One of the 100 greatest artists of all-time as determined by Rolling Stone in 2008, Rick Nelson made important contributions to rockabilly with magnificent recordings including “Just A Little Too Much,” “I Got A Feeling,” “Stood Up,” and “Believe What You Say.” His idol, Sun Records artist Carl Perkins, even called Rick one of the last rockabilly artists a few months before Rick’s death on December 31, 1985.
The singer/songwriter later evolved his musical approach to include pop songs, and his mesmerizing ballads got him the most chart action, including “Lonesome Town,” “Never Be Anyone Else But You,” “You Are The Only One,” and “Young World.”
He later brought country music to pop audiences with his brilliant Bright Lights and Country Music 1966 album. Three years later, he blended the genre with rock and announced the formation of the Stone Canyon Band, becoming a solid songwriter in the process with brilliant cuts including “California,” “The Last Time Around,” “A Flower Opens Gently By,” and “Lifestream.”
His biographer, Philip Bashe, is a jack of all trades in the publishing industry, cowriting well-received books such as The Complete Bedside Companion: No-Nonsense Advice On Caring For the Seriously Ill and The Complete Cancer Survival Guide. And he’s an in-demand editor.
Yesterday part three of an in-depth interview about the “Garden Party” songwriter was published in this column. Titled “Singer Rick Nelson Never Sold Out…”, it can be accessed directly by clicking on the link.
The interview concludes below, as Mr. Bashe discusses Rick’s final album for Curb Records that is still criminally unreleased, the plane crash, where Rick’s career would have gone if he had lived through the ’80s, whether he would still be touring, and the singer’s legacy.
The conversation also includes Mr. Bashe’s recollections of how difficult it was to gain access to the Nelson family, why he couldn’t convince Kris Nelson to participate in the project, how Rick’s family and friends received the book, its popularity, whether there was any film interest, and some projects Mr. Bashe is proud to have written.
The Rick Nelson Interview With Author Philip Bashe, Part Four (Concluded)
Some people may not realize Rick was working on a new album for Curb Records at the time of his death…
I listened to all those unreleased tracks from Rick’s final, unreleased project. For some reason, Rick had all his masters, and not just for this project. His manager, Greg McDonald, let me listen to them.
I have no idea why the album hasn’t been released yet. But it was good stuff, very intimate. It would have been a great record. Rick was surrounded by a terrific band, and he had re-embraced his rockabilly roots.
I loved his version of Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways.” It was very chilling to hear it, since it was the last song they recorded on December 26, 1985, before they left for a mini-tour. Featuring just an acoustic guitar, I think they were originally going to embellish it, but it was so powerful just hearing him and guitarist Bobby Neal. They quickly decided, “No, no, no, let’s just leave it as it is.” It’s simply a great performance, very moving and emotional.
[Author’s Note: Nelson recorded an earlier version of “True Love Ways” on Nov. 8, 1978, with producer Larry Rogers during the Memphis Sessions. Inexplicably, Epic Records shelved the song, along with the accompanying album, for years, belatedly releasing it six months after the singer’s death with controversial overdubbed country-style instrumentation. Legacy, the first career-spanning box set devoted to Nelson, was released by Capitol in 2000. Contrary to publicity materials, it contained the original 1978 version, not the 1985 remake, which remains unreleased as of this writing].
Some tracks only contained guide vocals. In fact, Rick was supposed to return after New Year’s Day 1986 and lay down the final vocals. His practice vocals still sounded great. They were using retro mikes and recording practices which lent the project a very, very warm, intimate sound.
It was such a sad day when Rick, his band, and girlfriend Helen Blair were killed…
Unfortunately, Rick, Helen, lead guitarist Bobby Neal, drummer Ricky Intveld, pianist Andy Chapin, bassist Pat Woodward, and road manager Donald Clark Russell all perished in the plane crash.
Actually, I shouldn’t say “plane crash.” They landed the damn thing, except that it was on fire. That’s the thing about a DC-3. I had done a lot of research on the plane while I was researching the book.
There are great stories about DC-3s. They’re almost impossible to crash. DC-3s used in World War II might get their tail shot off or a wing, and the pilot was still able to land it. And in the case of Rick and his band, the pilot and copilot were, despite the fact the plane was burning, able to land it. The problem was the faultily repaired heater in back.
TheWashington Post took a lot of criticism, but if you go back and read the article, it’s quite fair. All they wrote was, the day after the crash, some aerosol cans had been found in the wreckage, which can be used for freebasing.
They were just investigating the possibility. They weren’t saying, “Oh, we think somebody was freebasing in the back of the plane.” The National Transportation Safety Board released a report six months later, and that theory was discounted.
