Andy Nelson, the Later Years

May 2, 2012 by  

Andy Nelson with his Epiphone Deluxe – ca. 1972

I was reminded of my uncle, the late Andy Nelson, after receiving an email from the son of the couple who bought Andy’s palatial log house in Lake George, NY, back in the early 1970s. I’m not sure of the whys and wherefores, but it was decided that the buyers of the house make a small down payment, and then proceed to make monthly payments directly to Andy. The papers were drawn up and it turned out to be a fortuitous event as you, dear reader, will see further on.

By 1970, the music industry was in the middle of a really bad spell after ten years of phenomenal sales, thanks to the emergence of rock and roll as a dominant force in music. Well, what this meant was that there were now hundreds of thousands of virtually new, unplayed guitars sitting under the beds of hundreds of thousands of kids who took their expensive guitars to three or four lessons before discovering that learning to play guitar was hard. These almost new, mint condition guitars could now be had for (dare I say?) a song, and were flooding the used instrument market. Andy was, at this time, a sales representative for CBS/Fender, responsible for the territory of New York (not the City—which was a separate, and extremely competitive territory), New Jersey, and Delaware. Just a few years prior to this, Andy joked about having to give his customers, owners of music stores, crying towels, as there were few instruments to be had. Fender, Gibson, Martin, and many others were cranking out guitars on two shifts, and sometimes three, and still could not keep up with demand. It was a good time to be in the music sales business.

Andy and Muriel (the first) Nelson – ca 1972

Well, like everything else, the music business went through cycles, and those in the sales biz were struggling to make quotas that were no longer attainable, even with steep discounts, creative financing, and whatever other tricks might be used to move some more wood. Andy’s income had dropped precipitously, forcing him to sell that lovely Lake George home. He and wife Muriel moved to an apartment in Elizabeth, NJ. Not too long after this tremendous reduction in his income, he was ready to fall on the sword and resign. In fact, he had already submitted his resignation to his boss at Fender, music business legend Don Randall, who put the letter away in his desk drawer. This was quite fortuitous, because within days of submitting his resignation, Andy had two heart attacks in quick succession, the second one right in his doctor’s office. He suffered from a common malady in my family—blocked arteries. The same thing killed his father in his early 60s. Andy had his life event at 48.

This being 1971, there were few treatments available. He faced a very uncertain future likely to be filled with nearly constant chest pains and necessitating the consumption of large amounts of nitroglycerin pills (used to dilate the blood vessels and temporarily ease the pain resulting from an angina attack), and basically, waiting to die. Statin medications like Lipitor did not exist, and coronary bypass surgery was still considered to be experimental. He looked over his options, and hooked up with an old family friend, cardiologist Fabian Ketola, who practiced at the VA Hospital in Chicago. Dr. Ketola had been performing coronary bypass surgeries with good results. The surgery was performed, but in Andy’s case, it unfortunately failed. However, the surgery did work well enough to buy him some time for several other arteries and veins to expand in size to substitute for the clogged blood vessels.

It was then that Don Randall contacted Andy, and advised him that he had not acted upon the resignation letter, and instead offered him an executive disability pension that would pay him a handsome sum until he reached age 65. He correctly grabbed this opportunity with all the energy of a drowning man. Provisions of this policy forbade him from playing guitar in public or otherwise working for money, lest he forfeit the pension. As things worked out, life with his second wife, Muriel, was becoming more and more difficult. After his retirement, Muriel, without the activity of running Andy’s business affairs while he was on the road as a salesman, lost her way emotionally, and descended into paranoid schizophrenia, from which she had previously suffered, and continued to do so until the end of her life, some 16 years later. Electroconvulsive therapy was only partially successful, and again, for the rest of her life, she suffered the ups and downs of her disease, frankly making it worse by adding large amounts of alcohol to her many medications.

