Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rick Nelson, 1940-1985: An Appreciation

Ricky Nelson, 1959.

Rick Nelson, late 1970's.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Rick Nelson’s music lately. Rick or “Ricky” Nelson was one of the most successful rock singers of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Sometimes unfairly dismissed as just a teen idol with a pretty face, Nelson made many great rockabilly records and his continued commitment to his music throughout his life proves that he was a real artist, not just a dilettante. I first starting listening to Rick Nelson’s music when I was in high school, around 1996 or 1997, so I was the right age for songs like “Young Emotions,” “Lonesome Town,” and “Young World.” Rick wasn’t as dynamic and exciting as Elvis Presley, but his voice had a pure sweetness that I’ve always enjoyed listening to. Since high school I’ve periodically revisited Rick Nelson’s music and I still enjoy listening to him. But what got me started on my recent Rick Nelson kick was finding his 1972 album “Garden Party” used on CD for $4.99. I thought to myself, “I really like Rick; I’m surprised I don’t have this CD, I should get it.” Hearing the “Garden Party” album made me remember how much I like Rick Nelson, and it made me revisit the Rick Nelson CD’s I already owned. I decided to write this post as an appreciation and overview of Rick Nelson’s career, and a discussion of some of my favorite songs of his. 

Ricky Nelson was born into a show business family. His father, Ozzie Nelson, was a successful bandleader during the 1930’s and 40’s, and the singer in Ozzie’s band was Rick’s mother, Harriet. After Ozzie’s recording career cooled down, he and Harriet performed frequently on the radio, and eventually they starred in their own radio show, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” The radio show was a family sitcom, starring the family members as themselves, with child actors portraying young Ricky and his older brother David. When Ricky was 8 and David was 12 in 1948, they started performing on the radio show as themselves. Ricky was a natural performer, playing the smartass younger brother to David’s straight man. The radio show continued to be popular, and Ozzie wanted to break into the new medium of television. Ozzie negotiated a TV contract with ABC that gave him a huge amount of control over the TV show. Ozzie wrote and directed nearly every episode of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” The TV show was a huge success, airing for 14 seasons, from 1952 until 1966. It is still the longest running non-animated sitcom in U.S. television history. America watched Ricky Nelson grow up into Rick Nelson on the show, as Rick was 12 when it began and 26 when it finally left the airwaves. But a lot happened to Rick Nelson during those 14 years. Rick started the show as the smart aleck younger brother, but he matured into a very handsome young man who was a teen heartthrob even before he began singing. 

Like most other teenagers of the time, Rick loved rock and roll music. Unlike any other teenager of the time, he starred on a very popular national TV show. When he was 16, Rick wanted to make a record, supposedly to impress a girl. With Ozzie’s help, Rick landed a record deal, but not before numerous labels had turned him down. When Rick’s first record came out in 1957, “A Teenager’s Romance,” backed with a cover of the Fats Domino tune “I’m Walkin,’” Rick had the unique opportunity of being able to plug his record on his family’s TV show. So Rick singing his latest record quickly became a standard feature of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” While this huge exposure early on undoubtedly helped Rick in establishing his music career, there’s no way he would have been as successful for as he long as he was if the only thing selling his records was the TV show. A lot of people credit Rick’s singing on “The Adventures” with helping to popularize rock and roll. Certainly seeing clean-cut Rick sing must have reassured parents that not every rock and roller was a greasy juvenile delinquent. And much of the credit for this must go to Ozzie Nelson, who astutely saw that rock and roll was not much different from the music his parents dismissed when he was a teenager himself. Rather than complain about the new music, Ozzie astutely embraced it.