Of course, the Washington Post and other newspapers printed it, but that kinda ended up way in the middle of the paper, and no one saw it. For years, if you asked people, they thought Rick Nelson and his band basically killed themselves by bringing down their own plane.
Was he a recreational drug user? Yeah, like many, many other people. But freebasing, no, and did he cause his own death? Absolutely not.
Of course, there’s some irony, because Rick always feared dying in a plane crash. He was a pretty fearless guy. Actually he had another fear: dying in a fire. He ended up dying in both. And late in his life, Rick had played a Buddy Holly festival, and Rick had talked about that.
If you talk to musicians, particularly from that era, that was a common conversation, because you’re on the road, you’re in these planes, and it was on their mind. When you think of rock stars who died in plane crashes, you instantly think of Buddy Holly.
Did you have any difficulty gaining access to the Nelson family?
At first I did. First of all, given the negative press after the accident, you’re talking about a family used to controlling things. They had their success in an era where the press kinda polished stars’ images. Now we’ve gone to the other extreme; neither one I consider to be journalism, the fan magazines and the search-and-destroy books, to me, are both crap.
There were no threats or “No, I’m not gonna talk to you.” I did a book on the crappy Yankees of the sixties and seventies called Dog Days, and I always use the same kind of strategy. I start with the “small people,” and I gradually interview and work my way up.
Eventually word will filter upward, whether, Is this guy an a**hole or is this guy a responsible journalist who’s looking to do a fair story? Most people don’t expect you to write a hagiography. If they sense that you intend to tell the story in a fair way, that’s usually good enough for most celebrities.
Finally, toward the end I did start speaking to Nelsons, but by that time I had already interviewed about two hundred people. I know when I interviewed Don DeFore (he played the Nelsons’ friendly neighbor “Thorny”) and Jimmie Haskell (who arranged and produced many of Rick’s hit recordings), those guys were still very loyal to the Nelsons.
Word got back that “this guy was okay. He’s written books before, he’s a legitimate journalist, and he seems to have a fair take on Rick, and he’s simply trying to tell his story.” I went off in different directions; I started with the musicians, the people on the TV show, his close friends, the football guys…
Did someone turn you down for the project?
I wrote to Kris. Of course, she didn’t know me, and she knew I was writing a book about her ex. She probably figured I was not gonna be favorable toward her, because nobody was at that time. I wrote a very honest letter, saying “here’s my take. I do see your side of things and how this was not an idyllic marriage.” Rick really was not a true partner, certainly not in terms of raising the kids.
Anyway, her then husband, Mark Tinker (a TV producer), called me up. I was staying at the Chateau Marmont. He was very nice, just trying to feel me out. He said, “You know, I think you’re on the level; I’ll try to talk to her and see what I can do.” But in the end she said no.
Remember, this was after a summer when she had been savaged. People magazine had her brother, actor Mark Harmon, on the cover talking about what a terrible mother and person she was.
Did you stay in touch with any of the Nelson family after the book?
No, it’s a book. I’m not there to be their buddy; I’m there to report a story. I know that David liked the book. I think I was very fair to Kris, to be honest with you. I don’t think it was easy being, for the most part, a single mom of four kids because your husband is off touring all the time. Kris had some legitimate complaints.
Kris was going through a really awful time while I was finishing the book. I don’t know what’s happened since. As people get older, they do tend to reconcile. By 1992, her son Sam was estranged from her; the twins, Matthew and Gunnar, definitely were. As time passes and people pass on, those who remain tend to be able to overlook stuff. She’s still your mom.
I was in California in 1988, and David really had strong feelings against her. He was very close to all of Rick’s kids; they really looked up to him as Uncle David. Not only was he angry at Kris for what he perceived as her treatment of Rick and the divorce, but also for the hell that the kids were put through.
What did Rick’s family members and close friends think of the bio?
Based on the feedback I received from family members and some of the musicians, everyone felt it was a very fair and balanced portrayal. To me, that’s the ultimate compliment. Now if I was Albert Goldman and looking to do a search-and-destroy job, that’s not what I would want.
But that’s not what I set out to do. It wasn’t to lionize Rick, it was to tell the story and try to get people to understand him. I remember reading the Goldman book about John Lennon. If you just present the things people do without any context, it can make someone look really bad.
You’ve got to put everything in context to understand why people made decisions they made at a certain time. If you examined anybody’s life, and your goal is to make them look like this terrible person, you can certainly find stories to tell that will paint the person in a negative light. Or you can do the opposite, which is equally uninteresting to me.
Famous people do encounter temptations in life that most of us never will. It’s very easy to be judgmental. Oh, so-and-so slept around. If you were young and women were throwing themselves at you, you might find it difficult to resist. To judge them based on your life experience is not fair.
