Only 45 years old when his life was cut short on New Year’s Eve 1985, Rick Nelson was on the verge of a potential comeback with his first record for Curb Records, a rockin’ return to his rockabilly roots that remains inexplicably unreleased to this day.
To measure the impact of Nelson’s popularity during the dawn of rock and roll, he was second only to Elvis Presley, notching an astonishing 32 Top 40 Billboard singles between 1957 and 1963.
A quietly disarming actor on the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Nelson mirrored his idol, Carl Perkins, on many rockabilly rave-ups such as “Believe What You Say”, “Just a Little Too Much,” and “It’s Late”, all featuring the fine chicken pickin’ of guitarist James Burton.
He soon transitioned into pop ballads that effectively enhanced his smooth, every-man vocals, winning the hearts of many teenage girls along the way on popular numbers including “Travelin’ Man”, “Young World”, “It’s Up to You”, and “Fools Rush In.”
Although the Beatles and the British Invasion knocked the “Hello Mary Lou” balladeer off the charts for awhile, he rebounded with several critically-acclaimed country rock albums featuring the Stone Canyon Band.
Rick Nelson in Concert at the Troubadour , Rick Sings Nelson, Rudy the Fifth, Garden Party, and Windfall are prime examples. Of course, the “Garden Party” single became a runaway best-seller in 1972, cementing Nelson’s status as the comeback kid who refused to compromise his artistic integrity.
But one aspect of Nelson’s legacy that is rarely explored or given proper credit is his songwriting. And if it is, his only claim to fame is the autobiographical “Garden Party.” While never a prolific wordsmith, the artist reached his critical zenith during the early ’70s, ultimately penning approximately 44 compositions that were released on various records through 1981’s Playing to Win.
Fortunately, in the second installment of a revealing interview (“‘Rick Nelson: Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer:’ In Step With Biographer Sheree Homer” was the first), Nelson’s biographer Sheree Homer takes on the mighty task of addressing Nelson’s burgeoning songwriting in vivid detail.
The author also reveals the unique room where Nelson honed his guitar chops late at night, the first song composed by the singer about an unfortunate break-up with his girlfriend, and why it took nearly eight years before he gained enough confidence to release a second composition.
Later “Freedom and Liberty”, unreleased for nearly 40 years, is given attention, along with the sublime country rock tune “You Just Can’t Quit” and the ethereal ode to making one’s own destiny, “Easy To Be Free”.
While the Another Side of Rick and Perspective albums were somewhat controversial and languished on store shelves, it is interesting to realize how producer John Boylan encouraged his pupil to write and ultimately form the Stone Canyon Band.
Consequently, their highly underrated debut studio album, Rick Sings Nelson, the first and only time Nelson composed every song on an album, is evaluated track by track. Homer proves it is definitely ripe for rediscovery. And last but not least, the journalist uncovers several reasons why her favorite singer refused to perform many of his classic hits for nearly 15 years.
The Sheree Homer Interview, Part II
Is it true that Rick developed his guitar playing in his bathroom?
Surprisingly, yes. Rick liked to practice both his guitar and singing in the bathroom because of the acoustics. It provided him with a natural echo, which was essential to rockabilly music. He would spend hours in there. Sharon Sheeley mentioned that he practiced the guitar until his fingers bled.
However, Rick never considered himself to be an accomplished player. He felt he hit the strings with too much force. As a guitarist, I would rate him fairly high, at an 8, especially on songs like “Lonesome Town.”
What was the first song composed by Rick, and why did it take him so long to develop his songwriting craft?
There may have been earlier compositions, but “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was actually recorded and released as the B-side of “Poor Little Fool” in June 1958 [available on the Ricky Nelson album].
I know many singers either write poems or jot down ideas at an early age, but those are often not released to the public because the singer doesn’t feel that his/her work is completed or worthy. This may have been the case with Rick as well.
