Just days after the release of a long-unfinished album, a group effort meant to help ease his struggles from Parkinson’s Disease, the widely admired rock and blues guitarist Jimmy Nalls died Thursday after a fall at his home. He was 66.
Nalls, who had lived in Nashville since the mid 1980s, was famous for his role in 1970s southern rock and fusion group Sea Level. He was also a valued sideman who worked with a wide variety of major American artists, including Dr. John, Gregg Allman, T. Graham Brown and Lee Roy Parnell.
Gabriel Hernandez, owner of Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc. in Nashville and one of the producers of the new album, says Nalls was an underrated but influential guitar player. “He was at such a burgeoning scene and time in Macon, GA, when Capricorn Records was just exploding. He was doing session stuff for all kinds of people and hanging out with the Allman Brothers.”
The Jimmy Nalls Project, released June 19, is a collaboration by more than a dozen prominent guitarists and numerous other musicians and producers that completes a solo album Nalls had to abandon more than a decade ago after his Parkinson’s symptoms left him unable to play. In 2015, friends and colleagues rallied to complete tracks that were in various states, playing largely in Nashville’s House of Blues studio, often with Nalls on hand to enjoy it.
The project was intended to raise funds to defray the substantial costs of Nalls’s care and to improve the disability accommodations in his home. Proceeds now will go to Nalls’s family.
Among the contributors to the album are international blues rocker Joe Bonamassa, Tennessee-based jazz icon Larry Carlton, rockers Robben Ford and Warren Haynes and standout Nashville six-stringers Jack Pearson, Johnny Hiland, J.D. Simo and Kenny Greenberg. Chuck Leavell, longtime keyboard player with the Rolling Stones and leader of Sea Level between 1976 and 1980, played on the album as well.
Nalls grew up in the 50s and 60s in the Washington, D.C. suburbs in a musical household. He launched a professional guitar career in 1970 in New York working with Australian artist Gary Shearston. That led to connections that made him a valued session musician at the Record Plant studio. Following a variety of pursuits in New York and D.C., Nalls teamed up with several members of the Allman Brothers to form Sea Level, a musically ambitious band whose shows and albums for Capricorn Records and Arista earned the deep respect of music critics and rock aficionados. In the 1980s, Nalls was part of The Nighthawks with Jimmy Hall, now a Nashville based artist who also contributed to the Jimmy Nalls Project.
Nalls joined up with country soul artist T. Graham Brown in 1990, but by mid-decade, he had to retire when Parkinson’s robbed him of his fine motor skills.
“We all knew that he was going to have a progressively difficult time and that real trouble was not far ahead,” said album co-producer and respected guitar technician Joe Glaser, a long-time friend. “But I selfishly wish that he had gotten to enjoy a few months of attention he was going to get for this excellent record made by players and producers he loved.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.