Roy Nichols, an influential guitar player who for 22 years was a mainstay of country star Merle Haggard’s band, died Tuesday at Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield. He was 68.
Nichols was admitted to the hospital on June 30 with a kidney inflammation and bacterial infection and was in intensive care until he died early Tuesday of a heart attack.
Haggard credits Nichols with jump-starting his own career and playing a key role in developing the distinctive country sound of his band, the Strangers.
When Haggard got out of California’s San Quentin Prison in 1960 after doing time for a burglary conviction, he went to see Nichols play at a Las Vegas nightclub, where Nichols shared the stage with country music star Wynn Stewart, Haggard told the Associated Press Tuesday in a telephone interview from his home in Northern California.
“Roy wanted to get off and go to the restroom or something. He said, ‘Here, play this thing,’ and handed me his guitar. I sung ‘Devil Woman’ and Wynn Stewart saw me and hired me on the spot,” Haggard said.
“Because of Roy, my career commenced,” he said. “He was the stylist that set the pace of the records I recorded in my high period.”
Born in Chandler, Ariz., Nichols was the eldest in a family of seven children. He grew up in the Fresno area, where the family owned and operated a camp for migrant workers.
Nichols’s father played the upright bass and Nichols started learning the guitar at the age of 11. Three years later, Nichols got his first paying job playing weekend dances with Curly Roberts and the Rangers.
Before his 16th birthday, Nichols was discovered by the Maddox Brothers and Rose and joined that band on the road. That was the start of a series of associations with a number of top names in country music, including Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Billy Mize and Cliffie Stone.
In the early 1960s, Stewart, then a California country music legend, opened a nightclub in Las Vegas and asked Nichols to join him. Nichols played with Stewart’s band until Haggard formed the Strangers in 1965. The band stayed largely intact until 1987, when health problems forced Nichols into retirement.
Friends said a stroke in 1996 cost Nichols the use of his left hand, ending his ability to play guitar.
“Chet Atkins and Roy Nichols were the two most influential guitar players in [the last] century,” Haggard said.
There was no immediate information on funeral services.