“Don’t Leave Me This Way” was supposedly written about the break-up of his relationship with Lorrie Collins. They had dated for a year and were even engaged to be married, but neither of their parents approved. Lorrie instead eloped with Johnny Cash’s manager, Stu Carnell. Unfortunately, Lorrie didn’t tell Rick about her plans. He read about her nuptials in the daily newspaper.
It is the only song that has surfaced from before 1965 that Rick composed, although I have read that Rick and Lorrie wrote a song together entitled “My Gal.” I am not sure that it was ever recorded though, since it has never been released.
Rick did put pen to paper and wrote “Freedom and Liberty”, which he recorded in December 1965. Sadly, it remained in the vaults until Ace Records issued it many years later on the compilation album, Rick’s Rarities.
Rick actually re-recorded “Freedom and Liberty” some 15 months later in March 1967. James Burton is definitely more distinctive on this later version. Therefore, it sounds more like Rick, and something that I feel the public would have bought.
The lyrics certainly reiterated Rick’s philosophy on life. It evidently spoke to him. The 1967 version fit Rick’s new sound much better, more in the country rock vein. I prefer that one over the original, gentler version.
There could be a variety of reasons why the song wasn’t released at the time, but I think one of two things happened: Either Rick didn’t feel that comfortable having his penned songs released since he had just started taking songwriting seriously, or Decca Records decided that “Freedom and Liberty” wasn’t a strong enough track. Perhaps they felt that the public wouldn’t accept too many songs written by Rick and instead opted for cover material that they knew would sell.
“You Just Can’t Quit” [No. 108 Pop, May 1966, Bright Lights & Country Music] was the first song that really showcased his songwriting abilities. During those early days, I think Rick wanted to write his own songs but either didn’t have the time due to a hectic schedule and/or didn’t feel he needed to. After all, during that period, he had Baker Knight, Jerry Fuller, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, among others writing hit songs for him.
Plus, perhaps he was trying to gain more confidence and concentrate on his sound. Rick later revealed, “It’s a very personal thing and takes a lot of courage to perform and record your own songs because you’re always wide open to any criticism.”
Rick’s former wife, Kristin, told me that producer John Boylan, who worked with Rick on two albums [Another Side of Rick, November 1967, and Perspective, August 1968], encouraged Rick to pursue his songwriting.
Boylan had introduced him to fellow songwriters Eric Andersen and Bob Dylan. Later, I am sure Kristin and members of the Stone Canyon Band such as Dennis Larden and then John Beland influenced Rick’s decision to continue writing his own material.
How do the relatively controversial Another Side of Rick and Perspective albums hold up today?
I hadn’t listened to them in a long time. In fact, I am not sure I ever listened to them in their entirety until today. In 1967 and 1968, these albums might have suited the times, but I am sure fans and critics were scratching their heads.
Perspective and Another Side of Rick are so far removed from Rick’s usual material, even the songs he was doing later. I definitely feel that it was an experimental time for him as if he was trying to find his voice again. I don’t think he was ready to fully embrace the country rock sound at that time, so he thought he would try something else.
The tracks are all over the map, from Dixieland jazz to psychedelic to folksy pop. Most of the tracks are forgettable except for “Dream Weaver”, “Don’t Blame It on Your Wife”, “Don’t Make Promises”, “Georgia on My Mind”, and “I Wonder If Louise Is Home”.
“Don’t Blame It on Your Wife” and “Don’t Make Promises” are in more of the country rock genre, which of course suited Rick well. “Georgia on My Mind” is a good rendition except I don’t like how Boylan sped up the music at the end. It’s as if the fast forward button had been pushed accidentally.
“Marshmallow Skies” and “Reason to Believe” sound like music that one would hear at a Renaissance fair. The flutes, horns, and weird sound effects seem to overpower Rick’s voice, and he gets lost in the mix.
I must admit I am not a fan of this era of music. I think Rick should have stayed with country rock. The fans and critics both gave high praise to Bright Lights & Country Music and Country Fever.
