Monday, July 28, 2008

A Home-Grown Distortion-Prone Don Nix

This is the conclusion of a two-part posting on Rock Music's DON NIX. Please refer to previous story for continuing storyline.

What do you get when you combine part-musician, part-songwriter, part-producer and part-innovator? Well, you probably already know the answer by now as Don Nix combined all those special talents. Plus, he was in the thick-of-things from the get-go. Don Nix was an important piece to the Blues-Rock puzzle as his body of work leaves behind a notable trail of recordings (Pictured here with Blues Legend Furry Lewis). Back in the days when local bands were transitioning from playing Rhythm & Blues to just plain old Blues, Don Nix was there bridging the gap of uncharted waters with his pioneering ideas for roots artists. "Man, we'd go in the studio and use a harmonica microphone to record the snare drum just to capture a little distortion" says Nix. Concepts of this nature were not mainstream and considered a little controversial at the time. Looking back to the late 60's and early 70's, and if the truth be known, not everyone was on board with the adversity of Don Nix's ideas. Those who were critical of his ideas were often the one's sitting on the sidelines and associated with unsigned cover bands.

Admittedly, Don Nix is not your everyday chart topping superstar. To be fair, I really don't think that stardom was his lone destiny in the first place. Nor do I believe that he wanted all the uninvited attention that goes with the territory. Yet, this unusual posture is exactly what drew my attention to Don Nix in the first place. Considering this unique mode, he made an timely impression upon me and became one of my early mentors. All while not trying to make a timely impression upon me or become any one's mentor. Like some musicians from that Memphis era, Don Nix got into the music business and the next thing you know, things happened. Many of the fortunate souls from that STAX era, like Nix, were so happy they didn't have to get a day job and worked extra hard to maintain that unparalleled freedom.

Although Don Nix was a successful solo artist with numerous albums, his early phase participation in the production and songwriting for other artists helped shape many careers (see previous posting for details). Don Nix specialized in the formation of background singers, choir harmonies, and the soulful blend of gospel singers. That career distinction earned him the wilful eye of Beatle George Harrison when in 1971 Harrison was preparing the staging for The Concert For Bangladesh and contacted Nix for his participation. It was Don Nix's reputation and unique friendship with George Harrison that earned him the duty of organizing the background singers for this special concert event. The film, record album and concert benefit were a huge commercial success and remains as a classic event in Rock history. Somehow I wonder what it was like sitting at home when the phone rings and it was George Harrison calling to say, "Ello' Don, Can you possibly make it to Madison Square Gardens next weekend and help out with vocalist? Jolly good, Cheers." When you consider Don Nix's career took many unexpected twists and turns down through the years, you'll notice he always landed on his feet. And fortunately I was there to witness Don Nix's wild ride on several occasions. Like most who know of this fine artist, many share a special story. Considering my association and first hand experiences, I too would like to tell one of my many Don Nix tales.

THE YEAR was 1974 when Don Nix's album "Hobos, Hero's and Street Corner Clowns" was released on Enterprise (STAX) Records. It's Southern-soaked music welcomed a new era of college-age listeners to the label. A short time later STAX released another album that was co-produced by Don Nix titled "Highstepping and Fancy Dancing" by Larry Raspberry & The Highsteppers. Immediately upon release a tour was organized including both artists which was closely coordinated with CBS Records...the most powerful distribution system on the entire planet. Chart listings and concert reviews poured-in for both STAX artists as radio interviews blanketed the airwaves. Plus, several advertising campaigns were implemented while the CBS promotion and marketing staffs rolled-up their sleeves in preparation to flex their marketing muscle. After several successful Nix-Raspberry concert dates through the vast state of Texas, the tour rolled into San Francisco for a well-anticipated performance at The Great American Music Hall.

Press photo from The Great American Music Hall. (L-R) Rick Swig-Epic Records, Phillip Rauls-STAX Records, Larry Raspberry-STAX artist, Barbara Cotteril-guest, Dave Sholin-KFRC Radio/The GAVIN Report, Don Nix-STAX artist and Don DeGraf-Epic distributor.

