Rocker Don Nix's lens snaps images of life on road

George Harrison

Photo by Photo by Don Nix

George Harrison

Memphis musician Don Nix has an enviable resume. He began his career as a charter member of the Stax family and saxophonist for the Mar-Keys, went on to write and produce hits for Freddie King and Jeff Beck, including the immortal blues classic "Goin' Down," worked with Leon Russell and George Harrison, and traveled the world -- from Hollywood to Swingin' London -- playing and recording with a who's who of rock, soul and blues.

During those years, Nix was also a dedicated shutterbug, and now the result of his hobby is being displayed in a new photo exhibit called "Dirty Negatives" opening tonight at the Jack Robinson Gallery.

George Harrison at his home in Friar Park at Henley-On-Thames in London.

Copyright, 1975 Don Nix

George Harrison at his home in Friar Park at Henley-On-Thames in London.

Furry Lewis, backstage at Overton Park Shell in 1969, was among images from the music world traveled by Don Nix, whose photos will be on display at  Jack Robinson Gallery.

Furry Lewis, backstage at Overton Park Shell in 1969, was among images from the music world traveled by Don Nix, whose photos will be on display at Jack Robinson Gallery.

Don Nix

Photo by Michael Donahue

Don Nix

"Well, I'm not really a photographer per se," says Nix. "I call 'em 'Big Snapshots.' The main thing that makes them interesting is the subject matter."

Nix's subject matter includes some of the most famous and important musicians of the 20th century, from pop stars like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, to blues originators like Furry Lewis and the Rev. Robert Timothy Wilkins, to collaborators and confidantes like Booker T. & The MGs and Albert King.

Until this year, Nix's treasure trove of negatives were stored in a shoe box in his closet, and only a handful of his images had ever seen the light of day.

Curators at the Jack Robinson Gallery began going through and cataloging several thousand pictures in all.

"I listened to his music in college, and for me it's the visual story of his career," says James Jaworowicz, who curated the exhibit with Robinson Gallery owner Dan Oppenheimer. "Really delving into what Don captured has been incredible; just getting to know the stories behind the photographs."

Growing up in Memphis, Nix's fascination with photography began at an early age. "I was 14 and I had a paper route and I used the money to buy a Brownie box camera," says Nix. "I took pictures of my family and friends at school and things like that all through my teen years. Then, in the early '60s, (fellow musician) Sid Selvidge gave me an old 35mm Miranda camera ... I really started taking pictures then."

Nix's subjects included his label mates at Stax: One of the standouts of the new exhibit is an early shot of Rufus Thomas in the Satellite Records shop; another more poignant image is of the Bar-Kays. "I took the picture of The Bar-Kays the day they left on their tour with Otis Redding just before the plane crash," says Nix. "They're standing out in front of Stax and they've got their clothes bags and they're getting ready to go to the airport. That was the last I ever saw of them."

As he developed his hobby, Nix was aided by some famous photographer friends. "When I first started, Bill Eggleston befriended me and felt sorry for me and he gave me a key to his dark room," recalls Nix.

Later, another Memphis photographer, Jim Chappell, "showed me how to set up my own dark room" says Nix. "I've been lucky to have some real good people take mercy and help me out along the way."

As "Dirty Negatives" shows, Nix's photos mixed his Memphis roots and his globe-trotting travels. "I got around quite a bit in those days, and I came across some pretty interesting folks like the Beatles and the Stones and people like that," he says.

One of his favorite subjects was his close friend, Beatle George Harrison. "I met George back in 1970," says Nix. " I helped him put (The Concert for Bangladesh) together, helped him get the background singers for that. My favorite pictures of him were taken in his front yard. I used to go and stay with him at his place in Henley-on-Thames. I think the best photos I've got are of George, because he didn't ever mind me shooting."

Arguably, Nix's most striking images are of the aging blues greats he encountered in Memphis in the late-'60s -- men like Fred McDowell and Sleepy John Estes. Nix's stark black and white images find the men unguarded, enjoying the attention the blues revival brought them in the winter of their years.

The current Robinson Gallery exhibit will serve as a teaser to an expanded Nix show that will grace the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland next summer.

The interest in his photos comes just as Nix is back in the spotlight for his music. This past year the hit HBO series "Eastbound & Down" used Nix's "Goin' Down" as its theme song, and his music has turned up in a series of major motion pictures, including the Diane Keaton comedy "Mad Money."

Nix -- who moved to Nashville earlier this year -- has also been back in the studio producing an album for Australian singer-songwriter Chris Pickering, recorded at Midtown's Ardent.

Tonight's opening reception at the Jack Robinson Gallery will find Nix and a group of surprise guests performing a set of songs celebrating the music and images that comprised his life. "I don't really know if anyone will be interested" says Nix of his photos, "but I think it's a great thing for me to be able to bring out this part of my life, and show people the things I was lucky enough to have seen through my lens."

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"Dirty Negatives," an exhibit of photography by Don Nix

Opening reception is at 6 tonight at Jack Robinson Gallery, 400 S. Front Street. The exhibit runs through Dec. 31. For more information, call 576-0708.

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