[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
You could mistake the funky drummer born Edward Nelson for a decade and a half younger than his 70 years. We're in the Highland Park offices of Now-Again Records, the soul archeologists responsible for anthologizing the love-struck early '70s grooves of his group, Apple and the Three Oranges. Right now he's doing the airplane pose, and the elastic New Orleans native is demonstrating through yoga that time has done nothing to dim his agility.
You may be unfamiliar with “Apple” Nelson, but raiders in search of lost grooves have long pursued the 45s released under his ephemeral Sagittarius imprint. The originals comprise among the most rare and priciest artifacts of L.A. funk and soul. Apple played with Etta James, Dr. John, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Leon Haywood and Charles Wright. And DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist and venerable British drummer Malcolm Catto number his among biggest fans.
But before Now-Again's Eothan “Egon” Alapatt collected Apple's free-love funk for this month's Free and Easy: The Complete Works, little was known about the man, beyond the genius of his syncopated swamp-beat rhythms.
“My thing was always funk,” Apple says, tapping his fingers on a leather couch, contrasting the Roman-candle pop of a Crescent City drummer versus their smoother L.A. analogue. “I'm an energy person.”
Raised in the Lafitte Projects in Treme, the “heartbeat of New Orleans,” Apple's dad left when he was two weeks old. He remembers adolescence through musical anecdote: trumpet flares overheard through bedroom windows, seeing The Meters when they were known as The Hawkettes, and his grandfather, Joseph “Cornbread” Thomas, the clarinetist in Papa Celestin's Original Brass Band.
“He would've given Louis Armstrong a run for his money if he hadn't died young,” says the still-slim Apple, wearing jeans, a Saints cap and a do-rag.
Dropping out in 10th grade, Apple procured a powder-blue Pontiac and headed west in search of stardom. The car broke down 500 miles east of L.A., forcing him to catch a Greyhound with only his drums, clothing, antique pistols and fishing pole to his name. Settling in Watts, he became a sought-after session drummer, playing on Arthur Monday's bronzed funk workout, “What Goes Around Comes Around.”
“When I first met Etta James, she asked, 'Where did this guy come from?' ” Apple says wistfully. “One time she refused to play a gig without me.”
After his first solo single, “Free and Easy,” sold well, Nelson formed Sagittarius to release his bayou-meets-the-beach funk. But commercial success never matched those abyssal grooves, and Apple resorted to robbing people in Beverly Hills and Bel-Air to fund his label. What with two brief prison stints, lack of distribution and acrimony between Apple and the Oranges, his career never fully ripened. Leaving L.A. for Louisiana in 1985, he was incarcerated from 1987 until 2002. On his release, Apple worked at a New Orleans naval base before Hurricane Katrina struck and wrecked all his master tapes.
At the insistence of his daughter, who lives nearby, he moved to Lancaster several years ago. Indigent and without a car, he's enrolled at Antelope Valley Community College and drumming at his church. His dream is to obtain funding to record properly the long-gestating “I'm a Rock and Roll Soul Man,” which he insists is a hit.
Free and Easy re-inserts him back into history, confirming his spot as one of the funkiest percussionists ever to hail from either L.A. the city or LA the state.
“I wrote these songs on love … as a young man with ambition and a dream,” Apple says. “I tried to do something for myself and my family. I was never interested in Beverly Hills or Rolls Royces, just about love, being a musician and helping those in need.”