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A Conversation with Wayne Nelson of Little River Band, Appearing on October 29 at UCPAC in Rahway


By Spotlight Central, Photos by Love Imagery

originally published: 10/24/2022

A Conversation with Wayne Nelson of Little River Band, Appearing on October 29 at UCPAC in Rahway

Little River Band is coming to the Garden State on October 29, 2022 to perform at Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, NJ. Throughout the ‘70s and ’80s, the group enjoyed huge chart success with multi-platinum albums and well-known hits including “Help Is On Its Way,” “Lady,” and “Happy Anniversary.” To date, LRB’s worldwide album sales, CD purchases, and digital downloads top 35 million and, according to BMI, the band’s hit, “Reminiscing,” has registered over five million airplays on American radio.

Spotlight Central recently caught up with long-time Little River Band singer/bassist Wayne Nelson, and talked with him about his early years as a musician, his lengthy tenure with Little River Band, and the group’s upcoming concert at UCPAC in Rahway, NJ on October 29.

Spotlight Central: You were born in 1950 in Kansas City, Missouri and your family soon moved to Peoria, Illinois. We’re told your father, a former college drum major, liked military marches and your mother enjoyed classical music. What kind of music did you like as a youngster?

Wayne Nelson: I liked it all! I liked the majesty of a Sousa march. I loved listening to classical music. I was very drawn to Tchaikovsky and Chopin. When you’re a kid, you don’t know why, but you’re just drawn into the music — the texture of it and the drama of it. My mom was also huge on listening to Broadway music, so I listened to Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe — shows like My Fair LadySouth Pacific, and Camelot.

When you look at that range of music, it’s just all-encompassing. And then I also sang at a cathedral in Peoria with a church choir, so I was just immersed in music all the time. What evolved from that was a love for vocals and a lot of harmony music which included Motown, The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons, The Hollies, and more. Then along came The Beatles and it was just time to land the plane!



 
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Spotlight Central: Speaking of The Beatles, you were once quoted as saying, “I wasn’t allowed to watch The Beatles or Elvis or any of the other rock acts that played on Ed Sullivan.” Is this true and, if so, why?

Wayne Nelson: Yes, it’s true, and it was because that type of music was outside the parameters of what my parents considered quality music. I’d tune the car radio to an AM station and wait for a song to come on — something like “I lost my baby at the railroad tracks” — and it would be taken off immediately. Elvis was taken off immediately, too. Now, if Dinah Shore came on the TV, I could watch that, and Frank Sinatra was ok, too, but if any pop bands of any category came on — any kind of rock and roll at all — my parents would just shut the TV off.

So I had to be stealthy. I had to have the three or four pop albums that I owned hidden under my mattress, and when my parents left the house, I’d put them on the hi-fi and jam out to them for as long as I could. But then I’d get busted at the end of the day because I’d leave the hi-fi on — the tubes were red hot and my mom knew I’d been listening to something other than what she wanted me to listen to.

A Conversation with Wayne Nelson of Little River Band, Appearing on October 29 at UCPAC in Rahway

Spotlight Central: While growing up in Illinois, you got to experience early performances by groups like Chicago Transit Authority and Styx. Was there anything about these artists that made you want to become a bass player, or was there some other reason you decided to settle on bass as your main instrument?

Wayne Nelson: The bass player decision was made for me by a band that I joined in high school. I was just the singer, but I kept saying to the bass player, “I don’t think those are the right notes,” and I would tell him the right notes and he’d say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah!” So we went on like that for awhile and the drummer in the band — who is still one of my best buddies — took me aside and said, “Look, if you can play bass while you sing, we can all make more money.”

But to zero in on what you’re asking, Paul McCartney, Peter Cetera from Chicago, and James Jamerson from Motown would be the three people I was most enamored with. As a band, we figured out right away that if we played Motown dance music, the dance floor would fill up, the people would like us, and we’d get hired again. So we were four kids from the suburbs of Chicago who played as much Motown and dance music as we could, and it was a real education for me as a bass player.



 
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Spotlight Central: During your teenage years and early twenties, you played in various regional bands around the Chicago area, and from 1973–76 you played with members of Rufus who had split from the group. What kind of music did you play at the time?

Wayne Nelson: Paulette McWilliams was the singer who Chaka Kahn replaced in Rufus, and she wanted to do something different. She didn’t want to play the R&B clubs — she wanted to be a Quincy Jones kind of pop/jazz singer in the style of Natalie Cole. So, at our gigs, we’d play enough dance music and radio music that people would enjoy sitting and listening to us, but Paulette would also sing a lot of R&B mid-tempo ballads and stuff like that.

As a group, we were very well dressed — we never showed up in jeans and T-shirts; we wore uniforms, and she always wore a gown. So it was kind of a club situation and the musicians had come from the club era so their feel for this type of music was very strong. And, for me, it was like being part of a seminar on how to lay it down behind a good singer and do your job and stay out of the way. So that’s where I learned to play that role and be the person they needed me to be in the band.

