Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Rick Nelson: Rocks Past and Future Prince

Despite selling millions of albums and being well known all over the world, I don't think music lovers in general realize just how good and important the late Eric Hilliard Nelson was.
Many thoughts go through my head when I think of Ricky Nelson these days. I often remember hearing his music for the first time when I was in growing up courtesy of my father's record collection. I had never before, or since, heard a rock voice so brilliantly subtle and relaxed. I remember staring at the covers of those albums at this impossibly beautiful young man, and feeling like I was looking at someone very real. The honesty reflected in the eyes on any photograph of Rick is inherent in his music. As much as his unaffected vocals or scorching James Burton guitar licks, the records of Ricky Nelson are all the products of a very sincere and very serious dreamer.
Ricky was of course known to millions of people before he could have even fully grasped what fame was. First on the legendary OZZIE AND HARRIET radio show as the scene stealing precocious 'Little Ricky' and then later on the even more famous and influential television show. America grew to know and love Ricky Nelson perhaps before he even had a chance to really know who Ricky Nelson was.
The story of how he got into music is often repeated. Like every other teenager in 1956 Ricky was entranced by Elvis Presley and the freedom his records offered. Always the consummate searcher Ricky discovered Elvis' legendary Sun sides, which in turn led him to the searing rockabilly of Carl Perkins. In Elvis and Perkins he found a sanctuary from the fame and the 'Little Ricky' that everyone in the country thought they knew.
I think about the 16 year old Ricky sitting in his bedroom, like a million other teenagers, listening to those astonishing Sun and early RCA sides over and over again. Only Ricky already had the fame that most teenagers dreamed of, for Ricky the thing he must have wanted was the authenticity of those recordings.
So the story goes that Ricky was rejected by a girl who was obsessed by Elvis, and in a moment of rare bravado he said he was going to cut a record. A quick little thought out ploy to get a girl would soon turn into one of the most important careers in rock history.

The moment that Ricky Nelson comes on the screen at the end of the OZZIE AND HARRIET episode RICKY THE DRUMMER and sings Fats Dominoes I'M WALKIN is one of the great and seminal moments in rock history. Ricky looks nervous and self conscious but there is already something in his eye and voice, that authenticity that he so longed for seemed somehow inherent in him. Ricky Nelson singing I'M WALKIN that fateful evening brought rock and roll into a uncountable number of households that would have never let it in otherwise.
The key to Ricky's entire career is rebellion. Long mistaken for being a safe performer, we can see now that Nelson almost immediately went against Ozzie's musical tastes to form his own very distinct sound. Key to this was the band that he put together shortly after the I'M WALKING single. Headed by a teenage guitar player named James Burton, Ricky and his band cut a prolific and astonishingly great number of singles and albums in the next few years that would, for a period, outsell even Elvis.
With tracks like POOR LITTLE FOOL, STOOD UP and especially BELIEVE WHAT YOU SAY the team of Ricky Nelson and James Burton was an unstoppable force. Burton's shimmering and always inventive guitar work matched with Ricky's unmatchable laid back vocal style will still send chills up even the most jaded music fans necks. The albums during this period are also incredible in that even the lesser more dated tracks still stand out due to this pair's inventive and exhaustive work. Add on the uncredited Jordanaires and you have some of the greatest records of the rock era.
BELIEVE WHAT YOU SAY especially sounds like a revolution all on its own, with Burton's amazing solo laying a virtual blueprint for thousands of players to follow.
Ricky Nelson always seems to be a man haunted by some inner fear that he wasn't as authentic as he wanted to be. He wasn't black, he wasn't poor, he wasn't from the South. All of these things seemingly against him only added to a hard work ethic that would run through him till the day he died.
One story that I love, and that I think says a lot about Rick was the first time he met Elvis. He had been invited to a party Elvis was at and spent most of the night alone in a corner, terrified of meeting his idol. When Elvis found out that Rick was at the party he searched him down and immediately started quoting OZZIE AND HARRIET lines to show that he never missed an episode. Rick was said to be almost moved to tears, and he quickly became close to Elvis and the two would play football together throughout the sixties while Elvis was in Hollywood.
After cutting the incredibly moving TRAVELLIN MAN and playing opposite Dean Martin in RIO BRAVO Rick's career hit a down point. With the arrival of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and the rest of the British Invasion, Rick's records suddenly began to sound a little too safe and quaint. Ironically, and probably unknown to Rick, he had been one of McCartney and Lennon's biggest influences. McCartney still rhapsodizes about him when the occasion arrives and often covers his haunting LONESOME TOWN.
Throughout the mid sixties Rick tried a lot of things, all with mixed results. A failed film with his wife called LOVE AND KISSES, a tv musical with Burt Bacharach and a somewhat psychedelic album called PERSPECTIVE. Everything seemed to fall slightly short, and then even the long running OZZIE AND HARRIET ran out of steam and was cancelled. The world was changing and it seemed like 'Little Ricky' would fade quietly from view.
The origins of the genre known as country rock have always been a bit confused. Many people seem to put ground zero at The Byrd's incredible SWEETHEARTS OF THE RODEO, but often overlooked is a little selling album from 1966 by Ricky entitled BRIGHT LIGHTS COUNTRY MUSIC.
Ricky Nelson's sudden jump into country music surprised the few people who noticed but it shouldn't have. He was that same teenage boy who had always dreamed of that Southern authenticity he had heard in those Sun sides.

