BILLY NICHOLS – Still Hanging On In There
Billy Nichols has now been involved with the music biz for about 50 years and he’s still going strong. Down the years, he has sung gospel, soul and blues plus played the guitar and drums. He’s worked for Motown and played on Chess recording sessions. He’s been in house bands in Cleveland and New York plus played most of the top chitlin circuit venues of the 1960’s. He’s produced and arranged numerous tracks for other artists and cut tracks in his own right. However it’s for his song writing that he is best known and which has given him his biggest successes. Born in the south, he has had spells living in Connecticut, Detroit, Cleveland and New York and it’s the Big Apple where he is based today.
William was born in 1940 to Laura Bell and Tom Sanders Nichols in a small town called Carrollton in the northern hills of Mississippi. Eventually he was one of the younger ones of nine children, his father being a farmer. Though Billy’s father worked the fields by day, in the evening after supper he would pick his guitar up and all of the family would gather on the front porch to hear him play the blues. His father was a talented blues musician and Billy would always try to stay up as long as he was allowed, listening to his dad play and sing the blues. Back then, there would always be a radio playing in the house and the sounds Billy would hear really inspired a deep fascination within him. He soon developed a strong interest in blues, big band, country and gospel music. Being one of the younger of the children in the family, he did not get much opportunity to learn first-hand from his father. His older siblings did enjoy that privilege, however it wasn’t until Billy was around ten years old that he was even allowed to touch his father’s guitar. But when most of the family were off working together in the fields and Billy was home baby-sitting his little brother, he would sneak into the bedroom where his dad’s guitar was kept and try to mimic the sounds he heard on the radio. His favourite artists back then included Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Louis Jordan, Hank Williams and the Blind Boys of Mississippi.
Shortly after Billy’s fourteenth birthday, the family left the South and moved to Springfield in Massachusetts. It was here that Billy began to hone his skills as a musician. Initially he joined his high school band and on the weekends he would play in a local band with his brother Ernest, Lyn Perry and Bob Burgess. After he graduated from High School, he joined a gospel group; the Bells of Harmony and they would perform in local churches. Billy did get himself a nine-to-five job but his heart was still totally into the music. Luckily, that Spring, the opportunity to join an established local band presented itself and Billy jumped at the chance of forging a career in the music business. The group was called Jimmy Vick and The Victors and its members were Curly (the organist), Buck (the drummer), Jimmy Vick (vocalist), William ‘Billy’ Nichols (bass) and Charles Ramsey (guitar) – left to right in picture shown on record ad. In summer 1963 they recorded some tracks and had a 45 released. “Take A Trip With Me” & “I Need Someone” were the songs the group cut and Billy played bass on both tracks. Seeing this as an important milestone, Billy quit his day job. The group’s 45 had been cut at Chime Recording Studio in Hartford (Connecticut) and the studio had its own in-house label; Cherry Records. As the label was quite new and hadn’t yet forged links that could ensure the group’s record got noticed (& radio airplay) outside their home area, ads for their 45 were placed in Billboard Magazine in September & October 1963. The record did get a decent amount of radio airplay on one radio station; WALT getting behind the release. But it failed to break through anywhere else. By November the group had broken up and this left Billy jobless. He was somewhat discouraged but wasn’t yet willing to give up on a music career. So Billy got his mother to arrange for her brother (who lived in Detroit) to give him a place to stay.
