Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Mix CD: "The Best of Ricky Nelson, Volume 1-The Top 20 Hit Singles"

Ricky Nelson, 1950's.

Rick Nelson, on the back cover of the "Windfall" album, 1974.
Shortly after I wrote my post about the career of Rick “Ricky” Nelson, I made my own “Best of Ricky Nelson” CD. I’m a big fan of Rick Nelson, so I made it two CDs to include what I felt were all of Rick’s best songs. Volume 1 is all of Rick’s hit singles that reached the Top 20 in the charts, 27 songs in all! Even at 27 songs, the CD is only 64 minutes long, so I could have added even more songs, but I really liked the idea of having all of Rick’s big hit singles on one CD.

Here are the 27 songs:

1. I'm Walkin'
2. A Teenager's Romance
3. You're My One and Only Love
4.  Be-Bop Baby
5. Stood Up
6. Waitin' In School
7. Believe What You Say
8. My Bucket's Got a Hole In It
9. Poor Little Fool
10. Lonesome Town
11. I Got a Feeling
12. It's Late
13. Never Be Anyone Else But You
14. Just a Little Too Much
15. Sweeter Than You
16. I Wanna Be Loved
17. Young Emotions
18. Travelin' Man
19. Hello, Mary Lou
20. A Wonder Like You
21. Everlovin'
22. Young World
23. Teenage Idol
24. It's Up To You
25. Fools Rush In
26. For You
27. Garden Party

Here’s some commentary about the songs:

I’m Walkin’-1957: This was the B-side of Ricky’s very first single, a cover of the Fats Domino song. It was common practice in those days to cover hit songs instantly, even while the original version was still riding high on the charts, and oftentimes the singer covering the hit would also have a big hit of their own with the same song. It’s rather hard to believe now, but this was very common in the late 1950’s. It was also common during the 1950’s for white artists to cover songs by African-American singers and groups, as some radio stations didn’t play “R&B” records. (Pat Boone famously covered “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Tutti Frutti.”) By 1957 this practice was winding down. Ricky himself was a huge fan of Domino’s and they would tour together in 1985, shortly before Nelson’s death. 

A Teenager’s Romance-1957: This was the A-side of “I’m Walkin’” and also charted in the Top Ten. It’s much more typical of teen pop material from 1957, and it’s a rather silly song that hasn’t proven to be as durable as “I’m Walkin.’” The message of the song is that teenagers are just like everyone else! But it did prove that Ricky’s pure singing voice could translate well to ballads as well as more up-tempo songs. 

You’re My One and Only Love-1957: This was the third and final song that Ricky recorded for Verve Records, before his dad Ozzie got him a contract with Imperial, the same label that Fats Domino was on. This is a slight song that doesn’t have much to recommend it. The most annoying part of the song is that female backing vocalist singing “my one and only” every time Ricky sings that phrase. This was one of the songs that seriously made me question my decision to put all of Ricky’s Top 20 singles on one disc, as I think it’s one of his weakest singles. 

Be-Bop Baby-1957: Ricky’s first single for Imperial, this was actually the B-side of “Have I Told You Lately That I Love you?” but “Be-Bop Baby” became a much bigger hit, peaking at #3. It’s a slight song, with a rather inane and repetitive lyric. That being said, it’s a step in the right direction compared to “A Teenager’s Romance” and “My One and Only Love,” as it actually sounds like rock and roll.

Stood Up-1958: This is where Ricky starts to really get good, as he gets to sink his teeth into a real rockabilly song, with a guitar solo. You can hear Ricky’s voice gaining confidence with each song.  Ricky is backed by the Jordanaires vocal group, who also performed on Elvis’s records. Ricky had an agreement with Elvis that the Jordanaires could sing on his records as well, as long as they weren’t credited.

Waitin’ in School-1958: The B-side to “Stood Up,” “Waitin’ in School” was a rockabilly gem on its own, and one of Ricky’s best B-sides. One way the really great rock and rollers stood out from the pack was the quality of their B-sides. For most singers or groups in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the B-side was nowhere near as good as the A-side of the single. But first-tier talent like Elvis, Ricky Nelson, and the Everly Brothers put out singles with amazing B-sides. And of course The Beatles were masters at the “double A-side” single.

