Singer Rick Nelson is often lumped in with other teenage idols of his day, but he was so much more than that. As part of the fabled all-American Nelson family, including his dad (Ozzie), mom (Harriet), and elder brother (David), Rick first rose to prominence on the long-running Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet television series (1952-1966) on ABC.
After hearing Elvis Presley’s classic 1954 Sun B-side “Blue Moon of Kentucky” playing on the car radio one evening, Rick’s date couldn’t help but express her adulation for the superstar. That prompted Rick, only age 16, to declare that Elvis wasn’t that special. To back up his claim, Rick bluffed that he was going to cut a record.
So after repeatedly begging Ozzie, he relented and let Rick cut a cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin.'” The runaway success of the single amazed everyone in May 1957, as it vaulted all the way to No. 4 on the pop charts. Thus, a career was born.
Many great singles followed, featuring tasty guitar licks from none other than the Master of Telecaster and future Elvis musician, James Burton. To read an entertaining interview with Burton spotlighting the 25th anniversary of Rick’s death, visit this link.
Those singles included ballads (“Poor Little Fool”), pop (“Mean Old World”), rock and roll (“Believe What You Say”), early country rock (“You Just Can’t Quit”), and folk (“Promenade In Green”). In all, 27 of Rick’s singles hit Billboard’s Top 20 pop charts, and appropriately, Rick was second to Elvis only in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
As the British Invasion caused Rick’s music to fall off the charts by 1964, Rick refused to become an artist on the oldies circuit, slowly developing into an excellent songwriter.
By 1969, Rick captured a whole new generation of fans with his trailblazing country rock material with The Stone Canyon Band, best exemplified on great songs including “She Belongs To Me,” “Easy To Be Free,” “Gypsy Pilot,” “Garden Party,” “Legacy,” and “Lifestream.”
Rick had another resurgence in 1979 when he hosted and served as musical guest on Saturday Night Live. His beautiful, intimate cover of Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” performed on the episode served as his last semi-hit.
As the 1980s began, Rick came to embrace his early rockabilly roots, forming a new band led by the underrated guitarist Bobby Neal. It was an especially terrible, shocking day on December 31, 1985, when his plane went down after a faulty heater ignited, killing Rick, his entire band, and his fiance.
In 1987, Rick became an esteemed member of the second class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His legacy is still undiminished to this day, and his musical peers, including Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, and Paul McCartney, continue to respect his impressive body of work.
Journalist Philip Bashe defies categorization. In his 35-year career as a writer, Mr. Bashe has covered diverse subjects ranging from rock and roll, baseball, cartoons, cancer, and caring for the seriously ill. Nearly twenty years ago, he published the best biography so far on Rick Nelson.
Released in May 1992 as Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: The Complete Biography of Rick Nelson, the bio wasn’t a runaway success, selling approximately 20,000 copies. But that wasn’t the author’s goal, as his remarks make absolutely clear – he wanted to tell a great story that deserved more attention.
Today Mr. Bashe writes primarily about the medical profession and modern issues affecting families, and he hasn’t discussed Nelson in a number of years. When I contacted him at his home in New York about doing this interview, he was genuinely surprised that there was still interest out there.
Part one of our 11,000 word conversation jump-starts below, as Mr. Bashe explains his fascination with Rick, how “Garden Party” made him a fan, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and its launching pad for early rock and roll, why he considered writing a biography of Ozzie, and Rick’s acting. Stick around, as you won’t be disappointed.
The Rick Nelson Interview With Biographer Philip Bashe, Part I
What was your background in rock writing, and how did it lead to Rick Nelson?
I’ve always been a writer. While I was in college in Buffalo, New York, I had started my own music magazine called Foxtrot, sort of an ersatz Rolling Stone. When it came time to graduate, it was pretty popular, so I figured, “Why be an employee when you can be an employer?”
So I actually incorporated and took the magazine off campus, distributing 35,000 copies all around Erie County. My other interest was radio, and I got hired by the local “progressive rock” radio station, as the format was called at the time.
Being on the radio was infinitely more fun than Foxtrot, and I could not do both. I folded the magazine after about two years. My radio gig ended (the usual story) because we got taken over by a big conglomerate, and they totally changed the nature of the station.
I had been a magazine editor and chief writer until about 25 years ago when I left. Once again, my magazine got taken over by somebody, and we didn’t like the direction things were going, so we all quit.
I had already written six books by the time I began work on Rick’s story. I love stories where people think they know the story, and I love being able to say, “Your perception is this, but the reality is this.”
I was too young to be a fan of Rick Nelson’s. When the song “Garden Party” came out in 1972, I was eighteen, but I was intrigued by the story behind the song. I admired him, based on what I had read, for his artistic integrity.
When I wrote the book twenty years ago, I thought, “You know what? This is the great, last untold story of the early rock era.” So I decided to write a biography of him.
Was “Garden Party” how you were introduced to Rick?
I don’t even remember now; oldies radio stations didn’t start in New York until ’72. I probably knew “Travelin’ Man” and “Poor Little Fool,” but I didn’t know the television show, although I had likely seen it in reruns.