With $20 to his name, a guitar, a bag of clothes and an amp, Billy Nichol set out for Detroit in January 1964. He soon introduced himself to local musicians and after a few months he was able to move out of his uncle’s house. He was now sharing a place with one of his musician friends, Tony Newton (bass player). The pair managed to get an audition as ‘road musicians’ at Motown Records. They went over to West Grand Boulevard and found around fifteen to twenty musicians waiting outside the front of the Hitsville buildings. They were ushered inside by Henry Cosby (who told them to call him Hank) and taken downstairs into the recording studio. In the studio there were chairs and music stands set up for all of them & Hank Cosby then went through to the control room (separated from the studio by a shield of clear plexiglass). Each of the musicians had microphones placed near their instruments and sheet music had been placed on the music stands. The music was mostly Motown songs. Next, Choker Campbell came in and after briefly speaking with Hank told the assembled musicians that those selected would be going on the road to back up Motown acts or going out on a upcoming Motown Revue tour. They were told that they must be able to stay on tour for at least one month. The music they played that day was the music that they would perform for the artists on the tour. The order of the songs was established and the audition commenced. By the end, the musicians had played through the full list of songs, this taking about forty five minutes. Hank then came out of the control room and started pointing at particular guys, “you, you, you”. Tony and Billy were the first two chosen and they were hired on the spot. Some rehearsals with Choker’s band were organised for them and after a few of these, they were deemed ready. Billy’s first Motown job was with Martha and the Vandellas, whilst his friend Tony got a job with the Miracles.
Billy’s first gig was in Cleveland at a club called the Music Box. The package was a Motortown Review and on the show were the Four Tops, the Spinners, Martha & The Vandellas, the Marvelettes, the Temptations, Shorty Long plus Willie Tyler & Lester. The ensemble played at the club for 10 days before moving on their next booking. After the tour, Hank hooked Billy up with the Martha & Vandellas and they played the Howard Theater in DC (on a bill that also included the Impressions, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Freddie Scott, the Isley Brothers and Moms Mabley). While Billy was with Choker Campbell’s band he also played the Apollo Theater with the same line-up except that Smokey & the Miracles plus Marvin Gaye were added to the bill. Billy toured with the Vandellas for about a month and Martha was very much in charge of all things with regard to the shows. He already knew all the songs, so little or no rehearsals with the group needed to be undertaken. Billy himself was made responsible for the band’s sheet music and he led any rehearsals the musicians thought necessary. The group’s newest hit record at the time was “Dancing In The Street” and that had to be learnt and included in the live shows. Billy was also in charge on the sound checks undertaken ahead of all their live shows. After that engagement, Hank hooked Billy up with the Marvelettes (that posting also lasting for about a month). Rehearsals were needed to learn the Marvelettes songs though and these were held in the basement at Wanda & Roger Moore’s home.
Billy’s friend Tony Newton had gotten the best deal of the two of them; Hank had hooked him up with The Miracles and he stayed with them for about twelve years. Billy had to be more versatile as he got to back up many different Motown acts (Stevie Wonder, the Spinners, etc). Members of the Spinners really loved Billy’s playing and wanted him to become a more permanent fixture with them. However at that time the Spinners had only the one hit, “That’s What Girls Are Made For” and that had been some time earlier. It was Billy Henderson of the Spinners that named him ‘Billy’ as he had been known as William (Nichols) up till then. But Billy Henderson thought that far too formal and insisted he call himself Billy Nichols. But this then caused confusion, there now being two ‘Billys’. So their names within Motown circles then became ‘Billy Guitar’ and ‘Billy Spinner’.
Next Billy became Marvin Gaye’s band leader around late April 1965. He got to rehearse with Marvin Gaye at the Motown studio itself, this being a kind of audition for Marvin’s benefit. Woody, who had till then been Marvin’s band leader had suffered an accident which left him unable continue in the job and Marvin selected Billy as his replacement. Billy’s initial gig with Marvin was in Bermuda in May, where Marvin had been booked for a ten day stint at the Forty Thieves Club. When the ensemble returned to the USA, they played gigs at the Apollo Theater (NYC), the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, the Regal Theater in Chicago and many other major city venues. One gig Billy remembers playing was in Atlanta Ga. at the Peach Tree Lounge. He also got to meet Colonel Sanders (the Kentucky Fried Chicken guy) at a gig in Louisville Kentucky. However, Billy wasn’t allowed to record in the studio with Marvin Gaye, but he did play on a couple of live gigs that were recorded. He found Marvin Gaye to be very intelligent, with a great sense of humor and a fully rounded musician. Strangely, their relationship was actually better before Billy had become his bandleader. Billy wasn’t fully satisfied though as he wanted to get more into writing songs & studio work. This wasn’t going to happen with Motown as they already had an embarrassment of riches on their books. So he left Detroit after a last Marvin Gaye gig to take up a new opportunity in Cleveland.
