Sandy Nelson, one of the few musicians in pop history to score Top 10 hits as a featured drummer, something he did early in a career spanning more than 30 albums, died Feb. 14 at a Las Vegas hospice center. He was 83.
His son, Joshua Nelson Straume, said the cause was complications from a stroke Mr Nelson suffered in 2017.
Mr. Nelson was a session drummer in Los Angeles when he recorded “Teen Beat” in 1959, a propulsive instrumental whose dominant drum part was inspired by something he had heard at a strip club he frequented with fellow musicians.
“While watching these beautiful girls in G-strings, guess what I was doing?” he told The Las Vegas Weekly in 2015. “I watched the drummer in the orchestra pit.”
“He did a kind of ‘Caravan’ beat,” he added, referring to a jazz standard. “‘Bum ta da da dum’ – little toms, big toms. That gave me the idea for ‘Teen Beat’.”
Nelson had been backing Art Laboe, a popular Los Angeles disc jockey who also had a small record label, Original Records, and Mr. Nelson brought the song to him in the hopes that he would print it. Instead, Mr. Laboe tested it on his radio show.
“The little rascal, he played the real acetate from the lathe,” recalled Mr. Nelson recalled, “and he wouldn’t press it unless he got a few calls.”
Mr. Laboe, he said, received three calls from impressed listeners, and that was enough: Mr. Laboe pressed the record. By October 1959, it had reached number 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, a rare achievement for a drum-centered instrumental.
Mr. Nelson scored again in 1961 with “Let There Be Drums”, which reached number 7.
Two years later, he was riding his motorcycle on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles when he collided with a school bus and was seriously injured. Part of his right leg was amputated. But he returned to drumming and learned to play bass with his left leg.
“In the long run,” he told The Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2017, “I developed a slightly better technique.”
He recorded a series of instrumental albums with session musicians in the ’60s and ’70s with titles such as ‘Boss Beat’ (1965) and ‘Boogaloo Beat’ (1968), many of which were filled with covers of hits from the day. his drumming was on display. † He was not proud of much of that work.
“I think the worst version ever of the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction was made by me,” said Mr. Nelson told LA Weekly in 1985, “and oddly enough, it was a big seller in the Philippines. I think they like squeaky saxophones or something.”
But beneath these covers was a glimpse of his interest in explorations that predated electronic ambient music. For example, “Boss Beat,” in addition to takes on “Louie, Louie” and other hits, included “Drums in a Sea Cave,” in which Mr. Nelson played along with the sound of ocean waves.
Later in life he was still experimenting. His friend and fellow musician Jack Evan Johnson said Mr. Nelson was especially proud of “The Veebles,” a whimsical five-track concept album released on cassette in 2016 that had an otherworldly sound and theme.
“It’s about a race of people from another planet,” he told The Las Vegas Sun in 1996, when the long-running project was just beginning to take shape. “They’re going to take over the Earth and leave us nothing to do but dance, sing and tell stupid jokes.”
Sander Lloyd Nelson was born on December 1, 1938, in Santa Monica, California, to Lloyd and Lydia Nelson. His father was a projectionist at Universal Studios.
“My parents had those roaring parties with Glenn Miller records,” he told LA Weekly, “and the sound of that had to sound like dope to me — I had to hear those records.”
He was especially interested in drumming and he started playing in high school.
“I thought piano was too complicated and I should take lessons and learn to read music,” he said. “Drums allowed me to play right away.”
He said he once played in a band with a teenage guitarist named Phil Spector, who later became a famous and then infamous producer; mr. Spector got Mr. Nelson to play drums on “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” a 1958 hit for Mr. Spector, the Teddy Bears.
He also played on “Alley Oop,” a 1960s novelty hit for the Hollywood Argyles about a comic strip caveman, but not on drums. When Gary S. Paxton, who recorded the song with a group of studio musicians, told the story to The Chicago Sun-Times in 1997, Mr. Nelson a last minute addition.
“We already had a drummer,” Mr. Paxton said, “so Nelson played trash cans and backed up screams.”
Over the years, other musicians have listened to Mr. Nelson cited as a major influence; one was Steven Tyler, who started out as a drummer before rising to fame as the vocalist for Aerosmith. In a 1997 interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune, Mr. Tyler remembers that as a child he tried to use one of Mr. Imitate Nelson’s riffs.
“I played that until my little rubber drum pad wore out,” he said. “I’ve been through the first two Sandy Nelson albums.”
Mr. Nelson acknowledged that he had not handled his early success well.
“I spent most of my money on women and whiskey and just wasted the rest,” he told The Review-Journal.
In addition to his son, he leaves behind a daughter, Lisa Nelson.
Mr. Nelson settled in Boulder City, Nev. in about 1987. and became a colorful local draw, running a pirate radio station out of his home for about seven years before the FCC shut it down, Mr Johnson said. And then there was the cave.
Mr. Nelson had a lifelong love of underground spaces, and in Boulder City, he began digging his own cave in his backyard with a coffee pot and pickaxe. The project took him 12 years.
“I got a ‘cave tour’ once,” Mr Johnson said by email, “and it was quite a bit, even precarious – dug out at a very steep angle in the hard desert soil, with no support of any kind and just enough space to crawl in until the chamber opened at the bottom.”
“He had an electric keyboard down there,” he added.
mr. Nelson told The Las Vegas Sun that he loved relaxing in his backyard cave.
“It’s a place to cool off,” he said.
“I’m going in without my leg,” he added. “There’s more space.”