For fans of early rock and roll, it is quite difficult to top the artistry of Rick Nelson. Songs like the No. 1 smash “Poor Little Fool,” “Lonesome Town,” “It’s Late” (a description that definitely applied to Rick), “Milk Cow Blues”, “Travelin’ Man,” and “Hello Mary Lou” defined the late ’50s and early ’60s.
In total, Rick had 35 songs reach Billboard’s Top 40 Pop chart from 1957 thru 1972. Although he never lived to see it, he is deservedly a member of both the Rock and Roll Hall and Rockabilly Halls of Fame.
While most of his contemporaries basically gave up recording new material as the ’60s progressed, Rick refused to give up his first love – music. He recorded two country albums that were critically acclaimed: Bright Lights and Country Music and Country Fever.
Later he formed the Stone Canyon Band, even composing an entire LP in 1970 – the appropriately named Rick Sings Nelson. And lest we forget, Rick was quite the actor, appearing with John Wayne and Dean Martin in Howard Hawks’ unforgettable western Rio Bravo in 1959.
One individual with a strong knowledge of Rick is author Philip Bashe. Indeed, Mr. Bashe published an excellent biography of the late singer in 1992 [Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man]. Unfortunately, it’s out of print, but used copies can be found on Amazon or eBay. But with the massive popularlity of Amazon Kindle and other digital book editions, it is only a matter of time before the book is available once again.
In this latest chapter of my interview with Mr. Bashe, we cover a wide range of topics, including Rick’s connection with Elvis, a song Rick covered dealing with suicide that his record label refused to release, his dry sense of humor, did he disappoint the author in any aspect, his pioneering country rock, Bob Dylan, and a largely undiscovered song that foreshadowed Rick’s sad demise.
If you missed Part One of the interview (titled “Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: An Interview With Rick Nelson’s Biographer), catch up here. Otherwise, get ready for more of the conversation below…
The Philip Bashe / Rick Nelson Interview, Part Two
For the 25th anniversary of Rick’s death, I interviewed James Burton. He told me that Elvis’ band (Scotty Moore, D. J. Fontana, and Bill Black) auditioned for Rick. Could you shed a little more light on this interesting story?
Rick’s band was better than Elvis’s. I tell the story in the book. James Burton was a little reluctant to say this, since he’s friends with Scotty Moore, and he doesn’t want to put anybody down.
It was funny, too, as I had already interviewed Scotty, and he had told me that in the fall of 1957, he, Bill, and D.J. were having a dispute with Colonel Tom Parker about not being paid enough. They were ready to quit.
So they heard that Rick, who had just done his first couple of records for Verve Records using great studio musicians like Barney Kessel and Joe Maphis, was looking to form his own band. Scotty, Bill, and D.J. tried out and jammed with Rick in the studio. When Scotty talked to me, he remarked, “It was strange; we never heard from him again.”
Well, the reason why, according to James Burton, was that Rick thought they were great, but not that great. Also, maybe the age difference was a problem, since those guys were well older than Rick. James was a kid just like Rick. He ended up auditioning and forming his own band and was much happier with that.
Frankly, I really believe, as good as Elvis’ players were, Rick’s band was better. On “Believe What You Say,” that’s about as exciting as rock & roll got in 1958. Another thing that’s amazing to me: Rick had just turned seventeen when he made his first single (“I’m Walkin’”), and he sounded like a kid.
But by “Believe What You Say,” only a year later, his voice had deepened, and he sounded much more confident. Richie Frost was a little older, but these were basically kids, and they made great records.
In the book, you discuss hearing the then-unreleased “Gloomy Sunday” for the first time. Why did it leave such an impact with you?
One of the wildest unreleased tracks was “Gloomy Sunday,” recorded in November 1958. You talk about a mighty performance. Here’s this eighteen-year-old kid singing this very, very powerful song about suicide.
Imperial Records freaked and said he couldn’t release it. Rick loved it, and he did a great performance, with just him and guitar. Those kinds of songs really suited his voice. It’s hard to imagine it getting any airplay; it sounded like nothing else, not to mention the subject matter.
I’m so glad it came out over forty years later on the Legacy box set in 2000. People should hear it. Rick was much deeper than people thought.
In 1959, Rick lost much of his rockabilly sound for a time. Why did he make such an ill-advised decision?
Those songs are “very produced.” The thing that people forget is that no one expected rock & roll to last. People were writing its obituary by 1959. Suddenly Bobby Darin has this hit with “Mack the Knife,” and then every record company was pushing its teen rock artists in that direction.
They figured, “Well, this rock & roll thing is a fad; it’s gonna die. So why don’t we move them now into this more adult kind of music?”
Unfortunately, you hear it on Rick’s records. Those horrible chick singers – oh my god. It wasn’t just his records, it was everyone’s. It wasn’t Rick and his little band anymore. Orchestrations, brass, and in particular, those horrible girl singers.
