Nichols was born in Ogden, Utah, the son of a music teacher. By the age of 12 he was playing cornet with his father's brass band. He decided to take up the new style of music called jazz after hearing the phonograph records of the Original Dixieland Jass Band. In 1923 he moved east to perform with a band in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and (with a few tours of the midwest) made New York City his base throughout the 1920s and 1930s. He worked for various bandleaders including Paul Whiteman and Harry Reser, was a regular in the cooperative California Ramblers in addition to leading groups under his own name (often called Red Nichols & His Five Pennies), and of the band of his friend trombonist Miff Mole. Nichols became one of the busiest phonograph session musicians of his era, making hundreds of recording sessions of jazz and hot dance band music. He also played in several Broadway shows.
In 1942 Nichols moved to California, where he worked with various bands in Los Angeles and San Francisco into the 1950s.
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