I loved rock & roll, so I read Rolling Stone, and I did see reviews of his late 1960s and early 1970s work, most of them highly complimentary, too. I probably read about him in other places as well.
I didn’t have a real appreciation of what the show meant or how many hit records he had. On oldies radio, you might hear “Travelin’ Man,” “Hello Mary Lou, and maybe “Poor Little Fool.” But you never heard his great rockabilly sides, like “Stood Up” or “Waitin’ in School,” so it kind of gave you a skewed sense of who Rick Nelson was musically.
You heard a lot of the ballads, and they’re great, but you didn’t really get the sense that this guy loved rock & roll and made some great rock & roll records.
Those records did not get played, which is weird, as “Stood Up” was a No. 2 hit, “Waitin’ in School” went to No. 18 – these were huge records. Even “Believe What You Say,” a No. 4 hit – I doubt I ever heard that on the radio while growing up in the late sixties and early seventies.
I bet I heard his cover of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” (No. 33) and “Easy to Be Free” (No. 48) in late ’69, early ’70. Again, “Garden Party” was where I really learned about him, and the story behind the song is fantastic. It’s a moral victory; how can you not root for this guy?
Why is Rick often lumped in with the teen idols?
One of the things that interested me in writing the book is that Rick Nelson doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and so forth. Rick was definitely conscious of how he was perceived.
I’d interviewed John Fogerty, a huge fan of Rick’s. He was the guy who inducted Rick into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. I thought he said it beautifully: “Rick was too handsome, too good-looking.” Unfortunately, Fabian had the look of a Rick Nelson. Rick used to laugh at those guys and call them the “shiny-teeth guys.”
Interestingly, there were great parallels between Eric Andersen and Rick. In the seventies, Andersen made intimate folk albums, and he had a very similar voice to Rick’s. He was a guy somewhat hampered by his good looks.
Andersen’s label (Warner Bros. Records) actually put an ad in Rolling Stone saying something to the effect of “Someone who looks as good as this shouldn’t sound as good as this!” The guy had to essentially apologize for being movie star handsome. In fact, he and Rick looked somewhat alike.
But Rick really wanted to be appreciated as a musician. By the time he died, Rick was very much at peace with the fact that even though sometimes rock critics would lump him in with the “shiny teeth guys” like Fabian and Frankie Avalon, Rick knew he had the respect of musicians.
I’m always amazed to this day when you hear a famous guitarist talking about who he grew up listening to – especially English guitarists like George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page – they always cite Rick Nelson’s records, because to them, it was great rockabilly stuff. And they learned their guitar lessons from James Burton.
How much did The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet mirror their real life?
Rick was quite the daredevil. Bullfighting, anyone? Rick did all these things, and Ozzie would write ’em into the show. That’s the cool thing about the show, and I really felt people got that all wrong. “Well, the Nelsons portrayed themselves as a typical American family, and they weren’t.” Yeah, except they had it backward.
As I said in the book, what, are you going to tell me now, you’re shocked because Buddy Ebsen wasn’t an actual Beverly Hillbilly? What’s more interesting are the many ways in which The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet mirrored their real lives.
Ozzie wrote the show not so much about his family but the family he grew up in. He always thought he had a very idyllic childhood, growing up in New Jersey. So the show people saw in the fifties and sixties was really Ozzie portraying his life growing up in the 1910s and early 1920s.
A lot of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet were the adventures that Rick had with his brother, friends, and parents. Whenever Rick or David got into something, Ozzie worked it into the show. So it was a logical thing when Rick announced, “I wanna make a record.”
At any point, did you consider writing an Ozzie Nelson biography?
I probably wrote a whole other book about Ozzie Nelson. In a way, I found him more interesting than Rick. That was great, but you know what? It was a different book.
In doing the Rick book, after the opening scene, I went back and recounted the family history. I went to Rutgers University, where Ozzie had been the head of the student newspaper. I located these somewhat racist cartoons he had drawn in the 1920s.
Putting it into context, it was the culture of America back then. Ozzie was also great friends with the great bass-baritone singer Paul Robeson. I’m not saying that Ozzie was a racist; but he was young at the time, growing up in a racist culture. It was pretty interesting, though.
I just found him so fascinating, and the antithesis of what people think of him based on his character on the show. His character is the antithesis of the real Ozzie Nelson. I got enamored of my own research, but this was not a book about Ozzie. You can’t go off for one hundred pages on Rick’s father.
Would you venture to say Adventures was an influential program?
The show was hugely influential. Ozzie was the only guy with a TV show, except for Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, smart enough to keep the rights to it. He was totally in charge of everything he ever touched. It does stand to reason that Ozzie wasn’t so good at giving up his position as producer on Rick’s recording sessions.
By 1981, there was MTV, so now you see rock on TV all the time. Now I go on YouTube and see whatever I want to see. But in the 1950s, aside from a handful of artists who played The Ed Sullivan Show and a few of the other variety shows, where else were you gonna see rock & roll performed (often lip-synched) on TV? By the way, Rick was a very good lip-syncher on his television show performances.
