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Ricky Nelson

+ {Rick Nelson} + {Rick Nelson And The Stone Canyon Band}

From rock’n’roll pin-up to country-pop affiliate, RICKY NELSON amassed a plethora of hits in the late 50s and 60s, before joining the Nashville posse to critical plaudits under the RICK NELSON and The Stone Canyon Band moniker. While the resurgent Top 10 smash `Garden Party’ veered Rick into MICHAEL NESMITH or GLEN CAMPBELL territory, he’d never quite break free the shackles of rock-pop hits, including million-sellers `Stood Up’, `Poor Little Fool’, `Lonesome Town’, `Never Be Anyone Else But You’ and `Travelin’ Man’; the latter twinned with the timeless gem, `Hello Mary Lou’.
Born Eric Hilliard Nelson (into a showbiz family from Teaneck, NJ, on May 8, 1940), Ricky first appeared on his parent’s radio comedy show before he’d even reached his teens. When the show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, subsequently reached TV screens, he became an overnight star. From there it was but a short leap into the teen-idol world of rock’n’roll where white pop artists/label owners were cleaning up with a watered-down take on the music’s black R&B roots.
Having already begun singing on screen, NELSON had a readymade audience for his vinyl debut, a cover of FATS DOMINO’s `I’m Walkin’’. Allegedly recorded purely to impress a girlfriend, the track (and its double-A side `A Teenager’s Romance’) gate-crashed the Top 5 in the summer of ’57, and spurred on Imperial Records’ Lew Chudd to sign up the young star, despite the hassle of a lawsuit from Verve Records. Chudd was handsomely rewarded for his endeavours as RICKY NELSON proceeded to clock up more than twenty major hits over the ensuing five years.
While NELSON may have represented a somewhat sanitised, immaculately produced Hollywood version of ELVIS, the young star’s love of raw rockabilly shone through on his records. What’s more, he employed the services of crack Louisiana guitarist James Burton (who’d go on to work with PRESLEY and later found The Hot Band, EMMYLOU HARRIS’ backing outfit) as well as the semi-legendary rockabilly writing team of DORSEY & JOHNNY BURNETTE.
The result was a run of hits that rocked harder than most of his clean-cut peers and imitators; the likes of Top 3 `Be-Bop Baby’ (b/w `Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?’ – the Bing Crosby cut) and exclusive, near No.1 `Stood Up’ (b/w `Waitin’ In School’), all stuck in the hearts and minds of audiences not much younger than the 17-year-old himself. Although he’d never achieve quite the same success as his chart-topping debut LP, RICKY (1957) {*7}, he laid the foundations to a glittering career though songs once the claim of JERRY LEE LEWIS, CARL PERKINS and, even Cole Porter.
Running up to his eponymous sophomore set, RICKY NELSON (1958) {*6}, the hits just kept rolling off the production line; with the exception No.1 `Poor Little Fool’ (from the pen of EDDIE COCHRAN’s girlfriend Sharon Sheeley) all coupled with equally inspiring double-A tracks; another example `Believe What You Say’ (b/w `My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It’). The trick was to combine the current crop of ELVIS wannabe songsmiths with plunder from the 40s (such as `Someday (You’ll Want Me To Want You)’ and `I’ll Walk Alone’), and turn them full circle into stylish Sun Records teeny boppers.
Undaunted by any critique, Ricky’s biggest singles successes came thick and fast with `Never Be Anyone But You’ (b/w DORSEY BURNETTE’s `It’s Late’) and the haunting `Lonesome Town’ (as worshipped by bequiffed NELSON-wannabe, Brad Pitt, in cult 90s movie classic, Johnny Suede), while parent album RICKY SINGS AGAIN (1959) {*7}, clocked up his third consecutive Top 20 spot.
His backing group of guitarist James Burton, bassist James Kirkland, pianist Gene Garf and drummer Richie Frost, made sure he steered clear of the pap fed to his fellow teen idols; the BURNETTE brothers and Baker Knight (JOHN D. LOUDERMILK scribed `A Long Vacation’) were all over the grooves of SONGS BY RICKY (1959) {*7}, which failed to hit the Top 20, despite the higher-end chart numbers `Just A Little Too Much’ and “AA” `Sweeter Than You’. Somehow both `I Wanna Be Loved’ (b/w `Mighty Good’) and `Young Emotions’ both slipped the net from this set and its follow-up, MORE SONGS BY RICKY (1960) {*6}, an album that could house Top 30 `I’m Not Afraid’, but not its backward-looking `Yes Sir, That’s My Baby’ (a hit in 1925 for Gene Austin).
It was around this period that Ricky took to acting, starring in Rio Bravo, in the role of Colorado Ryan, alongside giants of the screen John Wayne and Dean Martin; in 1961, he was Ensign Tommy Manson in the military comedy, The Wackiest Ship In The Army. Often forgotten was his pre-star part as a 12-year-old boy (Tommy) in 1953’s The Story Of Three Loves.
