Sad to report that legendary drummer Sandy Nelson passed away on Valentine’s Day at the age of eighty-three (just a couple days after Memphis’s Howard Grimes passed—a rough week for drummers!). Sandy Nelson was part of the first wave of 1950s Hollywood session musicians. In addition to many of the hits he played on (uncredited), he also had two big hits under his own name: “Teen Beat” in 1959 and “Let There Be Drums” in 1961. What magnificent records they were! Recorded by Richie Podolor at his early American Recording Studio in Hollywood, “Teen Beat” and “Let There Be Drums” were phenomenal-sounding records showcasing Nelson’s explosive drumming style. Even though Nelson was severely injured in a motorcycle accident in 1963 (he lost his right foot and part of his leg), he continued to play and record drum-themed albums for Imperial Records all through the 1960s.
Yeah, OK, I know it’s a bit tiresome that I always throw in a personal story on these musical obituaries, but I have a really great one about Sandy Nelson. Every year at Viva Las Vegas, I put on my Guitar Geek Festival. One year a guy came up and asked me, “Would you be interested in having Sandy Nelson come and do a couple songs?” I replied, of course! I knew that Nelson lived in Nevada, in a strange compound situation out in the desert. By some reports he lived in a cave, or had a cave set up to rehearse drums in. I never visited him in person so I can’t verify that story. What is true is that Nelson moved to the Nevada desert and made no public appearances for years.
He showed up to the festival, and he really looked bad: aged beyond his years, still hobbling badly after his 1963 motorcycle accident. I really had no expectations of his musical performance when he arrived backstage. Boy, was I wrong!
We arranged to have a great band behind him, including Eddie Angel (and Pete Curry, if I remember correctly?) from Los Straitjackets and myself. Nelson hobbled onstage after we introduced him, and I could tell the audience had the same reaction I did—wow, this guy doesn’t look good. That was when we all got SCHOOLED.
Nelson came from an old-school style of big-band drumming, a style that doesn’t exist anymore. It was a style based in technique, stick control, and most importantly, dynamics. When he started playing, the audience and I all were taken aback. Holy crap, this guy can PLAY!
I was standing about five feet from him as he began to play the drums. This is the important part of the story. His drums sounded like CANNONS going off. I can’t even put into words how explosive he made the drums sound. But at the same time, it wasn’t very loud! He was barely hitting the drums! I stood there, quite confused at the difference between what I was hearing and what I was seeing. Then I realized it was all about technique, stick control, and dynamics.
Sandy Nelson was one of the best from that old-school style of swinging big-band drummers, in his case a drummer of that type who happened to make rock ’n’ roll hit records. I think he’s highly underrated because he got lumped into the “teen” market due to his age and the name of his big hit, “Teen Beat.” But make no bones about it, this guy was one of the greatest drummers you ever heard.
RIP Sandy Nelson. I hope there’s a cave up there in heaven you can practice drums in without bugging your neighbors! (Also, as I’m typing this, I’m forgetting the name of the gentleman who drove from Vegas out to Sandy’s compound to fetch him for my Guitar Geek Festival. THANK YOU for doing that, an amazing experience!)