These days drummer Sandy Nelson qualifies as an All-American oldie but goodie.
At 76, Nelson moves with a little less pep than in his prime as a versatile drummer in Los Angeles for three decades before moving to Boulder City, where he’s resided the past 27 years and remains a treat to watch play.
If he’s lost any of his impeccable sense of rhythm, it certainly doesn’t show. He still speaks with the lyrical cadence of a rock ‘n’ roll hep cat, which he undoubtedly remains, but don’t let that lighthearted tone fool you. He’s seen some things.
“I’m from West L.A. (Los Angeles); you ever been down there?” he asks. “Santa Monica, West L.A. … I started drumming for real in 1958. I was part of a backup band for Art Laboe’s rock ‘n’ roll show. Most folks nowadays have never heard of Art Laboe, but he was big in L.A. He was a big shot.”
Big and then some. Before the record business grew into a corporate behemoth, Laboe was a combination disc jockey, songwriter and record producer. He’s credited with coining the term “Oldie but Goodies.” (At age 90, Laboe is still on the air.)
But there were plenty of record producers roaming Sunset Boulevard in those days, Nelson recalls. One was big John Dolphin, a cigar-smoking African-American producer whose Lucky, Cash and Money record labels introduced scores of black artists to the radio airwaves. The 45s were spun from the front of Dolphin’s of Hollywood record shop by Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg, a white disc jockey who did more for integration than most politicians of the day.
For his part, Nelson was a peach fuzz-faced kid with a trio that included pal Bruce Johnston, who would later gain fame with the Beach Boys.
“We rented a studio on Sunset Boulevard, and we were terrible,” Nelson recalls. “But John Dolphin heard us. … He looked in the door and said, ‘Come down to my office. I want to sign you up.’ They’d sign anybody in those days. But we went down there.”
As various sources report, a visit on Feb. 1, 1958, to Dolphin’s office by Nelson, Johnston and Dave Shostac was interrupted by the sound of gunfire. A deeply disgruntled shipping clerk-turned-singer, Percy Ivy, fired the gun that killed Dolphin at his desk.
Fortunately, not all of Nelson’s gigs ended in gunfire. He built a reputation as a highly versatile drummer capable of driving the beat in many genres. His work with Johnston in a band called the Renegades created an album with a tune “Geronimo,” which was part of a soundtrack to the ’59 drive-in flick “Ghost of Drag Strip Hollow.”
If you remember “To Know Him Is to Love Him” by Phil Spector’s Teddy Bears, or “Alley-Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles, that’s Nelson on the drums. But in the grooving early 1960s Nelson pounded out instrumental hits such as “Teen Beat,” “Drums Are My Beat” and “Let There Be Drums” that rose near the top of the charts and made the experienced young sessions player a household name.
Nelson became high school pals with future stars Jan Berry and Dean Torrence, and he nearly experienced a dead man’s curve of his own in a 1963 motorcycle accident that severely damaged his right leg. The injury led to an amputation, but somehow didn’t prevent him from continuing his amazing career.
Search a while, and you’ll find Sandy Nelson’s name on a tall stack of albums. Search a little longer, and you can still catch Nelson behind a drum set in Las Vegas blues bars and occasionally out in Boulder City.
Although his touring and big sessions days are behind him, he’s still rewarded for some of his early work.
“With royalties, it’s either feast or famine,” Nelson says. “In between royalty checks, it’s famine. One royalty check bought my little Hyundai.”
Some royalties are barely enough to fill that Hyundai’s tank.
But he’s not complaining. Look at all the fun he’s had. Look at all the music he’s helped make.
Sandy Nelson has life’s rhythm down to an art form.
Nevada native John L. Smith also writes a column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-383-0295.