Both sides of Rick’s very first single entered the Top Ten, with “A Teenager’s Romance” climbing to number 2, and “I’m Walkin’” peaking just below it at number 4. Rick quickly proved that he was no one-hit wonder, scoring Top Ten hits in quick succession with “Be-Bop Baby” and “Stood Up.” Rick loved rockabilly and idolized Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. As Rick was forming a band of his own, he soon found a young guitarist who would play a vital part in shaping his music’s sound. That guitarist was James Burton, who would play lead guitar on nearly every record of Rick’s until 1968. When Elvis Presley returned to performing live in 1969, he hired Burton as his lead guitarist, and Burton played with Elvis until Presley’s death in 1977. Rick wanted his records to have a real rockabilly sound, and Burton provided that with searing solos on songs like “Believe What You Say” and “I Got a Feeling.” Rick continued to have many hits in 1958 and 1959, notching 5 Top Ten singles in 1958 and 4 Top Ten singles in 1959. Rick was beginning to rival his idol Elvis Presley as the most successful rock and roll singer. Ironically enough, the vocal group The Jordanaires sang back-up on both Elvis’s records and Rick’s. Elvis allowed the Jordanaires to sing on Rick’s records as long as they went uncredited. 

Rick’s career hit a slight bump in 1960, as none of his singles that year made it to the Top Ten. But his first single of 1961 was one of his best, “Travelin’ Man” backed with “Hello, Mary Lou.” Both sides made the Top Ten, with “Travelin’ Man” going all the way to number 1. Rick scored 3 more Top Ten hits in 1962, giving him a total of 30 Top 40 singles from 1957-1962, more than anyone else during that time except for Elvis and Pat Boone. Rick changed record labels in 1963, moving from Imperial to Decca, who signed him to an unprecedented 20-year contract. After changing labels, Rick scored just one more Top Ten hit during the 1960’s, “For You,” which peaked at number 6 in February, 1964, just at the exact moment The Beatles were starting to dominate the U.S. charts. 

Like nearly every other pre-Beatles rock singer, Rick’s career was severely damaged by the British Invasion. While the times they were a-changin,’ everything on “Ozzie and Harriet” was still pretty much the same. By 1966, when “Ozzie and Harriet” finally went off the air, Rick’s singles had stopped charting, as did his albums. It seems as though Rick wasn’t getting great material written for him on Decca, as most of his Decca hits were covers of old songs like “Fools Rush In,” “For You,” and “The Very Thought of You.” Since Rick didn’t write songs himself, he was at a disadvantage when The Beatles came along, as it became the norm for rock singers to write their own material. But he eventually started writing quite prolifically in the late 1960’s, even recording an entire album of his own songs, 1970’s “Rick Sings Nelson.” 

As his career floundered, Rick seemed unsure of what direction to take with his music. He recorded two country-flavored albums in 1966 and 1967, “Bright Lights and Country Music” and “Country Fever,” but then turned more towards folk on his next two albums. Rick had a very versatile voice, and his voice’s pure tone made it easy for him to alternate between singing standards, ballads, pop, rock, rockabilly, folk, and country. In 1969 Rick finally figured out the direction he wanted to move in. He started a new band and he fully embraced the nascent “country rock” movement. Rick called his new group “The Stone Canyon Band.” Originally, Rick wanted to fully blend into the group and have their records released under the name “Stone Canyon,” with no mention of his name. Decca Records strongly objected to Rick’s idea, forcing him to modify the billing to “Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band.” Rick was obviously anxious to start a new chapter in his career and attempt to jettison some of the baggage that came with being “Ricky Nelson,” the All-American boy next door. 

