An interview with music instructor and local drumming legend Billy “Stix” Nicks
The year was 1956. Ed Roth, the program manager at WNDU-TV, Channel 46, which had recently been established and was owned and operated by the University of Notre Dame, was looking for a show to rival WSBT-TV’s Saturday afternoon dance party, “Hoosier Favorite.”
Roth conducted a survey of area high schools, hoping to discover the most popular local musical group, and the results were clear. Billy “Stix” Nicks and The Rhythm Rockers were hired to play the grand opening Saturday afternoon teen dance party show for “Club 46,” as the new WNDU station was known.
After a successful start, Nicks and his group agreed to and signed a contract to play the show every Saturday afternoon, which they did for over a year. So began a lifelong affiliation between Nicks and the University of Notre Dame that continues to this day.
Bill Nicks was born in Greenwood, Mississippi, on December 8, 1934. “My father was a sharecropper,” Nicks explained to the Rover. “It was nothing more than a form of slavery.” While Nicks’ father worked, harvesting primarily cotton, his mother stayed at home with the children.
“My mother, by the grace of our Heavenly Father, loved music,” Nicks noted, and she would often buy records, usually jazz, blues, country, or classical, and listen to them with her children. Thus Nicks gained an appreciation for music at a young age long before he ever dreamed of picking up a pair of drumsticks.
Growing up in the Mississippi Delta was tough for Nicks and his family. “Discrimination and racism ran rampant,” he said. “I grew up in a situation where I have experienced drinking from the colored fountains, going to the colored restrooms, and this kind of thing.”
It was hard for a sharecropper to move away. At the end of each year came settlement time, when all the sharecroppers had to settle up on their debt with the plantation owner, who also owned the company store. If you did not have enough money to pay off your debt at the end of the year, you were not allowed to leave the plantation. Nicks said, “[In 1943] my father was blessed to have had enough money to pay off the debt plus some extra money to get us out of there.”
Nicks’ father first visited Chicago, where many of his relatives lived. But his father “did not like the idea of raising his children in Chicago,” and he moved on to South Bend, where he also had family. “My father ended up getting a job at Studebaker,” Nicks explained, and the entire family relocated to South Bend.
In South Bend, Nicks’ mother began listening to operas on the radio. “Every Saturday morning they had the Metropolitan Opera company out of New York broadcast a radio show and my mother would listen to that. And I began listening to it, and I really became interested in that.” Nicks began singing in his church choir and in his school glee club, but he still had not thought of playing an instrument.
“Drums never entered my mind until I became a junior in high school, and then I watched a friend of mine playing in a parade,” Nicks said. He asked his friend to teach him to play the drums, but his friend did not have the time. A classmate of Nicks’ at South Bend Central High School was able to borrow a pair of drumsticks from his older brother and lent them to Nicks. “He showed me how to hold the sticks,” Nicks explained, “and I began practicing on chairs and books at home.”
Looking back now, the self-taught Nicks is glad he started out that way. Many of his students complain that they have a hard time practicing because they do not own a drum set of their own, but that excuse does not fly. “I didn’t have a set of drums either when I began, but I did have books,” he explained. “If you’ve got the floor and the ground, that’s your bass drum pedal. And that’s the way you deal with it.”
After he began playing in 1953 as a high school junior, Nicks bought a set of drums from a pawn shop for 15 dollars and formed a group that started playing sock hops at all the area high schools and halls. Soon after, Nicks met Junior Walker. “Junior Walker and I began performing together in 1955 here in South Bend,” Nicks said. Walker, a saxophonist, joined Nicks and Fred Patton, a pianist and vocalist, to form Billy “Stix” Nicks and The Rhythm Rockers, and shortly thereafter the group signed their contract with Club 46.
Nicks continued playing at Club 46 until he was drafted into the Armed Forces on June 7, 1957. “I ended up in the Army Band, the 3rd Infantry Division Band,” Nicks said. “I was shipped to Germany, and we were known as the General’s Band.” General Roy Lindquist and his wife loved the fine arts, and they took good care of the musicians.
Nicks finished his military tour in 1959 and returned to South Bend. Junior Walker had taken control of Nicks’ group, and Nicks decided to hook up with a jazz group, the Oscar Baby Jones Jazz Quartet. He began playing with them regularly, turning down several offers from Walker to rejoin the original group. While Nicks was on the road with his jazz group, Walker relocated his own group to Battle Creek, Michigan, where they were rebranded as Junior Walker and the All-Stars of Motown fame.
Nicks played with Oscar Baby Jones and later Jackie Ivory and the Gents of Soul until July, 1965, when he returned to South Bend. In October, 1965, Junior Walker and the All-Stars made it big with “Shotgun,” which reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the R&B chart. That December, Walker returned to South Bend and offered Nicks a position with the All-Stars. Nicks said, “Of course I took advantage of it!”
While playing with Junior Walker on-and-off from 1965 to 1976, Nicks shared the stage with a number of famous groups and musicians on the Motown label: Marvin Gaye, the original Temptations, the Four Tops, little Stevie Wonder, the original Supremes, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Spinners, and more. During one of his breaks from touring with the group, 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, becoming the station’s first African-American DJ.
After recording his last album with Junior Walker in 1976 at Motown in Hollywood, Nicks decided to move back to South Bend and not go on the road as often. He continued playing music, and in 1990 relocated to Los Angeles to work in the recording industry for a few years before returning to South Bend for good in 1994.
Nicks began teaching privately at his own studio and formed his own local group. In 2003, he was hired to teach drums at Notre Dame, and he has been here ever since. “Notre Dame has been a big part of my music life since 1956,” he noted. “It really has been.” Nicks has only positive things to say about his experience teaching at Notre Dame: “Everyone here—beautiful people to be associated with or affiliated with.”
Nicks emphasized two things when asked what advice he would like give to Notre Dame students today. First, “refrain from drugs and alcohol. I watched people destroy themselves with alcohol and drugs … it is a self-destructive course, really. It really is.” During his time in the music industry Nicks saw firsthand the dangers of abusing drugs and alcohol. He witnessed David Ruffins of the Temptations almost kill himself twice from drug overdoses.
“I was blessed to be able to stay away from that,” Nicks said. “After I got kind of burned out, I’m so thankful that I didn’t do like a lot of the other entertainers. When I would get burned out, as opposed to getting into drugs or alcohol, using it as a crutch to keep going and stay out there in those bright lights, I’d take a break. I’d come home and rest.”
Second, Nicks said, do not judge an individual on his race or color. Growing up as he did in a society marked by discrimination and racism, Nicks emphasized that no matter what laws are on the books, “until the hearts and minds are changed, all of those laws on paper, really, it doesn’t mean anything in reality … It’s just words on a piece of paper.” Nicks hopes that students today will learn to respect each other and to not sit in judgment on others: “Don’t always blame the other person for things that go wrong in your life. You have to stop and think, well, maybe I’d better check myself out. What is it that I’m doing that created this problem? It might not be the other individual.”
Last December, Nicks celebrated his 80th birthday. “I’m just thankful that I’ve been blessed to have made it this far, and especially in this profession … I know there are a lot of them I used to perform with who are no longer here,” he said.
“Life is beautiful,” Nicks concluded, “but it depends on how well you handle yourself and take care of yourself. Make sure that you keep your priorities in order, and the most important thing, as far as I’m concerned, is treat other people the same way you want to be treated. Treat others the way you want to be treated, and you can’t go wrong.”
Timothy Bradley is a junior living in St. Edward’s Hall. He is very glad to have met Mr. Nicks and to have had the chance to sit down with him to talk about his life and his music. Contact Tim at email@example.com.