Billy had received a call from Gerry Baxter in Cleveland, Ohio. Gerry remembered him from the Choker Campbell band and offered him a gig playing at a Cleveland club. So Billy moved to Cleveland. The club was the Music Box (located in a basement) and many R&B act played there at the time. Billy can’t actually remember the name the but there was 4 of them; Joe on bass, Stanley on tenor sax, Gerry on drums and sometimes on guitar and Billy on guitar sometimes drums … this was in 1965 and he recalls that the O’jays were in that club almost every night.
They were the house band and they backed up all of the acts that came to the club including Mabel John, Fontella Bass, The Toys, Sam & Bill, Johnny Nash, Kim Tolliver and so many others… although they were the house band, some acts came in with there own band & then they were off work … In December 1965 Billy Stewart came to the Music Box with his own band and they were off, so Billy was at home. Here he got a call saying that Billy Stewart needed a guitar player, so he went to the club. When he walked in Billy was on stage, playing the piano and singing. The band was hot & he loved what he was hearing. At break time, Billy asked to meet n his dressing room along with his bandleader Raggs (the bass player). They talked and went over a couple of his songs before Billy went on stage with the band to play the next set. It was funky & he loved it. The drummer Beau James Wright was great, there was two horns players, trombone and tenor sax, Raggs on bass, Billy on piano and him on guitar WOW!!! The next day the band called for a rehearsal and when he showed up, they offered him the job as their band leader. Billy was a little reluctant at first, until Billy Stewart promised that he would record some of his songs ‘tipped the scales’. Billy Stewart’s booking at the Music Box lasted for ten days. After it ended, Billy was on the road with ‘Fat Boy’ Stewart. It was now January 1966 and Chicago was to their first stop. After they arrived in the ‘Windy City’, Billy got to go into Chess Records, this for him was like entering heaven. He walked down a long hallway which was lined with gold records by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and the experience really brought home the opportunities that now lay before him.
They stayed in Chicago for two weeks and during that time Billy participated (playing guitar) on a recording session for three songs. Billy had written two of them; “To Love, To Love” (this was utilised as the B side to Billy’s massive hit “Summertime”) and “Why Am I Lonely”.
Another song that was recorded at that time was “Love Me” and Billy with the rest of Stewart’s road band also played on that track. With Billy, he basically toured the same R&B circuit (theatres and clubs) that he had played with the Motown acts. However Billy was soon disenchanted with roadwork again. One night after a show at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, a gentleman approached him and asked if he would like to form and lead the house band at the Crystal Ballroom (which the guy owned). To Billy this was just the chance that he had been waiting for; an opportunity to get his music heard. The band was named Billy Nichols and the Soul Swingers and they played at the ballroom for around three years. During that time, many top artists performed at the ballroom with his band; Otis Redding, Al Green, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex and Bobby Womack. It was during his stint at the ballroom that Billy first met up with Flame N King & the Bold Ones. The group were impressed with Billy’s musical abilities and they wanted to cut some tracks with him. They did get together and recorded a song called “Big Bad Shing a Ling” but it failed to gain release. However, Billy and the group were to team up again in the 1970’s. Billy also met up with another set of musicians who worked mainly as ‘session players’. This set had played on hundreds of soul ‘hits’ cut in New York City and they opened his eyes to yet more opportunities. Billy soon became acquainted with Juggy Murray, the owner of Sue Records, who operated out of a two story building on 54th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue). On the second floor of the building was his recording studio, which was 8 track at the time. It was there that Billy got to meet Inez & Charlie Fox, Baby Washington, the Soul Sisters, Jimmy McGriff and many others. Juggy gave him the chance to write songs and also taught him how to produce records. During the day, they would work in his office and around 7pm they would head up to the studio and would work there right through the night. They got to record many songs, with Billy usually playing his guitar on them (sessions with Tina Britt, the Soul Sisters & Joe Ponds being some he recalls). Billy also got to lay down some tracks of his own; “Shake A Leg” and “Can’t Fool The Fool” being two of these cuts.
