The journalist who laid claim to being only reporter to interview Elvis Presley on UK soil has died aged 89.
John Brown Nelson, always known as Ian, worked as a journalist for various local and national titles for over six decades.
But his brief tête-à-tête with ‘The King’ will forever be his legacy.
In March 1960 Elvis had finished his service with the US Army in Frankfurt and was heading home when his plane had to refuel for 90 minutes at Prestwick Airport en route.
Well-placed sources told Ian, at the time a Scottish Daily Mail reporter, of the impending arrival so he rushed down and nabbed 20 minutes with the singer – the only time he set foot in Britain.
Ian’s career, which included a spell as a lieutenant in the RAF, saw him work for the Scarborough Evening News, Evening Gazette, in Middlesbrough, and Darlington-based daily The Northern Echo which he joined aged 58.
He retired aged 65 but continued writing for the Echo’s sister weekly, the Darlington and Stockton Times. He died last Friday in a nursing home, in Dunblane.
Onlooker (11/06/2009 08:23:09)
‘Ian’ Nelson has left the building…
Subbo (11/06/2009 08:41:00)
His former colleagues are all shook up!
Geoff Simpson (11/06/2009 09:46:48)
A Lieutenant in the RAF. Surely not?
DAVID JOHNSON (11/06/2009 14:49:05)
My son in laws father interviewed Elvis Presley
see story attached from The Times 4th May 09
Derek Johnson see the edition of The Times below
Derek Johnson was a mainstay of the editorial team at the New Musical Express for 30 years, during which time his writing introduced several generations of British youth to the best in new pop music. He befriended Elvis Presley and the Beatles and his crisp and informative weekly round-up of the new singles was particularly influential over many years, during which time he tipped a wealth of upcoming musical talent for chart success.
Born in 1928 in Dulwich, southeast London, his first job in music was as a disc jockey on the British Forces Network in Germany, where he was posted on National Service in 1948. He enjoyed the experience so much that after serving two years, he opted to stay for a further two.
Soon after his return to London in 1952, he secured a job with Radio Luxembourg, one of the first commercial radio stations able to be heard in Britain. Johnson became programme administrator and introduced the first pop chart broadcasts, based on the Top 12 (as it initially was), which had been launched by the weekly paper the New Musical Express in 1952.
“When I heard of the NME’s initiative I passed the chart listings to the disc jockeys in the Duchy, who started a regular chart rundown every night. This, more than everything, gave the chart acceptance and credence,” Johnson said. While BBC radio studiously ignored the NME’s Top 12 — which soon became the Top 20, the Johnson-inspired nightly chart rundown also helped to make Radio Luxembourg essential listening in almost every teenage bedroom in Britain. He also began contributing articles to the NME and after he left Luxembourg in 1957, because the station wanted him to relocate from London to the Duchy, he was offered a job by the paper’s founding editor, Maurice Kinn.
Johnson’s official title was first features editor and then news editor, but he wrote widely and prolifically for every section of the magazine. His musical tastes were, in many ways, old school. The first singer he interviewed for the paper was Dorothy Squires, one of his earliest articles was titled “It’s nice to see the ballad back” and he praised new recordings by Bing Crosby and Gracie Fields.
But if he never lost his taste for big bands and the music he had played on Forces radio after the Second World War, he was also excited by the new rock’n’roll sounds arriving from America. He was the first British journalist to write about the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers and he was also an early champion of emerging British talent such as Billy Fury and Cliff Richard, and turned down an invitation to manage the latter at the start of his career.
Perhaps his greatest coup came in 1960, when he interviewed Elvis Presley for the NME at the Friedberg army base in Germany where he had been on National Service. The two men got on well and their meeting led to a long friendship. When Presley was discharged from the army, Johnson was invited to meet him at a stopover at the Prestwick air base in Scotland, which turned out to be the only time Elvis ever set foot on British soil.
He subsequently visited Presley several times in America and stayed with him at Graceland. On his last visit in 1976, a year before Presley’s death, he recorded that the singer confessed that he had considered suicide by a drugs overdose and told him: “I’m a wreck. There’s not much left in life for me now.”
During the 1960s Johnson acted as compere at the annual NME poll-winners concert, sharing the duties with Jimmy Savile, Alan Freeman or whoever had been voted top disc jockey in that year’s poll. Among the acts he introduced on stage were the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, who both appeared at the NME poll-winners concert at the Empire Pool, Wembley, in May 1966. It turned out to be the Beatles’ final official live UK stage appearance, and Johnson recalled John Lennon visiting him before the concert at the NME offices to discuss their appearance, disguised with a false beard.
By the time of the concert, all four members had adopted disguises to throw the fans off their scent. Johnson later wrote about the event: “I was waiting for the Beatles at the venue’s back door, where the kitchens were, when this big van drew up and four chefs got out, with the proper white hats and aprons, carrying trays of goodies in their hands. As they walked towards me, I realised that it was the Beatles. They frequently adopted disguises to avoid being mobbed by screaming girls. They got in without being spotted and were running across the kitchen when Ringo tripped and his tray of cakes went everywhere, followed by the other three landing in a heap on top of him like a Marx Brothers routine. It was an awful mess, but they were so pleased to have got in with no trouble that they all thought it was hilariously funny.”
His round-up of the week’s new singles was a staple of the NME for many years. His empirical style — which always included a description of the song’s tempo — came to seem outdated when in the 1970s younger writers such as Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray introduced a more subjective and hard-hitting style to the paper. But his ability to sum up a song in a couple of sentences so that you could almost imagine what it sounded like without hearing the record was uncanny, as was his ability to spot a hit.
A typical example came in 1967 when he tipped Pink Floyd’s See Emily Play for the charts and wrote: “It’s crammed with weird oscillations, reverberations, electronic vibrations and fuzzy rumblings. Surprisingly somewhere amid the happening, there’s also a pleasant mid-tempo tune that’s appealingly harmonised. Should register!”
In 1969 he published a book, Beat Music, which surveyed the history of popular music since the introduction of the NME chart. Serving under several editors, he remained with the paper through the beat boom, the psychedelic era, glam rock, punk and on into the age of synth pop, eventually leaving the NME in 1986. He continued to write for a wide variety of publications on a freelance ba
sis and ran a freelance news service.
He left behind papers for an uncompleted memoir on his life in music, which his family hope may be published posthumously.
He is survived by two sons by his late wife, Sheila, whom he met in the 1950s when she was working as the NME’s receptionist.
Derek Johnson, music journalist, was born on January 17, 1928. He died on April 22, 2009, aged 81
Brian Quinn (11/06/2009 15:53:57)
Sad to see that John has died and my condolences go out to his surviving relatives and friends. He will always be remembered by the world at large as the only man ever to interview the King on UK soil.