Jazz legend Red Nichols was perhaps one of the most prolific recording artists in history. In the 1920s alone the cornetist appeared on over 4,000 recordings, working with almost every important musician of his time. Though his style of playing was influenced by Bix Beiderbecke, Nichols was a better, more polished musician. His contribution to the early days of jazz cannot be overstated. Few artists can even come close to equaling his accomplishments.
Born in Utah, Nichols studied music under his father, a college music professor, and mastered a variety of instruments, though he favored the cornet. As a teen he attended the Culver Military Academy and played in its band before being dismissed. Returning home to Utah he worked in various pit orchestras, joining Ray Stilson in 1922. Later that year he left Stilson for a Midwestern ensemble called the Syncopating Five, a seven-piece group which was later billed as the Royal Palms Orchestra, and toured across country with them.
In 1923 Nichols settled in New York, where he met trombonist Miff Mole, who became a permanent fixture in Nichol's various groups. Nichols most famously recorded under the name Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, but the same group of musicians also recorded under many different pseudonyms, including the Louisiana Rhythm Kings, the Charleston Seven, the Arkansas Travelers, Miff Mole and His Molers, the Hottentots, and the Red Heads. The list of top musicians who worked with Nichols is long. They include Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Jack Teagarden, Pee Wee Russell, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Adrian Rollini, and Gene Krupa. During the 1920s Nichols also led pit orchestras for two George Gershwin Broadway shows, Girl Crazy and Strike Up the Band, and played with a variety of other bandleaders, including Paul Whiteman, Don Vorhees, Cass Hagan, Vincent Lopez, Henry Halstead, Ross Gorman, Harry Reser, and Benny Krueger, as well as with the group the California Ramblers.
In the 1930s Nichols formed his own big band, which appeared on both Bob Hope's radio program and the Kellogg College Prom in addition to regular broadcasts from Cleveland's Golden Pheasant restaurant. Vocalists were Frances Stevens, Ernie Mathias, and Tony Sacco. Around 1940 Nichols took advantage of the swing craze and updated his sound, though he still featured a Dixieland base. The new band recorded for Bluebird, with Bill Darnell and Harry Jaeger providing vocals. The orchestra sounded promising when it debuted but soon floundered. By 1941 it featured an entirely new line-up, including a Wee Bonnie Baker sound-alike by the name of Penny Banks. After a few failed dates in Boston, Nichols gave up the band, selling it to Anson Weeks in 1942.
Nichols briefly found work as a member of the Casa Loma Orchestra before retiring to Hollywood, where he led several small groups throughout the rest of the 1940s and into the 1950s. The highly-fictional 1959 biographical film The Five Pennies, starring Danny Kaye, brought renewed interest in his career and prompted Nichols to put together a new Five Pennies. Nichols return to the spotlight was brief, however. He suddenly passed away from a heart attack while on tour in Las Vegas in 1965.