Rick’s first album with the Stone Canyon Band was 1969’s “In Concert,” which was recorded live at the Troubadour folk club in L.A. Rick’s opening act was a young comedian named Steve Martin. “In Concert” blended Rick’s original songs with songs from contemporary folk singer/songwriters like Tim Hardin, Eric Andersen, and Bob Dylan. “In Concert” proved to be an excellent album, showing that Rick had updated his sound and image, and it became his first album to hit the charts since 1964. Just before “In Concert” was recorded in the fall of the 1969, Rick’s mellow country rock cover of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” became his first Top 40 hit since 1964. It seemed like there might be a new audience for Rick’s new sound. But in October of 1971, when Rick was playing as part of an oldies revue at Madison Square Garden, he discovered that some people didn’t want him to change. The story surrounding that performance at Madison Square Garden is that all of the performers were supposed to look and sound exactly like they did in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Rick didn’t look and sound exactly the same, as he now sported shoulder-length hair, long sideburns, and hippie-like clothes. And while he remained true to the spirit of his old recordings, they inevitably sounded a little different with the pedal steel guitar of the Stone Canyon Band. Near the end of his set Rick sat down at the piano and announced that they were going to play “one of the greatest rock and roll songs ever written,” The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” A chorus of boos ensued as Rick sang the song. The booing got louder, and at the end of the song Rick quickly rushed into “Travelin’ Man” and left the stage. Rick assumed that people had booed him because he looked different than he used to and his music sounded different than it used to. And he had perhaps broken the spell of the nostalgia show by introducing a more contemporary song as “one of the greatest rock and roll songs ever written.” However, other sources have since said that the real reason there was booing during Rick’s set had nothing to do with his music at all. Some sources say that there was a fight going on in one section of the audience, and the crowd was booing the people who were fighting, not Rick. Whatever really happened that night, the point is that Rick thought that people were booing him and his music, which led him to write his masterpiece, “Garden Party.”

“Garden Party” recounts the story of the Madison Square Garden concert, and Rick’s annoyance at the audience’s inability to accept his new music and new image. In the chorus of “Garden Party” Rick sings,

“But it’s all right now
I learned my lesson well
You see, you can’t please everyone
So you got to please yourself”

“Garden Party” is a forceful statement for the autonomy of the musical artist, supporting the idea that an artist must be free to make art that pleases them, regardless of what the masses might think. This was pretty heavy stuff coming from a supposedly lightweight former teen idol. In perhaps the most famous verse of “Garden Party” Rick sings,

“If you got to play at garden parties
I wish you a lot of luck
But if memories were all I sang
I’d rather drive a truck”

Ironically enough, despite of its stance against pleasing the masses, “Garden Party” went on to become a huge hit single. It was Rick’s last Top Ten single, peaking at number 6 in the fall of 1972. The success of the single pushed the “Garden Party” album into the Top Forty. But Rick’s commercial comeback was brief, as his next album, 1974’s “Windfall,” just barely scraped into the Top 200 at #190, and spawned no hit singles. The next year Decca, which had now become MCA, terminated Rick’s 20-year contract, which still had 8 years to run. 

Rick signed with Epic Records, and he had a very frustrating tenure there, recording enough material for three albums, but seeing just one issued during his lifetime. After he left Epic, Rick signed with Capitol Records. Rick would release just one album on Capitol, 1981’s “Playing to Win.” In the liner notes for the CD reissue of “Playing to Win,” the story is recounted that Paul McCartney had offered to produce an album for Rick in the late 1970’s. Paul had the idea of writing some songs with Rick and recording at Sun Studios in Memphis. But when Rick and his management brought the idea to Capitol, executives were very cool on it, because Paul had just left Capitol to sign with Columbia Records. So Rick never recorded with Paul, which is a shame. No matter what the quality of music would have been, just the association with McCartney would have greatly helped Rick’s career and might have led to a full-fledged comeback. But as it was, “Playing to Win” made it to #153 on the Top 200. Not a great showing, by any means, but it did provide Rick with a historic achievement. Rick became the only rock and roll artist to land albums of all new material on the Billboard charts in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. That’s no small achievement, and it shows that he was still trying to do new things with his music. Of course, you can add some asterisks to this record, as there were artists like Frank Sinatra who were very successful on the album charts in all of those decades, but of course Frank doesn’t count as a rock and roll singer. And had Elvis Presley lived a little longer, he surely would have been able to hit the charts during the 1980’s, assuming that he was still recording new material. But Rick’s achievement was a sign of his longevity and his commitment to his music. 