An enthusiastic crowd combined with numerous media personnel packed the legendary music hall to view the concert. Managing editor Gary Taylor of leading industry magazine, The Gavin Radio Report, greets Phillip Rauls as he enters the hall. But get this. Sliced watermelon was served to all the guest as a special memoir to the down home event. Um...Wasn't that special. Band members wondered if they should perform barefooted as to fit the theme. Yet, as events unfolded and prior to the band's arrival to the concert hall, a very disappointing incident occurred earlier in the day. During the afternoon, a scheduled stop for both artists had been booked at the retail giant Tower Records. Both artists were excited for an in-store appearance which was supported by a live radio broadcast promoting their arrival. Upon their entrance they made themselves available inside the store for signing autographs and fan photos. But despite the hoopla of their appearance, combined with the live remote, substantial airplay, and a huge advertising campaign with publicity to match...guess what happened next? Or better still, guess what didn't happen next? Somehow a blundering mistake was made by somebody at CBS Records as they forgot to stock the Tower store with new STAX albums by Don Nix and Larry Raspberry. Both artists had ventured all the way across country for this concert and then visit the Tower Store for the big in-store promotion when somebody botched the event as they actually forgot to place their albums in stock. Imagine that. Not one record in the entire store by either artist. In turn, both artists ended-up signing their autographs on paper napkins that were supplied by a nearby restaurant. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and shook my head in disbelief. This was totally unacceptable. Rather than selling brand new albums to the fans who were standing in line and having the artists put their signatures on their album jackets, Nix and Raspberry were subjected to undergo this humiliating experience. Man, I thought to myself, "Some major heads gonna roll for this blunder." Sure enough, they did. Days later CBS Records conceded their mistake by conducting an executive search for a new San Francisco Branch Manager.

The West Coast portion of the tour resumed days later while the final Nix-Raspberry concert was held in Los Angeles. By now the tour had included two noted guest performers who had joined the review in route, Blues legend John Mayall and vocalists Claudia Lanier. In Los Angeles after a series of afternoon interviews and topped-off with a spirited evening performance, band members were ready to relax and celebrate the tour's conclusion. There was a commemorative mood in the air when John Mayall offered to host a after-concert party at his place. Whoa! I'd never been to one of them-thare Hollywood parties. A little R&R was definitely in order as band members and myself piled into the van and drove-up the winding and narrow roads to reach his Hollywood Hills estate. Upon arrival at Mayall's luxurious residence, we were pleasantly surprised by his selection of hostesses. There standing at the door greeting us were several completely nude models from Penthouse Magazine. Stark naked. My eyes completely popped out of my head as it was quite different from what I expected. Needless to say, they were all very beautiful and well endowed. I tried not to stare but about every couple of minutes throughout the entire evening, I was ordering a new drink from the hostesses just to capture a close-up view. I must have introduced myself to the beauties a hundred times as later in the evening and as the night rolled-on the hostesses began to yawn when they saw me approaching. Heck, they didn't have these kinda parties like this in my hometown. Yet, before the night was over, band members were feeling no pain and began stripping-down to their birthday suits while jumping from Mayall's second floor balcony into his swimming pool below. Including me too. Naked.

Back home, Don Nix had this fine, super-fine home located in the plush midtown neighborhood known as Chickasaw Gardens. All the beautiful homes in Memphis along Central Avenue had that rich Southern tradition being located about 75 yards from the street. It had big white columns stretched over the front looking very colonial. When you drove by in your car, it darn-near took a half a minute just to pass the mansion. One could easily view the chrome shining from his Bently sitting in his 3-car garage. I could imagine just walking to the mailbox located at curbside which probably took about ten minutes just to retrieve the mail. Anyway, you get the picture. In 1975 Don Nix had scheduled a trip to London to work on a record project when he gave me the keys to his 5 bedroom estate and asked me to watch his house while he was out of the country. "Sure," I said while thumbing through my little black book in search of available chicks. Come to find out while he was out of the country, a burglar broke-in his house and stole his entire collection of antique Civil War rifles, pistols and irreplaceable relicts. All on my watch. Man, I dreaded facing him when he returned. Yet, despite those unfortunate circumstances, when he came home, he kept his cool and never accused me of anything or suggested otherwise. At that very moment, somehow Nix's even keel calmness was forever registered within my consciousness.

Nix's multiple solo albums have paved the way and opened doors for many Southern roots artist. His body of work is spread over 5 decades while he's still plugging away. Here's a collection of several of Nix's past and current albums.

Beyond a doubt Nix's watershed is his writing of the legendary song "Going Down." Artists who have recorded this classic song are; Freddie King, Jeff Beck, John Lee Hooker, Joe Walsh, Peter Green, J.J. Cale, Brian Ferry & Roxy Music, Deep Purple, Pearl Jam and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

"I Don't Want No Trouble" was released in 2006 with the album title personifying Nix's true personality. Guess we all mellow out with age and convert into a passive mode. Not that there's anything wrong with it.

Don Nix's latest entry is titled "Passing Through" and is a timeless beaut. Recorded with the Fredrick Knight title song and spiced with soulful William Brown vocals and the Issac Hayes string section, Nix displays a smooth side of his work.

Don Nix also has the dubious distinction of writing a book with his collection of stories while traveling down the rock & roll highway. "Road Stories And Recipes" is a must read for all Pop-Culture enthusiast.

Although some of these Don Nix treasures are out of print, most are still available through various sources via the internet.

Story by Phillip Rauls (c) Copyright 2008 All Rights Reserved