In 1968 Ricky would do a total makeover, no longer called Ricky the new Rick would re-surface with long hair and the the incredible LIVE AT THE TROUBADOUR album, and a powerful single of Bob Dylan's SHE BELONGS TO ME.
The period of 68-73 is my favorite in Rick's career. Along with The Stone Canyon Band he would cut a series of incredible folk-rock albums mixing his own compositions with his current favorites (by the likes of Dylan, Tim Hardin, The Stones and more). The albums RICK SINGS NELSON, RUDY THE FIFTH, GARDEN PARTY and WINDFALL are among the finest in the country rock genre and would influence everyone from Linda Ronstadt to The Eagles. Rick's work in this period stands along with Graham Parson's as one of the purest ever meetings between rock and country.
RUDY THE FIFTH in particular is probably, along with the TROUBADOUR album, the greatest unknown record in Rick's canon. With strong songwriting, including a chillingly prophetic GYPSY PILOT that ends the album with the sound of a plane crash, to some of the best Bob Dylan covers ever, RUDY THE FIFTH is a bold work by Rick at his most confident.

After the famed GARDEN PARTY, perhaps Rick's finest and most well known triumpth, personal and career worries began to take hold. Rick toured constantly for the next few years trying to push his incredible new music onto audiences that were often puzzingly unreceptive.
The death of Elvis Presley in August of 77 shook Rick and reminded him of the music of his youth. After the disappointing failure of the overly slick INTAKES album, as well as the unreleased BACK IN VIENNA unreleased LP, Rick would spend much of 78 devising a record that would combine the early James Burton fueled rockabilly sides of his youth with his more grown up flavored folk rock.
ROCKABILLY RENAISSANCE is one of the great unreleased records in rock history, Rick's winter of 78 masterpiece would foreshadow the emergence of an entirely new genre called cow-punk. You can hear the birth of bands like X, Lone Justice and The Stray Cats in these remarkable sides from that incredibly bitter winter after Elvis had died. Appearing on Saturday Night Live to promote the upcoming album, Rick delivered a haunting DREAM LOVER that should have become a huge hit. What happens next has still never been fully explained.
His record company made the odd decision to hold back the release of DREAM LOVER by several weeks killing the strong SNL word of mouth. Even more damaging then was the news that the company was going to shelve ROCKABILLY RENAISSANCE after Rick refused to make it more commercial. Released in its place was a four track ep that only scratched at the surface of its greatness. The album was finally released in a glossy over produced version entitled THE MEMPHIS SESSIONS after Rick died. It remains the biggest missed opportunity in Rick Nelson's career.

More and more exhausting touring followed, and the beginnings of a messy divorce, until the release of the underrated PLAYING TO WIN album in 1981. This album would show Rick still at the top of his songwriting and performing game but no one seemed to notice.
The final few years of Rick's life have him touring at an impossible rate in order to pay off his mounting legal bills and take care of his sons. Disheartening and re-assuring was having an album back in the charts by 84 ALL MY BEST, which featured re-recordings of some of his biggest hits.
The final days of Rick Nelson are often looked upon as tragic, with him touring in one of those sad oldies package shows. But he still delivered performances every night that were worthy of his fine legacy.
Shortly before his death Rick participated in the MEMPHIS CLASS OF 55 record which reunited Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins back at Sun studios. At one point Carl Perkins came up to Rick and wrapped his arm around him and told him that they were two of the last 'originals' left. Rick would often recount this story to his sons, and it can be looked upon as the moment where "little Ricky" finally realized that he had possessed that authenticity, that he had so yearned for, all along.
Rick Nelson was killed on December 31st, 1985 in a plane crash along with the members of his band and some friends. The media quickly reported that it was drug related, although this was later proven unfounded and a complete falsehood.
Rick's music and life continues to captivate people all over the world, and a recent best of collection surprised everyone by jumping into the top forty in it's first week of sales. I still remember holding my father's albums and hearing Rick's amazing voice for the first time, and each time I play his music that same sincerity still shines through.
Bob Dylan would began to perform LONESOME TOWN in concert after Rick died. He would also write of how much he loved Rick's voice in his CHRONICLES book. Typically he would introduce LONESOME TOWN by saying that Rick had covered many of his songs so he wanted to pay him back and then add, "I had a lot of respect for that guy". It is a respect that I believe will continue to grow as Rick's music becomes more and more available again.