Many musicians from that generation remark that at least you knew, once a week, you could get your fix of rock & roll by turning on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. It was the only place where you could find that on a weekly basis.
Ozzie basically smuggled rock & roll into American living rooms under the pretext of this “wholesome family show.” He’s very influential in the rise of rock & roll.
Is it a misnomer that Ozzie didn’t understand rock and roll?
Ozzie and Harriet were synonymous with being square. Are you kidding me? I’ve heard the master tapes from Rick’s 1950s sessions on Imperial, and Ozzie Nelson was truly one of the founding fathers of rock & roll. Ozzie was actively producing those sessions and in charge. You hear him and Rick and the band tossing ideas back and forth.
Ozzie Nelson understood Rick’s music. He took a real risk in putting it on the show. Some of the sponsors, like Kodak, threatened to boycott the show on the basis of rock & roll being a so-called nefarious influence.
Ozzie’s response? “Well then, don’t be our sponsor.” Ozzie and Harriet were the pop stars of their era. I analogize them to the big band Sonny & Cher. They had tons of hit records.
There’s that great sort of editorial he gave Harriet to say around 1958. Rick asked, “Mom, what do you think of rock & roll?” They go back and forth for a while, saying it’s a natural expression of teenagers. And the last thing his mom said was, “I’m not gonna knock it, I’ll tell you that much!”
Harriet understood it, because there were people who likely looked down on her and Ozzie when they were making popular music in the thirties and forties. They could totally understand why those rock & roll songs appealed to kids.
However, the joke in the band was that Ozzie would always try to work his damn ukulele or banjo in the arrangements, and Rick would always have to go, “No Dad, we’re not putting ukulele on one of my records.”
Ozzie was a very dominant personality; he wasn’t a tyrant, but he was definitely domineering. Who knows, perhaps he was reliving his bandleader days vicariously through his son. You have to remember, Ozzie was leading a band while he was going to Rutgers. He was a prototypal multitasker and extremely ambitious.
You hear Rick in the sessions. He’s not just kowtowing to his father: “Right, Dad.” He’s a musician, and as all musicians do, you fight for your ideas in the studio. At only eighteen, Rick was asserting himself in the studio.
Later on, in his twenties, Rick banned Ozzie from his studio sessions, and Ozzie’s feelings were hurt. Yet Ozzie was perceptive enough to understand why. Rick wanted to be his own person, like any young man.
It must have been especially difficult on Ozzie when the television show ended in 1966…
Rick and David both (and David more so than Rick) separated themselves from their parents when the show ended. When you think about it, the big job of teenager-hood is to separate from your parents, assert your independence, and find your self-identity.
Well, they never got a chance to do that. In fact, they were stuck with their parents all the time because Dad was your Dad, Dad was also your boss on the set, and Dad played your “fake dad” on the TV show. All things considered, I think they weathered a very difficult situation fairly well.
But it was natural that Rick wanted to assert himself. He didn’t get to act out his teenager-hood until he was married and in his mid-twenties. A lot of people were “searching” (it’s a cliché now), but it was legitimate in the 1960s. Here was Rick at twenty-six: at a crossroads with his life. What was he gonna do?
As much as they loved and respected their parents, both he and David needed to get away from them. Not so much Harriet, but Ozzie. Some people might see that as “Oh-ho! The Nelsons were not what they seemed.”
I would challenge any family to survive working from 1949 to 1966 (if you include the radio version of The Adventures) on a show produced by and starring your dad. And you’re trying to grow up at the same time. Very convoluted, almost like playing a three-tier game of chess.
Was Rick committed to acting?
Rick had such a skewed perspective on everything, as everything came very naturally to him. He just fell into certain things. That was definitely true of acting. He wasn’t particularly enamored of acting; he saw himself as a musician. He didn’t feel any deep connection to acting, but he enjoyed it.
Working on the show was like anybody working in the family business. Some people stocked shelves in Dad’s grocery store; well, Rick’s parents’ business happened to be a TV show. Ozzie always liked to work his family into anything, partly as a way to keep the family together – no small feat in the entertainment biz.
Music was a big part of Rick. Maybe now it’s different, but at the time I don’t think people really got that. This guy was more committed to rock & roll than many of the artists who get far more respect doing what Rick used to call the “balloons and feathers” Las Vegas–type show.
Rick could have totally transformed his life financially by just playing a handful of those shows a year, and yet he wouldn’t do it. He had a great deal of musical integrity.
DON’T GO ANYWHERE! PART TWO, “Rick Nelson Had a Great Deal of Musical Integrity…”, finds Bashe investigating 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…
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…
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Steve McQueen’s widow, Barbara Minty McQueen, spoke at length to this writer in 2011. In the second installment, “Through the Lens of His Widow”, Ms. McQueen spotlights Steve’s sense of humor, tells the story behind his ill-advised perm, reveals whether he was a male chauvinist and if he carried any money with him, why he was an outstanding haggler, and discusses Steve’s special bond with children. Don’t miss it.
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