Believe What You Say-1958: One of my favorite Ricky Nelson songs. There is an alternate version, with backing vocals overdubbed by the Jordanaires, but I prefer the version without the backing vocals. “Believe What You Say” features a great guitar solo by James Burton, and Burton’s versatile guitar work would be a hallmark of nearly every Ricky Nelson single. Ricky did an excellent re-recording of “Believe What You Say” for his 1981 album “Playing to Win.”

My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It-1958: An excellent rocked-up version of an old song.

Poor Little Fool-1958: Ricky’s first Number One single. Curiously enough, Ricky didn’t really care for the song, and he never performed it on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” It’s a catchy earworm of a tune about Ricky getting his heart broken.

Lonesome Town-1958: A gorgeous, haunting ballad. “There’s a place where lovers go/to cry their troubles away/and they call it lonesome town/where the broken hearts stay.” Releasing “Lonesome Town” as an A-side was something of a gamble, because it was so sparse, as it was performed with just a guitar and the Jordanaires’ backing vocals. But Ricky’s pure, yearning voice matched perfectly with the song.

I Got a Feeling-1958: Yes, this was Ricky’s seventh Top 20 single from 1958! With Elvis off in the Army, it was clear that Ricky was becoming the biggest teen idol in America. It’s not hard to understand why, as Ricky combined strikingly handsome features with an all-American “boy next door” personality. Parents saw Ricky Nelson singing rock and roll on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” that paragon of 1950’s family stability, and figured maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. “I Got a Feeling” was an up-tempo tune with a lively vocal from Ricky and a scorching guitar solo from James Burton. 

It’s Late-1959: This is one of my favorite Ricky Nelson songs, about accidentally staying out too late with his girlfriend. “If we coulda left home at a quarter to nine/woulda had fun and plenty of time/we got started just a little bit late/hope this won’t be our last date.” 

Never Be Anyone Else But You-1959: A lovely slow song, which no doubt had the girls swooning over Ricky. The B-side of “It’s Late,” both songs made the Top Ten.

Just a Little Too Much-1959: An up-tempo A-side, both this song and its B-side “Sweeter Than You” peaked at number 9. 

Sweeter Than You-1959: One of Ricky’s best ballads. It has some similarities to “Lonesome Town,” as once again it’s performed with a just a guitar and the Jordanaires. Ricky’s voice brought a moving intimacy to this song. There’s an alternative version that starts with guitar strumming before Ricky starts singing, and it’s taken at a slightly quicker tempo. I prefer the version that begins with Ricky’s vocal.

I Wanna Be Loved-1959: This song was an odd change of pace for Ricky. It starts with just cymbals and finger snapping before Ricky’s vocal comes in. It’s more of a blues song than rock and roll, and it features female backing vocalists. 

Young Emotions-1960: A big ballad, with strings! “Young Emotions” is a fine song, but it shows how the times were changing. As rock and roll entered the 1960’s, most people in the music industry thought that rock would eventually become passé, and entertainers like Ricky Nelson and Elvis were urged to become more well-rounded entertainers, so they could survive the inevitable demise of rock and roll. Of course, in retrospect that seems ridiculous, but it’s part of the reason why Ricky was recording a song like “Young Emotions,” which wasn’t rock and roll at all. It’s still a fine song, but it’s definitely a pop song. But rock was slowly turning into pop, as when Elvis got out of the Army in 1960, Frank Sinatra welcomed him home on a TV special, and Elvis even donned a tuxedo for the occasion. Elvis was becoming safe and non-threatening. Gone was the smoldering singer of “King Creole,” to be replaced by the ever-smiling family entertainer of “G.I. Blues.” From 1960 on, Ricky Nelson’s hit singles tended to be more pop than rock and roll, but they were still fine songs, and thankfully there were some exceptions, as we’ll see.

Travelin’ Man-1961: Ricky’s career had hit something of a rough patch in 1960, as his biggest hit was “Young Emotions,” which peaked at number 12. Follow-up singles “I’m Not Afraid” and “You Are the Only One” didn’t crack the Top 20, but Ricky’s first single of 1961 was perhaps his best. “Travelin’ Man” was a catchy, perfect piece of pop that became Ricky’s second Number One single. “Travelin’ Man” was from the album “Rick is 21,” which served as a reminder that America’s favorite little brother was growing up.

