Thursday, February 20, 2014

Mix CD, "The Best of Ricky Nelson, Volume 2"

Rick Nelson driving a Studebaker Avanti, 1960's.

Rick Nelson, 1981.
In my previous post I covered a mix CD I made “The Best of Ricky Nelson, Volume 1,” which included all of Ricky’s Top 20 hit singles. For “The Best of Ricky Nelson, Volume 2,” I dug a little deeper to include my favorite Rick Nelson songs that were album tracks or lesser hit singles.  This is a pretty subjective list, and there are definitely some hit singles that I didn’t include on this CD.

Here are the 28 songs:

1. You Tear Me Up
2. My Babe
3. Milk Cow Blues
4. That's All
5. Summertime
6. String Along
7. The Very Thought of You
8. Since I Don't Have You
9. Mean Old World
10. Blue Moon of Kentucky
11. Mystery Train
12. You Just Can't Quit
13. Easy to Be Free
14. She Belongs to Me
15. I Shall Be Released
16. Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You
17. Love Minus Zero/No Limit
18. Honky Tonk Women
19. I'm Talking About You
20. I Don't Want to Be Lonely Tonight
21. Mama, You Been On My Mind
22. That's All Right
23. Rave On
24. True Love Ways
25. Dream Lover
26. Almost Saturday Night
27. Believe What You Say
28. That's All Right

Here’s some commentary about the songs:

You Tear Me Up-1959-from “Ricky Sings Again”: This is a great “All Shook Up”-style pop song. I’m surprised it wasn’t released as a single.

My Babe-1958-from “Ricky Nelson”: A cover of the Willie Dixon song, it shows that Ricky could indeed sing the blues. It features excellent guitar work by James Burton, as usual. 

Milk Cow Blues-1960-B-side of “You Are the Only One”: A cover of a song that Elvis recorded for Sun Records. Ricky’s vocal is impassioned, and the song shows the influence that Elvis and other rockabilly artists like Carl Perkins had on Ricky.

That’s All-1959-from “Songs By Ricky”: Changing gears, this is a lovely ballad version of this standard, which has been sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Mathis and Bobby Darin. Darin’s exuberant and up-tempo version is from 1959 as well, and it’s the title of his breakthrough album that also features “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea.” Ricky’s version features his typical ballad dreaminess.

Summertime-1962-from “Album Seven By Rick”: No, Rick’s early albums weren’t very creatively titled. But this rock/blues version of the Gershwin classic is quite creative. 

String Along-1963-from “For Your Sweet Love”: This was Rick’s first Top 40 single for Decca Records, and it’s actually a cover of a Fabian song from 1960. Needless to say, Rick’s version is much better than Fabian’s. Sonically, “String Along” is given the “Poor Little Fool” treatment, and it’s an addictive earworm that’s one of my favorites among Rick’s lesser hit singles. 

The Very Thought of You-1964-from “The Very Thought of You”: After Rick had hits with “Fools Rush In” and “For You,” his next single was “The Very Thought of You,” yet another song from his father Ozzie’s big band era. Which makes me think that Decca was not having success in getting writers to pen original hits for Rick, hence these versions of old songs. The arrangement of “The Very Thought of You” sounds a lot like “For You,” but it’s still an enjoyable song. This was Rick’s last Top 40 single until “She Belongs to Me” in 1969. Side note: the Decca album that “Fools Rush In” and “For You” were on was called “Rick Nelson sings ‘For You.’” As part of their ongoing campaign to confuse Rick’s fans, his old label Imperial promptly issued an album of old material called “Rick Nelson Sings For You.” The only difference is the lack of quotation marks around “For You.” Sneaky.

Since I Don’t Have You-1965-from “Best Always”: This is one of my favorite Rick Nelson album tracks. Originally a hit for the doo-wop group The Skyliners in 1958, this song features some great high notes from Rick.

Mean Old World-1965-from “Best Always”: This is a downbeat song with a passionate vocal from Rick. He practically screams the last refrain of “Oh, I need someone!”

Blue Moon of Kentucky-1966-from “Rick’s Rarities-1964-1974”: Rick turned towards country for two albums in the mid-1960’s, since his pop records were not making much of a dent in the charts. This is an excellent version of the Bill Monroe bluegrass classic, which was of course memorably covered by Elvis on Sun Records. For some reason, “Blue Moon of Kentucky” wasn’t released on either on either of Rick’s country albums and stayed in the vaults until 2004.

Mystery Train-1967-from “Country Fever”: Another great version of an Elvis Sun classic. James Burton unfurls some licks that he’ll use again in a couple of years when he’s playing the song live with Elvis in Las Vegas.

You Just Can’t Quit-1966-from “Bright Lights & Country Music”: A Rick Nelson original, this song reflects Rick’s position in the pop culture world of 1966. “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” was finally canceled in 1966, after 14 years on TV, and Rick’s singles and albums were having no impact on an indifferent public. Like every other rock and roller from the 1950’s, Rick’s career was being swept away by the Beatles and the British Invasion. But Rick vows to carry on, as he sings, “When the whole world puts you down/And makes you feel like a clown/That’s not it/You just can’t quit.”

Easy To be Free-1969-single A-side, available on “The Best of Rick Nelson 1963-1975”: This is probably my favorite song that Rick Nelson wrote. It’s a gorgeous tune, with idealistic and yearning lyrics. “Did you ever want to go/Where you’ve never been before/Did you ever want to know/Things you’ve never known before/I’ll take you there with me/And maybe then you’ll see it’s easy to be free.” 

