Ken Nelson finally enters the Hall – December 2001
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Ken Nelson finally enters the Hall  Print

By Joel Bernstein, December 2001

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Nelson has a reputation as a producer who let each artist's style dictate the sound of the records. Talking about one of his biggest stars, Nelson says, "His sound was Sonny James. There's no engineering phenomenon. Both of us picked songs."

Getting more general, Nelson says, "I signed an artist because I thought they had talent. You sign an artist for what they can do, not what you can do. There had to be some guidance. I would choose the orchestra and what kind of background. Some acts had their own band. Then, we had a group of regular musicians we'd use (for others)..Then, you get with the promotion department. You don't think about superstars, you think about people who can sell records. We had A&R meetings every week to decide what to push. Sometimes the promotion department had a lot to do with a record."

It would take days to talk to Nelson just about all the great artists he worked with (never mind the less than great). Here are anecdotes/comments about some of them.

"Chet Atkins I got to know personally. I first met him when I was at WJJD. One of our acts brought him in and asked me to write Lee Gillette and get him signed to Capitol. Lee said, 'We already have a great guitar player, Merle Travis.' When Nelson started producing in Nashville, Atkins did a lot of his sessions. "We became good friends. He wrote me a letter on my 90th birthday, maybe the last letter he wrote. He was a great man."

"Chet called me one day. This was before he worked for RCA. He had a young singer who had just come back form Korea. His name was James Loden. I said, 'That's a difficult name.' He said 'My parents used to call me Sonny.' I said 'That's it. Sonny James." He became the first artist to have 16 consecutive number 1 hits."

Nelson found James' biggest hit. "Bill Lowery (an Atlanta publisher/manager) and I were good friends. He said, 'I've got a record I made, and RCA Victor wants to have it. I listened to it and said, 'Give it to Victor.' Then I turned the record over and played "Young Love." I said, 'Bill, that's your hit.'"

James' cover of that song went to the top of the charts in both pop and country.

Nelson says he picked the wrong side on one of his biggest records. "This DJ in Norfolk, Va., Sheriff Bill Davis, gave me a dub of Gene Vincent singing "Be-Bop-A-Lula," and I thought it was great. I said, 'If you can get him to Nashville, I'll cut him." Then, I started thinking 'I've only heard the one song. Maybe I made a mistake signing him.' But he was great. I thought the other side of the record, "Woman Love," was going to be the hit."

Roy Acuff, no longer country's biggest star, wound up on Capitol in the '50's. "Wesley Rose was a good friend of mine. I knew him in Chicago. He called me and said Roy was on a label that wasn't promoting him right and asked me to sign him. But Capitol being on the west coast didn't really know ho to promote him either and just laid down on the job on him. When I put out an album, they didn't do a darn thing on it. Wesley called and asked me to release him, so I did. Then the darn album started selling like crazy. The promotion department asked me how come I had dropped him, and I said 'because you idiots weren't promoting him.'"

In 1963, Nelson recorded a live album in Bakersfield, honoring local TV personality Cousin Herb Henson, featuring many of Capitol's California artists. "Merle Haggard was on the show, but I couldn't use him on the album because he wasn't on our label. I asked him if he wanted to sign with Capitol, and he said no. I said, 'Why not?' He said Fuzzy Owen and Lew Talley had given him his big break, and he would stay with them. I'd see Merle's name in Billboard, and finally called Fuzzy, who was his manager, and said, 'This is ridiculous. You can't promote him like he should be.' So, we made a deal, and Capitol bought all his (Tally label) masters and signed him."

Nelson wasn't limited to country music. "Stan Freberg had a TV show, 'Beany and Cecil.' Cliffie Stone (an old radio associate of Freberg's) brought him by with a dub of "John and Marsha," (in which Freberg just repeated the names doing both people's voices.) It was hilarious. I signed him and he was very successful." Many of Freberg's comedy recordings featured Buck Owens as a session musician.

Hall-Of-Fame songwriter Harlan Howard got his start via Capitol artists Wynn Stewart and Skeets McDonald. "I recorded the first Harlan Howard song (that he had cut). Harlan came to the session. He was in the booth and he was so scared and excited. He was a great kid. I signed him and his wife (Jan Howard) as singers but nothing happened with them. Jan went to Decca and did all right there."

"Glen Campbell did a lot of sessions for me as a guitar player. I signed him as a singer. He wanted to do rock 'n' roll, and I said 'Glen, you're not a rock 'n' roll singer.' Al Delory (a pop producer at Capitol) asked to take over Glen, and I said 'You can have him.'"

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