That’s what a good biography does: it puts the reader in that person’s shoes and in their head, so that you come to understand why they did the things they did.
How popular was the book when it was released?
It came out in 1992, then again in paperback in ’93. It sold 20,000 copies, so it was moderately successful. Would I expect a bio of Rick Nelson to be a best-seller? No, but personally I feel the story warrants that. That’s what attracted me: telling a great story.
The book’s out of print today, but that will likely change because book publishing is changing. In the near future, books will never go out of print; they will be sold on-demand.
You won’t have to do a massive print run. Now everything is on a digital file, and as people move toward E-books, it’s only a matter of sending an e-file to a service such as Amazon Kindle. A book will no longer be a book; it’s just a file. That’s a very positive development.
The reality is that there are something like forty-five thousand books published per year. There’s no bookstore big enough to hold all of them. What would happen with many books, before online bookstores, is that you’d get your six weeks on the front shelf, then it’s time to make room for the next book.
With Amazon, you can browse infinitely; it’s the world’s biggest book store. You can browse better in the comfort of your own home on your computer than if you went to a Barnes & Noble and sat down, thumbing through the pages.
All books will definitely live on – it’s just a matter of the time it takes to digitize everything. I’ve written seventeen books to date; several of them have been digitized. I would have to get the rights back to Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man to get it on Kindle. Again, I’m really too busy to do that, but I have a feeling Hyperion will. Why wouldn’t you?
Did you make many promotional appearances for the book?
I was on a show called Legends with Matt Lauer. I appeared on an HBO program. I did tons of radio. It got a fair amount of attention, so it was a nice experience. Larry King wanted me on his show. It was one of those things – you can get booked for a show, but if something newsworthy happens, you get bumped. And that’s what happened to me.
Was there any film interest in the bio?
There was some film interest. It’s laughable, but David Hasselhoff wanted to play Rick. It was a funny idea to us twenty years ago, much less today. Unfortunately, you don’t see many of the rock biopics anymore. Aside from The Buddy Holly Story (1978) and maybe La Bamba (1987), most of them were not very successful.
I haven’t pursued any film offers in over fifteen years, because I just don’t see it happening. I move on to the next project. I get as excited about my next book as I was about the book before. Anyway, that’s not my job, that’s my agent’s job.
Would you be interested in revising the book?
I don’t think so. First of all, I said what I had to say. I don’t think there’s been any major change to the story. In the last chapter I discussed, given the benefit of six years of hindsight, how his career would have progressed in the eighties and nineties. It would have likely been a positive trajectory for him, so nothing’s changed too much.
Name a few of your books that you’re especially proud to have written.
I was always an editor; I never wanted to just write about music. I liked being able to shape a magazine. I always said, “By the time I’m thirty, I’m gonna be out of this.” If you wanna play rock until you’re ninety, God bless you. But to just write about it is very limiting, and that’s exactly what I did.
Two years later I was writing books about parenting, and this was before I became a parent. I’m proud of that. I’m more interested in what I’ve done since. I’m very proud of Dog Days.
The Complete Cancer Survival Guide won the American Medical Writers Association’s Best Health Book of 2001 Award, and, technically, I’m not a medical writer, so I’m very proud of that, too.
Science Lessons I’m very proud of, which was my last project. I’m proud of not having pigeon-holed myself, so I love the non-entertainment stuff the most. As for The Complete Bedside Companion, on caring for the very sick and dying – I love writing books that people pick up in a crisis, and they find something practical and useful in it. It’s very satisfying to me.
Where did you see Rick’s career going if he had lived?
The thing was, had Rick lived, things were really changing by the mid-eighties. All of a sudden the fifties rockers were being rediscovered and re-appreciated again: Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, and Gary U.S. Bonds.
You know, things go in cycles. There was more work than he knew what to do with in terms of being on the road, but the gigs were getting progressively better.
A lot of rock people at that time were transitioning over to country music. Rock radio was not gonna play Rick Nelson, who’s now forty-five years old, but country radio would. It wasn’t a stretch at all for Rick to make a bit of a countrified record, so they were gonna move in that direction. He probably would have found success in the country field.
To top it off, suddenly there was interest in him for possibly a television show, and he had resisted that for a long time. However, he was getting comfortable with that idea, too.
Financially, it would have been nice, and he could stay home most of the time, keeping LA as his home base. He could tour on the weekends and during the summer, picking the best shows to do. That sounded like a smart, viable way to do things.
There were many, many other kid actors who didn’t adjust very well to success. All things considered, Rick Nelson adjusted to fame, losing fame, and regaining fame, although he was always famous, even when he didn’t have hit records.
