Born Kenneth Francis Nelson, 19 January 1911, Caledonia, Minnesota
Ken Nelson played a major part in country music’s post-World War II growth. As chief A&R man of Capitol’s country division from 1950 until 1976, he was responsible for producing such performers as Merle Travis, Hank Thompson, Sonny James, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Glen Campbell, and also for signing dozens more artists to the label, including some rock & roll acts like Gene Vincent. He was known as an artist-friendly producer, who let his artists record with their own bands instead of insisting that they work with studio professionals.
Born in 1911 to unmarried parents in Caledonia, Minnesota, Nelson spent part of his childhood in orphanages. He grew up in Chicago, where he made his radio debut as a singer in 1925, at age 14. Over the next few years he played in various bands and was part of a vocal trio called the Campus Kids. He eventually applied for a job at Chicago radio station WJJD, where he wound up as music director in the late 1930s. His involve- ment with country music began after the station put him in charge of their Suppertime Frolic hillbilly show.
After a year of serving in the Army in World War II, Nelson returned to Chicago and to his old job. In 1945, Capitol A&R man Lee Gillette (an old friend of Nelson’s with whom he had sung in the Campus Kids) asked him to produce a country session in Chicago with Uncle Henry’s Kentucky Mountaineers. It went well and more production work followed, including a session with the Dinning Sisters that resulted in Nelson’s first hit, “Buttons and Bows” (# 5 pop, 1948). Nelson was hired permanently by Capitol Records in 1948 and he moved to Hollywood the following year. A new career was launched. In 1950, Capitol put Gillette in charge of its pop and jazz roster, leaving Nelson to handle the label’s country artists, along with Cliffie Stone. By 1951 Nelson was officially the chief of Capitol’s country division. By this time, Ken Nelson had already developed an uncanny knack for finding talent.
In December of 1951 Nelson supervised a session by Hank Thompson that yielded the # 1 smash “The Wild Side of Life”, a success that set the pattern for Nelson’s hit-making career at Capitol. Among the artists that Nelson brought to Capitol over the next four years were Ferlin Husky, Sonny James, Jean Shepard, Tommy Collins, Merrill Moore, Wynn Stewart, Faron Young, Wanda Jackson and Jerry Reed, all of whom he also produced. With Lee Gillette and Cliffie Stone, Nelson founded Central Songs, a publishing company that quickly grew to dominate the West Coast country songwriting industry. Nelson was also responsible for producing the comedy recordings of Stan Freberg throughout the 1950s. The most successful of these was “St. George and the Dragonet”, a number one pop record in 1953.
Well versed in using vocal ensembles, Nelson created a template for the Nashville Sound by adding the Jordanaires behind Sonny James on “Young Love” and on Ferlin Husky’s ballad “Gone”, omitting fiddle and steel. The crossover successes of both singles launched a trend. In 1957, Chet Atkins at RCA began producing Jim Reeves that way.
In 1956 Nelson was one of the powerful country music figures who embraced rock and roll early on. He signed Gene Vincent in April 1956 and produced all his recordings until 1960, dividing his time between Nashville and Hollywood. He also produced the Capitol sessions of wild man Esquerita (S.Q. Reeder). The resulting recordings stand as some of the most untamed and unabashed sides ever issued by a major label. Long revered by R&R fans, they make Little Richard’s Specialty sides look highly disciplined by comparison.
During his 28 years at Capitol, Nelson produced more than 170 acts. One of his favourites was Buck Owens, who recorded for Capitol from 1957 until 1975 and scored twenty # 1 country hits during this period. Ken Nelson’s work with Owens and with Merle Haggard helped shape the Bakersfield sound, although he declines credit (“No, it was the musicians who created the sound.”). But Nelson orchestrated the conversion of the Bakersfield sound from regional honky-tonk phenomenon to country music trendsetter. This is rather ironic, since the Bakersfield sound is the stylistic antithesis of the Nashville Sound, which Nelson also helped to create.
Nelson remained with Capitol until he retired from his post as vice president of the country division at age 65, in 1976. His election to the Country Music Hall of Fame took decades. Some of Capitol’s West Coast acts, Owens and Haggard among them, openly scorned Music Row. Nelson, by contrast, was an insider, a founding member of the Country Music Association and its President in 1961-62. Fortunately he remained healthy enough to attend his 2001 induction at age 90. At least twenty years too late, according to many. Ken Nelson died of natural causes at his home in Somis, California on January 6, 2008, aged 96.
More info : http://www.rockabillyhall.com/KenNelson1.html
Obituary : http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/10/arts/10nelson.html?mcubz=1
Autobiography : Ken Nelson, My First 90 Years Plus 3. Pittsburgh : Dorrance, 2007. 352 pages.
Acknowledgements : Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Jonny Whiteside, Deborah Evans Price, Bruce Eder.
Dik, August 2017
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