Why do you think Rick became “embarrassed” of his classic hit recordings for so many years?
I don’t think that Rick was ever embarrassed of his songs. In fact, he once said that he never sang a song he didn’t like, with the exception of “A Teenager’s Romance”, the B-side of his debut single, “I’m Walkin’”. He thought the lyrics were a bit corny.
For many years, Rick didn’t sing some of his hits because he was trying to mature his image. It was very difficult for audiences to grasp the idea that he was no longer “irrepressible little Ricky.” To their surprise, he made a very successful comeback in 1969 at the Troubadour club in West Hollywood.
There he covered songs by Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, and Eric Andersen. He also incorporated a few self-penned tunes [i.e. “Come On In”, “Who Cares About Tomorrow / Promises”, and “Easy To Be Free”], although “Hello Mary Lou,” “Travelin’ Man,” “I’m Walkin'” and “Believe What You Say” were certainly part of the setlist.
A few years later, Stone Canyon Band guitarist Dennis Larden convinced Rick to bring “My Babe” out of the vaults. By that time, the song had morphed into an R&B jam rather than a rockabilly tune.
Then in 1979, John Beland told Rick he should once again sing “It’s Up to You,” “Fools Rush In,” and “Everlovin.'” Eventually, “It’s Up to You” and “Fools Rush In” became mainstays of his setlist.
I feel that Carl Perkins had a lot to do with Rick’s acceptance of his rockabilly career. Not that Rick was ashamed of his achievements; I just don’t think that he ever felt he was credible amongst his peers.
Nearly four years after “You Just Can’t Quit” was released as an A-side, Rick composed his second A-side, “Easy To Be Free.” Sadly, few fans seemed interested, as it barely charted in Billboard’s Top 50. How does this single hold up over 40 years later?
To be honest, I never really cared for “Easy to Be Free,” but it contains more meaning now that my book is finished. I know more about Rick and his personality through my research, and I feel that the song sums up Rick’s philosophy to life.
The lyrics talk about flying, and I think Rick felt a freedom in flying. Overall, the song fits his easy going personality. The line, “Did you ever wonder why, people tell you not to try?”, is saying that there will always be critics, no matter how hard you try to please them.
Be happy with who you are because you can’t please everyone 100% of the time. It’s an impossible task, and if you try you will lose yourself in the process. There will always be people who don’t like/accept you. The song’s meaning is very similar to that of “You Just Can’t Quit” and “Garden Party.”
“Easy to Be Free” has a really haunting vocal, and I noticed that the rhythm guitar is prominently featured. Tom Brumley’s steel guitar sounds like it is crying, which gives the song an eerie effect.
For those who don’t know, Rick’s twin sons, Matthew and Gunnar, sang “Easy to Be Free” at his funeral, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. They continue to perform it at their “Ricky Nelson Remembered” tribute concerts.
Rick Sings Nelson was Rick’s first studio album with the Stone Canyon Band, released on September 3, 1970. It is notable for several reasons — Rick was the sole producer, he composed every song on the album (the only time he did this), he spent a month, instead of several days as was his usual norm, in the studio crafting it, and he played his mid-‘50s Gibson ES-350 electric guitar on many tracks. However, it barely cracked Billboard’s Top 200, stopping at No. 196. How would you rate the album?
I gave a re-listen to Rick Sings Nelson, and it is a very good album overall with tight vocal harmonies and an in-sync band. The songs still hold up well. In fact, they sound like they were just recorded.
Rick used to say that his career was a series of comebacks, and his songwriting on this album showcases that he was back and was a force to be reckoned with. He was a serious lyricist who expressed his innermost thoughts and feelings in song. One can hear the passion in his vocals as if he knew he had to prove his worthiness to the critics.
I think the album would have had more success today than when it was released. Perhaps fans were not quite ready for Rick’s new sound. The era was used to psychedelic pop and hard rock; country rock was still fairly new to listening audiences.
