t want this track on your record. You s.o.b.” He said, “If I have anything to do with it this song is going on that record. It’s a great piece of work and it really says what needs to be said.” So, they did the vocal. It took them all afternoon. They had never sung together, which was a little piece of history. They were in the vocal booth singing together, which was very cool -- having a great time. And then Le Roy said “You want some slide? I brought my slide guitar.” I said, man let’s do it." So, he spent four or five more hours, nose to nose with me, recording the guitar part. He said, “Man, I want to just be an extension of you here.” He said just sit right here beside me. We were getting cosmic. (laughs) It was fun. We’d play for an hour and then we’d shoot the bull. Then he’d play another hour and we’d b.s. another hour. This went on until I guess midnight. We just had a great time. I think it shows on the track. The performance of Lee Roy and T. just singing and playing so well.
Would you reflect a little on your old band, Sea Level?
Gosh, it was quite a ride. We had a great band. I think we cut a lot of new ground. I think maybe the band was a little ahead of its time. A lot of it is, unfortunately, a blur. We just sort of jumped on the old horse and rode it ‘til it stopped. That again was sort of like going to college for me. It was just a great situation to get involved in. When all that happened with Alex Taylor and the band broke up, I was living back home in Virginia but I kept an apartment in Macon because I was getting a lot of session work down there. The Allman Brothers were playing in Largo, Maryland. Chuck called and told me they were gonna be in town and did I want to go. I said shoot yeah! He said, “I’ll go you one better. Jaimoe and Lamar and myself and possibly Butch will be doing a soundcheck that afternoon and Gregg and Dickey won’t be there. So you can do the sound check and plug into Dickey’s rig.” So, I went over and met ‘em. So it was Butch, Jaimoe, Lamar, Chuck and myself playing to an empty stadium for about three hours. When it was over, we kind of looked at each other and said, “Damn, I think we’ve got something here!” At that time, things were rocky between the three of them and the rest of the band. So they made a move about six months later, in June of ‘76. They quit the band. Chuck called and said, ‘Hey man, we’ve quit the band and we’re going to start another group called Sea Level. Do you want to be involved?’ It all went back to the sound check we did that day. I said, sure, I’d love to. So that’s how the first Sea Level album got started. That was before Randall and Davis, it was just the four of us. There was a fire on that first album. Not taking anything away from the other albums, because as a body of work I think they all hold up. But I think my favorite one was the first one. We had to over play to fill up a lot of spaces because it was just a four-piece band. We just played it for everything it was worth.
Butch was in on the first jam session. Why was he not in the band?
Butch was in on it for about the first two weeks. The first thing we did was a live radio broadcast in Athens, Georgia and he was part of that. I think in the eleventh hour he decided he was just going to take some time off and not go out on the road. I don’t think it was anything malicious. He just decided to take some time off.
In one of your interviews, you mentioned Bobby Whitlock’s Capricorn album, Rock Your Socks Off...
Oh man, what an album! Have you heard that?
Oh yeah. I have all of his records.
That one needs to be out on CD. Spread the word, Michael. I have tried to get Capricorn to do it. That Whitlock album is some of the best guitar playing I ever did. I was just a kid. Must have been twenty-one years old. But that lead on “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad,” the vamp out...it still just tears my heart out to hear that. It’s so emotional. You know, they originally cut that song on the Dominoes record almost double time. Really fast. The groove that we have on Bobby’s "Rock Your Socks Off" is that half time.
Tell us a bit about Bobby Whitlock.
We see each other occasionally. He lives over in Mississippi. It’s been several years since we’ve seen one another. I think the last time was at a Rolling Stones show over in Memphis. That was six or seven years ago. Whitlock, what a hard worker. And again, he’s one of those you hear about through the years and you finally meet up with him and he’s just a super nice guy. When I met Bobby he had me over to his house eating supper with him. He’s just a regular guy.
What are your immediate and future plans?
Well, I really miss the stage, Michael. And I’ve taken myself off the stage for a reason. It was just time to regroup and sort of flow with this Parkinson’s thing and learn all I can about it. The immediate future is I have a neurologist Atlanta at Emory University and there are several brain surgeries that are available to patients with Parkinson’s. Unfortunately, with Parkinson’s disease, no two patients have the same symptoms. But it looks like I am going to have what is called the deep brain stimulator surgery. I go back for the second half of the screening in July, or what I like to call “the audition.” (laughs) I passed the first audition last month. I’ve had it for six years and it’s affecting my life. It’s starting to kick my ass on some days, to be blunt. So in July I’ll have an MRI scan done, and speak with three other doctors. But it looks like it’s a shoe in. And hopefully, I’ll be the first bionic blues player on the planet. I really miss the road. I’m in my late 40s, and I should be just coming into my stride. I really want to go back on the road. You know what it’s like, man. You’re a player. For that hour and a half you’re onstage you are bulletproof. I don’t feel like I’m done yet.