OBITUARY: Legendary guitarist Roy Nichols dies of heart attack Filed: 07/03/2001 The Bakersfield Californian Roy Nichols, legendary guitarist for Merle Haggard, the Maddox Brothers & Rose and other prominent country-music acts, died of a heart attack Tuesday morning at Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield. He was 68. Nichols had been hospitalized for an unrelated infection since Saturday, his wife Quita Nichols said. Nichols, a 22-year member of Haggard's band, the Strangers, was famed for his on-stage bursts of creativity -- unrehearsed, ad-libbed escapades up the neck of his well-traveled Fender Telecaster that sometimes surprised even Nichols himself. Nichols was a fan of French-Gypsy jazz guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt, and it showed. As vast as his technical and creative skills might have been, Nichols' most noteworthy role in the movement known as the Bakersfield Sound might have been that of musical Kilroy. Name most any prominent band in West Coast country music from the 1940s, '50s, '60s or '70s, and the ubiq-uitous Nichols was there: the Maddox Brothers & Rose, Lefty Frizzell, Cousin Herb Henson, Wynn Stewart, and starting in 1965 or so, Haggard and the Strangers. "I guess you could say I did it all," Nichols said in a 1997 interview with The Californian. Roy Ernest Nichols was born in Chandler, Ariz., in October 1932, and was raised in Fresno. He was two weeks shy of his 16th birthday when he met Fred Maddox, bass player and resident smart-aleck of the Maddox Brothers. Maddox, whose band was already a hillbilly icon in the country-music world of 1949, had heard Nichols playing guitar on the Saturday-morning radio program of Fresno DJ Barney Lee. Just like that, Nichols was hired. During his 18-month association with the band, Nichols earned $90 a week, a staggering fortune for a 16-year-old. "He could play anything," Rose Maddox said in a 1997 interview. "Every guitar picker in the country wanted to play like him, but none of them ever compared. He was one of a kind. But the music aside, he was like any 16-year-old kid -- feisty, causing us trouble." One night in Mesa, Ariz., at a Maddox & Rose concert at the local high school gymnasium, a teen-age couple worked their way up to the very front of the crowd. Resting their elbows, hands and chins on the front of the stage, Buck Owens and Bonnie Campbell Owens studied every wiggle, every riff. "I never took my eyes off Rose Maddox," said Bonnie. "Buck never took his eyes off Roy Nichols." Fred had became not only Roy's legal guardian but his officially sanctioned tutor as well. As it turned out, Henry Maddox, Fred's brother, was the one who tutored Nichols. Fred had quite the opposite influence. He taught Roy the fine art of sneaking out of and back into hotel rooms without being caught by colorfully domineering Lula Maddox, the family matriarch and band manager. Nichols got pretty good at it. But one night in Las Vegas, Lula caught him playing the slots. When she caught him at it again the next night, she fired him. Nichols had recorded more than 100 songs with the band while performing seven nights a week almost year-round. After a year with Hanford DJ/program host Roy "Smiley" Maxedon (who died June 3 in Tulare), Nichols went to work for Lefty Frizzell, the Texan whose "If You've Got the Money, Honey, I've Got the Time" made him a legend in the eyes of many in Bakersfield. Haggard was one such devoted fan, but he came to admire Nichols as well after watching him play with Frizzell at Bakersfield's Rainbow Gardens in 1953. In 1954, after making several recordings with Frizzell, Nichols returned to work for another year with Maxedon. He then joined Cousin Herb Henson's "Trading Post" on Bakersfield's KERO-TV, a five-days-a-week, 45-minute show that ran for nearly 11 years. Nichols stayed with the show, off and on, until Henson suffered a fatal heart attack in November 1963. During that time he also played at the Foothill Club in Long Beach with Billy Mize and Cliff Crofford, toured and recorded with Johnny Cash and, in 1960, joined Wynn Stewart's band in Las Vegas. He came to be good friends with Haggard, the bass player. It was the beginning of a professional and personal relationship that would span another four decades. In early 1965, Nichols, his wife and 1-year-old daughter moved back to Bakersfield (other children came along later) and Nichols worked for a time at Tex's Barrel House, on the Garces Circle. He soon met up again with Haggard, whose monetary disasters in the card rooms of Vegas had hastened his departure from Nevada. In August 1966, when Haggard formed the first incarnation of the Strangers, Nichols was his first hire. By this time, Bakersfield's core of first-rate performers was starting to regard its collective contribution to country music as the equal of Nashville. "Yeah, finally we started to feel that way," Nichols said in 1997. "We had so many talented musicians. We were doing OK with Merle, and Buck and (late Buckaroo guitarist-fiddler) Don Rich were getting hot then, too." Nichols, whose aggressive but eloquent style foreshadowed the emergence of rockabilly by a half-decade, developed techniques later embraced and absorbed by three generations of rock and country guitarists. Along with James Burton, he popularized the "chicken pickin'" guitar technique. Nichols also worked out a distinctive descending-note move that Lula Maddox once likened to the sound of "a horsey fartin'." But Nichols became best known for a string-bending technique that was all his: Most guitar players hit a note and then proceed to stretch the string into a sharp, but Nichols preferred to bend the string, then strike it, then relax it, lowering the note. Between 1966 and 1987, Haggard and his band, driven instrumentally by the formidable combinationof Nichols and Farmersville-bred steel guitarist Norm Hamlet, recorded 38 songs that reached No. 1 on the Billboard country charts and another 33 that reached the top 10. Nichols wrote 19 published songs of his own, including one, "Street Singer," that was nominated for a Grammy award in 1970. Haggard has said that a statement Nichols once made about his home life was the inspiration for Haggard's 1973 hit "If We Make it Through December." Nichols was married four times. In March 1987 Nichols quit the road and retired from the band. The following year he was inducted into the Western Swing Society Hall of Fame in Sacramento. In February 1996, Nichols suffered a stroke that put him in a wheelchair and cost him the use of his left hand. Nichols, a shy, soft-spoken man who talks little and sings even less, was never comfortable with praise. Haggard, he once said, deserves credit for pushing him to higher creative levels and giving him the elbow room to soar on his own. Friends and colleagues have always refused to let him get away with that. "I have not seen his equal in country music among people playing lead guitar," Tommy Collins, the late Bakersfield honky-tonk star, said in a 1997 interview. "He would play so tasty, so skillfully, and with class."