Billy’s confidence had been bolstered by all this work and this helped enhance his song writing efforts. He moved on, commencing recording work for other companies and submitting his compositions for consideration by other recording artists. Towards the very end of the 1960’s, he wrote & recorded a song titled “Treat Your Neighbour” and this was picked up for release by Mercury Records. Coupled with the old Soul Survivors hit “Expressway To Your Heart” (which Billy picked and arranged himself), “Treat Your Neighbor” was issued by Mercury on 45 in February 1970 (credited to Billy Nichols & Funk). Around the same time, he wrote “A Little Bit Of Something” and it was recorded by Millie Jackson for MGM Records. On one of his recording sessions Galt MacDermot approached Billy. Galt, the composer and writer of the hit musical ‘Hair’, asked Billy if he would be interested in working with him on a new musical being produced by Joseph Papp. It was to be staged at the Shakespeare Theatre in Central Park and was titled ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’. Having no experience in musical theatre (or any other theatre for that matter), Billy took the job. His task was to rehearse the fledgling actors and to get them accustomed to singing to the sound of an electric guitar instead of a piano. The actors involved were Clifton Davis, Raul Julia, Jonelle Allen, Diana Davila plus a cast and ensemble of singers and dancers, which included such people as the then unknown Jeff Goldblum. To this day Billy has no idea why Galt entrusted him with the job, but he will be eternally grateful for the opportunity that he was given. The play opened in Central Park in the summer of 1971, from there it went on to Broadway in the fall and it won the ‘Tony’ in 1972 for best music in a play. Billy played guitar on the show and during the run, he developed a strong friendship with Louie Risbrook (a/k/a Jamal Rasool) who was also involved (playing bass). In 1971, he also got to play with a number of well-respected jazz musicians in 1971; Pretty Purdie and John Hammond being amongst these.
Even while ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ was running, Billy continued writing songs. He got to enjoy his first hit song in 1972; “Ask Me What You Want”. Recorded by Millie Jackson, this reached the Top 10 soul and Top 30 pop charts in March 1972. Not one to ignore a talent that had brought her a big hit, Millie was soon cutting more of Billy’s songs. She had already cut “I Just Can’t Stand It” and this was followed by “Good To The Very Last Drop”, “Close My Eyes” and in 1976 “I Can’t Say Goodbye”. Billy joined a local group, the Invaders that played cover songs in clubs around the New York area. Willie Collins was the lead vocalist with the group which stayed together for a couple of years. During that time they were signed to Brunswick Records and changed their name to B.W. & The Next Addition. They cut “Stay With Me Baby” & “ Peace Of Mind” and these tracks were released back to back on a Dakar 45 in 1973. “Work, Work, Work” (which Billy also arranged) followed on Dakar in 1974. Billy & Willie would continue to work together on & off through to the mid 1980’s, after which they drifted apart.
