Don Nix’s memory-laden career with humble Memphis soul roots

Veteran musician, producer and writer Don Nix was a guest on the July 14 edition of Greasy Tracks where he shared stories of a career that started at an upstart label in Memphis to touring the world and working with the likes of Leon Russell, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Albert and Freddie King.

Hit-making, trailblazing: The Mar-Keys in the studio, from left, Charlies “Packy” Axton, Wayne Jackson, Donald “Duck” Dunn, Don Nix, Terry Johnson, Steve Cropper and Jerry Lee “Smoochie” Smith. (Phillip Rauls photo)

Nix played saxophone with the Mar-Keys who cut “Last Night” for Satellite Records – the precursor to Stax Records – in 1961. The single, the first to be nationally distributed by the label, went to No. 2 on the R&B and No. 3 on the Pop charts that year and led to the band playing across the country and internationally. They even made a less-than-well-behaved appearance on American Bandstand.

Click here for the Nix interview.

Most of the members of the Mar-Keys were in their teens as the band would be a proving ground for a number of musicians who would one day be synonymous with Memphis soul, including guitarist Steve Cropper, trumpet player Wayne Jackson, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and sax player Charles “Packy” Axton.

The Early Days: Charles “Packy” Axton, Don Nix and Steve Cropper, in front of Satellite Records, were high school classmates who later played together in The Mar-Keys. Their hit, “Last Night,” would be the first nationally released single by Satellite. (Photo courtesy of Don Nix)

During the heady success the band garnered in 1961, they were part of a tour — featuring Jerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers – which set a then-record of playing before 50,000-plus people at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.

Nix recalls doing a lot of session work at Stax, recording with such legends as Rufus and Carla Thomas and William Bell. “I was there (Stax) since ’61,” he said. “I played with so many people, but then they (Stax) got professional musicians (to do sessions) and you can’t blame them, because they were better than us.”

Among one of the people linked to creating the “Memphis Sound,” Nix maintains a special fondness for his time spent at Stax.

“People are starting to forget Stax these days,” Nix lamented. “There hasn’t been any music like that around for a long time and there’s a whole generation who hasn’t even heard it. I don’t think of it (Stax) as a (stylistic) tradition or anything, but I think of it as fun.”

At Sea, Pre-Bangladesh: George Harrison (left) and Don Nix off Catalina Island in 1971. Later that year, Nix would take part in Harrison’s famed Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden. The two had recently met and during the eight-hour sea cruise forged a friendship that lasted for years. Ironically, both became seasick that day. (Phillip Rauls photo)

Throughout his career, be it as a musician or producer, Nix, 72, stresses the importance of artists being able to play together and enjoy the music they create.

“I’m old enough to remember Elvis (Presley), Scotty (Moore) and Bill Black,” he said regarding Presley’s guitarist and bassist. “They used to practice every day at the cleaners not too far from where I lived. They would go there every day before they went to Sun (Studios). They just went there to play and have fun with each other.”

Having fun making music has always been the focal point for Nix. “If it ain’t fun, don’t do it,” he said. “Fun is the best thing to have and happy is the best way to be. If that’s the way you do music you like, you’ll be happy and having fun.”

By the later 1960s, Nix headed to Los Angeles where he started picking up session work with Leon Russell at Gold Star Studios where wiz kid producer Phil Spector was unleashing his “Wall of Sound” on the industry.

The move proved to be a bit of a culture shock.

“I got to work with the Wrecking Crew,” said Nix of the crack group of session players who are generally regarded the greatest collections of studio musicians in history, responsible for playing on some of the biggest hits and most famous albums ever recorded.

Telling Tales: Don Nix wrote about his life and times in the music industry and had musician friends contribute their favorite recipes in his 1997 book. (Book cover photo courtesy Schirmer Books)

“They had charts for everyone,” recalled Nix of the West Coast studio approach, which was similar to what was happening in New York. “Leon (Russell) wrote charts for everyone, the rhythm section, the drummers, everyone. That was an eye-opener for me. They all had charts. I had always done ‘head charts’ in Memphis, we never wrote anything down.”

In the winter of 1970, Nix produced and wrote most of the material on Albert King’s “Lovejoy.” Oddly enough, in 2013, “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven,” a Nix-penned track from the album, was used in the film, Star Trek Into Darkness.

Later, Nix was one of the first people signed to Russell’s and Denny Cordell’s  new label, Shelter Records, where he would release his debut solo album, “In God We Trust” which he recorded with the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. During his time at Shelter, Nix continued to write and record, but focused more and more on producing. In 1971, he shared production credit with Russell on Freddie King’s “Getting Ready” which was cut at Chess Studios in Chicago.

One track on the album, “Goin’ Down,” which Nix wrote in 1969, would become one of King’s best-known recordings. To date, it has and has been covered by nearly 100 bands and artists as wide ranging as The Jeff Beck Group, J.J. Cale, Deep Purple and the Rolling Stones who were known to play it from time to time during their 2012 tour. The HBO series, “Eastbound & Down” used King’s version as the opening theme for its four-season run.

Nix released “Living By The Days” in 1971, again calling on the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section as well as players from Russell’s house band, the Shelter People. The double-live “Alabama State Troupers” featuring legendary Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis, came out a year later followed by “Hobos, Heroes and Street Corner Clowns” which was released on the Stax subsidiary Enterprise in 1973.

Greasy Tracks and Don Nix: During the 2013 edition of “Soulsville,” the annual Stax marathon radio production hosted by Chris Cowles and Tom Shaker, the Stax Music Academy in Memphis was the broadcast location as the show went on the road. Cowles (left) was joined by Nix during the proceedings.

George Harrison, who became friends with Nix years earlier, made a guest appearance on the 1973 album and was part of Nix’s 1976 effort, “Gone Too Long.”

In 1971, Nix through his association with Russell and friendship with Harrison, became involved with Harrison’s famed Concert for Bangladesh — long considered the first all-star musical benefit. Nix put together a choir of backing singers, most coming from the Shelter People and he added vocals on a number of selections played during the two shows performed at Madison Square Garden to rave reviews.

Looking back at his career, Nix is grateful to have been able to do what he has done.

“I’m the only guy from Memphis to work at Stax and then go out to L.A. and work with the Wrecking Crew and Leon Russell,” he said, “and then go to England and work with George Harrison.

“What a fortunate life I’ve had — I’ve gotten to meet more great people, they were all highlights of my career, especially working with Freddie (King) and Albert (King), but it keeps on going and right now, I’m trying to stay busy in my golden years.”

In 1997, Nix had his first book published as Schirmer Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint, released Road Stories and Recipes. Unlike all other music bios, Nix had dozens of musician friends submit their favorite recipes which are included in the second half of the book.

Nix and his brother, Larry — who made his mark at Stax as one of the top mastering technicians in the industry — recently co-produced guitarist Mark “Muleman” Massey’s “One Step Ahead of The Blues.” Nix is currently producing veteran guitarist Danny Greene’s as-yet-to-be-named project.

A Chicken Ain’t Nothin’ But A Bird: Bluesman Furry Lewis (left) and Don Nix play together in Memphis. The two enjoyed a decades-long friendship, recorded and toured together as part of The Alabama State Troupers Road Show. (Phillip Rauls photo)

“Any time I have the honor to go into the studio to produce somebody is a special day,” explained Nix.” It may sound corny, but look at all of my friends who are gone now. I’m kind of it. It’s a process of elimination because everyone else is dead, but I really enjoy every day I can go into the studio to record.”

Greasy Tracks, the longest-running soul and blues program in Connecticut, airs Saturdays 3:30-5:30 p.m.

 

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