I have two top favorites from the album – “We’ve Got Such a Long Way to Go” and “Down Along the Bayou Country.” The latter reminds me of “Louisiana Man”, while the former has very poignant and heartfelt lyrics, stating that one should never give up on his/her dreams. “We’ve Got Such a Long Way to Go” is a great country rock tune. I also enjoyed “California,” “Sweet Mary,” “Mr. Dolphin,” and “Look at Mary.”
“How Long” was my least favorite of the 10 tracks. I thought it was too slow and depressing for my taste [Author’s Note: Ironically, it was the album’s lead single; not surprisingly, it failed to chart].
I didn’t like the way “My Woman” ended with the New Orleans Dixieland jazz instrumentation of tuba and trumpet. I also found the gospel choir and in particular the dogs barking to be weird additions. I wonder if all those effects were an afterthought? A strange arrangement that seems out of place in comparison to the other songs on the album.
The tune “Anytime” reveals Rick’s true compassion for others. He went out of his way to be kind toward both his fans and musicians. Again, I like the lyrics but felt the layering of vocals was unnecessary. I would have preferred just to have heard Rick’s vocal.
“Mr. Dolphin” is very similar to “Anytime” as far as sentiment goes. Both have lyrics that show compassion and the desire to stay humble. It’s another great country rock number.
I can’t understand why “Look at Mary” didn’t chart. I would have thought it would have done well since it was released as the follow-up single to “How Long.”
I can’t help but wonder if “The Reason Why” was a song Rick wrote for Kris. In her book, Out of My Mind: An Autobiography , she complained early on of non-communication within the marriage. Perhaps that was his way of telling her how much he truly cared and how he would be lost without her.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE! PART THREE, the conclusion of the Sheree Homer interview, is “A Shy and Humble Guy Who Loved His Fans: The Rockabilly Legacy of Rick Nelson.” In it, the diligent researcher addresses the rockabilly recordings that made the singer a bona fide star, his admiration for Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins, why it took years for rockabilly enthusiasts to accept him as the real deal, how his father’s death affected his career and personal outlook, the chilling nightmare of seeing the singer board the DC-3 that haunted her during the writing of “Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer, and the emotional afternoon when she finally had the opportunity to visit Nelson’s final resting place.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…”‘Heartbreak Hotel’ categorically knocked Mark Lindsay flat on the ground. The ferocious former lead singer of ’60s garage rockers Paul Revere and the Raiders left home at the tender age of 15 to pursue a rockabilly career in southern Idaho. Lying about his age so he could play seedy nightclubs, Lindsay ultimately met the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll during the filming of the iconic ’68 Comeback Special and during one of the entertainer’s final engagements at the Las Vegas Hilton. He even went so far as to persuade the TCB Band [i.e. guitarist James Burton and Elvis’ rhythm section] to back him on a studio rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.” Interested in the complete juicy enchilada plus Lindsay’s fond memories of Rick Nelson? Then click here.
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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.
Further Reading: 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.”
Further Reading No. 2: Rick Nelson was on the verge of a comeback when his plane tragically caught fire en route to a 1985 New Year’s Eve gig. A rockabilly-themed album was nearing completion, and the singer had found a new record label in Nashville – Curb Records. Unfortunately, the project was promptly placed in the dustbin whilst various figureheads argued over rights and whether Nelson’s vocals were satisfactory. The “Garden Party” songwriter’s manager, Greg McDonald, made a surprise appearance on satellite radio in 2014 and gave a very encouraging lowdown on the status of the project and whether it might see the light of day in time for the 30th anniversary of Nelson’s passing.
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© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2012. All rights reserved. An earlier version of the “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” article debuted in this column on the 10th anniversary of George Harrison’s passing on Nov. 29, 2011. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Do not copy or paste the article text—please share the URL instead. Headlines with links are also acceptable. Posting any links on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, or Google Plus is sincerely appreciated.