Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Rick Nelson tragically perished in a plane crash in De Kalb, Texas. Fittingly, after playing a roof-raising rockabilly concert that ended with Buddy Holly’s defiant ode to endless rockin’, “Rave On”, the dashing singer boarded a dilapidated DC-3 aircraft with his band and fiancé. Destination: a New Year’s Eve concert in Dallas. It was never to be.
In remembering the rocker’s immense legacy, one thing becomes crystal clear: his fans truly loved him. From the moment the drop dead gorgeous icon sang a confident “I’m Walkin'” on the The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, many a teenage girl’s heart was immediately captured. Seeing him weekly in their collective living rooms for a staggering 14 years encouraged an intrinsic bond between the singer and his audience.
In an act of humility rarely witnessed in modern pop culture, Nelson traveled with his band, even staying in the same hotel. He eventually packed his own equipment during the later years. The self-effacing, approachable, down to earth gentleman also never refused an autograph, even if that meant he missed a flight to an important gig. His dry, twisted sense of humor could sometimes land him in hot water, though.
One dyed in the wool fan is Sheree Homer, author of the diligently researched and highly recommended Rick Nelson: Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer. She is speaking at length for the first time about her lifelong fascination with the shockingly handsome singer.
In the conclusion of an informative three-part interview [don’t miss the previous installment, “Rick Nelson, Songwriter: A Candid Take on the Artist’s Formative Compositions”], Homer addresses the rockabilly recordings that made the singer a bona fide star, his admiration for Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins, and why it took years for rockabilly enthusiasts to accept him as the real deal.
When Ozzie Nelson, the singer’s brilliant father, passed away from liver cancer in 1975, the effect on his youngest son’s life and career had ramifications for years to come. Homer’s analysis is particularly illuminating.
The author paints a vivid picture of a chilling nightmare that haunted her during the writing of Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer – trying to stop her favorite singer from taking his final flight. The emotional afternoon when she finally had the opportunity to visit Nelson’s final resting place is not to be missed.
Homer also reveals whether the shy and humble artist would have been a good interview. And ultimately, does the journalist have plans to write another Nelson project? The rest of the story begins now.
The Sheree Homer Interview, Part Three
While Rick’s admiration of Elvis Presley is well documented, how did Carl Perkins influence his career?
Carl Perkins was Rick’s biggest musical influence. The first record that Rick ever bought was Carl’s “Blue Suede Shoes.” Rick acknowledged, “I really tried to sound like Carl Perkins.” Although Rick wanted to emulate the sound Carl captured on his Sun records, I personally feel that no one could ever sound like Carl.
However, I think that Rick found his rockabilly niche when he created a band with James Burton on guitar and James Kirkland on bass. Those guys were from the South and understood the raw, edgy sound he was looking for.
Upon their arrival, Rick grew in confidence. One can tell the difference in his vocals – just compare his first record with “Believe What You Say.” Kirkland recalled, “Burton and I were just able to tune into the particular sound and feel that fit Rick the best.”
In April 1970, Carl and Rick met for the first time when Rick appeared as a guest on the Johnny Cash Show. Incidentally, Carl had replaced Cash’s original guitarist, Luther Perkins, and was a regular on the show. Producer Joe Byrne introduced them, and a jam session backstage ensued.
They saw each other again at the Class of ‘55 recording session [produced by Chips Moman in September 1985 in Memphis, the album also featured Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison] when Rick sang on “Big Train from Memphis.” Unfortunately, you can’t hear Rick’s backing vocals on the song. It’s a shame they never had the chance to tour or record together.
When Rick was at the pinnacle of his fame during the late ‘50s, why was he not accepted by rockabilly connoisseurs?
That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book, to give credit to Rick for being a rockabilly singer. Unfortunately, some people today still discredit him as such and instead regard him as strictly a teen idol or pop sensation.
Those doubters should listen to “Believe What You Say,” “Stood Up,” “Waitin’ in School,” “Shirley Lee,” “Down the Line,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” or “My Babe” because those recordings prove a good defense for his credentials as a rockabilly singer.
John Fogerty even expressed, “Rick was Hollywood, but the records he made were totally legitimate rockabilly, as good as any of the best stuff from Sun Records.” Throughout Rick’s career, rockabilly was at the heart of his music. He wanted to be a greaser like Eddie Cochran or Gene Vincent and loved Sun Records.
Rick never felt he had that authenticity until Carl Perkins pointed out that they were the last real rockabillies left at the Class of ’55 sessions. That declaration gave him the validation he was yearning for.
What are some of your favorite Rick Nelson rockabilly recordings?
