Red Nichols
Red Nichols from sheet music.jpg
Background information
Birth nameErnest Loring Nichols
Born(1905-05-08)May 8, 1905
Ogden, Utah, United States
DiedJune 28, 1965(1965-06-28) (aged 60)
Las Vegas, Nevada
Occupation(s)Musician, bandleader, composer
Associated actsCalifornia Ramblers, Paul Whiteman

Ernest Loring "Red" Nichols (May 8, 1905 – June 28, 1965) was an American jazz cornetist, composer, and jazz bandleader.


Early life and career

Nichols was born on May 8, 1905 in Ogden, Utah, United States. His father was a college music professor, and Nichols was something of a child prodigy, playing difficult set pieces for his father's brass band by the age of 12. Young Nichols heard the early recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and later those of Bix Beiderbecke, and these had a strong influence on him. His style became polished, clean, and incisive.[1]

In the early 1920s, Nichols moved to the Midwest and joined a band called the Syncopating Seven. When that band broke up, he joined the Johnny Johnson Orchestra and went with it to New York City in 1923. In New York, he met trombonist Miff Mole, and the two were inseparable for the next decade. Before signing with Brunswick, Nichols and Mole recorded for Pathé-Perfect under the name the Red Heads.

Brunswick Records era

Nichols could read music and easily gained studio work. In 1926, he and Mole began recording with a variety of bands as Red Nichols and His Five Pennies. Few of these groups were quintets; the name was a pun on "nickel". With the Five Pennies, he recorded more than 100 sides for Brunswick. He also recorded as the Arkansas Travelers, the California Red Heads, the Louisiana Rhythm Kings, The Charleston Chasers, Red and Miff's Stompers, and Miff Mole and His Little Molers. During some weeks in this period, Nichols and his bands were recording 10 to 12 2-sided records.

Nichols' band started with Mole on trombone and Jimmy Dorsey on alto saxophone and clarinet. Other musicians in his bands in the following decade included Benny Goodman (clarinet), Glenn Miller (trombone), Jack Teagarden (trombone), Pee Wee Russell (clarinet), Joe Venuti (violin), Eddie Lang (banjo and guitar), and Gene Krupa (drums). The Five Pennies' version of "Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider" was a surprise hit record. It sold over a million copies and was awarded a gold disc by the Recording Industry Association of America.[2]

In the next decade, more structured swing eclipsed the improvisational Dixieland jazz Nichols loved to play. He tried to follow the changes and formed a swing band, but his recording career seemed to stall in 1932. Music critic Michael Brooks wrote,

What went wrong? Part of it was too much, too soon. Much of his vast recorded output was released in Europe, where he was regarded by early jazz critics as the equal, if not the superior, of Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. People who make fools of themselves usually find a scapegoat, and when the critics were exposed to the music of Duke Ellington, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins and others they turned on Nichols and savaged him, trashing him as unfairly as they had revered him. Nichols' chief fault was an overly stiff, academic approach to jazz trumpet, but he did recognize merit as far as other jazz musicians were concerned and made some wonderful small group recordings.[3]

Other labels Nichols recorded for included Edison 1926, Victor 1927, 1928, 1930, 1931 (individual sessions), Bluebird 1934, 1939, back to Brunswick for a session in 1934, 1937, and OKeh in 1940.

Later career

Nichols survived the Great Depression by playing in show bands and pit orchestras. He led Bob Hope's orchestra for a while, moving to California. Nichols married Willa Stutsman, a "stunning" George White's Scandals dancer, and they had a daughter. In 1942 their daughter contracted polio, which was misdiagnosed at first as spinal meningitis, and Nichols left Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra to work in the wartime shipyards. On May 2, 1942, Nichols left his band to take an army commission after completing an engagement at Lantz's Merry-Go-Round in Dayton, Ohio.[4]

Drawn back to music after the war, Nichols formed another Five Pennies band and began playing in small clubs in Los Angeles. Club dates turned into performances at bigger venues, such as the Zebra Room, the Tudor Room of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, and the Shearton in Pasadena, California. He toured Europe as a goodwill ambassador for the State Department. Nichols and his band performed in the 1950 film Quicksand starring Mickey Rooney. In 1956, he was the subject of an episode of the television program This Is Your Life in which he reunited with Miff Mole, Phil Harris, and Jimmy Dorsey, who praised Nichols as a bandleader who ensured everyone was paid.

In 1965, Nichols took his Five Pennies band to the Mint Hotel in Las Vegas. On June 28, 1965, a few days after he began performing, he had chest pains while he was sleeping. He phoned the front desk. but when the ambulance arrived he was dead. The band performed as scheduled with a spotlight on Nichols' empty chair.[5]

Biographical film and film career

The 1959 Hollywood film The Five Pennies, the film biography of Red Nichols, starring Danny Kaye as Red Nichols, was loosely based on Nichols' career. Nichols played his own cornet parts for the film but did not appear on screen. The Paramount movie received four Academy Award nominations. The Five Pennies movie theme song and other songs for the film were composed by Sylvia Fine, Danny Kaye's wife. Nichols also made a cameo appearance in the film The Gene Krupa Story in 1959.[6] Red Nichols is also mentioned in the 1950 Mickey Rooney and Jeanne Cagney film Quicksand (1950 film) when Rooney's character asks out Jean Cagney, he asks if she likes "Red Nichols and his outfit?" and she responds "I think they're great!"

Awards and honors

In 1986, Red Nichols was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.


  • Jazz Time (Capitol, 1950)
  • Meet the Five Pennies (Capitol, 1959)
  • Sessions, Live (Calliope, 1976)


  1. ^ Yanow, Scott (2001). The Trumpet Kings. Backbeat Books. pp. 281–282. ISBN 978-0-87930-640-3.
  2. ^ Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins. p. 136. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
  3. ^ Michael Brooks, liner notes to Swing Time! The Fabulous Big Band Era 1925–1955.
  4. ^ Billboard, May 9, 1942
  5. ^ "Red Nichols Dead at 60". Billboard. Vol. 77 no. 28. July 10, 1965. p. 10.
  6. ^ "The Five Pennies". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved May 17, 2017.

External links