Ken Nelson, former head of country A&R for Capitol Records and a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, died Sunday (Jan. 6) at his home in Somis, Calif., 13 days short of his 97th birthday. He had not been ill prior to his death, his daughter Claudia Nelson told CMT.com.
In his prime during the ’50s and ’60s, Nelson produced such artistically pivotal acts as Hank Thompson, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Wanda Jackson and is credited with helping define the distinctive Bakersfield Sound through his low-key studio guidance.
According to The Encyclopedia of Country Music, a publication of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Kenneth F. Nelson was born Jan. 19, 1911 in Caledonia, Minn. Raised in a Chicago orphanage, Nelson developed a early interest in music and even worked briefly as a singer before turning to radio. He joined the staff of Chicago’s giant WJJD in the late 1930s and eventually ascended to the post of music director. Although his interest at the time was in classical music, his job also required him to oversee WJJD’s massively popular live country show, Suppertime Frolic.
Nelson’s experience in working with WJJD’s country roster led to a job in 1948 with Capitol Records in Hollywood, where he was initially put in charge of the transcription department. In 1951, he was named head of the label’s country artist and repertoire division. His big break came when he produced Thompson’s 1952 hit, “Wild Side of Life,” which topped the country charts for 15 weeks.
In the ensuing years, Nelson also produced hits for Ferlin Husky, Wynn Stewart, Tommy Collins and Jean Shepard, among others. He was also one of the co-founders of the powerful West Coast music publishing company, Central Songs, and a prime mover in the creation and growth of the Country Music Association.
Nelson retired from Capitol in 1976 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. At his request, his daughter said, he will be cremated and there will be no memorial service.