Capitol Records dropped Rick after the lackluster performance of “Playing to Win.” Rick was then in the middle of a very expensive divorce from his wife Kris Harmon; and he was forced to tour constantly in order to make money. Rick was still playing all of his old hits, and singing them with as much passion as he had when he first recorded them nearly thirty years before. In 1985 Rick had signed with Curb Records, and by the end of the year he was about halfway through making a new album. Rick was touring with Fats Domino in the fall of 1985, and Rick’s performance on August 22, 1985 was recorded for TV. That performance shows Rick singing many of his greatest hits. His voice still sounded good, he was still impossibly handsome at 45, and it’s clear that he still loved singing and performing these songs that had made him famous. On December 31, 1985, Rick Nelson was flying to Dallas for a New Year’s Eve concert when the plane carrying him and his band crashed. The two pilots survived the crash, but everyone else on board was killed. Rick Nelson was only 45 years old. 

Rick Nelson was a truly talented singer, songwriter, and performer who often gets overlooked in the history of rock and roll. But those of us who are fans of Rick Nelson’s know that his music was something special. If you think Rick Nelson was just another pretty boy teen idol, you’re wrong. He was much more than that. Rick Nelson stayed true to his rockabilly roots and did what he wanted to do. He did his best to stay true to his artistic vision. In the late 1970’s, he was offered a huge contract to perform in Las Vegas, but he turned it down because that wasn’t who he was as an artist. Rick didn’t want to just smile, wear a tuxedo, and sing his greatest hits with an orchestra. When he did play Vegas in 1978, he did so with his 5 piece rock band wearing blue jeans, and not an orchestra or dancing girl in sight. The more I’ve read and learned about Rick Nelson, the more impressed I am with his integrity. He was a great artist who died much too soon. But fortunately he left us with a lot of great records. The success he had on the pop singles charts is staggering, as he charted 53 Top 100 singles between 1957 and 1973, of those 53 songs, 35 made the Top 40, and 19 made the Top Ten, which gave Rick more Top Ten singles than any other artist of his generation except for Elvis Presley. Here are my Top Ten Rick Nelson songs, in chronological order:

Believe What You Say (1958)-Rick’s first single with James Burton on lead guitar, this is a great rockabilly song that shows how hard Rick could rock. It became a staple of his live shows, and he did a great re-recording of it on “Playing to Win.”

Lonesome Town (1958)-This haunting song shows how effective Rick was at singing ballads. It features just Rick, a guitar, and The Jordanaires singing backup. 

It’s Late (1959)-In which Rick and his date lose track of time and end up staying out all night. Uh oh! It’s a fun song, a typical teen song of the time. Features a tasty James Burton guitar solo.

Sweeter Than You (1959)-Another ballad that highlights Rick’s sweet, intimate voice. Listen to this song and you can see why girls went nuts over him. 

Travelin’ Man (1961)-One of Rick’s best-known songs, this song features him as a Lothario with, literally, a girl in every port. It’s a supremely catchy song, with great backing vocals from The Jordanaires.

Hello, Mary Lou (1961)-The B-side to “Travelin’ Man,” but just as good a song. It opens with a distinctive drum pattern and is an early hint of the country influence in Rick’s music. 

Teenage Idol (1962)-Rick originally didn’t want to sing this song, as he feared its lyrics would make him sound self-pitying. And sure, it’s a song about how hard it is to be a teenage idol, and how he has no time to find the right girl, “cause I’m just passing through.” But even though it doesn’t accurately reflect Rick’s life at the time, as he was only touring during summer breaks from filming “Ozzie and Harriet,” it’s still an interesting song about being a famous musician recorded by a famous musician at the peak of his fame.

Fools Rush In (1963)-A great rock and roll rearrangement of this standard, featuring a terrific vocal from Rick, and a great solo from James Burton. When Elvis recorded the song in 1971, he copied Rick’s arrangement, and James Burton plays the same solo on both records. 

Easy to be Free (1970)-One of the best songs that Rick ever wrote, it’s a lovely country rock song with a great melody and lyrics about self-discovery and finding yourself. 

Garden Party (1972)-Rick’s statement of artistic freedom and autonomy, delivered with a loping beat and great harmonies. Fittingly, it became his last big hit single. There are, of course, many other great and wonderful Rick Nelson songs, but these ten songs are a good place to start a journey into Rick’s music.

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