Country Music Hall of Famer Ken Nelson's work as a Capitol Records
executive and producer was an integral part of the brash, edgy "Bakersfield Sound"
and of the smooth, pop-friendly "Nashville Sound" of the 1950s and '60s.
Mr. Nelson died Sunday morning in his California home at age 96. He leaves a
musical legacy of innovation and ingenuity, having helped guide the recording
careers of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Sonny James, Jean Shepard, Faron Young,
Hank Thompson, The Louvin Brothers and numerous others.
"Every artist should have a producer in their life the quality of Ken Nelson," Shepard said.
Mr. Nelson produced country classics including Owens' "Act Naturally," Haggard's
"Silver Wings," Thompson's "The Wild Side Of Life" and James' "Young Love,"
but his contributions to music went beyond country. He also produced wild rockers
Gene Vincent and Esquerita, and his background included a stint as a Chicago Symphony
radio announcer. He began singing professionally at age 14, and his lifelong aspiration —
never fully achieved — was to play piano and become a hit songwriter.
"I never felt successful, because to me a successful person is one who has achieved
the goal of his heart's desire," he wrote in his autobiography, published in 2007.
In 1956, when most in the country industry saw Elvis Presley's rock 'n' roll revolution
as (at best) a hassle or (at worst) a death knell for country, Mr. Nelson saw an opportunity
to move the sound uptown. He persuaded James, who had not yet had a major hit,
to record the teen ballad "Young Love," and he produced the song in a manner
that appealed to pop radio. A week later, he produced "Gone" for Ferlin Husky
in the same manner, with a heavy vocal chorus and no fiddle or steel guitar. By early
the next year, both "Young Love" and "Gone" were in the Top 5 of the
pop chart. Those records became templates for what is now known as "The Nashville Sound,"
which opened country music to a broader audience.
Mr. Nelson served as president of the Country Music Association in 1961 and 1962. He retired
in 1976, and in 2001, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"He was a precious human being," Shepard said. "That's how I will remember him."
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