June 25, 2017 – Jimmy Nalls (Sea Level) was born James Albert Nalls III on May 31, 1951 in Washington DC. In 1970, he moved from the suburbs of his home in Arlington, Virginia, to New York City to play with Australian folk singer Gary Shearston and Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul & Mary. Jimmy Nalls quickly became an in-demand session guitarist at New York’s famed Record Plant studio, and played with several musicians and bands with ties to then up-and-coming Capricorn Records in Macon, Georgia, such as singer/songwriter Alex Taylor’s band while Taylor was a Capricorn Records label mate of the Allmans’.
It was during this period that Nalls first worked with future Allmans keyboardist Chuck Leavell, an association that would prove fruitful for both musicians after the Allmans’ 1976 split. As a result, Nalls moved to Macon in 1976 and joined three musicians who’d just parted ways with the Allman Brothers Band – keyboardist Chuck Leavell, bassist Lamar Williams and drummer Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson. Leavell decided to start a new group after the Allman Brothers Band folded, enlisting Nalls for the band he’d dubbed Sea Level — a play on C. Leavell. While they never achieved the same level of commercial success as the Allmans, they toured and recorded steadily over the next five years, completing five highly-acclaimed and influential albums before folding in 1981, building a loyal following that still exists today.
After Sea Level, Nalls continued his career by playing guitar with a who’s who of bands and individual musicians, including Dr. John, Gregg Allman, Bill Anderson, The Nighthawks, T. Graham Brown, Don McLean, Jack Pearson, Lee Roy Parnell, Lloyd Price, Charly McLain, among many others. In the 1980s he relocated to Nashville, Tennessee where he continued as a session guitarists working with artists such as Bodyworks and B.J. Thomas. He started the ’90s by joining singer T. Graham Brown‘s touring band, and remained in the lineup until shortly after receiving his Parkinson’s diagnosis in 1994.
Despite being diagnosed with the Disease, he recorded and finished his first solo record, Ain’t No Stranger, in 1999 – earning him high praise and critical acclaim from both the media and his peers. He toured sporadically, but his struggles from Parkinson’s began to affect his everyday life.
Despite these challenges, Mr. Nalls and longtime friend and collaborator, blues artist Dave Duncan, began to write and record music for his second solo record. But though he tried to work through the hindrances posed by the continued onset of Parkinson’s, Mr. Nalls ultimately was unable to finish the record, and all of the songs remained in various stages of completion on his home studio’s computer hard drive until 2014.
At that time, Jimmy Nalls shared his unfinished songs with good friend, Gabriel Hernandez, owner of Nashville’s Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., who in turn brought the songs to their mutual friend and longtime Nashville luthier, Joe Glaser. After listening to the unfinished songs, Hernandez and Glaser hatched a plan to move forward and complete Nalls unfinished second record using their mutual musical connections and friends. On that day in late 2014, The Jimmy Nalls Project was born. The songs were the product of nearly three years of collaborative efforts between Jimmy Nalls’ closest friends and some of Nashville’s – and the world’s – finest musicians, engineers and producers. Many were winners of multiple Grammys and other awards, and all freely donated their time and talents to the project.
The all-star lineup for this incredible musical alliance includes Joe Bonamassa, Larry Carlton, Robben Ford Music, Warren Haynes, Jack Pearson, Dave Duncan, Johnny Hiland, Chuck Leavell, Brad Whitford, JD Simo, Jimmy Hall, Buddy Greene, Dave Pomeroy, Kenny Greenberg, Charles Chopper Anderson, Wes Little, and Brian Allen. Other award-winning producers, engineers, musicians and friends who also lent their time and skills include Ray Kennedy, Gary Nicholson, Lee Roy Parnell, Guthrie Trapp, Rick Wheeler, Brent Maher, Tom Freitag, Zack DeWall, Gordie Johnson, Jacob Sciba, Gary Belz (The House of Blues), Gabriel Hernandez (Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc.), Joshua Rawlings and Joe Glaser.
“Gabriel Hernandez came to me with several of Jimmy’s unfinished songs, and we made the decision to reach out to some of mine and Jimmy’s close friends to help finish the record,” said Joe Glaser, owner of Nashville’s Glaser Instruments, and Jimmy Nall’s longtime personal friend. “Jimmy and his family were struggling every day, and unless you’re in their shoes you really have no idea what it’s like. We have witnessed it firsthand for a long time, so when we presented everyone with this opportunity to help finish this record, all of them jumped at the chance to do it. Everyone wanted to help.” The Jimmy Nalls Project – unheard, original music regrettably shelved nearly 16 years earlier by Jimny Nalls due to complications and symptoms from his battle with Parkinson’s – was finally released on June 19, 2017, a mere three days before his untimely death.
From the beginning, the idea was to retain the spirit of Jimmy’s original recordings. It was the guest artists’ option to complete their respective tracks in whatever styles deemed appropriate. While a few artists made their contributions remotely, many added their parts in some of Nashville’s world-renowned studios that offered free time to help complete the project, most notably The House of Blues. “Having some of it recorded here in Nashville gave us the opportunity for Jimmy to be present, grinning from his wheelchair – something that helped reinvigorate his self-esteem,” Hernandez said. “Nothing was as rewarding as seeing the smile on his face as he spent time in the studios, lending a helping hand where and when he could, and watching his friends and former colleagues come together to help him finish his long-awaited second solo effort.” All of the artists were fully aware of the history and current challenges facing Nalls and his family. Even more importantly, they’ve all realized just how lucky they are to do what they love – which is to make and play music. “We did this for our brother Jimmy Nalls, but really for all of us, too” said Chuck Leavell, The Rolling Stones’ long time keyboard player and bandleader. “We all did it with the hope his fans will enjoy the music, but also to give them an opportunity to support an important cause.”
“There are times that I get really depressed,” Nalls told Gabriel J. Hernandez of Collectible Guitar in 2014. “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.”
Jimmy died from the complications of a fall as a result of his Parkinson’s Disease on June 25, 2017. He was 66.