A Conversation with Wayne Nelson of Little River Band, Appearing on October 29 at UCPAC in Rahway

Spotlight Central: In 1978, you moved to Los Angeles, and worked, separately, with both Jim Messina and Kenny Loggins. What was it like working with these musicians?

Wayne Nelson: It was another level in my evolution. Getting introduced to the LA arena was quite amazing. Before going out there, I had only recorded on one recording session. Luckily, it was with those people from Rufus. We had made Paulette’s first solo album. So I was working with good people, but I was very green.

One day, as a fan, I called Jim Messina and told him, “I know how to play your music.” We got together and talked and played a little bit. Jimmy was as much into the personalities of the band as the musicianship, so once he knew the musicianship was going to be good, he also wanted to make sure the social aspect was going to be good, too. But getting down into the trenches with Jim Messina and rehearsing for a record? We rehearsed for his record for probably six or seven months! It was intensive — playing the songs over and over and over and over again — crafting them. By the time we got to the studio, we were basically just performing the songs live to tape because we had rehearsed them so much.

It was a massive education with Jimmy, and then to roll over and work with Kenny Loggins later was the same kind of thing, except I never recorded with him. It was the same process, though, only now we were doing it for Kenny’s live show. So for me it was like, “I’ve already gone through this with Jimmy. I know exactly where you’re at and what’s required,” and, bang, he and I got along fine.

But something happened when I was working with Jimmy. We went out to perform live to promote his record when Little River Band was looking for a bass player and — as they say — I was in the right place at the right time.

Spotlight Central: A perfect segue for our next question! In 1980, when you were playing with Jim Messina’s band, LRB’s management invited you to join the Australian group. Do you know why they picked you — an American — for the band?



 
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Wayne Nelson: I can’t say for sure. I learned there had been some frustration with the person who had been their bass player for the prior two years. George McArdle was a very eclectic player. He was somebody you wouldn’t have expected to be playing with Little River Band because he was listening to people like Jaco Pastorius. He leaned more in that jazz direction, but the pairing of his playing with Little River Band actually was really, really good. It really fit.

But when they saw me — a guy who had been studying and listening and dwelling in that same range — I think the thing they were most taken by was that fact that, with Jimmy, we were doing some very complex vocal rhythms over Tex-Mex kind of rhythms, and they were probably thinking, “If he can sing and play in this realm, he can sing and play with Little River Band.”

At the time, they were touring with a studio bass player who didn’t sing — and the vocals are an extremely important and physical part of Little River Band’s sound. So I guess they just saw an opportunity to have a player who was almost in the same zone as George — different style, but in the same zone — yet who could do vocals, too. So I think it was at a point of frustration where they just went, “Let’s try this guy out.”

And it was a two-year audition — a touring audition, a rehearsing audition for the group’s upcoming record, a recording audition with The Beatles’ producer George Martin at the helm, and then singing lead vocals in the recording studio — and at end of that two-year process, they said, “You’re in the band,” so it clearly wasn’t a slam dunk!

A Conversation with Wayne Nelson of Little River Band, Appearing on October 29 at UCPAC in Rahway

Spotlight Central: Ultimately, though, you did become a full-fledged member of the group where you worked with the founding members to continue to create LRB’s unique sound — playing bass and singing lead on two of the band’s biggest hits, “The Night Owls” and “Take It Easy On Me.” What was it like for you being featured with the group in this way?

Wayne Nelson: That was the really surreal part of this whole “right place, right time” thing. What I found out after going down to rehearse with the band was there was a lot of inner tension/conflict/turmoil, if you will, between the songwriters of the band and what direction the band was going to go in after two platinum albums, where they were now looking for a producer to follow up with their third record.

And the group ended up choosing George Martin, but I found out there was, by some, a disagreement with the way the songs were being interpreted by the band’s lead singer. Glenn Shorrock is a great singer, but he just had a different notion of how a band should work. He was very free-spirited and spontaneous, whereas the other guys in the band were very much like Jim Messina and Kenny Loggins in that “get together, work it out,” etc. mold.

Glenn wouldn’t come to rehearsals until about three or four days in because he didn’t want to be part of that constant “Hey, will you try this part?” kind of thing. He just wanted to come in, sing, and then leave. And I get it. That was him. That was the beauty of his addition to what the other guys were doing, and it was working, but it was causing tension.

So “Night Owls” was written for me to sing. Glenn sang it once and then he sang it again at the studio for George Martin and it was very obvious that it was not in his zone nor in his range and was a better fit for me. So George Martin picked me for that, and he also picked “Take It Easy On Me” for me, but then Glenn rightfully said, “Man, if the new guy is singing two lead singles and if Capitol picks them as the first and second singles, what am I doing here?” He had a right to put his hand up and say that, so we went back and he sang the verses on “Take It Easy On Me” and I sang the middle part and it ended up being a split lead vocal.

