By Jared Fields, Managing Editor
The musical career of Charles Nelson began with the Messiah. Now, the 80-year-old world-class singer feels it fitting to end his career conducting a piece he has performed more than 100 times in his 65-year career.
“Messiah,” George Frideric Handel’s choral masterpiece, usually has four soloists. But Nelson will use all 20 singers as soloists in Sunday’s performance.
“All these people are top-flight soloists, so each one will be featured in a solo,” Nelson said. “‘Messiah’ is probably the only major choral work that would accommodate this many soloists.”
Nelson and wife Betty began work two-and-a-half years ago on a project to celebrate their 80th year and commemorate Charles’ final performance.
“Several years ago it just seemed like something I would like to do. Get a group of professionals together and do a major work and celebrate our 80th year,” Nelson said. “Five years later seemed to be an appropriate ending.”
A love for music
Charles wrote his memoirs for his grandchildren and took them to be printed. Leaning forward, holding his thumb and forefinger apart to show his memoirs’ thickness, in his deep, Paul Harvey-like voice he recalls the printer telling him, “You’re a wordy devil, aren’t you?”
He just has a lot to tell.
The Nelsons were a musical family. His mother, Madge, had some training and could play the piano. John, the father, had no training, but could sing well and had a natural ear for music. His older sister, Margaret Ellen, was also musical.
Charles and Betty have two grandchildren with training in the arts. Another is a theatre arts graduate from the University of North Texas.
“The others are the brightest, most talented children you’ve ever seen,” Charles said of his grandchildren not in the arts. “Of course, that’s their grandfather talking.”
Charles’ love for music began at about five years old when his mother took him to a children’s concert performed by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
“It had a real impact on me. I wanted to play the violin,” he said.
So Charles started taking violin lessons when he was 6-years-old.
“Some people would ask me, ‘did I play golf’ and I said ‘yeah, about the way he sings,'” Charles said.
Byron helped Charles take his first voice lessons in 1937 during the Great Depression, giving young Charles the $25 a month his family couldn’t afford during the Depression.
Byron passed away at his Roanoke home at the age of 94 on Sept. 26, as one of the greatest golfers of all time.
On this day, Charles wears one of Byron’s yellow gold sweaters from a golf club he’s never heard of.
“Banff Springs golf club. I’ve never been there. It’s just a nice yellow sweater,” Charles says about the sweater with the club logo on the left chest.
The Nelsons moved to a farm near Denton when Charles was 14 years old. Margaret Ellen went to college at North Texas State Teachers’ College. Charles went to the Demonstration School on the NTSTC campus.
At 15, Charles was taken by his sister to audition for Frank McKinley, a voice teacher at NTSTC.
“She was a pushy big sister. She took me, too. After the first lesson they invited me to sing in the college choir,” Charles said. He was singing bass by then, his voice maturing quicker than most 14-year-old boys.
That fall, the school combined choirs and sang a performance of the “Messiah,” his first performance.
There he continued to sing in the choir through the beginning of World War II.
In August 1944, Charles was drafted into the Army where he became a cook.
“It occurred to me that if I was a cook, I would be close to fire. And close to food,” Charles said. “Mother didn’t like to cook, she let us kids do the cooking.”
While stationed in Camp Howze near Gainesville, Charles met his wife, Betty. They married May 30, 1947.
Charles says Betty is just as indispensable as anyone could be. It is difficult for him to tell a difference in the responsibilities the two share. “After 59 years, how do you tell?” he said.
Charles’ military career ended in 1946. He returned home and enrolled at North Texas State University.
Two years later, in 1948, Charles was stricken with polio. However, Charles didn’t let it affect him or his career.
“I always tell people it was the best thing that happened to me. I could get into anything and get out of anything I wanted to.”
Charles now uses a motorized scooter after using crutches for many years. He never let it get him down. Walking into a room with him, he says to get a seat anywhere “I brought my own.”
Charles got his first teaching job at Carthage High School in 1950. He attended graduate school at NTSU that year, where he got his Master of Music Education.
From there he went to Harlingen High School and Edinburg High School. After teaching at high schools for nine years, he got his first college teaching job at Lipscomb College as a choral director, where he spent nine years.
In 1968, Charles took a job at East Texas State University, now Texas A&M-Commerce. He spent 16 years there. He left ETSU in 1984 to come to Abilene Christian University, and in 1987 was given an honorary doctor of music degree by the school.
At ACU, Charles was the artist in residence. This allowed him to perform as much as he wished, and he took advantage of it.
“Some people said I was never there, so how could I be in residence?”
From 1950 until 1997, Charles performed 2,314 times in every state except Hawaii and in 15 foreign countries.
In 1998, ACU President Royce Money invited Charles to put together his recordings to archive in the library.
“One of the things singers hate to do is listen to their own recordings,” Charles said. “Sixty-five years worth. That was not planned.”
The library holds 92 CDs of his choral and solo work throughout his career.
Nelson’s voice is clear and strong. His lungs kept healthy by the upper-body exercise of his arm-powered bike.
Dr. Paul Piersall, professor of music and chair of the Department of Music from 1996 to 2004, recalls Charles’ strong voice.
Charles was on his bike downtown when he got going too fast and wrecked. Charles broke his pelvis in the wreck, but still performed duets with Piersall.
The two sang a bass duet at schools all over the state. Sitting in a wheelchair in a performance after the accident, Piersall said Charles still sang louder than him.
The text to the “Messiah” was compiled from the Bible by Charles Jennens. Handel put words to music in 1742. The first performance released 142 men from debtors prison and benefited two other charities as well.
Keeping alive the work of composers like Handel is all Charles needs.
“Making music has been a privilege, but not because of others’ enjoyment, Charles said. “If what I’ve done has been pleasurable to others, I’m glad.”
“The greatest benefit that comes to me,” Charles pauses to tell how the “Messiah” was arranged. “We’re actually coming to an intimate association with the scripture. And with the assistance of Jennens, to the genius of Handel, we’re keeping alive the text, or the scripture in this case, and the genius of Handel.”
Reflecting back on his 80 years, Charles’ life has been about more than just performing.”To perpetuate greatness, that’s the way I feel.”