Producer had ear for country talent

Times Staff Writer

Longtime Capitol Records talent scout and producer Ken Nelson, whose work with Buck Owens and Merle Haggard took them to the top rank of country music stardom in the 1960s and helped define the genre’s twangy “Bakersfield sound,” has died. He was 96.

Nelson died Sunday of natural causes at his home in Somis, said his daughter, Claudia Nelson.

A co-founder of the Nashville-based Country Music Assn., Nelson produced dozens of No. 1 country hits -- more than 100 by some counts -- during more than two decades in charge of Capitol’s country music division. But unlike many producers with an identifiable sound, Nelson prided himself on showcasing the musicians.


“If I’m going to put my two cents into every record, it’ll be a Ken Nelson record,” he told an interviewer in 1997. “I didn’t want that. I wanted Merle Haggard. I wanted Buck Owens. I wanted Hank Thompson.”

In fact, Nelson produced Thompson’s landmark 1952 hit “The Wild Side of Life,” which spent 15 weeks at No. 1, sent Thompson’s popularity into the stratosphere and inspired Kitty Wells’ career-defining response, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”

While mining the wealth of country singers working in and around Bakersfield in the 1950s, Nelson recorded early hits for Thompson, Ferlin Husky, Jean Shepard, Tommy Collins, Wynn Stewart and others.

Nelson had hired Buck Owens for many of those recording sessions strictly as a guitarist -- “Buck had a great style on the guitar,” Nelson once said -- and recalled Owens pestering him for an audition of his own music. “One day after a session, I said, ‘OK, go ahead and sing.’ I heard about 16 bars and said, ‘That’s enough!’ . . . I heard it right away. He had it.”

Owens, who became one of the music industry’s savviest businessmen, once called Nelson “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 let them do it.”

Nelson also discovered Merle Haggard while Haggard was playing guitar in a band backing Bakersfield DJ-comedian Herbert “Cousin Herb” Henson. Impressed, Nelson offered him a deal with Capitol, but Haggard turned him down because of his allegiance to the owner of the small independent label Tally Records, for which he’d begun recording.

“I respected him for that,” Nelson said later. Label owner Lou Tally agreed to sell the recordings Haggard had made for him to Capitol, launching the long association between Haggard, Nelson and Capitol that led to more than three dozen No. 1 country hits.

Nelson was lauded for not only signing talented stars but also for allowing them to use their own bands in recording sessions, staving off criticisms of sonic similarity often leveled at Nashville recordings typically made with the same studio musicians. While groups played in the studio, Nelson was often in the recording booth sketching on a note pad.

“He sat there and doodled on a piece of paper while I recorded,” Haggard recalled in a 2001 interview . “He made me feel like I had some wisdom, some information to give.”

His trust in the music of the artists he signed meant there was no dichotomy for Nelson between working in Nashville or Hollywood.

At the same time he was recording California country singers who were enthusiastically adopting Leo Fender’s then-new electric guitars to get a vibrant and twangy rock-influenced sound, Nelson produced Husky’s 1957 hit “Gone,” an echo-laden ethereal track that featured a choir of background singers and heavenly ambience that became a template for the smoother Nashville sound of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Kenneth F. Nelson was born Jan. 19, 1911, in Caledonia, Minn., but spent his early years in a Chicago orphanage, where his divorced mother had placed him as an infant.

“Mother took me out of there [when I] was 8,” he once told an interviewer. “I think she paid $6 a week for me to be there.”

Growing up in Chicago, Nelson got his first taste of the music business at 13 with an impromptu performance for an amusement park music vendor who handed him a megaphone and let him sing a lyrically revamped version the vendor had written of “The Sheik of Araby.”

Nelson got a job in a music store, delivering sheet music to jazz titans then working in Chicago, including Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver. In his early 20s, Nelson landed work announcing stock reports on a Chicago radio station.

He moved to another station and announced broadcasts by the Chicago Symphony. But he also arranged the music for “Suppertime Frolic,” a live country music show that featured Bob Atcher, Uncle Henry’s Kentucky Mountaineers and, he noted, “a guy named Rhubarb Red,” who was really guitar innovator Les Paul.

Nelson served in the Army during World War II and shortly after got a job with Capitol, thanks to Lee Gillette, an old friend with whom he’d sung in the Campus Kids vocal trio in the early 1930s. Gillette had become a producer for Capitol and got Nelson work producing for the label. When Gillette was put in charge of Capitol’s pop department, Nelson took over its country division.

“I appreciate all kinds of music,” Nelson said in 1997. “I wasn’t necessarily a country fan. I’m still not what you call a country fan.”

Nevertheless, he had an ear for country talent, also signing Roy Clark, Jerry Reed, Rose Maddox and in the mid-1950s, when every record label was in search of its own Elvis Presley, he signed Gene Vincent. Once, on a trip through Louisiana, he heard a voice he liked on a local radio program, tracked down the singer and quickly signed Faron Young.

“I used to take buses through the South and listen to the jukeboxes to see what people were listening to,” Nelson said in 2001. “I knew I could get a good feel for things by stopping in the bus stops and the restaurants.”

An early supporter of rock music, he once urged Capitol talent executive Nik Venet to take a call from a struggling songwriter who’d called Nelson asking him to take a chance on the band his sons had formed.

It took Nelson several times before Venet followed up on the tip and made contact with the Beach Boys, who ultimately signed to Capitol and became the label’s biggest-selling American group of the 1960s.

Nelson spent $40,000 to self-publish his memoir, “My First 90 Years Plus Three,” which came out early last year. He said he put it out himself to make sure it was printed “before I kick the bucket.”

Nelson, who had lived in Somis since 1972, retired from the music business in 1976 and remained active, traveling extensively with his daughter.

His wife, June, died in 1984.

In addition to his daughter, Nelson is survived by three grandchildren.

At his request, no services will be held.