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.