Billy’s friend from the play, Louie Risbrook was a member of a similar group; the King Davis House Rockers (they had earlier cut for Verve). Both groups played on the same local circuit and were even on the same bill one night at a show held in a local ballroom. Billy hadn’t given up on his own recording career and he cut the song “Do It (Till You’re Satisfied)” and shopped this around but was unable to land a record deal. Early in 1974, Louie called Billy to ask if he had any songs available because a doctor (Abie Bay) had offered to put up some money to record the House Rockers. Louie lived in Brooklyn at the time, whilst Billy lived in Manhattan. Billy confirmed he did have some songs, so Louie came over and Billy played him four of his songs; “That’s What I Want For You Baby”, “If I Don’t Turn On”, “Do It” and “Turn On”. Louie loved the songs but he thought that “Do It” didn’t have enough lyrics. Billy explained that the song originally had more lyrics but that he had taken some out. Billy told him the song’s full lyrics and Louie was suitably impressed. He performed the songs and they were recorded onto a cassette. About a week later, Louie called Billy and told him that the doctor loved “Do It”. Next, he got a call from the doctor himself and the guy was really excited. He said that he was convinced “Do It” was a hit song and that he was going pay for studio time to allow the King Davis House Rockers to record it.
Everyone, including Billy, Allan Williams (who co-wrote songs with Billy), the group’s manager King Davis & the doctor, went into the studio (in Hemstead, Long Island) in 1974 and two songs were recorded; “Do It” and “Everything Good To You”. Billy got to meet Jeff Lane (the group’s producer) and he played lead & fuzz guitar on the session. Group members involved that night included Barbara Joyce (who played the tambourine), Dennis Rowe (conga) and their keyboard player Michael Jones (later to be better known as Kashif), everyone in attendance being called upon to provide hand claps. The tracks were shopped around and Scepter picked them up for release. For the record’s release, the group were re-named B. T. Express and the 45 did really well from day one. The single entered the national soul charts in August 1974 and it rose to reach No.1 on 19th October. It also made No.2 on the US pop charts and the success of the 45 resulted in more tracks being cut and an album getting released. Billy was upset to see that his name was only mentioned on the album as a song writer and that his efforts on some of the actual tracks hadn’t been acknowledged. A big party was given to celebrate the group’s success but both Billy and the doctor found themselves left standing outside as their names hadn’t been put on the invite list. Though never actually a member of the group, Billy had contributed in a major way to their success. Chastened by the experience, he had no input at all on the tracks laid down for the group’s second LP. He got on with his life and by 1976 (with the success of lots of his songs) he had been appointed a staff writer with Blackwood Music. That year, B.T. Express got back in touch with him. Putting past events behind him, Billy let the group cut (at Ultra-Sonic Recordings Studios, Hempstead) his song “Can’t Stop Groovin Right Now”. He again played lead guitar on the track which was released on 45 and also included on the group’s ‘Energy To Burn’ LP.
In 1977, Billy got a call from Fred Frank, the owner of Road Show Records (the label B.T. Express had always been signed to). The group’s records (& the Road Show label) were now being distributed by Columbia Records and the group needed an album asap. By then Billy had become an accomplished producer and as the group knew all about his capabilities, Fred asked him if he was available to work on the new album. Billy had some songs that he thought would prove suitable and so was invited down to the record label’s office where Fred listened to his songs. He liked the songs and so Billy was appointed producer and work on the album commenced straight away. Studio time was booked at O.D.O. Recording Studio on West 54th. St in NYC and the first song to be recorded was “Shout It Out”. Five other songs were quickly written as collaborative efforts and three further songs were sourced from the group itself. With everything in place, the album project was soon finished. Titled ‘Shout It Out’, the LP was released in the fall of 1977 but received little promotion. Fred and Billy were in dispute anyway; cash advances for Billy’s work had proved a big problem and publishing percentages on the songs Billy had penned was also a big issue. “Shout It Out” was however released on a 45 and this track sold well enough to take the group back into the US soul singles Top 20.
