Ken Nelson finally enters the Hall

Joel Bernstein, December 2001

The Country Music Hall Of Fame used the occasion of opening its new building to play catch-up. An overly restrictive induction policy had left too many worthy candidates out in the cold. This year, 12 highly deserving individuals/acts were inducted, including 90-year old Ken Nelson, who ran Capitol's country division for more than 20 years beginning in 1951.

While Nelson is a bit hard of hearing, which sometimes makes it difficult to communicate questions, fortunately he needed little prompting to tell his stories.

"It's been a long time coming," Nelson says of his selection from his California home. "I was one of the original members of the CMA. I was president twice and chairman of the board. One of the problems is I'm not a Nashvillian. If I had been living there, I would have been in a long time ago."

Nelson split his time between Nashville and Capitol's Los Angeles base. "I spent six months a year there, but I never socialized. I met a lot of wonderful people, made a lot of friends there, but I'd do my business and go home."

He adds, "The award really belongs to the artists, musicians, songwriters, engineers and a great promotion man I had at Capitol named Wade Pepper."

Nelson's career began in Chicago, where he played in bands and got into radio. By the late '30's, he was music direction at WJJD. (His hillbilly show featured a performer using the name Rhubarb Red who was actually future guitar great Les Paul.) An old friend and bandmate was Lee Gillette, who wound up heading Capitol's A&R department in 1944. Gillette brought Nelson out to California in 1946 to head the label's transcription department. When Gillette decided to concentrate exclusively on pop records, Nelson took over the country reins.

Nelson, like Don Law at Columbia (another 2001 inductee), Owen Bradley at Decca, and first Steve Sholes, then Chet Atkins at RCA, ran their divisions with an autonomy that will never exist anymore at major labels.

"I was never told what to do, or not to do. I could sign anyone."

There was a lot less pressure in those days. "Look at the sales today compared to what it was. The young crowd then didn't have the money kids have today. If we had an album that sold 100,000 copies, we were doing good."

Not there weren't bean counters around. "If an artist wasn't selling, I was asked, not told, to drop him."

One such suggestion concerned Buck Owens, who had been a session musician for Capitol for years before signing. His first two singles were dismal failures, and Nelson recalls, "There were people asking 'What's this guy doing on our label?'"

But Nelson stuck with Owens, which proved to be a wise decision.

However, Nelson admits there were great talents he didn't stick with. "I goofed on a lot of artists. I had Ray Stevens first, but couldn't get him off the ground. Bobby Bare also. And Jerry Reed I had for quite a while. I liked Jerry. I made what I thought were a couple of great records with him, but they didn't sell. Every A&R man goes through this, dropping artists who become hits somewhere else."

His California base gave Nelson a big edge in landing that state's talent. "Lee had called me when I was still in Chicago to form a publishing company with him and Cliffie Stone. (Nelson had earlier publishing experience.) I thought it was a conflict of interest, but Lee said all A&R men have their own publishing company."

Nonetheless, for public consumption, Cliffie Stone was the owner of their firm, Central Songs. Stone was the most powerful country music figure in the Los Angeles area, with radio and television shows. He also managed Tennessee Ernie Ford, who was one of Capitol's biggest stars. Any aspiring talent in the area could only succeed with help from Stone, and so he found some good talent for Capitol. However, Nelson also found artists in Nashville, including Hall Of Famer Faron Young and rockabilly legend Gene Vincent..

Nelson wasn't as strong-armed with his publishing company as some A&R men. "If an artist didn't have publishing, I would suggest they put it with Central Songs. I never forced them to. I helped Buck set up his own publishing company. Merle (Haggard) wanted to sign with Buck, so I let him. (Haggard later regretted that decision.) I probably could have had Merle's publishing if I had insisted."

Eventually, when Central Songs was sold, the buyer was none other than Capitol Records. "All those years I had felt guilty about the conflict of interest, then Capitol bought it themselves. We were flabbergasted." Central Songs' attorney still tried to keep Nelson's ownership a secret. "He didn't want an audit done. Capitol insisted on an audit before they spent millions of dollars. So, he said, 'Okay, but we won't say who the owners are.' Capitol said 'Don't worry about Ken Nelson, he's made plenty of money for us.' They knew all along that I owned it."

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.'"

Campbell did a stint with The Beach Boys in the mid-'60's, which reminds Nelson of another story. "One day, a guy named Murry called me. He said, 'You did a favor for me, cutting one of my songs, so I'm going to do one for you. My sons have a rock 'n' roll group that's good.' I said, 'That's not my area, but I'll have the man call you.' I went to Nick Venet and asked him to call. Two weeks later, Murry calls me and said he hadn't heard from anyone yet. I went back to Nick and reminded him to call Murry. Two weeks later, Murry calls me again. I went to Nick, and I said 'Goddammit, call this man right now!' When he got the tapes, they couldn't sign the kids fast enough. At the next meeting, the label head told everyone 'When you get a tip like this, act on it.' We almost lost the Beach Boys."

Roy Clark came to Capitol via another of the label's artists. "I went to see Wanda Jackson, and she had hired him as her front man and opening act. I was taken aback by his playing, so I signed him as an instrumentalist. We put out some records, but he wanted to sing. Joe Allison came to me and said 'I've got a great song Roy can do.'"

It was "Tips Of My Fingers," which had been a hit for Bill Anderson a few years earlier. "Joe asked if he could pick the orchestra, and when I got to the session, there were 35 musicians there. I thought 'Oh no, what have I done?' but it was too late to send them home. We had to pay them anyhow. The record was a smash, and I let Joe produce him after that. They kept recording songs that had already been hits for other people. I should have stepped in. His management asked for a release, and I let him go. I should have kept him and recorded him myself. That was another mistake of mine."

Wynn Stewart was an underachiever, a great singer with an apparent fear of success. "He used to drive me crazy. He aggravated me because I couldn't get him on the phone. I'd leave him messages, but he rarely called back. One day, we had a session booked in Nashville. I had to be in New York the next day. Wynn didn't show up. I told (assistant) Marvin Hughes to do the session himself if Wynn showed up. He did, and it produced 'It's Such A Pretty World Today.'" That song that Stewart brought in became his biggest hit.

Ferlin Husky had been recording under the name Terry Preston, ironically because he thought his real name sounded made-up. "I told him 'That's a sissified name. Use your own name. It's got a good masculine sound.' He didn't want to. One day, I was in a car with him and his father, and I told his father about it. He turned to Ferlin and said, 'You're never going to amount to anything until you use your own name.' So, he did after that."

Jean Shepard was Capitol's top female country vocalist in the '50's. "She was recommended to me by Hank Thompson (after she had opened a show for him). She'd had an all-girl orchestra called 'The Melody Ranch Girls.' The others had left to get married, so she had assembled male players. She was playing in an American Legion hall. As I walking up the stairs, I liked her voice. Then, I saw this little girl playing a big bass. I signed her up."

Nelson doesn't follow today's country music world, but he is philosophical about it. "Everything changes. Even girls names change. You don't hear 'Irene' or 'Dorothy' anymore. We did four songs in three hours, everything live. Now a lot of artists sing over musical tracks that are already cut. They don't have the feel they would get with a live orchestra. I've proven that with a couple of artists myself. Each musician has earphones and is just listening to himself. It's not a uniform, emotional thing anymore. There's a lot of lights and noise. I've listened to a couple of country programs, and all I hear is the drums. Maybe it's just my hearing, or maybe not."

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