Those are the records I would hear on the radio, and I wouldn’t hear the stripped down, very authentic rockabilly stuff. In fact, it wasn’t until I started researching for the book and getting all his old records that I associated “Stood Up” or “Waitin’ in School” with Rick.
That’s what’s so cool about rediscovering a rock artist. The way he was portrayed by rock radio gave you a skewed idea of who he was. They totally left out the rockin’ stuff and mostly replayed his hit ballads. The rockers were just as big hits as the ballads. I never quite understood that.
Rick filmed Rio Bravo and The Wackiest Ship in the Navy (costarring Jack Lemmon) within two years, then stopped his major film appearances. Did Ozzie want Rick to concentrate only on the TV show?
Not at all; the fact that Rick was a pop star and a film star probably kept the show on the air longer than it might have otherwise. Whatever Rick and David did on the side, if it made them popular, it only enhanced the TV show.
Now, it’s possible that Ozzie might have resented in a way his son achieving a level of fame that he didn’t quite achieve. That would be a natural dynamic, too. As popular and influential as Ozzie and Harriet was, it was never among the top shows.
However, a lot of that likely had to do with the fact that it was on the baby network (ABC), which didn’t have as many affiliates as NBC or CBS. The show could have gone off the air a few years earlier, but they still had Rick.
How would you describe Rick’s sense of humor?
He was a very dry, quiet guy who was very aware of how he was perceived. He would poke fun at himself. For example, when he met people at the airport, they had really grown up with him to a degree that you can’t say about Elvis or pretty much anybody else.
Folks related to Rick on two levels: there was the music, but there was also the fact that he was like America’s kid brother. Not having lived at that time, I don’t know that I can fully appreciate how popular he was. He had his popular little catchphrase, “I don’t mess around, boy.”
Rick was a huge, huge star, as were the whole family. To this day, you still hear people talk about an “Ozzie and Harriet family.” America really did measure itself against the Nelsons. He would sometimes play with the fact that a lot of people thought of him as this clean-cut guy they saw on TV from 1952 to 1966.
He had fun with his image. He was very conscious of the fact that people would search his face for lines, because if he looked old, that meant they looked old. Luckily for Rick, not only was he incredibly handsome, he was aging quite well.
Did Rick “disappoint” you in any aspect?
I believed in the character I was writing about. When you’re writing a biography, you truly come to feel that you know the person you’re writing about. You kinda figure out how they think, what was important to them, and why they did certain things in their lives.
The person you’re writing about lives with you for however long you’re working on the book (a year, two years). It’s a nicer experience when the person isn’t a s***head! I look at Rick as wearing the white hat and being admirable in many ways.
The only way in which he “disappointed” me is that he was not a great father. I happen to have a son with autism. I’m a very involved father, and I don’t get people who aren’t. But it was a different time. Back then, a lot of young men – and young women, for that matter – got married whether they were ready or not.
In Rick’s case, he certainly wasn’t, as he got Kris knocked up. He definitely wasn’t ready for fatherhood. But that’s kinda what people did in those days: the “right thing.” In retrospect, that’s probably a poor choice of words.
How was Rick a pioneering artist?
Rick was pioneering in a couple of respects. By 1966, his hits had dried up like most American recording artists (including Elvis), because of the Beatles, the rest of the British Invasion, and the subsequent changes in music.
He loved country music and rockabilly. He put out two terrific country albums in 1966 and 1967 which really foreshadowed the country rock movement: the Byrds, with their 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Poco, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Eagles. Rick beat all those guys.
Rick ultimately went more into a singer-songwriter mode. He made some really good music. It didn’t get airplay, though. Most people probably did not hear it, but if you look at the reviews that he got in a “hip” publication like Rolling Stone, he always got good reviews.
The two country albums that are critical favorites today but failed to chart were Bright Lights & Country Music (1966) and Country Fever (1967)…
Those two country albums are fantastic. Rick was definitely ahead of his time. The song “You Just Can’t Quit” from Bright Lights is saying the same thing as “Garden Party,” in a way. He hadn’t had a hit record in two years, the show was winding down, and that song was a statement or declaration of purpose.
Other great songs on those albums included Doug Kershaw’s “Louisiana Man,” “Welcome To My World,” “Hello Walls,” “Night Train To Memphis” – just good stuff.
Rick was a little ahead of the curve there. The Woodstock generation got into that music right around 1969, and suddenly you had all these so-called country rock groups. Poco released its first album [Pickin’ Up the Pieces], the Flying Burrito Brothers [The Gilded Palace of Sin], the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo—these weren’t huge hit records, but they definitely had an audience.
So maybe if Rick had recorded those two albums two years later, he might have seen more acceptance. Also, remember he made those two records when he was only twenty-six. The show had just ended, and America had him in their minds as the sort of “teen idol” and the young, handsome man on the family TV show.
