Billy ‘Stix’ Nicks is a living legend, one of our Heavenly Father’s greatest blessings to the instrument that has channeled the natural flow of rhythm into music since the first heartbeat was known to power mankind… the drum.
Today, like the street sign hanging on the cover art of his 2012 release “Junghetto” declares, there is life after Jr. Walker & the All Stars, the iconic Motown R&B creators of “Shotgun,” “Road Runner” and a virtual Hall of Fame’s aisle of records that Billy co-founded with legendary saxophone master Junior Walker when the two were students at Central High in South Bend, Indiana.
Life before Jr. Walker & The All Stars, if you will, back in the day, summer of ’54, when Billy, Junior Walker and pianist/vocalist Fred Patton were blowing the roofs off teen dance parties around South Bend as The Rhythm Rockers. The name ‘Stix’ was tagged by another Central High musician pal, keyboardist Jackie Ivory, who took early notice of Billy’s obsession with carrying a pair of drum sticks everywhere he went and stopping to get practice licks on anything within reach. Then Jackie learned that a friend had lent Billy a pair of sticks that had been borrowed from the friend’s older brother, and that Billy couldn’t afford his own sticks, let alone a practice pad.
But it’s the name Jr. Walker & The All Stars that Billy ‘Stix’ Nicks will forever stake his claim. Following service in the U.S. Army, Billy returned to South Bend and quickly dug deep reconnecting with his music roots, joining forces with Jackie Ivory and The Gents of Soul. The reunion produced the 1965 LP, “Soul Discovery,” recorded at Universal Studios in Chicago and released on Atco/Atlantic Records, a record Billy credits as being a major turning point in his career.
That same year, Billy reunited with his old pal Junior Walker to record on Jr. Walker & the All Stars’ 1965 Motown release “Roadrunner.” Those are Billy’s drums on the original recordings of “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You,” “Pucker Up Buttercup,” and the title track, “Roadrunner.”
In 1966, the four original members of Jr. Walker & The All Stars – Billy Nicks, Jr. Walker, Willie Woods and Victor Thomas – opened at the famed Apollo Theatre in New York City. With Billy on drums, Jr. Walker & The All Stars went on to perform at The Regal Theatre in Chicago, The Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia, The Howard Theatre & Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., the Twenty Grand and the Rooster Tail in Detroit, plus Shea Stadium in New York, and the L.A. Sports Arena in Los Angeles.
In addition to virtually every Motown recording artist – including Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Supremes, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas and Mary Wells – Billy has performed with the likes of Wilson Picket, Sam & Dave, Billy Stewart, The Staple Singers, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., The Fifth Dimension, Leontyne Price, James Cleveland, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, Major Lance, Chuck Jackson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Isley Brothers, The Five Stairsteps, The Spinners, Dionne Warwick, Dee Dee Warwick, Jerry Butler, Adam West & Frank Gorshen… to name a few, not to mention performing with Jr. Walker & The All Stars on Dick Clark’s iconic American Bandstand TV show.
In 1967 Nicks organized and performed with his own trio, the Billy Nicks Jazz Trio, a jazz group Billy headed up when he wasn’t touring with Jr. Walker & The All Stars and performing at numerous reputable venues nationwide. That same year Billy recorded on Jr. Walker & The All Stars Motown release, “Home Cookin’,” a record that included the tune “Sweet Daddy Deacon” in which Billy would receive a co-writing credit.
Later in 1967 Nicks signed a contract with the University of Notre Dame to be a disc jockey for the “Bill Nicks Radio Show” for WNDU Studios. Radio work didn’t keep Billy from the stage or the recording studio. From 1968 to 1976, Nicks recorded with both Mary Wells and Jr. Walker & The All Stars in Detroit and Los Angeles. During the 1980s, Billy hooked up with a legend of jazz, Sonny Stitt, before manning the drums for a true legend of the blues, Pinetop Perkins.
Today, Billy continues to teach percussion at Notre Dame, and he gives drum lessons to young up-and-comers at the South Bend Drum Company. Billy also performs regularly with his band, Billy ‘Stix’ Nicks & The Motown Machine, which features the incredible Chandra Williams on vocals, and a certain American Indian conga player who shall remain nameless here but is honored and truly blessed to have such an awesome inspiration in music and life for a treasured friend.
And, oh, by the way, next time somebody starts mouthing noise about age being too old to make music that is cutting edge, fresh, and possibly even before its time, turn on “Junghetto’s Call.” Then politely remind whomever that the drummer throughout the entire 9 minutes and 32 seconds of hip hop, jazz tribal drums in 7/8 time, and old school funk preaching that has never been heard before but needs all the ears to be found now in this severely fractured world… was nearly 80 years old when he, Ricki David and I cut the tracks.
“Junghetto’s Call” is based exclusively on the 2012 CD release, “Junghetto,” by none other than Bill “Ecclesiastes” Nicks. I would try to compare “Junghetto” to The Last Poets meet Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?,” but the track “Chains of Slavery” is just too exclusive in Bill’s wise-old rap for historical truth to justify any comparisons.