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  1. #1

    Mid 60's Motown Road Musician

    I'm currently in touch with a New York based guy, Billy Nichols ..
    He started out on the east coast in a group who cut a 45 in 1963 for Cherry Records. However the group fell apart when their 45 didn't sell too well. So Billy got his mother to arrange for her brother (who lived in Detroit) to give him a place to stay.
    So with twenty dollars 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' over at Motown Records. Both of them went over to West Grand Boulevard. When they got to Hitsville there were around fifteen to twenty musicians waiting outside the front of the two 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 into 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. This was mostly music for songs cut by Motown artists. Next, Choker Campbell came in and briefly spoke with Hank before telling them "we need musicians to travel on the road to back up the Motown artists or an upcoming Motown Revue tour. You must be able to stay on tour for at least one month and the music in front of you is the music that you will be performing for the artists on the tour". Then he told them which song was the first they should play and the audition commenced until they had played through the full list After they had played for about forty five minutes, Hank came out of the control room and started pointing at particular guys, saying" you","you"",you". Tony and Billy were the first two chosen, they were hired on the spot. Billy's first Motown job was with Martha and the Vandellas, whilst his friend Tony getting a job with the Miracles.

    Billy's first gig was in Cleveland at a club called the Music Box. On the show were the Four Tops, The Spinners, Martha & The Vandellas, The Marvalettes, The Temptations, Shorty Long and Willie Tyler and Lester. They played at theclub for 10 days before moving on to other places. After the tour, Hank hooked him 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 he was with Choker Campbell's band he also played the Apollo Theater with the same line-up except that Smokey and The Miracles and Marvin Gaye were also on the show. Billy toured with the Vandellas for about a month, then Hank hooked him up with the Marvelettes. That post lasted for about a month. His 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 got to play for many Motown acts, including Stevie Wonder. However, one group he backed up really loved Billy's playing and wanted him to become a member. That was the Spinners, however at that time the Spinners had only the one hit, "That's What Girls Are Made For" and that had been a while earlier. Billy Henderson of the Spinners named him 'Billy' as he was known as William (Nichols) up till then. But Billy Henderson said "hey, that's too formal, call yourself Billy Nichols". But this then kept causing confusion. So their names at Motown then became Billy guitar and Billy Spinner.

    Next Billy became Marvin Gaye's band leader in 1965 & his initial gig in that position was in in Bermuda. Marvin had a ten day gig there at a club called The Forty Thieves. Woody, Marvin's current band leader had suffered an accident which left him unable continue in the job & Marvin chose Billy as his replacement. When the ensemble returned to the USA, they played gigs at the Apollo Theater (NYC), the Uptown Theater in Philadelphi, the Regal Theater in Chicago and many other cities. Billy remembers playing in Atlanta Ga. at the Peach Tree Lounge.He also got to meet Colonel Sanders (the Kentucky Fried Chicken guy) at one of theirr gigs in Louisville Kentucky. However, Billy wasn't allowed to record in the studio with Marvin Gaye, however 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. However, their relationship was better before Billy became his bandleader.As Billy wanted to get more into writing songs & studio work, and that wasn't going to happen with Motown (who already had an embarresment of riches), he left Detroit after a last Marvin Gaye gig to take up a new opportunity in Cleveland.

    Anyone here remember Billy from his days on the road with the Motown acts ??

  2. #2
    jsmith - thanks for sharing that story - bit of history. I love details like that. Did he share any other memories he had with any of the other artists. And did he say why Motown was so resistant to him playing in the studios and did he have any of his songs recorded by Motown artists?

  3. #3
    Did a bit of checking & it transpires that Billy went off to Bermuda with Marvin Gate in mid May 65. Marvin had a 2 week long engagement at the club there & this commenced on May 17th.
    Bet that was a terrible gig .... good club, two weeks in one place, great weather, everyone in the audience in holiday mode .... sound likes just about the perfect booking.

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