Sandy Nelson, Drummer Who Turned His Rhythms Into Hits, Dies at 83

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 that included more than 30 albums, died on Feb. 14 at a hospice center in Las Vegas. He was 83.

His son, Joshua Nelson Straume, said the cause was complications of a stroke that Mr. Nelson had in 2017.

Mr. Nelson was a session drummer in Los Angeles when, in 1959, he recorded “Teen Beat,” a propulsive instrumental whose dominating drum part was inspired by something he had heard at a strip club he visited with fellow musicians.

“While they were looking at these pretty girls in G-strings, guess what I was doing?” he told The Las Vegas Weekly in 2015. “I was looking at the drummer in the orchestra pit.”

“He was doing kind of a ‘Caravan’ beat,” he added, referring to a jazz standard. “‘Bum ta da da dum’ — small toms, big toms. That’s what gave me the idea for ‘Teen Beat.’”

Mr. Nelson had played in the backing band for Art Laboe, a popular Los Angeles disc jockey who also had a small record label, Original Records, and Mr. Nelson took the song to him hoping that he’d press it. Instead, Mr. Laboe tested it on his radio show.

“The little rascal, he played the actual acetate from the lathe,” Mr. Nelson recalled, “and he wasn’t going to press it up unless he got a few calls.”

Mr. Laboe, he said, got three calls from impressed listeners, and that was enough: Mr. Laboe pressed the record. By October 1959 it had reached No. 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 No. 7.

Two years later, he was riding his motorcycle on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles when he collided with a school bus and was badly injured. Part of his right leg was amputated. But he returned to drumming, learning to play the bass with his left leg.

“In the long run,” he told The Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2017, “I developed a little better technique.”

He recorded a string of instrumental albums with session players in the 1960s and ’70s with titles like “Boss Beat” (1965) and “Boogaloo Beat” (1968), many of them filled with covers of hits of the day that showcased his drumming. He was not proud of much of that work.

“I think the worst version ever of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ was done by me,” Mr. Nelson told L.A. Weekly in 1985, “and, oddly enough, it was a big seller in the Philippines. I guess they like squeaky saxophones or something.”

But in among these covers were glimpses of his interest in explorations that foreshadowed electronic ambient music. “Boss Beat,” for instance, in addition to takes on “Louie, Louie” and other hits, included “Drums in a Sea Cave,” in which Mr. Nelson played along to the sound of ocean waves.

He was still experimenting late in life. His friend and fellow musician Jack Evan Johnson said that Mr. Nelson was especially proud of “The Veebles,” a whimsical five-track concept album released on cassette in 2016 that had an extraterrestrial sound and theme.

“It’s about a race of people from another planet,” he told The Las Vegas Sun in 1996, when the long-gestating project was just beginning to take shape. “They’re gonna take over the Earth and make us do nothing but dance, sing and tell dumb jokes.”

Sander Lloyd Nelson was born on Dec. 1, 1938, in Santa Monica, Calif., to Lloyd and Lydia Nelson. His father was a projectionist at Universal Studios.

“My parents had these roaring parties with Glenn Miller records,” he told L.A. Weekly, “and the sound of those got to be like dope to me — I had to hear those records.”

The drumming particularly interested him, and in high school he started playing.

“I felt piano was too complicated and I’d have to take lessons and learn how to read music,” he said. “With drums, I could play instantly.”

He said he once played in a band with a teenage guitarist named Phil Spector, who was later a famous and then infamous producer; Mr. Spector brought Mr. Nelson in to play drums on “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” a 1958 hit for Mr. Spector’s band the Teddy Bears.

He also played on “Alley Oop,” a 1960 novelty hit for the Hollywood Argyles about a comic strip caveman, though not on drums. As 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 was a last-minute addition.

“We already had a drummer,” Mr. Paxton said, “so Nelson played garbage cans and did background screams.”

Over the years other musicians have cited Mr. Nelson’s early records as an important influence; one was Steven Tyler, who started out as a drummer before finding fame as Aerosmith’s vocalist. In a 1997 interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune, Mr. Tyler recalled trying to imitate one of Mr. Nelson’s riffs as a child.

“I played that until I wore out my little rubber drum pad,” he said. “I wore out the first two Sandy Nelson albums.”

Mr. Nelson acknowledged that he had not handled his early success well.

“I spent most of the money on women and whiskey, and the rest I just wasted,” he told The Review-Journal.

In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Lisa Nelson.

Mr. Nelson settled in Boulder City, Nev., in about 1987 and became a colorful local fixture, running a pirate radio station out of his house for about seven years before the FCC shut him down, Mr. Johnson said. And then there was the cave.

Mr. Nelson had a lifelong fondness for underground spaces, and in Boulder City he set about digging his own cave in his backyard with a coffee can and pickax. The project took him 12 years.

“I got a ‘cave tour’ once,” Mr. Johnson said by email, “and it was quite something, precarious even — dug down at a very steep angle into the hard desert soil, with no kind of support structure whatsoever and just enough room to scoot down into it for a ways until the room opened up at the bottom.”

“He had an electric keyboard down there,” he added.

Mr. Nelson told The Las Vegas Sun that he enjoyed relaxing in his backyard cave.

“It’s a place to cool off,” he said.

“I go in without my leg,” he added. “There’s more room.”

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