He was very well-liked in general; people usually had a good feeling about him, which is why he probably would have found success again in TV. His Q rating (your likability and recognizability) was very high.
What do you think Rick would be doing today?
In view of being seventy-one, Rick would have probably been financially secure. He was well on his way. He had finally paid off the million dollars surrounding the divorce’s legal proceedings that dragged on and on. This was when a million dollars was still a lot of money.
He probably could have had a TV show. He very easily could have had a few records on the country charts. What I think would have happened: in the eighties, you started to have what I call “rock star rescue missions.”
Bruce Springsteen did an album with Gary U.S. Bonds, John Cougar Mellencamp produced and wrote songs for Mitch Ryder, Tom Petty worked with Del Shannon [“Runaway” is his best-known song) on an album, Dave Edmunds produced an LP for the Everly Brothers, and Eddie Money featured Ronnie Spector on backup vocals on 1986’s big hit “Take Me Home Tonight.”
I think John Fogerty or Paul McCartney might have tried again. Someone who appreciated him. Rick would have had very successful decades in the late 1980s and 1990s. If he was physically able, he’d definitely still be touring, but at a much healthier pace: not 250 dates per year.
What would Rick’s legacy be?
I think his legacy is one that would surprise a lot of people: that he was the real deal. Despite his image, he’s always thought of in the second tier. He’s appreciated for sure, but this is a guy who was drawn to this music and really stayed true to it.
Rick could have sold out a million times, and plenty of his contemporaries, who get more respect than he did, did sell out (Elvis probably being the best example). Rick stayed true to this music at great personal cost. In that sense, he’s a very admirable figure.
And he led such an interesting, odd life. His reality was stardom from the age of nine up. All things considered, Rick handled it quite well. To me, U2 have tremendous integrity, and Rick was the same way. The two songs “You Just Can’t Quit” and “Garden Party” – his whole philosophy is summed up in those. He really lived it; it wasn’t just words.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! Philip Bashe, 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.
TWITTER: Follow Jeremy for new article updates @RetroInterviews
The Complete Philip Bashe Interview
- Part One: “Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: An Interview with Rick’s Biographer”
- Two: “Rick Nelson Had a Great Deal of Musical Integrity…”
- Three: “Rick Nelson Never Sold Out: A Word with the Singer’s…”
- Four: “From You Just Can’t Quit to Garden Party: The Life Philosophy of Rick”
- Five: “As Long As We Had Him: Rick’s Friends & Family Recall His Last Album”
The Complete James Burton Interview
- Part One: “Remembering Rick Nelson: An Interview with His Friend, Guitarist…”
- Two: “On the Road with Rick: The Master of Telecaster Remembers…”
- Three: “Never Be Anyone Else But You: The Guitarist on the Studio Years”
- Four: “25 Years Ago This Week – James Burton’s Tribute to a Legend”
The Complete Sam Nelson Interview (Rick’s youngest child)
- Part One: “My God, What an Incredible Asset: Sam Tackles Ozzie & Harriet”
- Two: “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet Was the People’s Show…”
- Three: “Rick Nelson Was Really My Dad: Sam Nelson Remembers…
- Four: “He’s Part of Something Incredible: The Lowdown with…”
- Five: “Sam Nelson, Musician: Revisiting H Is Orange and more with…”
- Six: “Rick Nelson Lived the Hero’s Journey and Left His Own Mark”
- Seven: “As Long As We Had Him: Rick’s Friends & Family Recall His Last Album”
The Complete Sheree Homer Interview (author of Rick Nelson: Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer)
- Part One: “Rick Nelson: Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer: In Step with Sheree Homer”
- Two: “Rick the Songwriter: A Candid Take on His Formative Compositions”
- Three: “A Shy and Humble Guy Who Loved His Fans: Rick’s Rockabilly Legacy”
- Four: “As Long As We Had Him: Rick’s Friends & Family Recall His Last Album”
Exclusive Interview: Legendary recording artist B.J. Thomas spoke about his debt of gratitude to Rick Nelson in a recent wide-ranging interview. In “Just a Regular Guy With a Burning Desire To Sing…”, Thomas also recalls amazing stories about arriving in Memphis in the late ’60s and singing for Elvis Presley, the impact of Chips Moman and the Memphis Boys on his career, appearing on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and having buckets of rain inexplicably thrown on his head, and opening for the notoriously temperamental James Brown…
Further Reading: Former Beatle George Harrison followed up his critically-acclaimed 1970 solo debut, All Things Must Pass, with a record that aimed for less lofty aspirations. While yet another number one album, Living in the Material World contained one song that remains largely undiscovered by the general record buying public. To read about “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long”, definitely the most Beatlesque and commercial track that deserved to be a hit single, visit the following article: “Rediscovering A Superb Love Song…”
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