Sunday, June 29, 2008

Don Nix International Man of... Music


This is the first of a two-part posting on Rock Music's Don Nix.

DON NIX may not have the name recognition of some of his colleagues and you're not likely to catch him where the flashbulbs are going off. It appears he's more likely to be spending his time collaborating with someone on a new song or producing a CD. But his career is a remarkable story as he is an industry survivor in a business that takes no prisoners. Don Nix began his musical career as the baritone sax player in the high school band sensation named The Mar-Keys. In the early 60's they recorded the sexy hit song titled "Last Night" for Satellite Records. Previously know as the Royal Spades, The Mar-Keys became the bedrock of the small record label that would soon change it's name to STAX Records. At that time no one envisioned the splintering of career paths set forth by The Mar-Keys or the phenomenal growth the small label would endure. Including Don Nix. Consider the fact that if you ever want to read an intriguing lesson within the history of Rock music, check-out the names of the individual members of The Mar-Keys. That info will blow your mind. There's Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Wayne Jackson, Joe Arnold, Don Nix, Packy Axton, Smoochy Smith, Terry Johnson and produced by legendary producer, Chips Moman. You could start the beginning scene of a full length movie at that point with the unfolding story of The Mar-Keys and STAX Records. The storyline might go like this...After the Mar-Keys next came Booker T. & The MGs, then came The Memphis Horns, then came Carla Thomas, William Bell, then Otis arrived...and so forth and so on. The point of the matter is, anyone attempting to document those years in a book or a movie and then try to minimize Don Nix's participation during those years, well...I would say they didn't do their homework.

The real story here is Don Nix always hung around some heavy hitters. On more than one occasion STAX's President and co-founder Jim Stewart would share a flamboyant story of the escapades of Don Nix over lunch gathering or a dinner party. The truth of the matter is, Jim Stewart was influenced by Nix's music direction and artistic suggestions. At a early stage both saw the changing of music styles upon the landscape of American music. During that cycle consumer trends were showing that single recordings (45 RPM's) were on the decline while college-age record buyers were purchasing albums of Pop and cross-over artists. Particularly those in the Blues field and blue-eyed soul artists. The Billboard charts didn't lie as Pop music was the clear path into the future. If you wanted to remain competitive, you better jump on the Pop band wagon. So, Don Nix began his entrance-level pop production at STAX with artists Molach, Paris Pilot and Sid Selvidge. Jim Stewart recognizing the same pattern, did likewise (see Jim Stewart ~ The Midas Touch).

Yet, if we turn back the clock to the mid 60's to first time I saw Don Nix perform, it was a summer night at a dance held at the Memphis Fairgrounds. At that time Nix was a young man and as skinny as a rake. Don't know how he could blow that huge barry sax with his thin frame and then turn around and puff on Marlboro's between songs. But Don Nix had a real cool stage presence and moved smoothly about the stage. Somehow his personal appearance differed slightly from his stage appearance. He was sorta a hybrid character and resembled a cross between a greaser and a beatnik while wearing black upon black...draped with more black. Whatever the case, he was very intriguing and I knew I had to get to know him. Months later, that impromptu meeting with Nix would occur when mutual friend Larry Raspberry of The Gentrys and myself rode my motorcycle over to the Bitter Lemon Cafe to catch some music. It must have been sometimes in 1966 or 67 when I first met Nix. Talk about a hip-talking white boy. Man, Don Nix was a non-stop, mile a minute jokester who held no punches. He kept us all in stitches and never ran out of material. Every night Nix would hold court at the Lemon with supporters flocking to his side. People would actually jockey for position to gain a seat at his table. One night Nix came in the back door of the Bitter Lemon with a guy who had this long silver hair hanging-down to his shoulders. That dude's name was Leon Russell. When Nix and Russell walked past our table, it was the first time that I'd been exposed to the sweet fragrance of Patchouli oil. No way I could pronounce the stuff much less even spell it-but at that very moment I knew I had to have some. Point is, after smelling that delightful fragrance, I swore that I'd never again wear Old Spice or English Leather cologne.

Hanging-out with Don Nix was like a psychedelic experience as I never knew what to expect. Everything appeared surrealistic and seemed like a magic carpet ride. For example, one night we were hanging-out at the Bitter Lemon when members of Paul Revere & The Raiders entered the coffee house. They had the number # 1 song in the country at the time and actually got-up on stage and performed. Free. The club was very small and only sat about 75 to 100 people. But I felt privileged to witness the event as it was a night to remember. I was so stunned that I turned to Don Nix and asked, "Did I actually see what I think I saw?"