Then “Night Owls” came out as the first single and, within three weeks, it became a Top 5 song, and I’m going, “I just came back from the studio with The Beatles’ producer and I’m singing a Top 5 lead vocal!” It was the first time I’d ever sung a lead vocal in a studio — I mean, I’d sung lead vocals in bands on gigs, but I’d never been in a studio to sing a lead vocal, only background vocals. So it was literally like the cliche, “Too good to be true.” It was just surreal to suddenly be on the radio the first time I ever sang, and with George Martin as the producer! So for me, it was like, “Wow! This is amazing. It’s just kind of unbelievable.”

Spotlight Central: And, nowadays, you’re the anchor member of LRB in a line-up which consists of keyboardist Chris Marion, guitarists Colin Whinnery and Bruce Wallace, and drummer Ryan Ricks. How do you enjoy working with the group’s current members?

Wayne Nelson: They’re all great musicians. And the thing that’s great about this group of people is that we all paid our dues in the trenches. I don’t say this in a mean or a bad way — I know other musicians have done this, too — but success came quickly to some of those people out there who never had to load their own gear in Chicago in the snow!

But all of the guys in Little River Band paid their dues. We all played a wide range of music. So a great thing about this band is if somebody has an idea, we can flesh it out fully and give it a real good shot by everybody feeling it and getting where it came from.

I have to say that I had to be the one to adapt to Little River Band — there was very little adaptation that came my way, if you know what I’m saying. I was an American. I was from a completely different path. Graeham Goble spent his high school years in his bedroom writing songs, so he came out singing and writing and doing his own music. He didn’t play James Brown, he didn’t play Earth, Wind and Fire, and he didn’t play The Rolling Stones or any other songs at 3 AM at a bar in Chicago. All the rest of us did, so we have a different bond, if you will.

And if, while we’re playing, I hear somebody jump on something and I know where that riff comes from, I’m jumping on it — we all are — because it’s fun! So when we’re on stage, we’re looking around at each other, going, “Did you just do that? Let’s do that again!” and we’re having fun with it. It might not stick the next night — we’ll go on to something else — but the thing I say all the time is: “The cake of the Little River Band is the songs — which are always there — but you just never know what icing we might put on that cake on any given night.”

A Conversation with Wayne Nelson of Little River Band, Appearing on October 29 at UCPAC in Rahway

Spotlight Central: And speaking of “any given night,” on October 29, Little River Band will perform at Rahway, NJ’s Union County Performing Arts Center. What can audience members expect to experience at this performance?

Wayne Nelson: Well, there’s one more layer to that cake! That night in Rahway, we’ll have a great seven-piece orchestra from the Philadelphia area playing with us. So let’s take everything we’ve talked about so far and change the icing once again. The cake is still there, but now the icing is symphonic — the icing is live strings and horns — where you can hear the passion of a given song in a different way. Plus, you can also hear Chris Marion’s arrangements; Chris is our keyboard player, and he studied musical arranging in college.

As a band, we’ve performed with a 60-piece orchestra, but we’ve narrowed things down for smaller theaters like UCPAC where we put seven first-chair players in between the drums and keyboards and we’ve got the full sound of an orchestra to enhance all of the emotions that Little River Band’s music already has in it.

 

Spotlight Central: Not to mention the big, powerful sound that the band, itself, puts out!



 
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Wayne Nelson: That’s right, and all the musicians know their place in the layer. Part of the thing that people love to hear from Little River Band is that layered sound — from layered guitar harmonies, to layered vocal harmonies, to the layers created by our full-fledged great keyboard player.

And it’s such an honor and a joy to play with this group of musicians because, every night, we get to experience all of this layering, along with spontaneity. And then you add the orchestra on top where we’re zoned in on working with them. They’re reading music so they can’t jump in on what we’re doing — we have to go with them — but the orchestra members love hearing that we’re really paying attention to them.

So to answer your question: what can people expect? They can expect to hear their favorite songs from Little River Band. They’ll also hear a couple of songs they’ve never heard before because we’re continuing to write new music. And, most importantly, they’re going to hear all of that music with the fattest icing we can put on it — which is us being spontaneous and playing with an orchestra — so we all look forward to nights like this at UCPAC because it’s going to be magic!

A Conversation with Wayne Nelson of Little River Band, Appearing on October 29 at UCPAC in Rahway

Little River Band will appear on October 29, 2022 at 8pm at Union County Performing Arts Center, 1601 Irving Street, Rahway, NJ, 07065. Ticket prices are $39, $49, $62, and $79. For tickets and/or further info, please click on ucpac.org. To purchase accessible seating, call the UCPAC Box Office at 732–499–8226.

Photos by Love Imagery

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