I really admire “Stood Up”, “Waitin’ in School,” “Believe What You Say”, “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” “My Babe” (both on Ricky Nelson, July 1958), “I Got a Feeling,” “One of These Mornings,” “You Tear Me Up” [both on Ricky Sings Again, January 1959], “Just a Little Too Much”, “I Got a Woman” [No. 49 Pop, For Your Sweet Love, May 1963], and “Do You Know What I Mean,” Rick’s final A-side.
In addition, “One After 909” and “You Got Me Gone” are two of my favorites recorded during Rick’s final Curb sessions in late 1985. They are very obscure and only available in bootleg form or rare YouTube concert clips.
Did Ozzie take an active role in many of Rick’s recording sessions? I was intrigued when Stone Canyon Band bassist Ty Grimes remarked that Ozzie showed up for several Windfall sessions shortly before his death of liver cancer in June 1975. How did Ozzie’s death affect Rick?
As far as I know, Ozzie’s participation in Rick’s recording sessions ended after the first album [Ricky]. After that, he periodically came and watched, quietly observing. There were a few exceptions, most notably when Ozzie played tenor guitar on “Hello Mary Lou”.
By the time Windfall was released, Rick was his own person. He no longer needed his father’s approval or musical expertise. I think Ozzie came to some of those sessions out of both curiosity and support.
Ozzie’s death was detrimental to the whole family. Ozzie was always there for Rick even if he no longer played a proactive role in his musical career. Once he died, that left a huge and indelible void.
John Beland told me that Rick kept a photo of Ozzie wearing his football uniform in his guitar case. Beland said, “Rick was really vocal in the fact that his father was a very smart and creative man. He deeply loved both his mom and dad, which you could tell by the way he talked about them. I think Rick always missed his dad’s guidance. He really respected his dad for all the work he did.” Gordon Stoker remembered, “Rick never did get over Ozzie’s death. Ozzie was his guide, his inspiration.”
Kristin Nelson remarked, “I believe Rick never recovered from the loss of his father. Rick was very vulnerable when Greg McDonald (Rick’s last manager) came along. He wanted someone who would take care of everything, and he allowed McDonald free reign.”
Rick allowed Greg to make decisions for him that were beyond his better judgment, including the purchase of the 1944 DC-3 that Greg convinced him to buy in order to save money. The plane had not been maintained by its prior owners. If Ozzie had still been living, then perhaps he wouldn’t have been so irresponsible in making some of his major decisions.
The introduction to Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer contains a chilling account of a nightmare you experienced while working on the book. Can you share it with us?
I had a recurring, vivid nightmare four times while writing the book. It’s always the same. I am at PJ’s Alley, the nightclub where Rick and the band last performed, hanging out backstage. I see Rick, drummer Ricky Intveld, guitarist Bobby Neal, and bassist Pat Woodward. Pianist Andy Chapin is never in the dream, even though I know he’s there somewhere.
We are talking, laughing, and having a great time. They are right there in front of me, so close that I can almost touch them. The good times end once it is announced that they will leave on their plane in the morning for Dallas.
I know what will happen and realize I must convince them someway, somehow not to get on that plane. I beg Rick, “Please don’t go. You will all be killed.” He and the band are not convinced, but instead look at me like I’m crazy. That’s when I wake up with an emptiness, knowing they were right there in front of me and yet powerless to prevent their doomed fate.
Thankfully, I haven’t had that nightmare in a while. I think the reason I continually had it is due to the fact that I was speaking in detail about the plane accident with co-pilot Ken Ferguson and others.
If you were describing Rick’s legacy and worldwide appeal to someone who had never seen him on TV or heard one of his records, what would you say to make them a fan?
Rick’s personal appeal shone brightly. He was truly a shy, humble, easy going gentleman who often expressed his innermost thoughts and feelings in the songs that he wrote/performed. He also had a great sense of humor. Rick was the type of person who would go out of his way to help others, whether it be a fellow musician or a fan.
Rick and his family were a pinnacle of American life, having appeared on radio for 10 years and on television for 14 seasons in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Much of their television portrayal was based upon their real lives. That blurred line helped create an inseparable bond between them and their audience. People felt that they knew Rick Nelson, so later when he became a singing star, they wanted to meet “part of the family.” He made sure not to disappoint.
One of his greatest attributes was the fact that he never acted like a celebrity. A person with that superstar status has every right to be elusive to his fans, but that was never Rick. He loved meeting his fans: hearing his/her stories, posing for photos, or signing an autograph. He sometimes got so involved that he missed a flight.