To avoid falling too far behind his rivals after Knight’s `You Are The Only One’ failed to break the Top 20 (the churned KOKOMO ARNOLD nugget `Milk Cow Blues’ peaked at a measly #79), writing machines Jerry Fuller and GENE PITNEY (among others including Dave Burgess) were roped in to respectively surrender their best songs, `Travelin’ Man’ (#1) and `Hello Mary Lou’ (#9); another mighty double-headed platter. Both resounding highlights from Ricky’s goodbye to his youth a la RICK IS 21 (1961) {*7}, the Top 10 set also featured DORSEY BURNETTE’s `My One Desire’ and JOHNNY RIVERS’ `I’ll Make Believe’.
A transitional time for RICK NELSON, if only in name, `A Wonder Like You’ (#11) and flip-side `Everlovin’’ (#16) stretched the formula a little too thinly, while their glaring omission from the predictably-titled ALBUM SEVEN BY RICK (1962) {*6}, left some fans in a tizzy (ditto `Young World’). Still, if one could forgive him one folly in Gershwin’s `Summertime’ (which kicked off the Top 30 LP), there was compensation in PITNEY and Fuller/Burgess tracks, and also a cover of DON GIBSON’s `I Can’t Stop Loving You’.
Imperial Records were dragging their heels to come up with a bona fide follow-up long-player to match – or even fit in! – exclusive Top 10 hits `Teen Age Idol’ and `It’s Up To You’, so it was hardly surprising that, early in ‘63, RICK NELSON signed an unprecedented twenty-year contract with Decca Records. Arriving as it did as Beatlemania was all the rage over in Britain, the label’s throw of the dice was centred on the placid `You Don’t Love Me Anymore (And I Can Tell)’ (#49) and the croon-ful `String Along’ (#25), although respective B-sides (covers of RAY CHARLES’ `I Got A Woman’ and DORSEY BURNETTE’s `Gypsy Woman’), maintained the upbeat rock’n’roll element of old on Top 20 return, FOR YOUR SWEET LOVE (1963) {*6} – return in the fact that Imperial Records were saturating the market with a plethora of compilations and exploitation minor hits.
Poignant in its prophetic title, `Fools Rush In’ (#12) and `For You’ (#6) – the latter popularized by Glen Gray in 1933 – kept the young RICK NELSON’s profile high. And with an accompanying album, SINGS “FOR YOU” (1963) {*5}, his final LP to dent the Top 20, the times were indeed a-changing, not only as a folk-rock revival was underway, but when America red-carpeted The BEATLES and the birth of the British Invasion bands. Ironically, the UK branch of Decca had shunned the Fab Four before Parlophone/EMI hooked in to their “Merseybeat” – and Rick was no cool ROLLING STONES by any stretch of the imagination.
The hits ultimately dried up for the well-groomed country boy from Teaneck; more so on subsequent Tin Pan Alley/MOR sets, THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU (1964) {*5}, SPOTLIGHT ON RICK (1964) {*5}, BEST ALWAYS (1965) {*6} and LOVE AND KISSES (1965) {*5}. The last of these LPs included three songs (`Say You Love Me’, the cringe-worthy `Come Out Dancin’ and the title track) that were sung by Rick himself in the Universal Pictures teen flick, Love & Kisses.
NELSON’s move towards a Nashville-influenced singer/songwriter style conspired to make the former heartthrob’s lucrative teen idol appeal more or less redundant. 1966’s BRIGHT LIGHTS & COUNTRY MUSIC {*8} album announced his new direction, a set of cover material by the likes of WILLIE NELSON (`Hello Walls’ and `Congratulations’) and MERLE TRAVIS (`No Vacancy’ and `Kentucky Means Paradise’), which opened up a whole new ball game for the former star.
Growing into his new-found stature (and presaging The BYRDS’ `Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’), COUNTRY FEVER (1967) {*8} melded the genre with a sense of déjà vu, and for the most part it worked on renditions of HANK WILLIAMS, JIMMIE RODGERS and WILLIE NELSON tracks, as well as `Take These Chains From My Heart’, `Mystery Train’ and an obscure DYLAN treasure, `Walkin’ Down The Line’; Bob was a huge influence on Rick’s developing style alongside a tentative step into writing his own stuff.
Proof in the pudding was ANOTHER SIDE OF RICK (1967) {*6}, a trip from contemporary C&W into psych-bubblegum-folk by way of TIM HARDIN nuggets `Reason To Believe’, `Baby Close Its Eyes’ and `Don’t Make Promises’. Producer/songwriter John Boylan was behind a ballad-y Baroque Rick on his rocky road back into critical contention, contrasting here with their own sitar/star-shaped `Marshmallow Skies’ and Hoagy Carmichael’s `Georgia On My Mind’.
