R.I.P. legendary Motown drummer Billy "Stix" Nicks

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    (November 16, 2017) -- I had multiple reactions upon learning of the passing of Motown alumni and South Bend drumming legend Billy “Stix” Nicks. As a journalist and reporter for the South Bend Tribune who had written an obituary on another local music legend a week ago, I was already thinking about who I would call if I was given that assignment. As it turned out, the A&E editor wrote the story, so I just gave him the names of two young drummers who were students of Mr. Nicks.

    (November 16, 2017) -- I had multiple reactions upon learning of the passing of Motown alumni and South Bend drumming legend Billy “Stix” Nicks. As a journalist and reporter for the South Bend Tribune who had written an obituary on another local music legend a week ago, I was already thinking about who I would call if I was given that assignment. As it turned out, the A&E editor wrote the story, so I just gave him the names of two young drummers who were students of Mr. Nicks.

    I then responded as a fan of music and a lover of the 1960s and 70s era R&B and soul music that Mr. Nicks helped create. I remembered the first time I saw him perform. He attacked those drums in the same way that hard bop players like Art Blakey and Max Roach did. In fact, I’d say Mr. Nicks sounded like what Blakey and Roach would have sounded if they played R&B. So when my son decided that he wanted to learn how to play the drums, it never crossed my mind to ask anyone but Mr. Nicks.  

    My son didn’t stay with the drums, but taking him by Mr. Nicks’ home for those 30 minute sessions allowed me to spend more time with him and see how he interacted with people. Mr. Nicks was relentlessly upbeat. Each encounter with the man left you with a smile on your face. He was such a gracious and refined person, who looked you in the eye when he spoke and it was clear that the Motown etiquette training had the same lifelong effect on him that Catholic school phonics had on me.

    After my sons’ session, Mr. Nicks would sometimes invite me into his drum studio and show me old photos and concert programs. He’d play records that he performed on. I considered him a friend. I definitely was not on the level of friendship as his musician buddies, but I enjoyed his company and loved hearing those old stories.

    Thinking about those old stories prompted another reaction. This is the reaction of person who spends eight hours a week in a museum listening to oral histories of long time South Bend residents and transcribing those audio interviews so that people can download and hold a hard copy. It’s tedious, detailed and important work that allows future generation of South Bend residents to have a record of life in this city that will outlive the interviewee. I realized that I did not know whether we had sat down with Mr. Nicks even though we had discussed doing so on numerous occasions. I texted the head curator and asked if we conducted an interview with Mr. Nicks, and his reply confirmed my worst fears. We had not.

    I take ownership of that oversight. Mr. Nicks was my idol and my friend. I could have sat down for hours and talked to him. It will be a constant source of regret that I failed to get a conversation on tape for prosperity’s sake.

    Still, his life and contribution to the soul music canon needs to be honored, and will do the best that I can here: Bill Nicks was born on Dec. 8, 1934, in Greenwood, Miss. He came to South Bend in 1943, when his parents joined that mass movement of African-American families who left the south in the Great Migration. Mr. Nicks, a self-taught musician, started playing drums professionally while he was a junior at South Bend Central High School. His band, “The Blue Notes,” played sock hops for the local high schools and he eventually formed a new group called Billy “Stix” Nicks and the Rhythm Rockers. That band included a saxophonist named Junior Walker. The band’s popularity grew and by 1956, the Rhythm Rockers performed for the first episode of a local teen dance show that aired on Saturdays. Nicks got drafted into the Army in 1957, and he resumed his music career, playing with a series of bands in the late 1950s and early 60s.

    Mr. Nicks reconnected with his old band, now called Junior Walker and the All-stars, in 1965, and would remain with them for the next decade, playing – though not always getting credit  for his work on some of that band’s biggest hits.

    Mr. Nicks played with many legendary performers with Motown and other labels. Eventually, he found his way back to South Bend, and he became the city’s go to drum teacher. His first student was a nine year old boy who saw Mr. Nicks perform at a country club and begged his mother to ask the drummer about lessons. Nicks taught three generations of drummers, many from his house on South Bend’s east side, just a few blocks from the University of Notre Dame. He taught there as well. Many of those students went on Facebook to share their grief after hearing of his passing. Imagine that. This octogenarian had so much to give and gave it freely to generations of young musicians who knew instantly and viscerally the treasure that passed from their midst on Nov. 15, 2017.  

    By Howard Dukes

     

    See more on Bill Nick here

     
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