Don Nix would go on to produce and write songs for several very pivotal STAX artists such as Delaney & Bonnie and Albert King. Like many artists from that period, their notoriety would follow yet remain long term. But the bubble was about to burst at STAX with in-house discontent over an administration shift. Seems that key insiders who held together the delicate studio chemistry at the label got seriously pissed off and split town. Call it a power play or call it a hijacking, the STAX tailspin had just begun when a certain Vice President began to blindly disassemble Jim Stewart's legacy. As time would tell, Don Nix would also leave and travel extensively moving both to California and then later to France. All while venturing towards surrounding himself with Rock music's elite. Shortly after STAX's closure, British guitar legend Jeff Beck comes to Memphis to record an album at Steve Cropper's new TMI Recording Studio. Wouldn't you know that Beck records a classic version of the Don Nix penned "Going Down." Things were looking up for Don Nix. After that Nix signs with Electra Records for a solo album that gained international recognition. And then comes a second Electra album with himself and Jeanie Greene and Lonnie Mack called "Alabama State Troopers." Nix then reconnects with old friend and pianist-producer-artist Leon Russell who signs him to his fledgling Shelter Records for a solo album that receives glowing reviews. Nix was even recognized in Penthouse Magazine as one of 100 influential people to watch. Then into the picture enters the Mad Dog and Englishman himself Joe Cocker to stir-up the mayhem and madness into Nix's life. That's when Don Nix signs-on to produce new Shelter Records artist Freddie King for his breakthrough album. And if that wasn't enough, Nix would go on to work on separate album projects with blues legend John Mayall and then bring to forefront blues master Fury Lewis and still have time to hang with the likes of superstars Eric Clapton and George Harrison.

Like many of Don Nix's associates, most remain his friends for life. Such is the case as the former STAX music publisher, Tim Whitsett (R), who held the title of President of East/Memphis Music Publishing, and shares one of his many escapades with Nix. Tim Whitsett remembers this memorable account; "I didn’t think it was funny at the time but in January 1974 a contingent from STAX Records attended the MIDEM conference in Cannes, France. On my first night there, Don and I joined our colleagues at a stylish restaurant on Le Croissant. I couldn’t pronounce anything on the menu, but made sure to sample all of it, washing everything down with brimming glasses of fermented grape from every vineyard in France. After the dishes were cleared, cigars and brandy enhanced our table’s bonhomie. At that time, someone brightly suggested: “Let’s go the casino.”

"By now my legs was very wobbly. Probably from the Jet lag, no doubt. I wished everyone luck at the casino and tottered off towards our hotel. Alas, Don caught up with me, and, using my elbow as a rudder, steered us both to the casino, and thence to the roulette table."

Whistett continues, "The action in a French casino bears very little resemblance to that in an American casino. In fact, the word ‘action’ does not at all describe the somnambulant ritual surrounding a French roulette table. Monsieur le croupier laconically bids everyone to place their bets, then gives the wheel a half-hearted sissy whirl. The wheel goes round and round interminably in the slowest of slow motion. When at last it stops, there is silence. No good old American whooping or hollering from the bettors. Merely a few Gallic shrugs."

"If the truth be known, I did not want to be in the casino. The air was hot and garlicky with wall-to-wall Gauls, and heavy with le cigarette smoke; visibility was limited to fourteen inches. Everyone was speaking French, which I thought very pretentious. My pulsing head badly wanted to lay itself down on the plump goose-feathered pillow back in the hotel room. But Don Nix would not let me depart. He had an idea up his sleeve and needed me to hang."

“Pretend like I’m blind,” Nix said while grabbing my arm. “You have to hold my hand and lead me around the casino.” “Aw-no Don, please.” I said. Then he squinted shut his eyes, grabbed hold of my hand, and shoved me into the crowd. As we walked around the casino, Nix made a very convincing blind man. I don’t know what I made, but I was embarrassed and felt like I was making an utter fool of myself.

Considering at the time, Don Nix was in the Buffalo Bill phase of his life. He had shoulder length hair, a neatly trimmed mustachios and goatee. A short leather jacket adorned with fringes on the sleeves. And, of course, that phase wouldn’t have been appropriate without the obligatory Buffalo Bill leather hat, which was never removed, not even in the shower. Indeed, Don Nix felt the same way about that hat as Sitting Bull felt about the white Stetson that Buffalo Bill had given him. When a relative once touched it, Sitting Bull snatched it away, declaring “Pahaska (Long Hair) gave me this hat! Only the hand that placed it on my head may touch it!”

So there we were, me and Buffalo Bill, trying to part a sea of sweating flesh. I’m saying “Par-dohn, Par-dohn,” as I shuffled through the casino and feeling like an idiot, wondering why I let Don rope me into this, and noting with some surprise how people were actually making room with overt sympathy as we progressed through the crowd. Then suddenly a little lady of eighty (or thereabouts) came to my rescue. Her hair was blue, in the fashion of her age and social status. I gauged her wealth as high by virtue of the thick pearl ropes round her neck, the blindingly bright diamonds affixed to her pendant and the fox fur wrap draped over her shoulder (a ludicrous accessory in the heat of the casino and offensive to those who might be repulsed by the poor fox who had his head still attached).

This little lady, barely five feet tall in her high heels, materialized right in front of us. Looking up at Don with eyes round and glowing in ardent desire, she exclaimed, “Ah! J'adore simplement votre chapeau!” And as she burbled this, which roughly translates as “Oh, I simply adore your hat!,” she reached way up and snatched the hat right off Buffalo Bill’s head. It was the kind of jester that makes a blind man’s vision return.

Don roared aloud like a wounded buffalo. “Nobody touches my hat!” That is also a rough translation, for he shouted much more as he chased the traumatized little lady back into the crowded casino.

As for moi, the diversion allowed me to escape - out of the casino and back to my hotel where a plump pillow was awaiting my head. Next day, when I saw young Don, his chapeau was firmly in place. I never thought to ask after the fate of the little ole lady. Neither did Don ever volunteer how she fared when he caught up with her. Between friends, some things are best left unsaid.” shares long time friend and associate Tim Whitsett.

Next Posting; A Home-Grown Distortion-Prone Don Nix