Ken Nelson: Shaper of post-war country music

Kenneth Nelson, talent scout and record producer: born Caledonia, Minnesota 19 January 1911; married (one daughter); died Somis, California 6 January 2008
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For much of his life, Ken Nelson dreamed of emulating his heroes, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, and becoming a songwriter. In his autobiography, My First 90 Years Plus 3, published last year, he even went as far as to write: "I never felt successful, because to me a successful person is one who has achieved the goal of his heart's desire." And yet, by any objective standard, his career in the music business had been a singularly successful one.

His work as head of country A&R at Capitol Records played a crucial role in shaping the post-war country music scene and saw him involved in the development of both the "Nashville Sound", the smooth, country-pop hybrid that in the 1950s enabled the genre to weather the rock'*'roll storm, and, somewhat paradoxically, its antithesis: the lean, California-based honky-tonk style that came to be labelled the "Bakersfield Sound".

He nurtured the careers of a number of country stars, including Hank Thompson, the Louvin Brothers, Jean Shepard, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and as a producer gave his acts the unusual freedom to forge their own musical identity whilst in the studio. Away from the country field, it was Nelson who, in 1957, signed the volatile rocker Gene Vincent to Capitol and who, through his relationship with Brian Wilson's songwriter-father Murry, ensured that in 1962 the Beach Boys, too, found their way onto the label.

As a youngster Nelson had played banjo with a trio named the Campus Kids, before becoming a presenter of the Symphonic Hour on the radio station WAAF in Chicago. A move to the city's WJJD, where he became musical director, led to his involvement with the station's nightly country show, Suppertime Frolic, which featured an up-and-coming young guitarist called Les Paul. Following Second World War service he was invited to join Capitol Records.

By 1948 he had relocated to Hollywood and within a few years had assumed responsibility for the label's country division. Its roster would include a clutch of influential performers, including Faron Young, Tommy Collins, Wynn Stewart, Rose Maddox and, eventually, Glen Campbell.

In 1951 Nelson produced Hank Thompson's "Wild Side of Life"; the first of a series of landmark recordings that would redefine country music and that would also include Sonny James' "Young Love" and Ferlin Husky's "Gone" (both 1956). The last of these, with its innovative use of echo and its vocal contributions from both the Jordanaires and the soprano Millie Kirkham, proved a chart smash and is regularly cited as the prototypical "Nashville Sound" hit.

Having produced literally thousands of records, Ken Nelson retired from Capitol in 1976 and was belatedly inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.

Paul Wadey