By Reginald Stuart
With bands playing at full tilt in dance halls and bars throughout the city and music enthusiasts swarming nearly every street, it was not surprising in the 1950’s and 1960’s, that Nashville was generating scores of talented entertainers who went on to create careers that spanned the globe.
Back in Nashville, they were simply considered just the neighbor up the street. The city’s walk of fame, if it had one, would over shadow Hollywood’s historic row in an instant.
The same town, music and mentors who gave a start to country music singer Brenda Lee, rhythm and bluest singers Gene Allison and Joe Henderson and rock guitar legend Jimmy Hendrix, to name a few, nurtured James “Nick” Nixon, a Pearl High School and Tennessee State University graduate with a promising football career cut short with a concussion.
Nixon’s thrill with music — singing the blues and playing the guitar — didn’t stop however. Rooted on Jefferson Street at the once historic Club Baron, where nationally known organist and band leader Bill Doggett could wake up the town and the hit singing group, the Five Royals, was out back warming up, knowing they were next on stage, Nixon saw his next career ahead of him.
By the time he had earned his girl friend Birdie Rogers Showers’ hand for 47 year and partnered with her to raise four children, Nixon was making a name for himself. He taught blues music appreciation for some 30 years with the Metro Parks Service. He played in several bands locally, starting with King James and the Scepters, one of the city’s first racially integrated groups, and working as a singer and guitarists with music groups and singers traveling the world.
As he grew older, Nixon stuck with his music. He did what he could to help the Country Music Hall of Fame keep a broad education program. He built a recording studio of his own where local artists and gospel groups could record. He partnered with blues guitarist Andy Talamantez, commonly known as Andy-T, on his last four albums.
Nixon accumulated a dozen guitars including a trade mark Les Paul guitar and one he nicked name ‘Lucille’ like guitar blues legend B.B. King. Nixon literally played his bones out singing and plucking gospel song “Amazing Grace” and rhythm and blues standard “Mustang Sally” and Ray’s Charles’ signature country music standard “I Can Stop Loving You,’ written by Don Gibson. One of his last popular recordings was “Jesus,” a passionate song he wrote, sang and on which played a melodic guitar.
Nixon’s hands and fingers crippling battle with carpel tunnel and a severe stroke in 2016 disrupted his career and was followed by months of decline, despite his fight to persevere.
Singer Jimmy Church visited Nixon frequently in the last year, making sure the Tuesday night crowd at Carol Ann’s restaurant’s ‘Grown Folks Night,’ gave frequent shout outs to Nixon, who frequented the restaurant when ever he was in town.
James Nixon, a cousin of the late Nashville blues singer Marion James, who passed last year, was laid to rest this week, after a memorial service at the Temple Baptist Church on King’s Lane. The memorial service honoring the 76-year-old was attended by an array of people who called “Nick” their friend from the earliest of days.
“Nick was kind of like Nashville’s best kept secret,” said County Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Michael Gray, a co-curator who worked with Nixon since he, Gray, came to Nashville in the 1980’s. Nixon helped Gray research the museum’s Night Train project and helped on countless other projects.
“He (Nixon) wasn’t just a band member,” said blues guitarist Andy Talamantez, common known as “Andy-T,” recalling how much he learned from Nixon during their nearly 10 years of work after Nixon retired from the Metro Parks Services in 2010. They traveled more than 100,000 miles on road trips across the country and around the world and recorded together on Nixon’s final four albums.
“I never head him sing a bad note or have a bad night,” Talamantez said. “Nick was the kind of guy, if you met him, you love him,” he said, echoing others who knew Nixon at the start and the end of his journey through life.
Nixon was “talented, very well liked person,” said singer Charles “Wigg” Walker, a 1958 graduate of Pearl High, who met Nixon in the early 1960’s when he, Nixon, was scouting areas entertainment spots hoping to learn what he could from those in the business. Walker helped Nixon meet guitar legend Johnny Jones at the New Era Club, where the two (Walker and Jones) were working in the 1960’s, before taking his (Walker’s) career aspirations to New York. While there, Walker recalls, he took Nixon on a road trip with him to Europe.
Walker, who has moved back to Nashville where he performs at several nightclubs downtown, made time to visit with Nixon in his final months, as did other people who knew the “Nick” Nixon of old, like Lavert Allison and Jimmy Church.
“I knew him as a kid,” said Allison who has sung the last nine years with the legendary gospel group the Fairfield Four. “The next thing I knew he (Nixon) was grown,” said Alllison. “He was a good guy.”
Church, who has made sure to keep track of Nashville R & B legends after the stage lights pan from them, remember his younger peer “coming out of nowhere” when Nixon was visiting the Club Baron and other nightspots as a young man seeking to hear and be heard.
“He was talented,” Church said of Nixon. “He sung well and played well,” Church said. Those characteristics stuck with Nixon through the good times and his health decline, Church recalled.
At Grownups Night, Nixon would want to sing from a chair when he couldn’t stand up by himself anymore, Church said. When Nixon’s hands gave out, he wanted to sing while one of his colleagues would play a guitar.
“He would say ”I’m going to sing just one song,” Church recalled the tough time Nixon had one night at Carol Ann’s “He’d play three,” Church quickly added. “He came out to Carol Ann’s after he couldn’t travel any more, couldn’t play any more, couldn’t use his hands anymore. That (music) was his passion, ”Church said. “He was like a gentle giant, always there for you, always doing something that he loved.”