Snapshot in Prose: Red Nichols

This week’s Snapshot in Prose captures cornet and trumpet player Red Nichols at a relatively early point in his career, though he had already made hundreds of recordings under a variety of band names. But, to a certain degree, the more traditional jazz he favored, with its Dixieland flavor, was on the verge of being replaced by the new swing craze.

But Nichols survived and even thrived, continuing to record and perform until his death in 1965. In this 1935 profile, Nichols looks back at his salad days in the world of jazz.

Who plays the red-hottest trumpet in captivity? Red Nichols! Who has the grandest, wavy red hair and come-hitherest laughing brown eyes? Red Nichols! Yet, this utterly charming and totally unaffected young maestro, who became famous from the hour “Red Nichols and His Five Pennies” lit on Broadway, is almost shy.
The day, recently, when this fascinating, slim young leader celebrated his thirtieth birthday, he was also congratulated upon having devoted a quarter of a century to the art of playing a trumpet!
The “veteran” is of medium height. He doesn’t tan tan but red, and his face retains its ruddiness from one season to the next. While Red is remarkably good-humored, he literally sees red when he has to do with chiselers and liars. For the big red haired boy is a square straight-shooter himself.
He was born thirty miles from Salt Lake City. He lists Brigham Young among the half-dozen greatest men in history. However, the Nichols family were not practical Mormons.
Red’s father, E. W. Nichols, was professor of music at Weber College, Ogden, Utah, and at the State University in Salt Lake City. When little E. Loring (Red, to us) was three years old he was running around with a silver-plated trumpet in his mouth. At five, he played “America” before Weber’s entire student body.
“I always loved the cornet best. My trumpet technique improved under the guidance of Captain O’Callaghan,” he told me.
The boy was a good student. He also excelled on the track, and at basketball. A military career loomed ahead. For strangely enough, Red’s parents strenuously objected to their son having a musical career, unless he would devote himself exclusively to the classics.

“I ran away from home, the summer I was sixteen, to join a dance band at Piquet, Ohio,” the affable leader said. “It was called the Syncopating Five. We got stranded in Indianapolis. There was no work. I wouldn’t go home. Washed dishes in a lunch room for three weeks for my food.”
“Then, with nothing at all, I got Ralph Dunkee, of the now famous Sisters of the Skillet and organized a cooperative dance band. In Lake James, Indiana, we found ourselves broke. Luckily, about that time along came the Syncopating Five, and asked me—” Red gave us one of those priceless, roguish looks, and went on, “or rather I asked them, if I could have a job again.

“It was really democratic and all that, I tell you! We toured the country in 1922-23. After playing Casino Gardens in Indianapolis for four weeks, we added two men and changed the name of the band to Royal Palm Orchestra. Soon we were playing at the Ambassador Hotel, Atlantic City. While on that engagement, I met Joe Venuti and the Dorsey Brothers.”
Red knew his music, and he knew talent when he found it. Besides, he trusted his own judgment and he trusted Fate. Here he was with a job in happy surroundings, but with no bank account. Yet, he had the nerve to quit the Royal Palm Orchestra and go to New York with his own, big idea.
It was just three weeks later when Broadway heard excited talk of the masterly Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, among them popular Eddie Lang.
“We had strictly recording dates. I could put fellows on salary just to make records.”
You remember when the whole country’s parlor phonographs began quivering to the sizzling, inimitable records of Red Nichols and His Five Pennies. Among the tunes were Japanese Sand Man, Tea for Two, Halleluiah, Sometimes I’m Happy and Red’s own number, That’s No Bargain.
Red wrote a series of solo trumpets that all cornet players rave about; also, Junk Man Blues, and Plenty Off Center, a very original number which shows the way the trumpet plays off the orchestra.
Ida is a great favorite with the red-head leader. It was his theme song, until he composed his present one, Torrid Trumpet Wailing To The Four Winds.
Nichols with his Band was featured in seven editions of Earl Carroll’s Vanities. He also conducted the orchestration of George Gershwin’s production, Strike Up The Band, and Girl Crazy. He appeared in Joe Cook’s Rain or Shine and John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.
He was chosen musical contractor for the Columbia Broadcasting Station when it was organized in 1927. He has dimples when he smiles. “I’ll walk a mile for a ball game,” he told me. “Sing? Oh, sometimes I sing Everybody Loves My Baby,” he laughed. Red has a way of looking at you as though, of course, the whole world is perfectly grand. His eyes are happy and guileless as a child’s.
Red has six cars, and a truck. Often when the orchestra is about to start off by motor on a trip, he purposely is delayed. Or, if they travel by train, he is just a minute too late! Because, our friend Red is a grown-up little boy who is wild about flying. He has flown several hundred thousand miles, and has suffered a number of very narrow escapes.
In 1927, Red Nichols married the beautiful Bobby Meredith. They have a little red-haired, six-year-old daughter, Dorothy. One of the boys told me that, whenever the band’s away from home, Red religiously takes back two presents.
Red likes people who are natural. He is so very genuine himself. You’d like him, as much as you do his thrilling tunes that make you quake, shiver, sway, and sing to his Red-hot, gorgeous horn-tooting music.

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2 thoughts on “Snapshot in Prose: Red Nichols

  1. Red Nichols NEVER played trumpet! He played always his cornet and did NOT change over to the trumpet all his life and carier as all other musicians did! So it is wrong to say, that Red was the hottest white trumpet player. Indeed he was the hottest white CORNET player. He modernisaside his cornet and everybody fell in the trap and thought and wrote that he changed to the trumpet. True is, that he played his looking-like-a-trumpet-modernisaised CORNET! Please take notice on this, folks.

    • Thanks for the info, Markus, but just so you know, this article is excerpted from a 1930s radio magazine, so the person who wrote the story is very likely no longer with us.

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