Essential to newcomers is the four cd box set LEGACY that covers Rick's entire career. All of his early albums with James Burton are essential for any serious rock fan and LIVE AT THE TROUBADOUR and RUDY THE FIFTH are still astonishing, although much harder to find.
To go along with the respect that Dylan mentioned, I would just like to add...that I really admire and love this guy. Seek out some of his music if you don't have any in your collection, you might be surprised by how great and transcendent it is.


Tim Lucas said...

A fine profile of Rick, Jeremy. He's my favorite rockabilly artist and of particular interest to me because he's at once a first generation rocker, the first TV rocker (Ozzie's promotional film for "Travelin' Man" is the one bidder for the title of "World's first Rock Video" that truly has no antecedents), and probably the first recursive rocker. Before he stepped out as a singer and musician in his own right, he dressed as Elvis in a Halloween episode of OZZIE AND HARRIET. James Burton, who played guitar on the original single of "Suzie Q," was a major asset to Nelson's recording cred, but as you say, Rick was also a brilliant singer. Sometimes when I listen to "Fools Rush In," I mentally separate Rick's voice from the backing track and tell myself the accompaniment could just as easily be an orchestral string accompaniment of the day; it floats above and beyond the band, and Burton plays one of his finest ever leads on that record. Two important songs you didn't mention are "Summertime," a cover of the classic Gershwin song given an incredibly heavy blues arrangement, and "Mean Old World," a Billy Vera-penned number that might be his best recording of the mid-to-late Sixties. A lot is made of "Garden Party" and rightly so, but I think he was prouder of "Easy To Be Free," a wonderfully ethereal country rocker that his sons Matthew and Gunnar sang at his memorial service.

Neil said...

Thanks for writing this.

Oddly, I was just thinking about Rick Nelson as I walked, maybe half and hour ago. Not as odd as it might have been for other people, who, I suspect, are less likely to ponder their favorite rock and roll artists idly as they walk and, I'm certain, less likely to rank Rick Nelson nearly as high on their list of favorite rock and roll artists.

I can't think of a word you wrote there with which I would disagree, including - possibly especially - about the period between '68 and '73.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks to you both.
This was one of the most heartfelt things I have put on the blog so far so I really appreciate your thoughts.

Tim, I totally agree with you on your perceptive comments. That observation about "Fools Rush In" is right on and very well put.
I struggled with what songs to mention as I have so many favorites. I specifically didn't mention "Easy To Be Free" as I wanted to cover the Troubadour album and the period from 68-73 in more detail later. Needless to say "Easy To Be Free" is one of his great recordings and his performance and lyrics are really incredible.
Speaking of Matthew and Gunnar, they get a lot of flack for their own recordings but I've really admired how respectful and genuine they (along with his other children) seem. I thought the extra of them singing with James Burton backing them on the most recent Rick dvd was really splendid and pretty damn touching.
Oh, and also it is funny you mention that "Travelin Man" video. Last night I went to You-Tube to post it as a reminder for the "Ozzie and Harriet" set that is coming out Tuesday and apparently like a lot of YouTube's best videos it seems to have been removed. Truly revolutionary spot that I does think holds a legitimate claim as the first rock video.

Neil, obviously I know what you mean about the pondering of favorite rock stars. Rick is one of the main ones who often comes into my thoughts, very glad to hear I am not alone.
Also glad to hear that you admire the 68-73 period. I will be writing more on this in the future which is why I short changed it a bit in this posting.

Thanks again for both you comments, I was especially glad to read them for this post.

Tim Lucas said...

Something I forgot to mention yesterday about the song "Gypsy Pilot." You mention how the song ends with the lead guitar zooming along to a dead halt, as if sketching an aircrash. Oddly enough, Jorma Kaukonen plays a nearly identical guitar passage at the end of "Eat Starch Mom," the last song heard on Jefferson Airplane's last studio album LONG JOHN SILVER. In a 1968 interview, Kaukonen said that he grew up listening to a lot of Ricky Nelson, so it's possible he had heard the track. If the passage presages Nelson's death in an aircrash, Kaukonen may have used it more deliberately to signal the Airplane's final, fatal landing.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Tim,
I'll have to pull my copy of LONG JOHN SILVER out. It is the Airplane album I am least familiar with. If my memory serves correctly I think it came out just a year or two after Rick's RUDY THE FIFTH, which contained Gypsy Pilot.
I think Gypsy Pilot is a really great song and among my favorites of Rick's own compositions. I have him on dvd performing the track live on, I think his Kenny Rogers show appearance, and it's a great clip featuring a really smoking Stone Canyon Band. He also performs an awesome Honky Tonk Women duet with Kenny on that same show which is really something. I might be getting the Gypsy Pilot clip confused as I have a lot of his tv performances from different shows in the sixties and seventies, but I think it's on the Kenny show. Either way it is great to see him perform it live, a section of this clip was used to maximum effect in the Behind The Music special on him several years back with his daughter Tracy talking about the effect the song has on her when she hears it now.
Thanks again for the comment, I'm looking forward to re-listening to that Jefferson Airplane album as it is one I have been meaning to revisit.

cinebeats said...

