Rick Nelson

TrackAlbum
Believe What You SayLondon single HLP 8594
CaliforniaRick Sings Nelson
Garden PartyGarden Party
Hello Mary LouIn Concert
It’'s LateLondon single HLP 8817
Never Be Anyone Else But YouLondon single HLP 8817
Rock & Roll LadyMCA single MCA 40458
She Belongs To MeMCA single MU 1106
Teenage IdolLondon single HLP 9583
Wild Nights In TulsaWindfall

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Contributor: Peter Viney

This could almost be two posts: Ricky Nelson, the pop singer and teenage idol, and Rick Nelson the country rock pioneer who would rather drive a truck than sing his old songs.

Rick(y) Nelson started as a radio star at the age of nine in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet which went on to US TV, so is akin to David Cassidy in his route to singing star. He was in a film, Here Come The Nelsons, at twelve, and in 1959 was in Rio Bravo with John Wayne. His first record was a cover of Fats Domino’s I’m Walkin’ which was a major hit. Then Be Bop Baby had advance orders of 750,000 in 1957 and sold a million in the USA. Ricky his first album went to #1. Be Bop Baby is generic run-of-the mill basically. Stood Up next, was a much better song. Poor Little Fool was written by Sharon Sheeley and was the first #1 record in Billboard’s new Hot 100 Chart.

Nelson didn’t want to continue with the studio hacks chosen by his TV and real-life dad, and assembled his own band with James Burton on lead guitar. They were both eighteen. There’s a clip of them from the Ozzie and Harriet Show in 1958 duetting.

Joe Osborn joined them on bass guitar, giving him two of the best session guys of the 60s in his band, and he had chosen them. Believe What You Say showcased the band, and Nelson was particularly proud of it, featuring it in live shows twenty years later. The Jordanaires sang backing vocals on most of the singles, though Colonel Parker insisted they were not credited.

He recorded for Imperial in the USA until 1962, racking up a series of hits that made him the third best-selling American singer in Britain, after Elvis and Pat Boone. Poor Little Fool (#4) and Someday (#9) were UK hits in 1958. In 1959, It’s Late was #3 UK hit and the B-side, Never Be Anyone Else But You was #14.

His biggest hit was Hello Mary Lou, a double-sided hit with Travelin’ Man in America in 1961. In the USA, Travelin’ Man was the original A side. In the UK, it was the B-side. It’s claimed that the promo film for Travelin’ Man was effectively the first ‘rock video’. Hello Mary Lou is probably his best known song (written by Gene Pitney).

In the USA he had fifty three Top 100 songs. His personal preference was uptempo, but his natural light voice and good looks meant he was also landed with teen ballads like Lonesome Town.

His move from Imperial to US Decca was a major story in America in 1962, though as both labels were London-American in Britain, it wasn’t noticed in the UK. At that point, Ricky became Rick on record labels. He recorded Teenage Idol in 1962, and it signalled his attitudes for the next few years:

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

OK, it’s a bit wet, but I bought it new and still love it. His career, like most of his peers, hit a brick wall in 1964 with The Beatles and the British invasion. His great band had become sought-after LA session men, though James Burton played on his albums until 1969. I’ve focussed on singles for this era … I don’t know all the corners of the dozen LPs he released between 1957 and 1964.

The career switch was a move in a country rock direction. He also started covering Dylan songs as well as writing his own. She Belongs To Me was a hit in 1970, by which time he had formed a new band, including future-Eagle Randy Meisner who had just left Poco. Rick Nelson had seen Meisner playing bass with Poco at The Troubadour in L.A., and Meisner assembled the band. Nelson now had a crack country rock band, very much like The Flying Burrito Brothers, and their live recording of If You Gotta Go is a tempting Toppermost, rivalling the Burritos’ version. Nelson was an excellent rhythm guitarist too. As Hello Mary Lou is so familiar, I’m going to include the later live version from 1970’s album In Concert (recorded at The Troubadour, LA, where he had first met Meisner, October 1969). I’m Walkin’ which had been his first single gets a radical 1969 remake, again dwarfing his effort a dozen years earlier. But the same is true of Travelin’ Man and Poor Little Fool. Eric Andersen’s Violets Of Dawn was a possible from In Concert which has been reissued as a double album with bonus tracks from other shows. In retrospect, In Concert stands as a seminal country rock classic, with a particular mention for bass guitar work.

