They’ve been called "the greatest singing band" in the world by a member of the Eagles. They’ve sold more than 30 million albums. Their songs “Man on Your Mind," “Reminiscing," “Take it Easy On Me” and “Night Owls” (among others) have become staples on classic rock radio.
If you grew up during the '70s or '80s, chances are a Little River Band album was part of your record collection.
Bassist Wayne Nelson has been with the band for more than 30 years, keeping the Little River Band fire burning and continuing to tour and perform their collection of hits. With a recently released Christmas disc and a future that includes an album of new material, Little River Band shows no signs of slowing down.
I spoke with Nelson about his bass, his band and about being in the right place at the right time.
GUITAR WORLD: Tell me a little about your new album.
We just got finished mastering Cuts Like A Diamond, an album of all new material, and I’m feeling pretty good. We don’t have a release date for it yet, but it’s great to be able to put a bow on it.
What’s your favorite part of touring and performing?
The show is the favorite part of the day. The real magic is watching people respond to any one of the hits that happen to turn them on the most. To see people light up when they hear them and then come see us after the show and tell us stories about a date they were on, or a time when they were in the military and one of the songs got them through a hard or scary time.
The personal part of what we do is what makes it all worthwhile. The music is great, but when you attach it to the energy and memories people have for it, it keeps expanding. The love and respect of the music just keeps growing. We’ve sometimes played for three or four generations. At an outdoor show, We have people there from age 5 to 75 come to see us.
Tell me the story of how you joined the Little River Band.
I was living in Chicago and decided to make the moved to LA (Every musician has to get out of Chicago in order to get somewhere, or else you get stuck playing the blues forever). Someone had posted a card at the musicians’ union saying that Jim Messina was looking for a bass player. Jim didn’t do it (Someone else did), and he was angry that it was posted. The next day, he had it taken down because he had gotten so many calls from people who weren’t qualified.
A friend of mine saw the card and told me about it. So I called and Jim asked me to come up and audition. I went up, wound up getting the job and worked with Jim for the next two years. We did his first solo album after he and Kenny Loggins split up. It was during this time that we opened for Little River Band for two weeks while they were recording their first live CD.
The bass player had quit, and they were looking for someone who could not only play bass but also sing so they could change the vocals around. I would later find out that the guy who wrote "Night Owls" (the first song I sang lead on) was looking for someone to sing his songs because he didn’t like the way the lead singer was approaching his music. I didn’t know it at the time, but they didn’t get along. But it turned out to be great move for me, because our success was in America and I was the only American in the band. As the Australian guys decided they were through with it, they just walked away and left the band. I thought the band was just too good and decided to not let it die by the side of the road. Today, we’re still going strong and doing 80 to 100 shows a year.
Glen Frey of the Eagles once said Little River Band was "the best singing band in the world."
That was a very cool moment. We used to tour with the Eagles for a while, and sometimes we’d sneak over to their dressing room to listen to their vocal warmup. I remember we’d all look at each other and go, “Wow! It’s the Eagles warming up! This is so cool!” But what we didn’t find out until after the tour was over was that they were also coming to our dressing room and listening to our vocal warmup as well.
In the late '80s, Glen [Frey] came down to Australia as a solo artist to work with us. We were the backing band while he played his solo material, and we’d mingle Eagles and Glenn Frey songs in with ours. That was when he stepped up to the mic and said we were the best singing band in the world. We had no idea he was going to say that in front of 100,000 Australians, and they just went nuts.
Was bass your first instrument?
Because of the church choir, it was written into my DNA. I remember being 5 years old and standing in the bass section with my dad singing the parts (two octaves up). Being there was what cemented my love for the low end and the foundation of the music. When I joined my first band, I was singing backup vocals and playing tambourine. At the time, they had a bass player who I was teaching all of the bass parts to. One day, the drummer pulled me aside and said, “If you can sing, we can get rid of the lead singer. And if you can play bass, we can get rid of the bass player. We’ll all make more money, so let’s give it a try!” A week later, we were doing gigs and I was playing bass and singing. [laughs]
Who were some of your early influences?
There are so many great players, but I’d have to say Paul McCartney, Bill Wyman and Peter Cetera were the ones I immersed myself into; along with Blood, Sweat and Tears and Earth, Wind and Fire.
Do you have any advice for musicians?
First of all, if you can write and play your own music, do it. Even if you just slip them in while you’re doing covers. If you can get to a point to where you’re putting your own music up there and getting the feel for what it feels like. The thrill of doing it is amazing. Take whatever you know and feel and make music out of it. The other thing is to practice what you love, and be ready. When the "door" opens, you’ve got to be able to go through it. The door will open for you a whole lot of times, but you’ve got to be ready when it does. It takes some wood shedding and due diligence, but hone in on what you like to do and then just do it.
Tell me about your first big show with Little River Band.
My first big show with Little River Band was an outdoor show in Germany. We were there with Fleetwood Mac and Bob Marley. It was an ugly, rainy day and we watched them both play in this cold, miserable weather. We thought that no one was ever going to stick around to listen to us.
We went on stage and for one hour, the clouds parted and the sun came out, and those people went absolutely crazy for the set we did. I was looking out at 120,000 people thinking, “Wow, this is way cool, and I’m very blessed.” When we were finished, we waved goodbye and I swear, the clouds came back and it started raining on them again [laughs]. It was such a thrill and I remember thinking, “Boy, these guys must really know somebody somewhere. I’m definitely in the right place!”
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.