Album Review: Don Nix – Living By the Days

Don Nix is one of those names known mostly to inveterate liner note readers. His excellent 1973 LP Hobos, Heroes and Street Corner Clowns (on Enterpise, a Stax associated label) included two of his three best-known compositions, “Sweet, Sweet Surrender” and “Black Cat Moan.” But those tunes are known to most as cuts on the self-titled Beck, Bogert & Appice album (and Nix didn’t play on that record). His biggest composition – also a hit for Jeff Beck – was “Goin’ Down.” His name also shows up in the credits for George Harrison‘s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh. But his career goes back long before all that: he was an original member (on saxophone) of Memphis-based group The Mar-keys.

Nix’s Stax album is the best of his eight solo efforts, with its mix of gospel, rock and southern soul styles; it was reissued on CD in 1997. Bassist Klaus Voormann is among the guest players on the album, partly recorded at The Beatles‘ Apple; an uncredited Harrison plays slide guitar on “I Need You.”

Much lesser-known but also worth seeking out is his earlier (1971) album Living By the Days. Relatively brief at nine tracks, this, his second album (and first of two on Elektra) contains eight Nix originals (two of those co-compositions) and a cover of Hank Williams‘ “I Saw the Light.” The album leads off with a church organ solo that segues into “The Shape I’m In” (not the tune performed by The Band). Speaking of The Band, Nix’s musical approach falls halfway between that group and the sound of his former associate Leon Russell: decidedly American in tone and nature, with lots of feel and little filigree. “I Saw the Light” features a lovely gospel choir and electric sitar(!) solo. The southern soul of “Olena” is among the best tracks on the album. And while the lyrics of the funky slide guitar freakout (with hyperactive bass) of “Going Back to Iuka” might be a tad derivative, the music more than makes up for it. “My Train’s Done Come and Gone” sounds like a cross between The Band’s “The Weight” and Elton John‘s “Country Comfort.”

Overall the album serves as a template of the sound Nix would refine later: a nice amalgam of gospel-flavored sounds, a definite Southern sensibility (highlighted by the cover photo of Nix in Civil War-era garb) and loads of massed vocal harmonies (Nix’s expertise at vocal arrangement and his association with Leon Russell led to his Concert for Bangla Desh involvement).

Colin Escott‘s liner notes are brief and interesting, but reveal little about the music on the record. The back cover of the CD helpfully clues listeners in to the personnel on the album: friends from the Muscle Shoals/Stax universe including Barry Beckett (keyboards), Donald “Duck” Dunn and David Hood (bass) and drummer Roger Hawkins. Country bluesman Furry Lewis provides spoken-word support, a role he played on Nix’s Shelter debut (also 1971) and the later Stax album.

Nix’s third album – released between Living By the Days and Hobos, Heroes and Street Corner Clowns – was a live 2LP set titled The Alabama State Troupers Road Show; that tour document features live readings of several Living By the Days cuts. It’s slated for reissue later this year on Real Gone Music, the label handling this current reissue.

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