Andy Nelson ca. 1975 with his Gibson L-5

In early 1972, they moved to North Fort Myers, Florida where they bought a small condo. They were close, but not too close, to Andy’s sister Alice, who lived about 5 miles away with husband Maurie. Maurie was a piece of work. He hated Muriel with an unbridled passion. Her mere presence literally made him physically ill. Maurie was Alice’s third husband, and the one she “settled on,” because she wasn’t prepared to seek a fourth. He had attended a small college in central Illinois, with a classmate, Ronald Regan, who was soon to be a Hollywood star and ultimately the President of the United States.  Uncle Maurie was one of the cheapest persons I ever knew—to the point that when I once visited them in North Fort Myers, I was briefed on the proper use of the shower. I was to soak down, and close the valve on the showerhead. Once I was thoroughly lathered up, I could then re-open the valve to rinse, but hurry up. He also taught his retiree neighbors how to read their water meters so they could use every last bit of the allotted minimum amount and not go over the minimum billing, so they could “put it to the man” (my quote). Even my parents’ cat hated him. On one visit to my parents’ home in Fort Lauderdale, Maurie was sitting in one of the lounge chairs, when Adolph the cat walked up to him, backed up, and thoroughly urinated on his pant leg. We all silently cheered, while publicly expressing our horror—all except for Andy, who advised him to not let this go unpunished. He suggested that Maurie should pee on Adolph!  But I digress.

Life with Muriel was causing him to suffer more and more angina attacks, which increased his nitroglycerin consumption alarmingly. He finally decided he had to leave, and sought a divorce. In the divorce settlement, Muriel got the monthly mortgage payment for the house in Lake George. The owners tried on several occasions to pay back the note, but Andy refused, as it would have put a burden on him to replace that income with money he didn’t have (had he received a payoff of the note, he most likely would have spent it immediately on music hardware). He bought a small Airstream trailer and moved down to the upper Keys in extreme southern Florida. He spent the next few years fishing and getting his health back, although he still wasn’t playing his guitar.

Muriel (the second) and Andy Nelson, ca 1990

By now, this was about 1975. I was in the Air Force, and was home on leave over the Christmas holidays, when Andy announced to me that he was ready to get married again, and was trying to think who would be a good choice. He then remembered Muriel (Muri—she hated being known as Muriel II) Graham, widow of Orville Graham, a CBS/Fender guitar salesman, and old friend, who handled Nebraska, and perhaps a few other surrounding states. A few months later, after a few calls and letters, he went up to Lincoln or Omaha, I can’t remember which, and began the courtship. Within a few months, they were married. Andy had the idea she had a few bucks, but only realized after the marriage that several hundred thousand dollars in CDs were all for her precious son, Jim, a one-time guitar player and laborer, who lost several fingers on his fretting hand and later severely injured his back, both from accidents on oil rigs. More later.

Andy and Muri moved to Fort Lauderdale, taking up residence in a luxury furnished apartment in one of the lovely high-rise condos near Fort Lauderdale beach. After a year of this, they bought a modest house in western Fort Lauderdale, in the fast-growing city of Sunrise. They remained there for a few years before moving back to Florida’s west coast, to a nice home in Cape Coral, near Fort Myers. Andy had also resumed playing the guitar after not playing in any serious way for almost ten years.

By now, they needed money. Muri had been a singer of some minor renown. In the late 1940s, she turned down an offer to tour with Stan Kenton, preferring marriage and raising a family. Because Andy could not be seen performing in public (yet), they came up with a novel approach. Andy recorded backgrounds to hundreds of songs, which he placed on short audiocassettes—one song per side. It never took more than a few moments to rewind in either direction. She worked some of the local clubs and restaurants in the Fort Myers area with this arrangement—the cassette player plugged into a sound system, along with her and her microphone. It helped pay the bills.

