Juan Nelson, bass player for Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals, dies aged 62

Juan Nelson
(Image credit: Taylor Hill/FilmMagive via Getty)

Juan Nelson, longtime bassist for Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals, has died aged 62.

The news was confirmed by Harper on social media, who revealed that Nelson passed away last Wednesday (June 9). No cause of death has yet been announced.

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“Beloved husband, father, musical genius, BHIC band member of 27 years, and the finest man I’ve ever known,” wrote Harper. “It’s near impossible for me to put words to this pain and loss. Rest In Glory our beloved Reverend Juan.”

Revered for his energetic live performances and celebrated for his work as rhythmic linchpin for the Harper-fronted group The Innocent Criminals, Nelson played his first show with Harper on April 30, 1994 – a performance that marked the start of his 27-year affiliation with his band.

Nelson’s first studio outing with Harper was the frontman’s second solo record, 1995’s Fight for Your Mind, and he went on to reunite with the American singer-songwriter for a follow-up offering in 1997, titled The Will to Live.

For 1999’s Burn To Shine, the pair partnered with a slew of musicians under the moniker The Innocent Criminals, and continued their fierce onstage chemistry for a further two studio albums. 2016’s Call It What It Is was Nelson’s last appearance on a Ben Harper project.

Nelson racked up an array of songwriting credits during his time with the band, and won a Grammy for Best Gospel Album in 2004 with Harper, The Innocent Criminals and The Blind Boys of Alabama, following the release of their collaborative album, There Will Be A Light.

Aside from his four-string escapades with The Innocent Criminals, Nelson’s comprehensive list of credits includes sessions with Big Advice, Vesta Williams, All For One and Brenda Russell. 

Nelson’s career also saw him join forces with the likes of Al Wilson, Freddy Jackson, Joel, Neal Larson, Eric McFadden and Victor Rocha, among many others.

Writing on Twitter, Rocha said, "Just got devastating news. My friend and bass player, Juan Nelson, passed away today. When he wasn't on the road, he held down the bottom in my R&B band. Without a doubt the best musician I ever played with. R.I.P., brother."

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Nelson, who purchased his first bass guitar for $80, recalled in the short documentary clip below, "As long as I get to play music, it's not really important who it's with or how much money I make.

"None of that stuff, as long as I get to play and keep my chops up. Keep playing music."

Following his passing, Nelson’s daughter Naisha Nelson set up a GoFundMe page, which aims to support the family during this time.

On the page, Naisha wrote, “We lost someone who is beyond special. A man of god… a husband, father, son, a friend and one badass musician. He was a man who loved and honored his family, as his family loves and honors him.”

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.