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Ken Nelson finally enters the Hall

By 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."

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