Decca were still perturbed from their decision to sign Rick, and relatively poor sales figures probably led to them not fully committing to PERSPECTIVE {*7}, released early in ’69 with no promotional platter after lying in the pipeline/vaults for over a year. Boylan was again at the helm, and alongside cuts from RICHIE HAVENS (`Three Day Eternity’), PAUL SIMON (`For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her’) and NILSSON (`Without Her’), there was no less than four RANDY NEWMAN closing contributions in `Wait ‘Til Next Year’, `Love Story’, `So Long Dad – Love Story (reprise)’ and `I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today’.
On the back of his first Top 40 hit for half a decade (a cover of DYLAN’s `She Belongs To Me’ that credited The Stone Canyon Band), live, NELSON was now backed up by bassist Randy Meisner (of POCO), lead guitarist Allen Kemp, drummer Patrick Shanahan, as well as BUCK OWENS’ veteran pedal steel player, Tom Brumley. There’s was a difficult job to fill the void of Rick’s inaugural (un-billed) mid-to-late 60s Stone Canyons:- James Burton, Glen D. Hardin and a young Clarence White; the dazzling country guitarist would go on to become such an integral part of the latter-day BYRDS.
NELSON only really shook off the teen-idol tag with 1970’s IN CONCERT {*9} album. Recorded at L.A.’s Troubadour (a focus for the city’s new canyon cowboy elite), it was also his first album to chart in six years, combining as it did further DYLAN documents `If You Gotta Go, Go Now’ and `I Shall Be Released’ (as well as `She Belongs To Me’), alongside `Hello Mary Lou, Goodbye Heart’, `I’m Walkin’’, `Believe What You Say’ and covers of ERIC ANDERSEN’s `Violets Of Dawn’ and TIM HARDIN’s `Red Balloon’.
This resurgence of sorts encouraged Rick to release a whole album of self-penned material, RICK SINGS NELSON (1970) {*7}. Lifted from the up-to-now unique set was the buoyant freeway-country of `California’ as well as the chugging `Down Along The Bayou Country’, fine efforts both. Yet neither track (nor opener `We’ve Such A Long Way To Go’) made an impression on the singles chart and, following another critically-acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful solo album, RUDY THE FIFTH (1971) {*7} – covering JAGGER & RICHARDS’ `Honky Tonk Woman’ and DYLAN pair `Just Like A Woman’ and `Love Minus Zero – No Limit’ – it was time to give backers The Stone Canyon Band a co-credit; note that his/their current singles had been billed this way.
NELSON finally reached the Top 10 for the first time in almost a decade with summer 72’s `Garden Party’ single. Penned after the 30-something singer was booed at a New York Madison Square Garden oldies show, the million-selling platter was also the title of that year’s near-Top 30 album, GARDEN PARTY {*8}. His final throw of the dice for Decca before he duly moved along the corporate ladder to M.C.A., several of the songs were almost horizontal, whilst others (including `So Long Mama’, `I Wanna Be With You’ and CHUCK BERRY’s `I’m Talking About You’) were akin to J.D. SOUTHER or POCO; note that EAGLES man Meisner had been replaced by bassist Stephen A. Love.
Yet the mini-resurrection proved short-lived and 1974’s WINDFALL {*7} was his final collaboration with the SCB; fellow songsmith Dennis Larden now taking over on lead guitar. Although his famous contract still had a number of years to run, a mutual split saw NELSON signing to Epic Records in 1977 for the solo-credited album, INTAKES {*6}. Easy on the ear in a transitional year for rock music, Rick could still bounce along with the likes of one-that-got-away `You Can’t Dance’. The 70s had also saw Rick add to his acting CV by appearing in TV cop series’ McCloud, The Streets Of San Francisco, Owen Marshall and Petrocelli, while on the big screen he was saddled next to John Wayne in The Shootist (1976).
A further set for Capitol Records, the JACK NITZSCHE-produced PLAYING TO WIN (1981) {*6} marked NELSON’s final attempt at songwriting. Over the ensuing four years he went back to his roots, taking part in a Sun Records reunion (alongside the likes of JOHNNY CASH and CARL PERKINS) and cutting an album of rockabilly covers, MEMPHIS SESSIONS (1986) {*5}. Tragically, divorced from his wife of 20 years, Kristin Harmon (in 1982), NELSON wasn’t around to see its release, as on New Year’s eve 1985, he was killed, along with his new fiancee Helen Blair and backing band, when their plane crashed in a Texas field. He was only 45. His twin sons Gunnar and Matthew became pop-metal act NELSON, and in 1990, had a No.1 with `(Can’t Live Without Your) Love And Affection’. Rick’s legacy continued and, in 2005, a worthy documentary, Ricky Nelson Sings, was released on DVD.
© MC Strong/MCS/BG/GRD outtake // rev-up MCS Nov2016

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