A voice possessing effortlessness and tossed-off coolness: Rick Nelson remembered
Rick Nelson made it look so easy, but what other artist could have landed 32 Top 40 pop singles on Billboard in a six-year period dominated by Elvis Presley, one of Nelson’s earliest musical heroes? The quintessential American boy next door conveyed an assured mix of Fender Telecaster-fueled rockabilly, hauntingly fragile ballads, and trailblazing country rock expeditions in an expressive tenor fraught in effortlessness and tossed-off coolness. Nobody did it better.
Nelson was just eight years old when he experienced his first brush with fame on the radio version of the historic Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet pre-reality sitcom starring his real life parents and elder brother David. The “Original Teen Idol” had seen and done it all by the time he was 30. Developing artistically beyond such a restricting moniker would have proved impossible for most contenders. Not for a determined Rick Nelson.
Sheree Homer shattered a two-decades-long book drought on the introverted “Lonesome Town” troubadour with Rick Nelson: Rock ’n’ Roll Pioneer. Featuring insightful commentary from close Nelson confidants, backing musicians, and family members — the full endorsement of former wife Kris Harmon was a major scoop — the engrossing tome is essential for any serious fan. Homer’s most recent book is Dig That Beat! Interviews with Musicians at the Root of Rock ’n’ Roll.
Commemorating the 35th anniversary of the entertainer’s dreadful demise in air transit to play a New Year’s Eve rockabilly sock hop in Dallas, Homer details her journey below from a 16-year-old high schooler stumbling upon her mom’s vintage 45 of “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” b/w “Believe What You Say” to a serious connoisseur of all things Rick Nelson.
The Complete Sheree Homer / Rick Nelson Interview
How did your fascination with Rick Nelson begin?
When I was 16 years old, I helped my mom reorganize her 45 RPM record collection. She was a teenager in the 1950s and, luckily for me, spent a good portion of her salary on records by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Rick Nelson, and others. She had introduced me to most of those artists at a much earlier age, but it wasn’t until we were renumbering the records that she suggested I give a listen to Rick’s music.
My mom handed me the 45 of “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” b/w “Believe What You Say”, thinking that I would like his singing style since it was similar to Elvis’. Upon hearing the double sided platter, I became an instant fan [Author’s Note: a double-sided hit in April 1958, the A-side went to №12, while the B-side charted higher at №4].
Two days later, we went to Best Buy, and I bought a four VHS tape set of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. I remember seeing an episode entitled “Tutti-Frutti Ice Cream” [aired on Dec. 11, 1957] and commenting about how dreamy I thought Rick was.
I then made two scrapbooks devoted to Rick and started collecting all of his early records and any other memorabilia I could get my hands on.
Did any of your family get to see Rick in concert?
No, unfortunately not. To this day, my mom regrets that since he appeared right here in Kenosha, Wisconsin several times. In fact, he and the band played at a little bar, so she probably would have been able to speak to him. It is bittersweet to have written a book about him because he’s not here to see it.
So, how did your initial interest in Rick transform into Rock ’N’ Roll Pioneer?
After hearing “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” b/w “Believe What You Say”, I dug deeper into his catalog. By 2002, I was a die-hard rockabilly fan, and Rick’s recordings during that era were some of my favorites.
At that time, through attending concerts, I met guitarist James Burton and the Jordanaires. Then a few years later, I met Matthew and Gunnar Nelson as well as Rick’s original bassist James Kirkland.
As I heard more of Rick’s music and read more about his career, I realized that he had never received the respect and recognition he deserved. In my opinion, he is highly underrated and not given credit as a rockabilly singer and a country rock pioneer.
I wanted to write a biography about Rick’s musical career in 2007, but evidently the timing wasn’t right. I didn’t know how to obtain photos nor did I have the right connections. Instead, I featured him along with forty-five others in my first book, Catch That Rockabilly Fever: Personal Stories of Life on the Road and in the Studio .
The book about Rick was important for me to write because I wanted to finally put to rest the rumors about freebasing cocaine on the plane and write a decent book. I have read the others out there, and I feel they concentrate too much on his personal life.
Rick isn’t here to defend himself, and I didn’t want to hurt his family. They have been through enough. I know Rick wasn’t a saint; but none of us are, and it’s not right for him to be judged. The musical legacy that he left behind should be remembered.
