Billy Stix Nicks: Just A Side Man

By+Kathy Jonas

Photography by Greg Blosser

 

Billy Stix Nicks says he’s not a star. He calls himself “just a side man.”

 

But this local drumming legend, who turned 80 years old on December 8, has a personality that exudes humility, warmth and charisma—qualities of a rare kind of star power that you don’t see very often. Tony Bennett and B.B. King come to mind.

 

During his years with Jr. Walker and The All Stars, he rubbed shoulders with Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, 

The Supremes, David Geffen and Louis Armstrong, to name just a few. He performed at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem, toured in Europe and took the stage at Shea Stadium. 

 

Today, he and his band, Billy Stix Nicks and The Motown Machine, perform regularly at venues big and small. It’s clear that age has not slowed him down. 

 

“Most people view me as a professional musician, but I’ve been able to come this far and do so many things with my life,” Nicks said in a recent interview at the Drum and Music Exchange, where he still teaches a few days a week (in addition to being on the music faculty at the University of Notre Dame). “I’ve always believed in entertaining.”

 

Perhaps that is a part of his star quality—he is just so darn considerate of others. In a cynical and often impersonal world, he takes “feel good” to a whole new level. He’s also seen (and remembers with great detail) a lot of bad behavior including temper tantrums, out-of-control narcissism and a general lack of civility. He never wanted to be like that.

 

Last winter was a tough one for everyone, but more so for Nicks. He had to have surgery in January to remove his spleen. At one point, he was down to 136 pounds. “My wife was trying to force feed me,” he said of Pattie, his wife of 50 years. The only good part about it: he didn’t have to lug his drums around in the ice, snow and cold. 

 

The Son of a Sharecropper

Born the second of seven children to a sharecropper in Greenwood, Mississippi, he and his family secretly boarded a train headed to Chicago in 1944. They ended up in South Bend, a place he’s called home ever since. It wasn’t until he was a parent that his father told him about the humiliation and fear that fueled that trip north. 

 

“My father was a sharecropper, which was another form of slavery. He walked behind the plow and it wasn’t an Oliver Chilled Plow either,” Nicks said. When his legs failed from the labor of walking the fields, the plant manager threatened him. “My father said, ‘there’s no way I’m going to let someone whip me.’ “

 

 

The Early Years

Nicks made lifelong friends at Oliver School and Central High School. His musical talent took hold and before you knew it, the sticks went with him everywhere and were stored in his back pocket. They’re every bit as much a part of him as a hand or a foot and explain his nickname “Stix” given to him by his schoolmate and the late organ player, Jackie Ivory.

 

He doesn’t know why he started drumming. He doesn’t remember much about the beginning except he knew early on that’s what he had to do. He played on chairs, tables, his own legs, whatever was there. 

 

Nicks set up his first set of drums on one of the two Ries’ Furniture oriental rugs in his house, right next to the 45 record player. “I never realized it, but when I practiced my dad always went to visit a friend and my mom went across the street to visit her sister.” Despite the noise, they supported him from the very beginning and eventually he taught himself to play. 

 

Central High School/WNDU

He speaks with fondness about his high school years at Central, where he was encouraged to pursue the arts, even though he couldn’t read music. Renowned local director James Lewis Casady enlisted him to play all the musicals because he paid attention to every detail on the stage. Band director Arthur Singleton also encouraged his talent. 

 

Nicks and Saxophonist Junior Walker had separate bands in high school and a relationship began that lasted until Walker’s death in 1965. More like brothers, they had mutual respect and occasionally had creative disagreements, ending up in and out of each other’s lives. 

 

For instance, Nicks said the general manager at WNDU – a brand new television station - asked him and his band “The Rhythm Rockers” to play at a new Saturday afternoon teen party show called “Club 46.” Junior left to pursue other opportunities, but ended up coming back.

 

You’re in the Army Now

In June of 1956, while busy playing sock hops and Polish weddings (which paid pretty good money at $25-$50 a gig), Nicks was called to the post office by Sgt. John Horan, the recruiting officer, who asked him to become a member of the federal reserve and play in the U.S. Army band. “I didn’t know a note of music but faked it,” Nicks said of the audition.

 

He was off to basic training in the Deep South and eventually Wurzburg and Stuttgart, Germany. He encountered racism frequently. When the band stopped at a restaurant in Arkansas, members discovered firsthand that African Americans were not going to be served. In Germany, he said U.S. GI’s would populate certain bars and those bars became “white only.” In contrast, he found Denmark and Sweden open and friendly.

 

Motown Revisited 

When he came back from the service in 1959, Nicks began working with his friend, Oscar Baby Jones and the Oscar Baby Jones Quartet. In 1962, he began touring with Jackie Ivory and The Gents of Soul. He credits the 1962 Chicago recording of “Soul Discovery” as a turning point in his career. 

 

He began playing with Jr. Walker and The All Stars on the famed Motown/Soul label for the 1965 “Roadrunner,” “How Sweet it is to Be Loved by You” and “Pucker Up Buttercup.” Unfortunately, at times he did not get credit for his work, which was common in those days. 

 

He laughs at some of the memories. “They kept stopping Junior to tell him the word was pucker, not puckle. If you listen closely to the song you can hear him singing puckle.”

 

At the time, he said Junior was paying them more money than The Temptations were making (which was about $250 a week). And, he said, Junior gave them money for clothes and food. But only Junior was allowed to wear white. Their costumes were lavender, gold and black. “One time we were preparing for a Wilson Pickett tour in Montreal and Willie (Woods) got a suit like Junior’s. Junior was so upset he made Willie take it off.”

 

During his career, Nicks met all the Motown greats, including the legendary drummer Max Roach, who he talked to in Chicago in 1987. “He was one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met,” Nicks said. He also had a conversation with Barrett Deems, Louis Armstrong’s drummer, who remembered Nicks from The Apollo. 

 

 

The Drummer and the Man

Nicks credits his faith with much of his success in life. He might have uttered the word “blessed” more than any other word.

 

Jeff Harrell, a local drummer and South Bend Tribune reporter who plays backup for Nicks, said he is the “real deal.”

 

“I always knew he was a great drummer, but I didn’t know how good he actually was until I started rehearsing with him. He left my jaw hanging a few times just in rehearsal. He’s an absolute monster musician.”

 

But more than that, Harrell just genuinely loves the guy as a person. “What I love most about Billy is the personal interest he takes in people...Billy’s humanity transcends his music. He’s a warm, compassionate, captivating soul and the consummate professional as a musician."