Retro acted

Ken Nelson, a regular at the "Branson-on-the-Brazos" show in Waco, was destined to have a career in music. His mother sang with a big band, his father was a trumpeter, and their home was filled with the music of Frank Sinatra. Nelson's own calling began with his cabaret show of Pal Joey. Afterward, he recorded a four-song demo and got gigs as a vocalist for the Gary Lee Orchestra and the Bill Bolman Bands. Then he struck out on his own -- singing, recording, and producing his debut album, a full hour of Sinatra hits complete with Nelson Riddle-style arrangements and a California big band.

His story reads like a Broadway musical, the perfect setup for songs by Rodgers and Hart. Or it could be a 1950s Hollywood musical. Or perhaps a '60s drama about a swinger trying to make it in a rock-and-roll world. But this is 1999. Sinatra is dead, and Nelson is a guy from Bedford trying to get by while having some fun with his music. Well, actually, Sinatra's music.

After a summer of teenyboppers making millionaires out of unseen songwriters, there couldn't be a more perfect time for Nelson to release his debut Let's Swing...A-Ding-Ding!, that is except for any time before 1970 or immediately after Harry Connick Jr.'s big break. While this year's singers are likely to be as disposable as the bubble-gum trading cards bearing their smiling mugs, Sinatra's hits are classic. "I think a lot of people want a new Sinatra to come out and fill that void," Nelson says. "Some people say I sound like him; some people say I don't. People say I look like a young Sinatra; others say I don't. I think it all depends on what they expect from me."

If they expect a Sinatra imitator, Nelson says they'll be disappointed. He doesn't imitate; Nelson just sings Sinatra's biggest hits, including "I've Got You Under My Skin," "The Lady Is a Tramp," and "Witchcraft." He is proud of his debut, which he released on Hobo-Ken Records, but admits it won't do as well as that other Sinatra tribute, Manilow Sings Sinatra.

In addition to releasing the album, Nelson has landed a gig opening up the "Branson-on-the-Brazos" show at the Texas Playhouse in Waco. Nelson will be accompanied by a tape of a big band, warming up sold-out crowds every fourth Friday and Saturday for performers imported from Branson, a countrified Las Vegas in the Missouri Ozarks where Nelson hopes one day to perform. If he can make it there, he can make it anywhere.

Shannon Sutlief

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Shannon Sutlief

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