Billy Nunn - Performer
BMHOF Class of 2015
When Billy Nunn played in a “B3 Summit” of organ players in Las Vegas in 2014, the event was taking him back to his roots. And his roots are in Buffalo.
Nunn’s keyboard skills have taken him around the world, but it all started in Buffalo, specifically during the summer before his senior year at Hutch-Tech High School. That’s when a friend introduced him to the organ.
On his website, Nunn credits Jimmy Smith on Hammond B3 Organ workout, “A Walk on the Wild Side,” with inspiring him to really pursue it.
Nunn grew up in the Fruit Belt section of town, and his father was the founder of MoDo Records and the owner of Jan’s Supper Club. One of his brothers was the Bob in Gene & Bob, a Buffalo Music Hall of Fame vocal duo.
“I lived near the Kensington, between Jefferson and Michigan,” said Nunn. “I remember when my dad had Jan’s Supper Club. He had Cannonball Adderly the first week he was open. Next he had this blind singer, Al Hibbler. Then Sonny Stitt and Don Patterson. But jazz wasn’t attracting a crowd, so he switched to R&B.
“He had two stages, so me and some of local guys would play on one stage. Performers like the Ohio Players and Millie Jackson came in. We had a great time. We had some of the best musicians, and there was so much music in so many clubs.”
So it didn’t take long for him to catch on to the organ. He was also inspired by the likes of Joe “Groove” Madison, Elvin Shepard and Grover Washington. When Nunn was 19, a friend stopped by his house to tell him Johnny Lytle, a popular jazz vibes player and drummer, was looking for an organ player.
Nunn was gone. He stayed on the road with Lytle for three years.
It was the start of a long journey that took him to Baltimore, where he backed the Softones, a soft soul group that hit the Billboard charts in the mid-1970s. Their touring led Nunn to Japan, where he wound up jamming with the Miracles.
Then, fatefully, he returned home to Buffalo in 1977.
“Rick (James) had just come from Toronto and was looking for some musicians. I didn’t know Rick growing up,” said Nunn. “We started hanging every day, writing songs. That was the beginning. He had some managers from Toronto who had a little dough, so we did the album out at Cross-eyed Bear out in Clarence on a little 16-track recorder.”
After it was finished, Nunn said, James took the tapes out to California and started label shopping, attempting to get a record company to put out the music. It turned out to be Motown after he encountered Iris Gordy. Meanwhile, Nunn had started a group called Splendor that ended up signing with Columbia Records.
“Rick flew out to LA with the tapes and was label shopping,” Nunn said. He ran into Iris Gordy, and they (Motown) wanted us to go back in for a couple of things. So we went to the Record Plant to re-record. It was ‘Mary Jane’ … the second side of the album.”
That was significant because “Mary Jane” went on to become a hit – and Nunn co-wrote it with James. The album went double platinum – selling over 2 million copies – and the single hit No. 3 on the Billbard R&B singles chart. It has since been frequently sampled for other people’s records.
Nunn and the original Stone City Band recorded the first album, with help from the nationally known horn section, the Brecker Brothers. But fairly quickly after the LP was released, James was putting together new versions. There were enough lineup changes that it can be difficult figuring out which variations are legitimate.
Nunn got together with James in the year before James’ death to assemble a Stone City Band reunion, but those plans were dashed by the singer’s death in 2004. Nunn and other former SCB members from different renditions of the band instead ended up playing a tribute to James and wound up playing shows together for about four years. Nunn is no longer playing with that aggregation.
In the intervening years, Nunn moved to Los Angeles for 14 years and now Las Vegas for the past 23. Splendor released it’s “All Night Long” album (produced by Phillip Bailey of Earth Wind & Fire). Nunn acted in the TV movie “The Seduction of Gina,” with Valerie Bertinelli, and some of his songs have wound up in films. He has played internationally, making appearances at events such as the anual Bern Switzerland Jazz Festival
He has become a mainstay of the Las Vegas scene, performing with Berry Gordy’s daughter at a weekly showcase.
“I do this thing with Sherry Gordy, ‘Take The Stage,’” Nunn said. “every Thursday, we have in a different artist. Diana Ross’ daughter, Rhonda, is coming in. It’s pretty nice. We film once a month, and it’s on TV stations here.”
Sherry and Berry Gordy presented Nunn with a lifetime achievement award at one of the events in 2013 to mark his 40-plus years in music.
Nunn was one of four Hammond B3 players featured in “Celebration: The B3 Organ Summit” in 2014, performing alongside Western New York native Papa John DeFrancesco, Bill Callanan and Royce Murray.
Nunn said it felt good to play the instrument again.
“I hadn’t played B3 in seven years,” he said. “Most of the gigs here, I grab my synthesizer. But there’s nothing like ‘the beast,’ as we call it.”
And he’ll be playing it again for the Hall of Fame induction jam tonight.
(Profile by Elmer Ploetz)