Drummer Richie Frost admitted that fans didn’t go to hear Rick but to see him. They could sit home and listen to his records but instead yearned to be close to their hero. Early in his career, it was probably a good thing, too, since at most shows the girls were screaming so loudly that no one could hear him.
His drop dead gorgeous looks certainly didn’t hurt either. Like Elvis, Rick had beautiful blue bedroom eyes, a sexy sneer, and wavy locks. Even today, women still swoon from just hearing his name.
There’s one more aspect of Rick that is important to point out – he was a devoted father who loved his four children very much. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to spend as much time with them as he would have liked.
If you could have spoken with Rick, do you think he would have been a good interview?
Rick was shy and humble. He had to really know a person before he would open up. And Rick certainly didn’t talk much during concerts. He knew the audience had come to hear the songs and didn’t want to disappoint.
With that said, I think Rick would have made for a good interview. I think experience helped him become more at ease with interviews and providing details about his career. If he had lived, I think he would have had many new and exciting projects to talk about, i.e. guest spots on television, festival appearances, and hit recordings.
Are you finished writing about Rick?
For awhile, I had no plans to write any other books or articles about Rick, even though I discovered some people that I didn’t get to interview for Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer. It was a wonderful experience, writing about Rick was a true pleasure, and I met some great people along the way.
However, I have had a change of heart. I am currently collecting photos for a photo book about Rick. It’s in the early stages, and I still need to find a publisher that will be interested. It’ll involve mostly photos and not much writing.
In October 2007 you visited a number of Rick’s noteworthy haunts in California. What were some of the highlights?
Unfortunately, I didn’t personally know Connie Harper Nelson or any of the others that I ultimately interviewed for Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer at the time of this trip. Otherwise, I would have looked them up, too. I hope to meet Connie someday. She has been such a wonderful friend – a beautiful person inside and out.
Regardless, to give you a little back-story, in 2005 I rediscovered Rick’s original bassist, James Kirkland. No one knew where he was living or even if he was still alive. I spoke to Margaret Lewis, who used to appear on the Louisiana Hayride and now owns its name, and she mentioned that she was friends with James.
I casually asked her for his phone number, and she obliged. I called James, and a friendship developed. Within two years, I set up a MySpace page, started a fan club for him, and had James inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Also, during this time, I introduced him to Suzy Dughi, who I knew also played upright bass and loved Ricky Nelson. Suzy and I thought it would be a great idea if James could play again. He had said he hadn’t played a show in over 40 years.
Therefore, Suzy arranged a trip for James where he would come to California, stay at her house, and play a gig with her and her band, which included her husband, Buddy Dughi, on guitar. This was October 2007.
I had never met James and decided that my mother and I would also like to take the trip. Suzy and Buddy allowed us to sing on the show as well. I sang “Believe What You Say” and “Just a Little Too Much” with James as my accompaniment while my mother sang a duet with James to Hank Williams’ song, “Hey Good Lookin’.”
Rockabilly legend Glen Glenn also joined James on stage for one song. They hadn’t seen one another in over 40 years. It was a sold-out crowd, and James was thrilled to be back doing what he loved best.
We spent a few days with him and his son, Chet, who had joined his father on the trip. James autographed several items for me, both Rick Nelson and Bob Luman related. My mother and I stayed at Suzy’s house for nine days.
Once James went home, Suzy took us to Hollywood. There we visited the General Service Studio (site of the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet; unfortunately they wouldn’t allow a tour), the Nelson family home at 1822 Camino Palmero, and ate dinner at Du-par’s at the Farmer’s Market (Rick used to eat there all the time during breaks from filming the situation comedy).
Our last and most special stop occurred when we went to Rick’s grave site at Forest Lawn Cemetery. Even though I had researched all the information for our trip on the Internet, I still couldn’t find Rick’s grave. Therefore, I had to ask a groundskeeper.
Suzy and I had both purchased roses to place on Rick’s grave. I gently placed a light pink rose upon his headstone. I quietly said a few words: “Thanks for all the wonderful music you gave us, Rick. I wish I could have met you and that you were still with us today. We will always love you.”
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! Sheree Homer, Sam Nelson, James Burton, and arranger/producer Jimmie Haskell agreed to speak on the record about the singer’s controversial, ultimately final album for Curb Records. Unfortunately, after Nelson’s death the rockabilly-themed project was promptly placed in the dustbin whilst various figureheads argued over rights, whether the singer’s vocals were satisfactory, and if the project deserved to see the light of day. Wrangling beyond the so-called myths, an in-depth feature [“As Long As We Had Him: Rick Nelson’s Friends and Family Recall His Last Album”] sheds light on the ill-fated Curb sessions nearly 30 years later.
