Memphis Man - Living High, Laying Low
Written by Don Nix
Mojo Triangle Books
If the name Don Nix sounds vaguely familiar, it is probably due to his success as a songwriter. In addition to oft-played tunes “Palace Of The King” and “Everybody Wants To Go To Heaven,” Nix also penned the classic “Goin’ Down”. If that is the extent of your knowledge of this fascinating musician and producer, this autobiography will quickly fill in the blanks with a quirky tale that highlights a career full of memorable moments and friendships.
Nix started out as guitar player who fell under the spell of the music brought into Memphis homes on Dewey Phillip’s “Red, Hot, and Blue” radio program. Joining forces with childhood friends guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, Nix made the switched to saxophone as a member of the Royal Spades. The other horn player was the mercurial Charles “Packy” Axton, a man who loved music almost as much as he loved alcohol. The plot thickens when Axton’s mother, Estelle, forms a partnership with Jim Stewart to open a recording studio fronted by a record store. The operation becomes a focal point of the area’s musical community, eventually becoming the celebrated Stax Record label.
After a name change, the Mar-Keys start recording for Mrs. Axton. During one session, engineer Chips Moman left the tape running to capture something that caught his ear. Estelle also fell under the spell of the instrumental and began playing it in the store, where it quickly caught on. Released on the Satellite label, “Last Night” was the hit that launched the band into the big time. A tour with LaVern Baker took the band to Chicago for a performance at the Regal Theater, where the audience gave their music an overwhelmingly spirited welcome. The tour took them through Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, where they had a harrowing experience with a hurricane. They also passed through Tulsa, OK where Nix started a long friendship with Leon Russell. Eventually the road, drugs, and alcohol took their toll, leading to the end of the group.
Back in Memphis, things were changing as Stax Records was making its mark. Cropper had left the band to learn everything he could from Moman, who eventually to start his American Recordings Studio. Nix and a friend spent the summer of 1963, staying with Russell. Once he came home, Nix heard bluesman Furry Lewis at a local club, the beginning of another important friendship in the Nix saga. He divided time between Los Angeles, where he learned studio craft from Russell, and Memphis with his base at John Fry’s famous Ardent Studio.
Nix utilizes a laid-back style of story-telling that covers experiences like joining Russell and Joe Ocker for the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, recording sessions with William Bell, Charlie Mussel white, Albert King, Delaney & Bonnie, and his own Alabama State Troopers tour that included Furry Lewis. Nix also recounts his participation in the Concert for Bangladesh with George Harrison, another close friend and the Freddie King project that he co-produced with Russell for Shelter Records with the classic performances of ‘Goin’ Down” and “Palace Of The King”.
It is a heady tale that includes some of the darker side of the business, although Nix holds back enough to often protect the guilty. Still, there is plenty of history mixed with humorous recollections and Nix’s blunt assessments of some of the personalities he dealt with over the years. His own recording career that covers eleven releases gets slight coverage in favor of his production credits, which totals more than fifty projects. Reading the book provided for review, it became apparent that an editor’s touch would have been beneficial. That aside, this autobiography is easy read that provides an insider’s look at one man’s fascinating journey through a life devoted to music.