From the same era I’ve chosen California from Rick Sings Nelson in 1970.

A turning point came in 1972. He got booed during a performance of The Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women at Madison Square Garden by a crowd who wanted the 1958-1963 hits. He’d played She Belongs To Me and songs from his album Rudy The Fifth including Just Like A Woman, Love Minus Zero and Honky Tonk Women. The audience might have had a point. While Rick Nelson was establishing a corner in covering Dylan, four covers close together is a bar band set list, and I tend not to sympathize with musicians who decline to play the songs people have come to see. Certainly Honky Tonk Women as recorded is a weak version for a Stones fan. However he does say they’d played ‘all the old songs’.

He described the event in Garden Party, a song competing with American Pie for intriguing name dropping … Mr Hughes who hid in Dylan’s shoes was supposed to be George Harrison, Nelson’s neighbour, who used the name Hughes when checking in at hotels.

Played them all the old songs, thought that’s why they came
No one heard the music, we didn’t look the same
I said hello to “Mary Lou”, “She belongs to me,”
When I sang a song about a honky-tonk, it was time to leave

John Fogerty, Don Henley and Timothy B. Schmit covered Garden Party together in 2009, and these are guys who understand the situation in the lyrics as well as anyone.

Nelson’s career revived on the back of the song, and he was able to assemble a new Stone Canyon Band. They never hit the same degree of success again, and ironically Rick Nelson found audiences until his death in 1985 were there to hear Garden Party reprised rather than anything he ever recorded afterwards.

Rock & Roll Lady was a 1975 ballad returning again to the angst of the travelin’ man and ex-teenage idol, addressed to the faithful fan:

First one to arrive
and when the lights come on you’re the last to go
You know it shows that you don’t understand
I’m just an ordinary man,
trying to live his life the best he can

Wild Nights In Tulsa is a classic Eagles / Burritos style song from Windfall in 1974 to represent The Stone Canyon Band as a great working band. The title track, Windfall, was another possible from the album.

For early material, Ricky Nelson: Six Albums Plus is an ultra low-price (i.e. the cost of one new CD) “out of copyright” 4 CD set containing his six pre-1963 albums, plus a full side of single mixes and EP material.

In Concert (At The Troubadour 1969) is now a remastered double CD with bonus tracks, showing what a fine live band Nelson had in 1969. Highly recommended. Ace Records.

Rick Nelson official website

Rick Nelson International Club

Rick Nelson biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #100

2 Comments

  1. David Powell
    Oct 21, 2013

    Prior to James Burton joining Ricky Nelson, Joe Maphis played lead guitar on many of Mr. Nelson’s records. He was a great guitarist & peformer, far from being just another studio hack. Of course, in addition to his great talent as a guitarist, James Burton was much younger, around the same age as Mr. Nelson, which was an advantage as far as television and concert appearances.

    The first recording Mr. Burton played on was “Stood Up” b/w “Waiting in School”, recorded in Nov. 1957. Burton played rhythm and Joe Maphis played lead. Joe Walsh later “borrowed” one of Maphis riffs on “Waiting in School” for his hit song “All Night Long,” which was included on the hugely successful “Urban Cowboy” soundtrack album.

    By the March 1958 recording session for “Believe What You Say” b/w “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” Burton took over the lead guitar role and the rest is history.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Feb 15, 2014

    Great list on a much underestimated singer…

    ‘Mighty Good’ is a personal favourite of mine – especially for the great guitar solo by the peerless James Burton…

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