She Belongs to Me-1969-single A-side, available on “The Best of Rick Nelson 1963-1975”: A cover of a Bob Dylan song, this was Rick’s first single with the Stone Canyon Band, and the first to highlight his new country rock sound. After a few years of floundering, Rick had found a sound that really worked for him. I think that Rick was a great interpreter of Bob Dylan’s songs; he really should have recorded an entire album of Dylan songs. I think the contrast between Dylan’s nasally voice and Rick’s sweet and pure voice makes Rick’s versions of Dylan’s songs really interesting.

I Shall Be Released-live-1969-from “In Concert, the Troubadour, 1969”: Taken from his first concerts with the Stone Canyon Band, “In Concert” was a triumphant album for Rick. It showed that the former teen idol had grown up and matured, and had also become an excellent song writer. This cover of the Bob Dylan song, first sung by The Band, was one of the highlights of the album, featuring an excellent vocal from Rick, and great support by the Stone Canyon Band.

Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You-live-1969-from “In Concert, the Troubadour, 1969”: A Bob Dylan song from 1969’s “Nashville Skyline,” I’ve always thought that Elvis would have done a great version of it. Elvis never recorded it, but thankfully Rick Nelson did, and Rick brought the sexiness to the song that Dylan’s version is missing. Unfortunately, this song was unreleased until the 2011 2-Disc CD of the Troubadour shows, which I would highly recommend to any Rick Nelson fan.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit-1971-from “Rudy the Fifth”: Another Dylan song, Rick’s beautiful voice works well against Dylan’s obscure lyrics. 

Honky Tonk Women-1971-from “Rudy the Fifth”: This is the song that caused all of the fuss for Rick when he sang it at an oldies show in Madison Square Garden in 1971. Fans booed, and Rick thought they were booing his choice of material. Some stories suggest that fans were booing other rowdy fans, but whatever the cause of the booing, it inspired Rick to write his 1972 hit “Garden Party.” Rick’s studio recording of the Rolling Stones hit was excellent, with some filthy guitar work. 

I’m Talking About You-1972-from “Garden Party”: There are many great songs from the “Garden Party” album, like “A Flower Opens Gently By,” but I chose this Chuck Berry song because of the excellent band performance. Rick had previously sung “I’m Talking About You” on 1964’s “Spotlight on Rick,” you can listen to that version to see how much his music had changed in 8 years.

I Don’t Want to Be Lonely Tonight-1974-from “Windfall”: Not to be confused with the similarly-named James Taylor song of the same period, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.” Side note: I think Rick Nelson would have done great versions of James Taylor’s songs. Written by Baker Knight, who had written “Lonesome Town” and other hits for Nelson, this energetic song really should have been released as a single, it could have been a big hit.

Mama, You Been On My Mind-1978-from “The Complete Epic Recordings”: After Decca, which had by this time become MCA Records, dropped Nelson in 1975, he signed with Epic Records. Rick’s time at Epic would be extremely frustrating, as he recorded enough material for 3 albums, but saw only one issued in his lifetime, 1977’s “Intakes.” “Mama, You Been On My Mind” is another excellent version of a Bob Dylan song, and it was cut for an album that would have been called “Back to Vienna,” but once the album was complete Epic shelved the master tapes. Fortunately, all of Rick’s Epic recordings were issued in 2012 on the excellent 2-disc set “The Complete Epic Recordings.” 

That’s All Right-1978-from “The Complete Epic Recordings”: Rick’s second unreleased Epic album was recorded in Memphis and found Rick recording many of his favorite rock songs from the 1950’s. Some of these songs were issued shortly after his death as “The Memphis Sessions.” Rick’s cover of Elvis’s first record is a highlight. 

Rave On-1978-from “The Complete Epic Recordings”: An excellent version of the Buddy Holly rocker. This was the final song that Rick Nelson sang at his final concert appearance in December 1985.

True Love Ways-1978-from “The Complete Epic Recordings”: A lovely, spare version of the Buddy Holly ballad. 

Dream Lover-1978-from “The Complete Epic Recordings”: A slowed-down version of the Bobby Darin hit, Rick performed “Dream Lover” on “Saturday Night Live” in early 1979 to a rapturous reception. Rick was hopeful that the song could become a hit, but the release of the single was delayed, supposedly because an Epic executive thought that a bongo drum should be overdubbed.  “Dream Lover” was moderately successful on the country and adult contemporary charts, but it didn’t crack the Top 100. “Dream Lover” would have been helped immensely if it had been released in support of an album, rather than as just a random single. Had Epic released the excellent “Memphis Sessions” as an album, Rick might have had another comeback hit.

Almost Saturday Night-1981-from “Playing to Win”: This was an excellent version of a John Fogerty song from “Playing to Win,” which would be the last album released in Rick’s lifetime. It’s proof that Rick could still rock and roll, even after turning 40.

Believe What You Say-1981-from “Playing to Win”: A superb re-recording of Rick’s 1958 hit single, this wasn’t just trading on past glories, but a re-imagining of one of Rick’s signature songs, with more aggressive lead guitar work.

That’s All Right-live-1983-85-from “Live 1983-1985”: I could have ended the CD with Rick’s re-recording of “Believe What You Say,” but I really like this live version of “That’s All Right,” recorded with his excellent final band. It leaves us with a glimpse of Rick Nelson as he was in his final years, still making great music, and still rocking and rolling. 

Rick Nelson died in a plane crash on December 31, 1985, while traveling to a concert in Texas. But the music that he made continues to live on. I think anyone who is familiar with Rick Nelson’s music knows that he was much more than just a teen idol; he was an excellent singer, songwriter, and performer who contributed a great deal to American rock and roll music. On this CD I’ve tried to show Rick Nelson’s versatility and his commitment to making great music. Later on in Rick’s career he was no longer making hit records, but he was still making good records, and that proves to me what a dedicated musician he truly was.

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