Larry “Gimmer” Nicholson was a journeyman Memphis musician. In 1968, he recorded what would be his only solo album. Though it would be over a decade until it saw release, the recordings that make up Christopher Idylls proved to be incredibly influential on the work of a budding—and now beloved—Memphis group. This week, Light in the Attic Records will issue a new vinyl edition of Christopher Idylls, Nicholson’s stunning lone album.
Prior to the 1968 recordings that would result in Christopher Idylls, Gimmer Nicholson played guitar in various bands, including the New Beale Street Sheiks (with Jim Dickinson), and backed various performers, like Furry Lewis. Nicholson moved to San Francisco for a period, taping a demo. When he returned to Memphis, the songs that made up the demo would be re-recorded at Ardent Studios.
Terry Manning was behind the board for the Christopher Idylls sessions. Manning—now a renowned producer/engineer, having worked with dozens of legendary acts, including Otis Redding, Big Star, Ike & Tina Turner, and Led Zeppelin—signed on after hearing Nicholson’s demo, which he loved. For the studio recordings, Nicholson used a guitar effect that was then a relatively new approach. Terry Manning:
He plugged it into an amp, and, using a new delay pedal, he’d play along with himself. Gimmer was really fascinated by that. He loved new guitars, and a new piece of gear he hadn’t used before would spark creativity in his mind.
Gimmer would play a phrase, which would repeat itself, and he’d play the next phrase over that. This session was one of the first uses of the electronic repeat as part of the music.
The sessions went well, and Nicholson’s album was supposed to be Ardent Records’ debut LP release (the label had only put out 45s at that point), but Christopher Idylls was shelved.
Nearly a half century has passed since the Gimmer Nicholson recordings for Ardent, and the reasons why the album wasn’t released have become muddled. Manning says it was because Nicholson didn’t like both the mixes and the album cover, refusing to let the label put it out. Ardent’s founder, John Fry, was asked about Christopher Idylls shortly before his death. Though he couldn’t remember why the record wasn’t released, he did provide reasons why the label might have passed on the Nicholson recordings.
Gimmer’s work didn’t lend itself to a single or 45, but it was a beautiful sounding album. He certainly had marvelous technique. But what do you do with an instrumental album? At that point in history, there weren’t too many people who would’ve wanted it. If they’d listened to it, they would’ve. Christopher Idylls is a wonderful piece of expression, and I’m sorry it didn’t get the attention it deserved.
Gimmer continued where he left off following the Christopher Idylls recordings, and was a fixture of the city’s music scene. He played around town and worked as a hired gun on a number of recording sessions, including Dickinson’s illustrious 1972 solo LP, Dixie Fried. Even among those close to him, Gimmer was seen as an enigmatic, private person. I found very few images of him online, and when I did, he was always wearing sunglasses.
Gimmer Nicholson, far left, on stage during a Sid Selvidge gig, c. late 1970s. Alex Chilton is third from the left.
As for Ardent, they did eventually start releasing LPs, with an early full-length being Big Star’s #1 Record.
Big Star is one of the biggest cult bands ever, but in the early ‘70s they were a new unit, still developing their sound. Gimmer Nicholson’s recordings had made the rounds around town, and when listening to Christopher Idylls today, it’s readily apparent that Nicholson’s chiming guitar tracks were an influence on Big Star’s principals, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton. The similarly shimmering acoustic guitars heard on #1 Record numbers like “Watch the Sunrise” and “The Ballad of El Goodo” bear this out. Gimmer Nicholson’s gorgeous instrumental album had made an impact, regardless of its unreleased status.
Terry Manning has always championed Christopher Idylls, and over the years attempted to stir up interest in the recordings. A story he has told regarding one such occasion corroborates the theory that at least one member of Big Star had head the Nicholson record. In April 1970, Jimmy Page was in Memphis for a Led Zeppelin gig, and after the show, Page and his girlfriend spent the evening hanging out at Manning’s apartment. Joined by Chris Bell, the four drank wine and listened to the Gimmer Nicholson album over and over again.
It would be over decade until Manning found an interested party, but finally did with Sid Selvidge. Selvidge, a Memphis musician and record label owner, released Christopher Idylls on his Peabody Records in 1981. Peabody was the same label that first issued Alex Chilton’s ramshackle classic, Like Flies On Sherbert, a couple of years prior.
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