Wayne Nelson 'reminisces' about the Little River Band
“Hurry don’t be late, I can hardly wait,” might be lyrics on the minds of Little River Band fans on Friday, March 6 as they head out to Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races.
Rather than “dancing in the dark, walking through the park and reminiscing,” as the song “Reminiscing” goes, many will be on their way to see the band that popularized the 1978 hit.
Originally formed in 1975 in Melbourne, Australia, the Little River Band achieved commercial success there and in the United States, selling more than 30 million records and reaching the Billboard Top 20 with ten singles. “Reminiscing” hit the highest, peaking at No. 3. Other fan favorites included “Lonesome Loser,” “Lady,” “Cool Change,” and “Man on Your Mind.”
Wayne Nelson, lead vocalist and bass guitar player for the Little River Band, spoke to a What’s NXT reporter about the upcoming Hollywood Casino concert.
Discovering a passion for R&B
While he was an infant, Nelson’s family settled in Rome, Ill., a suburb of Peoria. The family was involved in choirs, theater and other musical endeavors.
“There was a lot of music playing at home. My dad was a drum major in college. I heard marching and military music. My mom was into the classics and Broadway, so there was a wide range of great music playing all the time at the house. It was infused into me,” Nelson said.
As he began to collect his own albums, Nelson gravitated toward groups like The Four Seasons and The Beach Boys.
“I was very much into vocals and harmonies and so on. I was drawn to those bands. Then came The Beatles and we were all transformed by that,” he said. “That’s my thing. The thing that called to me the most was the singing.”
Between his sophomore and junior years of high school, Nelson became connected as a vocalist with a garage band.
“I knew a guy who was starting a band. I thought, ‘I can sing a little bit.’ I was hanging out, doing stuff, practicing and learning songs, and I’d tell the bass player he was not playing the right notes,” Nelson said.
The drummer in the band suggested that he take on the role of bass player along with lead vocalist, in part so he could make more money.
“He said, ‘Go home. Learn to sing and play at the same time,’” Nelson said. “I’d never played before that. It was funny, kind of a joke, that you only need to know one note, one string, and you can get a gig right away.”
Nelson noticed other bands, including The Beatles, Cream, Rush and Chicago, that had vocalists who played bass. He didn’t have his own instrument, but he borrowed one for a couple of years and built his skills while playing gigs in the Chicago area.
He found his passion in playing dance music and rhythm and blues.
“I liked Earth, Wind & Fire, I liked Motown. As much as I loved other things, I was listening to, studying, learning James Brown, Otis Redding, The Temptations, The O’Jays. I wanted to move further into that style. That was the music I loved playing,” he said. “We were four white kids who loved playing that music.”
His band found regular work as a party band.
“People loved it because they could dance and sing along and enjoy themselves,” he said.
After high school, a friend who moved to California invited Nelson to join him in the creative environment and flourishing musical scene he found there.
“Chicago is a great town, but it was hard to be a working musician there unless you were focused on hard rock or the blues. I didn’t want to do either of those,” Nelson said.
Landing amidst talent and turmoil
Shortly after moving to The Golden State, Nelson, then 28 years old, began working with singer and songwriter Jim Messina.
“We met very accidentally. He said, ‘Come on up and play,’” Nelson said.
Messina was opening at the time for Little River Band. Meanwhile, Nelson caught the attention of members of that group.
“They ended up seeing me and saying, ‘He could be our singing bass player.’ I was in the right place at the right time at least twice in a row,” he said.
Nelson thought he only knew a couple of Little River Band songs, then he realized he’d been “hearing them in the background over the years” and didn’t realize it.
“That was a surprise,” he said. “Lo and behold, they offered me the job. I was blown away by the opportunity to try and make happen what I was hearing.”
Nelson was struck by two things about the Little River Band – impressive vocals and lack of cohesion or meshing among members.
“The vocal arrangements are spectacular. They are challenging. You don’t get to take anything for granted,” he said. “It’s different in blues bands, where you are going to play the same three chords. You might have a beer, hang out and party. It’s very loose and free form and you let it happen the way it happens.”
Little River Band was “the complete opposite of that,” he said. The music was complex and rehearsed. Each member of the band depended on the others to do their jobs meticulously.
“When you’ve got five people on the mic, you’ve all got to be thinking the same thing. You can’t go up there and make a mess. It’s a different mindset,” he said.
He was amazed by how structured the music was and by how well the members sang it together.
“To have three- and four-part harmonies and to sing it live with other people. Again, that harkened back to the music I listened to as a kid. All those vocals so rich with harmonies,” he said.
At the same time, when Nelson encountered Little River Band, the bass player was a studio artist, and both he and the drummer were “temporary arrangements.” When the band was formed in 1975, it was as an “Australian super group,” with members hand-picked from other prominent local bands by producers. By the time Nelson encountered the group in the late ‘70s, it had already gone through several personnel changes.
“They were all good players but it seemed to me a temporary thing. That’s the best way I can describe it,” Nelson said. “They were not locked in together.”
Each of the band members had similar but different musical backgrounds.
“It was very much an assembled band. They did a great job with how all of that happened, but from the standpoint of a garage band rehearsing and all having one outlook going into a situation, it was clear that everyone was thinking differently. It was a very weird experience.”
Still, Nelson loved the sound and knew from watching and listening that he wanted the opportunity to work with the band and to see it “click.”
Playing into the 2020s
That blend of catchy, flowing, harmonic vocals along with cohesive yet spontaneous playing is what the audience will hear at Hollywood Casino. Along with Nelson will be Chris Marion on keyboards and vocals; Rich Herring on lead guitar and vocals; Ryan Ricks playing drums, percussion and singing vocals; and Colin Whinnery on guitar and vocals.
“The audience will hear all the hits, all the favorites. That’s the first thing people expect,” Nelson said. “The cake is the same, the icing is different. Maybe you’ll hear a different guitar solo, a different ending to the song that will get people clapping and singing along and so forth.”
The band, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2025, also will play some new music.
“(The audience) gets the feeling that they just went to a current concert,” Nelson said. “You didn’t hear an old band play their old hits. You went to a current concert of a band with a long history.”
With just a few years away from the band during the 1990s, Nelson has been with Little River Band for almost 40 years. The group continues to record original music as well as live albums. An upcoming release will feature an orchestra playing along with the band.
“I, knock on wood, have been healthy enough to get this far. I hope to get to this milestone. That goal seems so far away and yet very much within reach,” Nelson said.
Along with the musicality of the vocals, he attributes the band’s longevity to the content of its songs.
“The songs have always been about life, real-life stories of people living their lives. People are always going to relate to that signature thing. There are going to be big vocal arrangements, powerful three- and four-part harmonies,” he said, “but it’s always going to come back to those stories. We arrange the vocals to go with those good stories.”
Nelson added, “The band blows people away when we sing. That’s the bottom line to it.”
Top photo: Wayne Nelson has played with Little River Band for around 40 years and looks forward to celebrating the group's 50th anniversary in 2025. (Photo by Jim Bochicchio - firstname.lastname@example.org)