Maintaining a musical legacy can make for a mighty imposing challenge, especially when the task is left to the only remaining member of the original ensemble. It becomes more onerous still when the individual left to manage that mission was a later arrival, caught between the group’s prior incarnation and its later mutations.
For Wayne Nelson, bassist for the onetime Aussie hitmakers Little River Band, that’s a particularly precarious situation. Speaking by phone from Nashville where he and the band’s current lineup have been prepping for an upcoming series of shows, Nelson acknowledged that it can sometimes be quite precipitous helming a group that boasts an ample supply of popular hits (“Help Is On Its Way,” “It’s a Long Way There,” “Lady,” “Lonesome Loser,” “Happy Anniversary,” “Reminiscing,” “Cool Change”) while also attempting to further its fortunes at the same time.
“Little River Band’s legacy and history is certainly strong,” Nelson said. “But that history and legacy are always peering over our shoulders. Now they’re in my care, and I take that responsibility very seriously.”
The path that got him to that point was merely a matter of osmosis. Both before and after the band’s hit-making heyday that spanned the mid ’70s through to the early ’80s, the group saw a steady succession of shifts in its personnel, a series of exits and entrances that eventually involved every member of the original outfit and many of the musicians that followed. Nelson, a former bassist with Jim Messina’s solo band in the late ’70s, was recruited by Little River Band in 1979 and stayed with the group through an ongoing musical transition that took LRB, as they later were called, into the mid-1990s. After an unexpected series of circumstances, he left the band in 1996, only to return to a reformed Little River Band in 1999, where he’s remained ever since, having taken the role of primary singer, bassist, erstwhile leader and keeper of the name. It wasn’t, he said, a role he was necessarily seeking.
“I wasn’t aware of the politics,” he said, citing the fact that even as he was joining, internal politics were creating a widening riff within the group’s creative core. Yet even so, infighting within the ranks was nothing new. Nelson notes that he was the eighth bass player the band had tallied up to the point of his arrival.
“My first tour with the group in 1979 went well, as did our initial recordings,” he said. “But I could see the limitations. The members had all been part of other successful groups in Australia, and they definitely had a cohesive style. But they hadn’t come up playing your typical variety of music. When a new idea was presented, they would generally reject it because they didn’t feel comfortable doing it. It wasn’t about the strength of the idea, but rather about the strengths of the players.”
Things came to a head when the group ensconced themselves at Beatles producer George Martin’s studio in Montserrat where they planned to record their sixth studio album, the aptly dubbed “Time Exposure.” When singer Glenn Shorrock declined to take the lead vocal on the song “The Night Owls,” Nelson stepped up to the mike at the urging of the others. He also was given shared singing duties on “Take It Easy On Me,” slowly gaining a greater role for himself after Shorrock was forced out and replaced by singer John Farnham.
As other members left, the band’s fortunes quickly ebbed. LRB’s label, Capitol Records, expressed less interest in the group’s material and even tried pairing the band up with a producer from the heavy metal band Quiet Riot in an attempt to toughen up LRB’s signature middle-of-the-road sound.
When that didn’t work, Nelson said Capitol decided to pull the plug.
Nevertheless, the group soldiered on and continued to record for MCA Records following the split from Capitol. Fast forward to the past 20 years, which finds the current version of the band — Nelson on bass and vocals, keyboard player Chris Marion, guitarists Rich Herring and Colin Whinnery, and drummer Ryan Ricks — continuing to tour while touting LRB’s past and present stockpile of songs. The group’s latest album of all original material, “Cuts Like a Diamond,” appeared in 2014, and plans call for a new live album to mark the group’s 45th anniversary as well as the 40th anniversary of Nelson’s tenure with the band.
Nevertheless, Nelson said that various members of Little River Band’s earlier incarnations still contest his use of the trademark. However, he insists there’s no validity to their claims. He said that when those musicians left the group, they voluntarily ceded the ownership of the name.
“It’s like selling a house, but keeping the keys,” Nelson said, and while he admits there are those who quibble with the fact that the current crop of musicians still refers to itself as Little River Band even after a total turnover in membership, he said that he and the other members of the band are proud to keep LRB’s legacy alive. He added that the group has been invited back to perform in Germany after an absence of several years.
“We still stay inside the lines,” Nelson said, noting that they manage to stay true to the songs’ original arrangements. “We occasionally veer to the left or the right, but we still stay on the road.”
One additional additive the band will bring with them when it plays the The Tennessee Theatre are several string players who will act as accompaniment, a few of whom will be recruited from the Knoxville Symphony.
“It adds a little touch of class and emotion,” Nelson said with a certain satisfaction. “It’s a notch above. It puts the music in another stratosphere.”