He started learning the violin at aged 6, then began teaching himself guitar at 14, inspired by T-Bone Walker. Singer Jimmy Wilson saw him in a Tulsa club and took him back to Los Angeles, where Nolen began his recording career backing trumpeter Monte Easter and Chuck Higgins and in the autumn of 1956, he recorded three sessions for Federal, from which six singles were released to little effect. During this time, he also started working with Johnny Otis, playing on many sessions for Otis’ Dig label and recording some sides under his own name for John Fullbright’s Elko label.
He remained with Otis for a couple of years and played on ‘Ma, He’s Making Eyes At Me’ and ‘Willie And The Hand Jive’. He was the principal composer behind Otis’ hit “Willie And The Hand Jive.” He remained in Otis’ band until 1959 when he formed his own group, The Jimmy Nolen Band.
In that same year Nolen signed with Specialty Records subsidiary Fidelity, from which just one single emerged. Much of the early 60s was spent backing harmonica player George Smith before joining James Brown’s band, where in February 1965 his guitar licks became the defining element of ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’. Jimmy soon became known for his distinctive “chicken scratch” lead guitar playing in James’ bands.
In 1970, when Brown’s back up band became tired of his antics and refusal to pay them properly, Nolen started to tour with Maceo Parker’s group Maceo & All the King’s Men, only to return to The James Brown Band two years later. Jimmy stayed with James until his [Jimmy’s] death. Known as the inventor of the ‘Chicken Scratch’ and thus the father of funk guitar, Nolen’s career ended suddenly on Dec 18, 1983 with a fatal heart attack while the band was on tour in Atlanta, Georgia.