In a way, having time away from the show is what enabled him to reinvent himself a little bit. I think it was too soon to reinvent himself when the TV show has just gone off the air. That was a blessing for him to be off the TV, out of the public eye, and then to come back.
Again, it wasn’t any big stretch. It’s not like in the mid-seventies he went disco. For Rick to go into country music was a totally logical progression, considering the artists he loved: Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
What is your opinion on Rick’s psychedelic, more orchestrated recordings following his ground-breaking Country Fever in 1967?
Clearly, Rick was struggling to find direction in 1967-69, and Another Side of Rick [released in November 1967] and Perspective [February 1969] lack identity. Truthfully, I don’t know those albums at all or the accompanying singles, except for (ugh) “Don’t Make Promises.”
But Rick found himself pretty quickly with In Concert [February 1970] and then Rick Sings Nelson.
It must have hurt Rick when his music quit selling after the British Invasion, although “Garden Party” was a brief comeback eight years later…
Being an artist and making probably the best music of your life, or at least the most personal music of your life, and not having it be given a fair listen, stung Rick at first. However, if you go back and look at the Rolling Stone reviews, they’re always very complimentary.
Rick wasn’t gonna get played on Top 40 unless he had a hit, which he did with “Garden Party.” But what Rick was doing post 1968 was more country rock and really didn’t fit in with artists ten years younger than him.
That image did kind of imprison him in a way, and there was probably a part of him resentful of that. Fortunately, Rick came to terms with it. He had tremendous fame throughout his whole life, and yet his desires were really simple: he just wanted to be able to play music, but on his own terms.
And he was able to do that throughout his entire life. The way he looked at it, he had been super rich, and then he wasn’t so rich. But Rick probably would have been rich again.
He had seen and done it all by the time he was thirty. By the time he was thirty-two, when most people are lucky to enjoy fame the first time, he’d already had this incredible comeback. Rick quickly adapted to fame and the way it waxes and wanes.
What do you think of Rick’s more folk-based material from 1969 to 1971?
Most of his contemporaries weren’t getting reviewed favorably in Rolling Stone for new music and being accepted as a current artist. Rolling Stone was for that younger audience, and they did accept him on his own terms and just looked at it as this is Ricky Nelson, you probably remember him from “Poor Little Fool,” well guess what…”
They gave him an excellent review for Rick Nelson in Concert at the Troubadour. It’s a really good record: a nice mix of the old stuff along with new covers like Eric Andersen’s “Violets of Dawn,” Tim Hardin’s “Red Balloon,” and three Dylan songs (“I Shall Be Released,” “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” and “She Belongs to Me.”)
As he went more folk, he still had Tom Brumley on pedal steel guitar. It was folk with a country tinge. A lot of his folk-type stuff stands up very well against the bigger voices of that era, like James Taylor or John Prine. But the older folks who grew up with Rick were not going to like that music no matter who made it or what he did.
His voice especially lent itself to those quieter, intimate songs. I think he’s a fantastic singer with a very unique voice. Rick always said he wanted to sound like Ray Charles and couldn’t. Rick wasn’t a screamer, but he had a more understated way of expressing himself. I liken it to a quiet intensity.
Folks may be surprised to discover that Bob Dylan was a huge Rick Nelson fan.
Rick was one of the foremost interpreters of Dylan from that time. Nobody gives him any credit except Dylan. In his book Chronicles, he talks about Rick. And when Dylan toured in 1986, not long after Rick’s death, he covered “Lonesome Town.”
Dylan, who hardly ever says anything onstage, said something to the effect of “Ricky Nelson did some of my songs, so now I’m gonna do one of his.” That was his little tribute.
Dylan supposedly really liked Rick’s version of “She Belongs to Me.” What a compliment. Rick took a lot of satisfaction in knowing he was appreciated by all these major musicians, not only his contemporaries.
What’s an “undiscovered” song from Rick’s years with the Stone Canyon Band?
“Gypsy Pilot,” from his 1971 LP, Rudy the Fifth. Featuring slide guitar, just a very dirty-sounding, heavy band, I love it. Rick wasn’t yelling; he was doing his regular singing. Again, in his understated way, his voice definitely had presence.
There weren’t many people who sounded like Rick. His voice suited itself to many different styles, including folk, country, country rock, and rockabilly. Not so much on heavy stuff, but he didn’t play much heavy stuff.
But when he did, like on “Gypsy Pilot,” his voice sounds really impassioned. He’s pushing it a little bit, which makes you take notice, because it’s not how you usually think of Rick singing. But where’s it written that you have to be an R&B screamer to be “authentic”?
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE! PART THREE, “Rick Nelson Never Sold Out”, continues with anecdotes including Rick’s feelings about Elvis Presley playing Vegas, his songwriting, revelations that John Fogerty and Paul McCartney attempted to produce albums with Rick, the Stone Canyon Band, Rick’s decision to return to his rockabilly roots, and his relationship with elder brother David near the end of his life.
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…
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