Before I jump into this artist interview with Wayne, I must digress a bit about exactly what “A View From The Side” is all about. Of all of the various series of articles and vignettes that I’ve undertaken, this is a writing journey that I am most excited to begin. The premise is a logical culmination of my varied musical career paths. Over the past 35 or so years, I’ve spent many hours on varied stages, sometimes as an artist, sometimes in support of other artists but always taken aback by the magical perspective you enjoy from the side of stage view. As a member of a globally successful rock band, I am afforded the continuing opportunity to share the stage with so many of the artists and performers that I’ve admired for years. It gives me a rather unique perspective and rapport as a colleague: a brother in arms if you would. That is coupled with the wonderful privilege of writing for Harmony Central about my encounters and insights. It’s like living the dream and being paid to write home about it. I try earnestly to never take this experience for granted. In the process, I will have many colorful and well-traveled stories to share with you in our mutual view from the side.
It’s also apropos that my first view from the side features my band mate and real life rock star – Wayne Nelson, lead singer and bassist for Little River Band. For the generation x, y, or milennial who is unfamiliar with LRB, ask your parents – you might have been conceived to one of our songs. From 1978 to the mid 80’s, Little River Band provided a vocal band, guitar driven soundtrack to a plethora of teenage summers. With 30 millions units sold, 6 top 10 singles in 6 consecutive years, and multiple hits that have played millions of times on rock radio, LRB shares a spot in classic rock history with bands like the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers or REO Speedwagon. 2015 will mark the band’s 40th year and it’s still going strong with an average of 85 to 90 shows per year around the world. Wayne Nelson started sharing lead vocal duties soon after joining the band as the first American member in 1979. He sang two of the bands mega hits, “The Night Owls” and “Take It Easy on Me”. His soaring lead vocals combined with funk bass skills distinguished him early in band history. He has now served longer than any other member in the band’s chronology. Nelson was working with Jim Messina of Loggins and Messina fame prior to the invitation to join LRB. It’s interesting to hear that he didn’t start out with the aspiration to front a band.
“I started out just wanting to play bass and stand in the back. But, there were a lot of those guys around so I found that being able to sing and play bass enhanced my marketability for work. I also sold my Fender Precision (regrettably, he added) to buy the new Gibson Grabber with the sliding pickup. There weren’t many of those around so that gave me a bit of a visual edge as well. Probably didn’t sound as good as I thought it looked but anyway…”
As Wayne mentioned, his ability to add vocals to a performance not only helped with that first pro road gig in ’77 but subsequently helped him land the Messina gig and enhanced his appeal to the members of LRB a couple of years later. Like many rock and soul singers of the day, it was those formative years around a church choir that developed Wayne’s vocal sensibilities.
“I stood in the Bass section with my dad in the Episcopal choir next to the pipe organ. Of course, I was singing the bass parts an octave or two up but I learned rhythm, parts and even bar structure and intervals. Plus, even then, hearing the richness of those big pipes probably locked in my love for bass sounds and the bottom end of the sound spectrum.”
Nelson started playing in bands in the Chicago area as a teenager. He initially sang bgv’s and played tamborine in a cover band. After spending more time teaching the combo sax/bass player the correct bass notes than playing tamborine, he and the drummer had the epiphany that it would make more economical sense for them to get their own PA and move Wayne out front to sing lead vocals and actually play the bass guitar for the band. 6 days later, he made his debut on bass and lead vocals.
“It really was a real life version of the proverbial bass player joke where this kid learns a 1, a 4 and a 5 then fails to show up for the next lesson because he gets his first gig.”
Although he is dismissive of the caliber of his first cover band as teenage boys trying to cover the Moody Blues with second hand guitars, he is quick to point out a rich diversity of musical exposure in his childhood home.
“My Dad listened to military music, my Mom listened to Broadway and Classical music and I loved rock bands like the Beatles and Blood, Sweat and Tears. But, I think I was primarily drawn to quality, whether it was Tchaikovsky, Sinatra or McCartney.”
His time working with both Jim Messina and Kenny Loggins (separately after their split) also represents being drawn to historical rock and roll quality. Although he enjoyed both gigs and refuses to dish on either artist, he recalls enjoying the diversity and depth of Loggins’ repertoire.
“Kenny’s music definitely expanded from the Loggins and Messina days as he collaborated with Michael (McDonald). When I played with him subbing on bass guitar at various points, he really moved the arrangements toward a soul funk bass approach, really driving the music. There was also a great collection of vocal arrangements that made the show interesting and even challenging.”
Proverbial dream gig – bass player for Earth, Wind, and Fire.
“There is no way that I have the chops to be in that band with Verdine’s (White) presence but I love that music with the horns and the funk bass. But, being a Chicago boy, I also would have cut off my legs to play bass and sing in the band Chicago. I love Peter Cetera’s vocals and bass playing back in those late 70’s early 80’s records.”
Fortunately for rock fans and specifically Little River Band fans, Nelson landed exactly where he was meant to be when he was invited to join LRB in 1979. In Part Two of this “View From The Side” of the Little River Band stage, we’ll take a closer at Nelson’s arrival in the LRB camp, his influence and contribution through the band’s years, and we’ll learn what’s in store as the band powers into it’s 40th year of rock history. Until then, “view” wisely, my friends!
For more trivial information about Wayne and his motley crew of sojourners, visit the Little River Band home page. You’ll find bio material on each member, tour information and links to product galore!