Andy Nelson at a Vintage Guitar Show – ca. 1992

Andy’s special executive insurance policy expired when he turned 65, at which point he really needed to bring in some income. He came up with the idea of being a one-man band. He sold a number of his prized guitars and purchased a nightmarish device from a company called Solton that integrated computer-controlled electronics, with a multitude of foot pedals and other devices to control the beast. With this device, he could play, and accompany himself with anything from a bass and drums to a full orchestra, all controlled with foot pedals. He and Muri found a fair amount of work in the area, and again, between their combined Social Security checks and the gigs, the bills got paid. Over time, however, they got less and less work, because Muri refused to sing country and western tunes, even though that was by far the most popular form of music that adults wanted to listen to when going out for a night on the town. At the same time, while there was great demand for Andy to work as a solo act, but it hurt Muri’s feelings so much to not work with him that he had to turn down most of the solo gigs, which in turn caused venues to call less and less with work.

In the meantime, Muriel’s son, Jim Graham, moved in. He was helpful, and fairly handy, though something of a sad sack. He was divorced and defeated, and much to Andy’s consternation, Muri used the money she had from Orval, her late husband, to pay Jim’s child support, and to put Jim through several different trade schools, including auto mechanics, though with little success. He had been injured on several occasions while working in the Texas oil fields, one time severely hurting his back, and another time losing several fingers on his left hand, which put an end to his aspirations of being a professional guitar player (prior to the accident, he was quite good—I’ve heard the tapes). It took a long time to get disability aid from Texas, as the laws there make it very hard for injured workers to file claims against the dominant oil industry. All that said, Jim did keep the house in good repair, especially as Andy’s health began to decline, and was a helpful companion to Andy and Muri.

Andy was diagnosed with tongue cancer in the late 1980s, requiring radical surgery, which resulted in the removal of about 1/3 of his lower jaw and all of his teeth. The jawbone could not be replaced because he required follow-on radiation therapy, which would have killed the bone cells, causing the reconstruction to fail. The entire tongue was not removed, but when combined with the effects of the radiation, he spoke in a somewhat garbled and raspy voice. There was also at least one stroke during this period, which further affected his speech.

None of this affected his enthusiasm and optimism, though. While he was still undergoing debilitating radiation therapy, I showed him a book of collector guitars owned by a gentleman in Japan. It turned out that Andy had designed several of the instruments pictured in this book, which gave him the idea of getting into the vintage guitar sales business, when he recovered from the effects of the surgery and radiation treatments. Unfortunately, he did not realize that the waters were filled with sharks and other less-savory predators, and he was ill equipped to deal with people who had been in the vintage guitar sales business for many years, and who ate folks like Andy for lunch. He tried to broker the sale of several exceptionally rare instruments, but was lowballed by everyone. The owners of those instruments were even contacted directly by several dealers, in an attempt to cut Andy out of the deal. Not that this curbed his enthusiasm.

Larry Grinnell and Andy Nelson at a Vintage Guitar Show – ca. 1992

He also made contact with principals from several musical instrument companies, including Epiphone and Peavey, in an effort to sell them some of his designs. Ultimately that went for naught, though he was widely recognized for his work during what was a “golden age” of musical instrument design in the US (from about 1950 to 1970). He dictated and I wrote and edited some of his stories of his life in the music business for several vintage guitar magazines. He attended a number of vintage guitar shows around the country and was wildly acclaimed as a great, unsung player, who, for a man in his 70s, still had his chops and then some. I attended a few of these shows, and it was amazing. Normally, at a vintage guitar show, the sound of dozens of Les Pauls, Stratocasters, and such, played at high volume was deafening. When Andy sat down to play, for the most part, they all fell silent and congregated around the booth where he was playing. The only negative was the reaction of other dealers who felt Andy was drawing people away from their booths, and there were some hard feelings from that.

His desire to play was so great that, in order to spare Muri from the constant din (as she called it) of him playing, he would rent a space at the local flea market, plug in, and play for a few hours with a tip jar in front of him. Usually, he at least got the cost of the space back, though not much else.

