Ron Cornelius, a Music Row session musician, publisher, and producer, passed away on Aug. 18 following complications from a stroke. He was 76.
Cornelius got his start in music as a teen guitarist in California, cutting his musical teeth while backing a list of artists including Chubby Checker, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Jan & Dean, Bobby Rydell, Glen Campbell, Sonny & Cher, Jackie Wilson, Mary Wells, and more. At age 16, he landed a label deal with his own group The Untouchables on Dot Records.
After years as a backing guitarist, Cornelius formed the group West. In 1967, they signed with Epic Records and cut two albums in Nashville. A single, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (a Bob Dylan composition), climbed to No. 17 on the national charts. The group went on to record a final LP for Paramount Records before dissolving. Altogether, Cornelius had five major label deals as an artist including one with A&M Records and his release of “Tin Luck” for Polydor Records.
In 1969, Cornelius was part of the production team for Johnny Cash’s album Live at San Quentin. He also served as lead guitarist on albums by Cash, Marty Robbins, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Hoyt Axton, Loudon Wainwright III, and many others. Cornelius also played lead on seven multi-Platinum albums for the legendary Bob Dylan. During this time, Cornelius also helped assemble a band for singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, serving as band leader for six major world tours, four albums, and a movie. He also provided guitar on several film soundtracks including I Walk the Line starring Gregory Peck, Concrete Cowboy, Little Fauss and Big Halsy, and The Big Lebowski.
He moved to Nashville in 1980 and pursued a career as a producer, songwriter, and publisher in addition to his work as a guitarist. Joining forces with Pete Drake, he served as professional manager and producer of Drake Music Group’s Nashville publishing administration service, and later headed and produced for The A.T.V. Music Corporation’s Nashville office. At that time, A.T.V. was the fourth largest publisher in the world, administering the works of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, as well as a 6,000-song catalog of country greats.
In 1986, Cornelius founded The Cornelius Companies, an independent Nashville-based production and publishing company. Cornelius represented and administered catalogs for Cabin Fever Entertainment, Inc., Charlie Daniels/Miss Hazel Music, and The Lowery Music Group out of Atlanta. In 1995 Gateway Entertainment, Inc., a division of The Cornelius Companies, was created, and Cornelius racked up 11 Top 10s, eight Top 5’s, and two No. 1 singles, all produced by him.
In recent years Cornelius worked on projects for Colt Prather for Epic Records, the band Cooper Berry for Warner Brothers Records, California country singer Summer Schappell, and Miko Marks. Cornelius was featured in the Country Music Hall of Fame museum’s 2015-2018 Exhibition of Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City. He loaned the museum his custom made 1959 Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar and other artifacts for the exhibit, and participated in a 2015 panel discussion about his work with Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. He is also the author of the book, The Guitar Behind Dylan and Cohen.
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