I'm afraid I have nothing worthwhile to say except, damn he was cute!

Tim Lucas said...

Note to Jeremy re LONG JOHN SILVER: It's more like the Airplane we know and love than its quirky predecessor BARK, but it's a mostly coked-up affair -- the mix is thick and overcrowded, and the songs themselves are not very good. Grace Slick is in rant mode from start to finish. However, and it's a BIG however, there is "Alexander the Medium," which never fails to raise my gooseflesh and tempt my tear ducts.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Kimberly,
I think Rick, with the exception of Elvis, was definately the best looking of the rockers that came out of the fifties. Thanks for reading...

Re-visited "Long John Silver" last night and while it isn't on par with their earlier masterpieces it is an improvement in spots on Bark(although I like Bark more than most seem to). I had remembered Alexander The Medium as being pretty stunning and it still is.
Thanks for the tip...

Neil Sarver said...

Let me agree on his handsomeness. I feel no shame in acknowledging him as another male star I have a boy crush on.

And, as much as I'm enjoying the discussion of the greater musical complexities and the later period. "Gypsy Pilot" is also a favorite of mine, allow me to also note that I'll happily stack his version of "Milkcow Blues" up against anyone's - including The King's. He was quite a rompin' rockabilly cat.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Neil,
Yea looking at Rick reminds me of a story Jerry Reed told about the first time he met Elvis and he had to admit he was better looking than most women he had known.
Glad to hear I'm not the only admirer of Gypsy Pilot, I really love that track. Also great call on "Milkcow Blues", Ricky's version is killer.
Thanks for your further comments...

Anonymous said...


Like yourself, I came to appreciate Rick Nelson through my dad's record collection. I saw him in concert at the Civic Auditorium in Portland, Oregon in 1973 during the Windfall tour when I was 10 years old. I always thought he was incredibly underrated and I listened to all of his later recordings and wondered why they did not become hits. OF course the early records are classics. Of his later recordings I especially like "Lifestream", which as you know he penned and was later covered by Olivia-Newton John. I also like his covers of John Fogerty's "Almost Saturday Night" and John Hiatt's "It Hasn't Happened Yet." "Dream Weaver" is one of the most signature songs for our family and reminds my younger sister and I of our dad-who played the record constantly when we were little and still insists it should have been a huge hit for Rick. Thanks Jeremy, and you are right, he was incredibly beautiful, one of the most striking rock and roll stars ever. If you look at more recent CD and album covers of Chris Isaak, you get the feeling they are trying to emulate those early photographs of Rick and Elvis.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks for your comments and memories on discovering and seeing Rick live. I am envious that you got to see him as I never did.
I like Lifestream a lot, great song...both versions. His version of Fogerty's Almost Saturday Night is fantastic, that's another period of his often too overlooked.
Thanks again for the comments and for visiting.

Anonymous said...

It's really a pleasent surprise to find a young person capturing the essence of Rick Nelson. I grew up on his music, tv show and then worked with him in 1966 when he appeared in "How to Succeed In Business Without really Trying" and again in 1979 when we promoted him in concert. Later, I was a consultant to VH1 on both Behind The Movie and Behind The Music.

Rick had such a cool, laidback, distinctive sound. The tone, feel of his songs still pass the test of time. The biggest problem that Rick had was his image. In the 60's though people of his generation grew..they would not accept the fact so had Rick. That's why today so many people are slowly rediscovering the music of his Stone Canyon Band era. Rick was among the best interpretors of Bob Dylan and Tim Hardin songs. He wrote some great songs such as "Easy To Be Free", "How Long", "Last Time Around", "Gypsy Pilot", "Thank You Lord", Garden Party", "Someone to Love", "You Just Can't Quit", "Call It What You Want."

Thanks again for remembering Rick.

Anonymous said...

i linked to your post on my tumblr :)


just letting you know :)

Anonymous said...

Thought I would let you know that my book Rick Nelson: Rock and Roll Pioneer was released last Thursday. It has 197 pages, which includes 47 photos (some never before seen). Available for sale at Amazon or Barnes and Noble. A must have for any fan of Rick's.