- Meanwhile, back at the ranch…David Nelson had to come to terms with living in the shadow of his younger teen idol sibling. According to an interview for Philip Bashe’s Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man, the one question always posed to David was whether he experienced any jealousy over his brother’s success. While he denied the accusation, the actor did recount one revealing anecdote that might have encouraged a certain degree of resentment. While the Nelsons were singing “Happy Birthday to You” on David’s 21st birthday in 1957, Imperial Records mogul Lew Chudd burst in unannounced to award Rick with a gold record for “Be-Bop Baby.” David chuckled as he told Bashe, “At least Chudd could have waited until I blew out the candles.” To learn more about David’s respectable life and career, including anecdotes from nephew Sam Nelson, head on over to “David Nelson Enters the Limelight.”
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Exclusive Interview: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Rick Nelson’s youngest child, Sam, had a complicated relationship with his dad. While he recognized that his famous father loved him, they rarely had a chance to see each other due to drawn out, often nasty divorce proceedings. Birthday parties and Christmas dinners were pretty much the only opportunity for father and son to connect. Just when it seemed like things were getting back to relative normalcy, Rick was inexplicably gone forever in a fiery plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1985. Sam was only 11 years old. Now manager of his grandparents’ estate and a fine musician, Sam has broken his silence to remember what it was like to grow up the son of a deceased rock ‘n’ roll star in the touching “Rick Nelson Was Really My Dad…” Don’t miss it!
Exclusive Interview No. 2: The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, is a charter member of L.A. studio wizards the Wrecking Crew and has supported a who’s who list of preeminent movers and shakers in a nearly 60-year career – notably Elvis Presley, John Denver, the Beach Boys, and Simon and Garfunkel. Burton joined Rick Nelson in late 1957 for the classic “Stood Up” b/w “Waitin’ in School” driving rockabilly single, actually rooming with the Nelson family and ultimately forging an 11-year friendship with the handsome singer. To read a revealing in-depth feature with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer commemorating his fascinating journey with Nelson [“Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson”], simply click on the highlighted link.
Exclusive Interview No. 3: Philip Bashe wrote one of the first books on Rick’s meteoric trajectory in 1992. In his 40-year journalism career, Bashe can still recall the moment when he first heard Rick’s “Garden Party.” Instantly rooting for Rick’s moral victory after being booed at Madison Square Garden and refusing to compromise, the author began a decade-long quest to uncover the man behind the myth. In the splendid 11,000 word conversation entitled “Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man…”, Bashe refutes the misnomer that Ozzie didn’t understand rock ‘n’ roll, explains why Rick is often lumped in with teen idols, reveals the singer’s acting aspirations, contextualizes the vastly neglected work of the Stone Canyon Band, and why legends including Bob Dylan and John Fogerty idolize the “Poor Little Fool” balladeer.
- Exclusive Interview No. 4: Jimmie Haskell won his first of three Grammys for arranging chanteuse Bobbie Gentry’s mysterious “Ode to Billie Joe” in 1967. But before Haskell received widespread recognition in the recording industry, he earned his musical chops in a decade-long partnership with Rick that yielded a ton of essential hits. In “Just Go in the Studio and Make Hit Records…” Haskell examines his role in the “Lonesome Town” balladeer’s career, revealing what instrument he played on the iconic “Hello Mary Lou”, the day Rick nearly got in big trouble with his father for smoking in the studio, the singer’s surprise cowboy expertise on the set of Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin, Glen Campbell’s largely unrecognized guitar and vocal contributions to Rick’s music, a premonitory conversation about the unsafe 40-year-old Douglas DC-3 airplane that the singer refused to sell, and where he was when he received the news of Rick’s cruel date with destiny on New Year’s Eve 1985.
Exclusive Interview No. 5: In modern times the Jordanaires appeared as very special guests on hundreds of concerts headlined by natural-born raconteur and all-around Nashville entertainer Ronnie McDowell, who scored 27 Top 40 country singles between 1977 & 1990. Remember “The King Is Gone,” “Wandering Eyes,” “Older Women,” “Watchin’ Girls Go By,” “Step Back,” “You’re Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation,” “You Made a Wanted Man of Me,” and his duet with Conway Twitty on “It’s Only Make Believe?” When “The King Is Gone” sold six million copies in late 1977, McDowell had a potentially life-altering choice—should he don a jumpsuit and become another Elvis tribute artist, or should he strike out on his own merit as a country singer? In “Still Keepin’ the Fires Burning: A Step Forward with Entertainer Ronnie McDowell,” the consummate crooner leaves no stone unturned as he recalls a 40-year career in front of the limelight plus whether he knew Rick Nelson.
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