Hello, Mary Lou-1961: The B-side to “Travelin’ Man,” this classic country-flavored song was written by Gene Pitney. Driven by a unique and catchy drum pattern, “Hello, Mary Lou” followed its A-side into the Top Ten. 

A Wonder Like You-1961: The follow-up single to “Travelin’ Man,” “A Wonder Like You” is also a sound-alike to “Travelin’ Man” and it’s an inferior song. It’s one of the few singles in Rick’s career that very obviously sounds like one of his other hits. “A Wonder Like You” doesn’t have the same energy that “Travelin’ Man” did, and it suffers from some cheesy lyrics: “I’ve seen the snow white mountains of Alaska/I’ve sailed along the rivers of Peru/I’ve seen the world and all its seven wonders/but I’ve never seen a wonder like you.” Jerry Fuller wrote both songs, and he gets bonus points for working the word “Polynesian” into both songs. 

Everlovin’-1961: The sprightly B-side to “A Wonder Like You,” and a much better song, in my opinion. 

Young World-1962: A nice, smooth slice of pop about young love, “Young World” peaked at Number 5.

Teenage Idol-1962: This is one of my favorite Rick Nelson songs, even though Nelson himself didn’t care for the song as he thought it would come off as self-pitying. The song begins with the lyrics: “Some people call me a teenage idol/some people say they envy me/I guess they got no way of knowing/how lonesome I can be.” 

It’s Up To You-1962: Something of a sound-alike to “Young World,” (again, both songs were written by Jerry Fuller) “It’s Up To You” peaked at Number 6 and features some nice call-and-response vocals, a prominent bass line and horns for a different sound. 

Fools Rush In-1963: 1963 would prove to be the year that Rick charted the most singles of his career, as 14 of Rick’s songs cracked the charts. However, that didn’t mean that he was riding a new crest of popularity. The reason so many Rick Nelson singles hit the charts that year was because Imperial flooded the market with old songs, in an attempt to make as much money as they could off of Rick after he left the label, as he signed an unprecedented 20-year contract with Decca Records. Rick’s first single for Decca missed the Top 40 entirely, so Imperial might have been successful in their mission. But “Fools Rush In,” Rick’s third single for Decca, proved that his fans knew a great song when they heard it. A rock update of the old standard, “Fools Rush In” rode a catchy drum pattern and a great James Burton solo to success. When Elvis recorded “Fools Rush In” with James Burton in 1971, he copied Rick’s arrangement, and Burton plays the same guitar solo on both records. 

For You-1964: Like “Fools Rush In,” “For You” was a rock update of an old song from the 1930’s. “For You” became Rick’s 18th Top Ten single in just 6 years. “For You” peaked on the singles chart in February, 1964, just as The Beatles were coming to America for the first time. The ensuing British Invasion pushed Rick off the charts, which explains why there’s an 8-year gap between “For You” and “Garden Party.” In between, Rick made a couple of forgettable pop albums that didn’t spawn any hits, two very good country-themed albums that would help point him in a new direction, and two folk/singer-songwriter albums where he covered the likes of Tim Hardin and Randy Newman. Rick then turned to country rock in 1969, and made some great albums like “In Concert at the Troubadour” and “Rick Sings Nelson.”

Garden Party-1972: “Garden Party,” Rick Nelson’s last Top Ten hit single, tells the story of Rick getting booed at a Madison Square Garden rock and roll show. Accounts differ as to whether or not the crowd was actually booing Rick and his new long-haired look, or if they were actually booing a fight among rowdy concertgoers. But the point is that Rick thought he was getting booed, and he went off and wrote his masterpiece. “Garden Party” is all about not being held prisoner by other people’s views of you. Rick sings, “Well it’s all right now/I’ve learned my lesson well/You see you can’t please everyone/So you got to please yourself.” Towards the end of the song, Rick sings “If you’ve 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.” Rick Nelson kept on singing until his tragic death in a plane crash on December 31, 1985. But the music that Rick Nelson made continues to live on.

Coming up next: Volume 2 of “The Best of Ricky Nelson,” which collects some lesser hit singles and great album tracks.

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