Wayne Nelson will tell you it's luck.
He'll tell you that his story -- in which he goes from being a self-taught musician to fronting one of the best vocal harmony bands in rock -- is all a matter of circumstance. But don't let his modesty fool you. Wayne Nelson, the Delray Beach resident and bass player for the Australian rock group Little River Band, is an awesome musician. What he calls luck, the rest of us call talent.
Growing up in Chicago, a city rich in musical history, Nelson used to accompany his parents to church, where he listened to them sing in the choir. This early exposure to music had a profound effect on Nelson who remembers being fascinated by how the individual voices could mix together to create such beautiful music.
As a teenager, he spent hours listening to his parents' record collection, which included everything from Tchaikovsky to the Beatles, Sousa to Blood, Sweat, and Tears. He developed a deep appreciation for harmony and melodic structure, and he made up his mind on early on that he wanted to become a full-time musician.
The only problem: Nelson never took a music lesson in his life. So he learned the hard way, by jumping in head first. "The lead singer of a band I was part of couldn't sing, and the bass player couldn't play," said Nelson. "So the drummer of the group came up to me and said, 'Look, if you can learn how to play the bass and sing at the same time, we can get rid of the other two guys and get paid twice as much."
This task proved easier than expected for Nelson, who, with his finely tuned ear and knack for harmony, was laying down bass lines in no time. As he explains it: "The music was already programmed into me. The rest just came naturally."
Chicago would serve as a proving ground for Nelson, but he knew he was destined for a bigger scene. Following the advice of a friend, he decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music, curious to see just how far his musical gifts would take him.
Initially, Nelson struggled in LA. He was playing bass in a Latin-jazz group with guitarist Jim Messina, but the songs were challenging, and tensions within the band led to frustration. Nelson wondered if he made the wrong choice leaving his friends and family behind in Chicago.
But then a call came for Messina's band to open for an up-and-coming Australian group called Little River Band. It was, by all accounts, a routine gig.
But not for Nelson.
As it just so happened, Little River Band was in dire need of a new bass player, one who also knew how to sing. Impressed with Nelson's playing, they asked him to join the band on the spot.
He accepted their offer, becoming the first American member of the Little River Band.
What's more, he turned out to be a perfect fit. He felt at home with the music, which, with its vocal harmonies and layered arrangements, reminded him more of the classical music he listened to as a kid than typical Australian hard-rock.
The sound that Little River Band has become known for over the years is hard to classify. It has alt-rock elements, but is more musically complex, with harmonized guitar parts and lots of vocal interplay.
Nelson likes to keep it simple: "Little River Band's music has layers. It's vocal above anything else." Listeners might be fooled by how effortlessly members of Little River Band produce such beautiful harmonies. But Nelson says he realizes how difficult harmonization can be whenever he tries to teach it to young musicians. "It looks effortless," he said. "But we're talking about five guys on stage singing harmony and playing their instruments at the same time. When people try it, they learn how hard it is."
He's right, of course. Vocal harmony is becoming a rarity these days, and musicians with good, natural voices are becoming an endangered species. With the arrival of auto-tune and backing tracks, musicians don't have to worry about hitting the right pitches. Their mistakes can always be ironed out electronically. But in sacrificing the imperfections of the human voice, these artists only cheapen their craft, and as a result, audiences grow accustomed to pitch-corrected vocals and robotic melodies. Some people, like Nelson, worry that great singing will someday go unappreciated. But that's exactly what Little River Band is trying to prevent. "When Little River Band first started out," he said, "they had two goals: To make great vocal harmonies and to conquer American radio. They did both."
The band, which first came together in the early '70s, has had 13 Top 40 hits in the United States, with a few -- like "Reminiscing," "Cool Change," "Dance With Me," and "Lady" -- peaking as high as number 3 on Billboard Pop charts. As Nelson explained it, "We're the type of band that people come up to us after a concert and say 'Wow, you guys play that song? I had no idea!'"
Reactions like that are bound to happen with a band that's been cranking out hits for over 40 years. But where Little River Band truly excels is in its originality. The band, nearing its four thousandth show, still manages to make their music sound as innovative as ever.
"We like to bring freshness to the old stuff by putting a new spin on it," said Nelson. "The cake may be the same, but the icing is different." Their music -- think Earth, Wind, and Fire meets the Beach Boys -- can be heard live on June 30 at Mizner Park, which is part of a free summer concert series. Fans can expect to see the band play old and new songs with all of the chart-toppers mixed in. What they won't see, Nelson explained, is people sitting down.
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"We want to turn this thing into a party," said Nelson. "We want people to get involved, to get physical." And with all that partying going on, it might be hard for some fans, especially those that have been there from the beginning, to stay in their seats. He warns, "Be prepared to see lots of parents embarrassing their kids."
Little River Band at 8 p.m. on June 30 at Mizner Park Amphitheater, 590 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Free. Click here, or call 561-544-8600.