Ken Nelson, longtime Capitol scout, dies


Ken Nelson, a longtime talent scout at Capitol Records who produced dozens of No. 1 country music hits and helped take Buck Owens and Merle Haggard to the top ranks of country stardom in the 1960s, has died. He was 96.

Nelson died Sunday of natural causes at his home in Somis, his daughter, Claudia Nelson, told the Los Angeles Times. Somis is about 54 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

A co-founder of the Nashville-based Country Music Association who spent more than two decades in charge of Capitol's country music division, Nelson produced upward of 100 No. 1 country hits including Hank Thompson's landmark 1952 hit "The Wild Side of Life," which spent 15 weeks at the top of the charts and sent Thompson's popularity skyrocketing.

The song inspired Kitty Wells' classic, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels."

Nelson is credited with helping to define the country genre's twangy "Bakersfield sound," after he showcased the country singers working in and around Bakersfield in the 1950s.

He recorded early hits for Thompson, Ferlin Husky, Jean Shepard, Tommy Collins, Wynn Stewart and others.

Nelson was praised for letting artists use their own bands in recording sessions instead of using studio musicians, something that led to a diversity of sounds.

Buck Owens, a singer and guitar player originally produced by Nelson, once described Nelson as "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."

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

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 worked as an announcer reading stock reports on a Chicago radio station.

He served in the Army during World War II and shortly after started working with Capitol.

Although he once said he wasn't necessarily a country fan, Nelson clearly had an ear for country talent and also signed Roy Clark, Jerry Reed, Rose Maddox and Gene Vincent.

"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."

Nelson's wife, June, died in 1984. He is survived by his daughter Claudia and three grandchildren.