Being a bit of a vinyl junkie I was indulging my passion for Record Fairs recently when I came across something of a lost gem – “Rick Sings Nelson” – and that started me thinking about a man who was one of the pioneers of the California sound; the brand of country rock that would make megastars out of The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and a host of other artists.
Rick Nelson formed The Stone Canyon Band in 1969, to back him on the live album “In Concert at the Troubadour”. The band consisted of Randy Meisner (bass guitarist, ex of Poco and soon to be Eagle), Tom Brumley (steel guitar player from Buck Owen’s Buckaroos), Allen Kemp (guitar), and Patrick Shanahan (drums). They would go on to record a single, a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘She Belong’s To Me’, a Top 40 hit in the U.S and Nelson’s biggest hit in some seven years. But Nelson had known greater success and that is where the big problems lay.
Nelson was better known to many as Ricky Nelson, child actor and 1950s teenage heart-throb, singer of number 1 smash hit ‘Poor Little Fool’ at only 17; Nelson’s life had been virtually mapped out for him from day one! Born in 1940 in Teaneck, New Jersey, Erick (Ricky) Nelson was the second son of entertainment professionals Ozzie & Harriet Nelson – stars of their own sitcom, “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriett”, a show that started on Radio in the October of 1944 and transferred to TV in 1954, with Ricky joining his older brother David on the show when he was eight years old (the roles of the sons were played by actors until they were old enough to take up their roles themselves). The show was a fictionalised version of the Nelson Family’s lives, what we would now think of as almost a scripted reality show. As such, it was the family business and Ozzie Nelson ran it that way. Though it was a fictionalised version of their lives the lines frequently blurred – to the point where, when David and Ricky married, both wives were written into the TV series.
It was the TV series that launched Ricky’s music career. Realising his son had musical talent, Ozzie started writing plots that saw Ricky singing and performing and it was this that led to his first recording contract. In later years it would be Ricky’s rising star that did much to prop up the series when that style of family sitcom started to lose popularity.
The young Ricky Nelson really did have a glittering career as a pop singer. He favoured rockabilly style songs and it should be remembered that, when he formed his own group, in preference to the older session musicians who had been backing him, his first guitarist was the 18 year old James Burton – Ricky knew and understood music, he wasn’t just a young actor forced into a role. Between 1957 and 1962 Ricky Nelson had 30 Top 40 Billboard hits – the only artists to exceed that over the same period were Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. Then the hits started to dry up.
The big hits all came in the late 50s and early 60s – ‘Poor Little Fool’, ‘Never Be Anyone Else But You’, ‘Travellin’ Man’, ‘Hello Mary Lou’ – then along came the British Invasion and, while Nelson’s songs continued to chart, they peaked that bit lower and dropped out that bit quicker. He officially changed his recording name from Ricky Nelson to Rick Nelson in 1961, on his 21st Birthday, but that didn’t stop people calling him Ricky and still seeing him as a teen idol. In 1963 he signed a twenty year record deal with Decca Records – and in 1964 he had his last top 50 hit until resurfacing with ‘She Belongs to Me’ five years later.
It was in the mid 1960s that Nelson started to turn his attention to country music and, in particular, the style of country rock that would come to be identified as the “California Sound”. As a long time fan of rockabilly in general and of Carl Perkins in particular (Nelson always cited Perkins as his main musical hero) he liked the idea of marrying a traditional country sound to the backing of a rock and roll band. Not dissimilar to Gram Parsons vision of “Cosmic American Music”, Nelson wanted to work with the country sound of a pedal steel guitar married to a more pop oriented guitar band, hence the line up of the original Stone Canyon Band. Nelson himself was a more than capable guitarist and the band’s instrumental line up and well crafted vocal harmonies soon drew a lot of admirers. Listening to their early albums today, especially the two 1970 albums ‘In Concert’ and ‘Rick Sings Nelson’, you can hear exactly how they would fit into the California Country/Rock scene and be an early influence on the Eagles sound.
Rick Nelson would achieve one more major chart hit. In 1972 ‘Garden Party’ would peak at number 6 in the Billboard Hot 100 and take the number one spot on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart. Written as a response to the reception he received at the 1971 Rock ‘n’ Roll Revival concert at Madison Square Garden, it is probably the stand out recording of his career as a country rock artist. Nelson felt that his band didn’t get a fair hearing at the concert and were booed for playing more modern material, like their cover of the Stones’ ‘Country Honk’, though many attending the concert at the time maintain that the booing was for unrelated police action outside. Whatever the reasons, Nelson felt that the audience didn’t respond favourably because he no longer looked, or performed, like the teen idol they remembered – “played them all the old songs, thought that’s why they came, no-one heard the music, we didn’t look the same”. The song name checks a number of fellow musicians, most notably John Lennon and Yoko Ono – “Yoko brought her Walrus” and George Harrison, a friend and neighbour of Nelson’s, who he refers to as “Mr Hughes”, an alias Harrison frequently adopted when travelling. The chorus to the song runs, “But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well. You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself”, a philosophy he would adopt for much of the rest of his time with the Stone Canyon Band.
Nelson never reached such dizzy chart heights again. ‘Garden Party’ gave him a gold record but support for his vision of country rock faded away and, by 1974, he was reduced to playing his old hits at theme parks and taking minor TV acting roles. A very messy divorce left him close to broke and, in 1985, he started out on the comeback circuit, reverting to the name Ricky Nelson, singing his old hits and touring with Fats Domino. On the night of New Year’s Eve, 1985, flying between gigs with his band and his then girlfriend, Helen Blair, a fire broke out in the passenger compartment of the private plane and the plane crashed, killing all seven passengers, though the two pilots miraculously survived. Rick Nelson had turned 45 in the May of that year.
Nelson’s story is a fascinating one and we can only scrape the surface of it in this article. In many ways he was the “poor little rich boy”, manipulated for much of his life by his parents, his record company, his wife – but he always had a vision of what he wanted to do, even if he only achieved that vision for a short time. The closing line of the last verse of ‘Garden Party’ says, “If memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck”. Sadly, he did end up singing those memories, forced back to his old hits by an unforgiving public, but he did achieve a place in the history of country rock music and deserves to be remembered for that. Check out his albums with the Stone Canyon Band, they’re well worth the effort.