7:00 p.m. Jan. 14
The Christmas card didn’t arrive this year.
Around every mid-December for the past 10 years I received a Christmas card from Ken Nelson, the legendary Capitol Records producer who recorded Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Gene Vincent, the Louvin Brothers, Tex Ritter and so many others.
Nelson died on Jan. 6, just 13 days shy of his 97th birthday. He passed over of natural causes according to his daughter Claudia. Nelson was one of my country music heroes.
In the fall of 1987 I rented a car in Los Angeles and drove to Nelson’s home in Somis, Calif. Nelson was a forgotten figure in popular music and I wanted to write a story lobbying for his inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame. (He was finally inducted in 2001). In 1961 he co-founded the Country Music Association for crissakes! A story like Nelson's is why I got into journalism.
He had fallen into the shadows..............
Every window of Nelson’s spacious five-room house overlooked the Pacific Ocean and Ventura County. It was a home Nelson had promised his bride June when they married in 1945. They lived at densley populated 78th and Yates in Chicago. The windows of their tiny south side apartment faced big brick walls. Nelson told June that someday they would live in a home with a view.
She died in 1984. Nelson missed her.
I told Nelson he should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. He created the Bakersfield, Ca. sound by bringing Haggard, Owens, Red Simpson, Rose Maddox and others to Capitol Records/Hollywood. “The problem is I never associated with anyone in Nashville,” Nelson replied during a long conversation in his living room. “Of course, today, my generation is gone. No one knows me.”
I tracked down Buck Owens to amplify my case. Even in his late ‘80s, Nelson would drive his car through the southern San Joaquin Valley to visit Owens in Bakersfield, Calif. Owens said, “Ken Nelson was one of the smartest men in the music business. He found artists who wrote their own songs, had their own bands, and knew what they wanted to do. Then he sat back and doodled [on a scratch pad in the studio] and let them do it. There is no doubt that Ken should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame.”
Nelson always respected his artist. Extremely mild mannered, he was still able to shoo songwriters and other outsiders away from the studio. Nelson embraced artistic freedom. “I always figured you hired a person for what THEY could do,” Nelson told me. “Not for what YOU could do.”
Nelson was born in Caledonia, Minn. but reared at the Home of the Friendless, 51st and South Park in Chicago. “It was an oprhan asylum,” Nelson recalled. “Mother took me out of there when I was 8. I think she paid $6 a week for me to be there.” His Chicago roots included a stint as musical director at WJJD-AM.
He was announcer for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and coordinated music for “Suppertime Frolic,” a live country music show on WJJD. Featured performers included Bob Atcher, Uncle Henry’s Kentucky Mountaineers and Rhubarb Red (who was Les Paul). While working in the Chicago music publishing business, Nelson met Lee Gillette. They were part of a popular trio called The Campus Kids. Nelson played banjo in the trio beween 1932 and 1934. The Campus Kids followed radio comedy stars Fibber McGee and Molly on west coast broadcasts. Their programs were recorded by Glen Wallichs, the founder of the Music City record store at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood.
In 1942, Wallichs and songwriters Johnny Mercer and Buddy DeSylva founded Capitol Records.(Gillette went on to produce Capitol vocalists Nat King Cole,Kay Starr and Stan Kenton). Gillette brought Nelson to Capitol, where he took over the emerging country division.
Nelson was also on the cusp of rock n’ roll. Chuck Berry, Louis Jordan, Jerry Lee Lewis (deservedly so) and to some degree Elvis Presley get the ink, but a few years ago Dave Alvin pointed out to me how Nelson’s Bakersfield Sound connected the earliest roots of rock n’ roll. “If you listen to a lot of those Bakersfield records you know where those guys were coming from,” Alvin said backstage at FitzGerald’s roadhouse in Berwyn, Ill.. “They were listening to how the drummer played the light cymbal on something like Ray Charles’ ‘What I’d Say.’ The Bakersfield guys took that same beat and put it into country music. As Buck told me, the West Coast thing was about dancing. The Nashville stuff was not about dancing. Buck’s take was that in the East you had to dance with an appropriate space in between. But once you got to California or Arizona a lot of those morays were gone and you could do the buckle polishing and rock n’ roll dancing. All of that was an extension of rock n’ roll. And those records are cut like rock n’ roll records; bass, drums and two guitars.”
Nelson saw rock n’ roll coming. In a fine tribute published onwww.rockabillyhall.com Nelson said that’s why he signed Gene Vincent to Capitol, but the label refused to recognize rock n’ roll or rockabilly.
Nelson never limited himself. After his wife died Nelson and his daughter traveled to China. Russia. Siberia. Mongolia. Hong Kong. Singapore. They were planning a trip to Australia during my visit. A long black piano sat behind Nelson’s sofa. The sheet music on the piano was Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” At age 87 he was also learning to play the classics. “I always wanted to play the piano when I was a kid,” Nelson said. “I played tenor banjo but we never had a piano. So I said, ‘Before I kick the bucket, I’m going to play piano’.” And he did. And the music of Ken Nelson plays on forever.