By the early 1990s, his heart began failing. He was taking more and more nitroglycerin to stem the pain of the increasingly severe angina attacks. He seemed to know the end was near, and began asking relatives what they might want of his possessions after he passed.

My mother lived just a mile away from him in North Fort Myers, FL. Just before Thanksgiving 1995, he drove her to the airport in her car, to visit my sister, who was living in Texas at the time. My mother’s car needed some minor brake maintenance, and he set out to do it. He bought the parts, did a little work on it, but felt a bit poorly, so he went back into the house, took another nitro pill or two, sat in his easy chair, then slumped over and died. Musicians will appreciate that he had played a gig the night before, so that, some might say, he died with his boots on.

In death, Andy did not leave Muri provided for, other than a small insurance policy that just about paid for his cremation expenses. Muri sold off Andy’s instruments at fire sale prices, and nearly lost the house in Cape Coral due to back taxes. Because the house, like many in Cape Coral, was built on three (purposely small) lots, the property taxes were three times higher than one might normally expect to pay. Muri worked at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant when she was in her 80s, as the pay, probably at or near minimum wage, was just enough to supplement her Social Security check, along with Jim’s disability check, to pay the bills, including the tax settlement. She later sold the Cape Coral house and moved with Jim into a small apartment.

Speaking of my mother, when the first Muriel died in 1986 or thereabouts, she left the condo in North Fort Myers that she and Andy bought 1972, to Andy’s son from his first marriage, Barry (his first wife’s name was Mary—must have made for less confusion with monograms, I guess). In 1983, to escape ever-increasing property taxes and the expense of keeping up a large home that was beginning to require a number of expensive repairs, my parents moved from Fort Lauderdale to a mobile home community further up Florida’s east coast called Barefoot Bay. My mother hated it with a passion. After four years of nagging and complaining, my stepdad threw in the towel and agreed to move to the Fort Myers area, where Andy, and my mother’s other two sisters lived. You guessed it. They bought Barry’s condo–yeah, the one Andy and the first Muriel bought in the early 70s. When I invited Barry and his wonderful wife, Sally, to stay at my parents’ place just after Andy’s death, he politely declined, stating “ghosts.”

Andy’s passing also meant some major life choices for my mother, who had recently been blinded due to macular degeneration. She could no longer drive, and with Andy’s death, she had no one else in the Fort Myers area to care for her (her sisters had both passed away several years before). We sold the condo, and she moved to suburban Washington D.C., where two sons and a daughter lived. Her kids found a terrific senior-centric apartment complex for her that included hot meals, and she could still see well enough to walk about a block to a neighborhood supermarket. This went on for about two years, before her health began a long, slow decline, peppered with multiple strokes and multiple cancers.

Jim Graham died in June, 2006 of a heart attack. He was only in his early 50s. His last years were difficult ones—for himself, and especially for Muri, who had placed Jim on a pedestal for so long. After Jim’s death, Muri moved back to Nebraska to be closer to family. She must have felt like Andy’s family abandoned her, which, in a way, it did, though not without valid reasons. She died in March, 2008. I was contacted soon after by one of Muri’s nephews who asked me to locate Andy’s son, Barry, so Andy’s cremains could be dealt with. In the end, his cremains were buried with hers in a family plot in Nebraska.

Larry Grinnell’s note: This is the first of what I hope to be several stories about my late uncle, guitarist Andy Nelson. A year after he died, I wrote a small memorial booklet for family and friends. A PDF file of this book can be obtained from this link.

 

Andy Nelson was a well-respected working guitarist for a number of years before working for ten years as a clinician and salesman for the Chicago Musical Instrument Company, owners of the Gibson and Epiphone guitar brands, among others. While at CMI, he designed several guitar models, which are still in production today. He spent the next five years with CBS/Fender Guitar company. After retirement, he performed regularly on Florida’s west coast with his vocalist wife, Muri, and brokered vintage guitars.