With the success Millie Jackson was having with Billy’s songs in the early to mid 70’s, Spring records had also been cutting other artists on his songs. Act 1 had cut “Party Hardy People” which escaped on both 45 & LP in 1974 and Garland Green recorded “You And I Go Good Together”. Other labels had also followed Spring’s example; “I Don’t Know What’s On Your Mind” was used by Spiders Web in 1976. 1977 proved to be a productive year for him; “Out Of Work” was cut by Jesse Gould & “Do Bad” by Donny Burks (Billy producing & arranging both of these), “It’s In Your Blood” was done by Linda Hopkins and “So Far Away” by Willy Bridges. Billy also produced Reality who cut his songs “Standing Beside You” & “Make Love, Not War”. Juggy Jones came back into his life and recorded “Come On Do It Some More” along with ”I’ll See You Through” (1978). Billy also worked again with Flame N King & the Bold Ones. He produced “Ho Happy Day”for them, the track being coupled with his composition “Ain’t Nobody Jivin” on release. Billy was also reunited with Willie Collins in 1976. They collaborated on “Don’t Fight The Feelin” (also produced by Billy) which escaped on Mercury credited to Will Collins & Willpower. Ten years later (1986) the partnership was renewed yet again when Billy produced 6 tracks that were included on Willie’s Capitol LP ‘Where You Gonna Be Tonight’ (Willie was singing gospel last Billy heard).
Billy also worked with a number of other artists, one of these being Eddie McLoyd. Eddie and Billy had known each other for many years. In the 1950’s, they had attended the same junior high school; Buckingham Junior High in Springfield. At that time, they were both in a do-wop group called the Satellites. Eddie didn’t only sing, he also played the piano. Billy produced his “It’s Good To Me” (a song he also wrote) that was issued on the Panic label. He also wrote and produced Eddie’s “Baby Get Down” released by Spring. The partnership continued and in 1975 Brunswick picked up “Once You Fall In Love” which Billy again had written and produced (they are still good friends today and talk on a regular basis). Billy also produced some tracks on L J Waiters & the Electrifiers. “If You Ain’t Getting Your Thing” was initially released on La Shawn before being picked up by Phi-La-of-Soul. “Can You Deal With It” came next, this again being issued by Phi-La-of-Soul. In 1977, Billy produced “Chase Your Blues Away” by Funkhouse Express which was issued on Roxbury. Disco was now in full swing and Billy decided to return to the recording studio himself to see if he could get some personal success in this field. His first outing was “Give Your Body Up To The Music” which West End Records put out in 1979. The track, which was was also released in Italy, enjoyed a good degree of club success (making it onto the Top 50 of the US disco chart that August). West End wanted a follow-up and so in 1980, “Diamond Ring” was released on 7” & 12” singles, Billy having played bass and guitar on both songs. ….. UK MS plays for D Ring
Sensing a change in the music field, Billy moved on. He produced two rap records that have gone on to be recognised as hip-hop classics. “The Adventures of Super Rhymes” by Jimmy Spicer and “Rhythm Rap Rock” by Count Coolout (issued on Billy’s own Boss Records before being picked up by WMOT) are now acknowledged as being pioneering rap tracks. Other artists he worked with in the 1980’s included Full Force (“Turn You On”), Mary Clark, Mel Sheppard, Rena Romano, Jesse Gee (Gould), Paul Ives, P.C. Crew, Fantasy Force and Charles T Hudson. His musical talents, experience and knowledge of the music industry helped keep him busy through those years. Billy next re-embarked on his own solo recording career. In the middle of the decade he re-activated his Boss Record label and issued the 12” “Whip Your Body / “Never Get Enough”. The business had changed by then and the record got no radio play but was promoted via the clubs. Again, as well as singing, Billy played on the cuts which were recorded at Right Track Recording Studio in New York. Things went quiet for a few years before he released a CD album entitled ‘Love Stuff’ in 2003. For this 13 track album, Billy reworked “Never Get Enough”. A second CD album followed on Boss Records in 2007; ‘Same, Same Game’. This also contained 13 tracks; “Take Back Your Life”, “Sho Nuff Man” & “Step To The Jam” being amongst these (all the songs on both the CD’s were self-penned by Billy). Today, he is still writing, singing and recording. He has recently been working on tracks to go on a proposed new CD release; the man certainly has got staying power.
Written by JOHN SMITH; UK September 2012