This month we continue our look at one of southern gospel’s premier ‘mixed’ groups: the Nelons. (Recall that ‘mixed’ simply refers to a ‘mixture’ of male and female vocals, as opposed to a traditional all-male quartet). Last month we chronicled how the ‘Nelons’ was simply a re-branding of the LeFevres. In 1977, with all the LeFevres having retired from the group, their bass singer, Rex Nelon, decided to change the name.
We continue this month in the year 1981. Still known as the ‘Rex Nelon Singers’, the group was enjoying the success of the song “Come Morning”, which spent a total of three months at #1 on the national Singing News Charts. The song would be voted ‘Song Of The Year’ for 1980 as well.
The Rex Nelon Singers were becoming known for their ‘middle-of-the-road’ style, a blend of traditional and contemporary stylings. Singing News Editor Jerry Kirksey noted, “This is a group that…transcends all the music styles of Gospel Music”. If you listen to any one of their recordings, especially from the early 1980s, you’ll notice that some cuts are traditional ‘down-home’ southern gospel, while others are easy-listening, but never full-blown contemporary or rock.
Here in early 1981, the group consists of bass singer Rex Nelon, Kelly Nelon Thompson (his daughter), Jerry Thompson (Kelly’s husband), lead singer Rodney Swain, and soprano Janet Paschal. In June of 1981, though, Janet Paschal will depart. Her replacement, a name known to many southern gospel fans today: Karen Peck. Note that, upon joining the Rex Nelon Singers, Karen had just celebrated her 21st birthday.
1981’s One Step Closer is the final recording to feature Janet, while 1982’s Feeling At Home is Karen’s debut recording with the group. Karen’s featured song from this album, “Wedding Day”, written by Brent Lamb, would reach #8 on the national charts. A novelty-type song, “Jesus Is Your Ticket To Heaven”, also on this recording, reached #2.
The Rex Nelon Singers’ 1983 release, We Shall Behold The King, earned the group another ‘Song of the Year’ award for “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing”. Harold Reid (yes, of the Statler Brothers) indicates in this album’s liner notes, “Believe me, there is something here for everyone’s musical taste.”
1984 would bring about the departure of their lead singer, Rodney Swain. Instead of hiring a replacement, Jerry Thompson would take more featured songs on their recordings.
The mid-eighties saw the release of two of my personal favorite albums from the group: In One Accord (1985) and Journeys (1986). These two albums were their most ‘progressive’ to date, but again, many songs from these recordings found a home on southern gospel radio, and landed near the top of the charts: “We Shall Overcome” (#2), “Alleluia To The Lamb” (#12), and “I’m Gonna Keep Walkin’” (#11). Journeys also holds the distinction of the first southern gospel album to be recorded using the ‘new-fangled’ process of digital recording.
By 1985, the name had been shortened from ‘Rex Nelon Singers’ to ‘The Nelons’. Also of note, between 1982 and 1985, the group won the Dove Award for ‘Southern Gospel Album Of The Year’ four years in a row. In 1986, at the age of 26, Karen Peck was voted ‘Favorite Soprano’ for the first time by Singing News subscribers. (As of 2022, Peck has received the award 12 times, second only to Kim Hopper of the Hoppers).
The Nelons would also produce a ‘concept video’ (music video) about this time for “Famine In Their Land”. Available to view online (search: “Nelons – Famine In Their Land”), the video won a Dove Award in 1987.
I should also note that, here in the mid-eighties, Rex’s daughter, Kelly, is starting to record some solo projects. Her first came in 1983 with Her Father’s Child. Kelly would continue to produce solo recordings throughout the eighties, while still touring with the Nelons. Unlike the Nelons, though, many of Kelly’s solo projects were almost exclusively ‘middle of the road’ in musical style, and occasionally featured duets with her husband, Jerry Thompson.
Kelly Nelon is also credited with releasing the first southern gospel aerobics album: Body Light. The exercises are set to familiar Nelons tunes (and, yes, I happen to have this…um…interesting album in my collection).
The late 1980s will continue the pattern of one album per year for the Nelons: Thanks (1987), Get Ready (1988), and Let The Redeemed Say So (1989). With these albums, we see a ‘return’ to more traditional overtones. This era brought about songs like “Thanks”, “I’ve Got A Right”, “I’ll Talk To The Father”, “Bring My Children Home”, “Let The Redeemed Say So”, and “He’s The Calm Before The Storm”, all of which charted in the Singing News Top 10. Get Ready would be their first recording to be released on CD. (Three prior albums, Feelings, Expressions Of Love, and Thanks, would be re-released by Canaan Records on CD in the early-to-mid 2000s).
As we enter the 1990s, though, some more changes are in store, including the departure of Karen Peck. In fact, we’ll reach a point where Rex Nelon contemplates retiring the Nelons altogether. We’ll continue the story next month.