Fred Nelson III believes without a doubt that he is merely a blessed channel for God to express Himself and uplift man through music. If that’s the case, the good lord found Himself quite an instrument in Fred, who’s as versatile a musician as you’ll ever meet.
The Chicago native’s expansive career has ranged from recordings to Broadway to commercials to music direction for any number of recording artists, shows and projects.
Presently the music director for Aretha Franklin – Nelson was the conductor of her acclaimed N’DIGO Gala performance last year – he also serves as music director for Christ Universal Temple, founded by The Rev. Johnnie Colemon and where The Reverend Derrick Wells is the Senior Minister.
On Sunday, August 4 at 6 p.m., Nelson will receive a citywide salute acknowledging his life long musical accomplishments. The event will be held at Christ Universal Temple (CUT), located at 119th and Ashland. VIP tickets are $50 while general admission goes for $25.
“It definitely feels comfortable doing it at CTU; that’s my backyard absolutely, and that’s exactly where this event should be,” says Nelson, promising there won’t be many speeches. “It’s going to be more entertainment, with performances by Teresa Griffin, Roderick Dixon from the classical area, gospel artist Kurt Carr, and choirs I’ve worked for and produced and the like.
“Don Jackson, who’s one of the co-chairs of the Stellar Awards, for which I’ve been the music director for 21 years, will be there. Some of the co-chairs and honorary co-chairs are some of the really top brass ministers in the city whom I’ve had the privilege of working with and for. So it will be quite an event. I’m quite honored.”
Blessed with the gift of perfect pitch, Fred’s musical involvement began at a very early age. He was inspired by his father, a Chicago policeman who also served as a chief organist at First Church of Deliverance in Chicago. As an infant his father would strap him to his waist as he practiced.
By two years of age, Fred was practicing piano and at age four, played his first song in church – “Yes, Jesus Loves Me”. Fred’s mom Octavia continuously filled the house with diverse music from the stereo.
“So, by age 6-7, I was playing Jimmy Smith tunes, Watermelon Man, a lot of jazz. I guess I was literally born to do it, but at that age, how do you know? It has never felt like work. To be quite honest, I’m not even sure how I do what I do because I’ve been doing it that long, but it definitely is a God-given talent,” says Nelson, who will turn 54 in August.
The talent was evident enough that Ray Charles had Nelson tour with him as his opening act for about two years, beginning when Fred was just six years old. By age seven, he had started his own band called the Midgets, who were neighborhood kids that Fred had trained on various instruments.
Nelson received his formal training at the Chicago Conservatory of Music, Roosevelt University in Chicago, DePaul University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, where his majors were classical organ and composition.
After graduation he switched primarily to piano and his focus gradually changed from performance to music production and direction. Through his own music company, Nelson Entertainment Group, Inc. (formerly Third Sound Music) he regularly produces music for local as well as national radio, and television commercials.
Explaining how he transitioned to that arena, Nelson says: “The late music director for CUT, Robert Mayes, was a jingles singer. He got a call and the producer asked if he had an organist who could come with him that day to record a McDonald’s spot. Robert said my organist is right here at the church right now, and that was me.
“So I went and was fooling around on the piano a little bit and he asked me if I wrote as well, and could arrange for orchestra. I said yeah, and we started doing spot work with him at Joy Art Music. Then I moved to another company – Herschel Commercial with Paul Wilson. Then I opened my own company and did it for years.”
Some things you might recognize is the piano work Nelson did for United Airlines’ “Rhapsody in Blue” commercials or the music he produced and wrote for Anita Baker’s commercial for Coca-Cola.
“It’s a very lucrative business, but you have to be diverse,” Nelson says. “Calls come in for genres ranging from country, R&B, classical, gospel, and in order to stay afloat, you have to handle any job that comes in the door.”
Other commercial clients on Nelson’s list include the Illinois Lottery, Schlitz featuring The O’Jays, Illinois Bell featuring the late Phyllis Hyman, Mazda, McDonald’s, Tide, Pantene, and Sears, to name a few.
Nelson has also served as a producer and musician for several recording projects including Celine Dion, Chuck Mangione, and Neil Diamond, on whose albums he played piano, and others.
His producer/writer credits include his own CD The Project, and First Church of Deliverance’s Surely the Lord is in This Place, which charted on the Billboard gospel charts Top 5 for 26 weeks and spent 58 weeks on the Billboard list altogether.
As music director/conductor, his credits include several televised events such as the PBS special Going Home to Gospel featuring Patti La Belle, and the Annual Stellar Awards since its beginning in 1992; and with several artists, including Aretha Franklin, Jennifer Holiday, Anita Baker, Jennifer Hudson, and others.
His live performances as musical director and pianist include George Gurntz’s Cantata performed in Switzerland; Salute to Leontyne Price at Carnegie Hall; Chicago Symphony Orchestra featuring The Christ Universal Temple Ensemble; Chicago Gospel Festival; Ben Vereen, Della Reese, Ann Nesby, Jonathan Butler, Gladys Knight, Three Mo Tenors, and many more.
In yet another example of his versatility, Nelson has also performed, arranged and produced music for movies, including Hoodlum, Love Relations, and My Best Friend’s Wedding, and for the documentary The Invisible Men of Honor: The Legend of the Buffalo Soldiers.
As a result, Nelson has been busy with his music all of his life and most of his work has come through word of mouth, which has enabled him to remain here as one of Chicago’s very own.
“I found my niche here, the work was steady, and I love Chicago, so there was no need for me to leave and settle on either coast, even though my career has taken me other places when I needed to go,” he says.
Fred has served as an elected member of the Chicago Chapter Board of Governors for the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences Committee for the Grammy Awards. And to his credit are several recognitions and awards for his continued pursuit of musical excellence, but Fred considers his most rewarding accomplishment to be his daughter, Paige.
His future, he says, consists of doing more production and conducting, more composing and songwriting.
“I did a highly requested album called The Project in 2006, which is somewhat eclectic because that’s who I am – I like all styles of music – and I’m going to do a new Project because the last one people really enjoyed and you’ll probably see it by the end of this year,” he says.
But for now, he’s concentrating on his August 4 tribute at which he’ll be performing. “I’ll be playing with Terisa Griffin, the Stellar Awards Band. In fact, I’ll be involved with a lot of the performances,” says Nelson. “I’ve got to sing for my supper that night, so I won’t be able to sit down too much!”