Where did you start with your interview process, who were some of your favorite interviews, and who was the toughest interview to obtain?
Since I am a fan of Rick’s, I was already familiar with many of the names who worked with him. The trick was finding them. Due to his hectic touring schedule, Rick’s band members frequently changed. Therefore, I couldn’t find everyone.
The Internet certainly helped to find names and contact information and sometimes one interviewee led to another. For example, Connie Harper Nelson [Rick’s aunt who was once married to Ozzie’s younger brother, Don] put me in touch with Rick’s former wife, Kris, Joe Byrne [Rick’s childhood friend], and a former fan club president named Diane Linke.
Jimmie Haskell [Rick’s longtime music arranger/producer who has worked with hundreds of artists including Bobbie Gentry], John Boylan [producer of Another Side of Rick and Perspective], and Ian Cooke [music historian, Rick’s friend, and producer of the tribute CD, Easy to Be Free: The Songs of Rick Nelson] were also extremely helpful with contact information.
I had a difficult time tracking down Glen Larson [taught Rick his first three guitar chords; also a member of the Four Preps who became a mega television writer and producer in the ’70s on hits such as McCloud, The Six Million Dollar Man, Magnum, P.I. and Battlestar Galactica] and Stephen Love [bassist for the Stone Canyon Band, 1971–1972, played with New Riders of the Purple Sage and Roger McGuinn], but I eventually located their whereabouts.
I interviewed over 50 people for the book, so it’s hard to narrow down my favorites. However, Joe, Jimmie, Kris, Connie, and Bruce Belland [member of the Four Preps, attended Hollywood High School with Rick and later sang backup during Rick’s early career] were standouts.
It was Kris’s first time, in a long time, speaking about her late former husband. She normally does not open up but felt comfortable with me. She knew I only wanted to speak about the music. I’m really glad I got her on board, too. If it weren’t for her and Connie, there would be no book.
I feel that interviews are an essential part of any book, and mine was no exception. I am thankful that I was able to talk to as many people as I did.
Is it true you missed several publishing deadlines? Perhaps appropriately, Rick was constantly late throughout his life. Do you feel he was with you in spirit?
Yes; I had to ask for five extensions beyond my deadline because I was going through some personal issues and was having difficulties choosing which research material to include in the final manuscript. I literally had a three-foot pile of interviews, book excerpts, and magazine articles to read through.
I thought it was ironic since Kris had just mentioned in an email that Rick was with me throughout the process. Rick was not a clock watcher and was always late for recording sessions and live shows.
In addition, he loved meeting the fans and sometimes that got him into trouble. Since Rick wasn’t aware of time constraints, for example the need to catch a flight, he had to be constantly reminded by either band members or the roadie that it was time to go.
Dennis Larden [lead guitarist for the Stone Canyon Band, 1973–1978] acknowledged, “People stopped us everywhere. Rick was very smart since he knew that these were the people who made his career, and he just felt responsible for making himself accessible.” When Larden was in the band, he made sure that Rick got to the studio in a timely manner, perhaps late but fashionably so.
I feel that Rick would be very proud and humbled by the final product, Rick Nelson: Rock and Roll Pioneer. In fact, many of the book’s readers have said that. I like to think that had he been living he would have helped promote it. I had an inner peace with the project. Everything came together, i.e. photos and interviews, and I feel that Rick aided in that process.
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 Dec. 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” [№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, Nov. 1967, and Perspective, Aug. 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 Sept. 3, 1970. It is notable for several reasons — Rick was the sole producer, for the first and last time he composed every song on an album, 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.
While Rick’s admiration for 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 Sept. 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” [№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.
Should the sessions for Rick’s final album see the light of day?
The songs that I have heard, i.e. the live version of “One After 909”, “You Got Me Gone”, “Rock ’N’ Roll Fool”, and “Singing the Blues” are all great rockabilly rave-ups. In their completed form, I think they all could have been charted singles. Those are the only songs that have been bootlegged.
Because of the confusion over the rights to the record, Bear Family Records, who chronicled Rick’s complete recording sessions through his stint with Capitol in 1982 on three acclaimed box sets, didn’t issue them because of not knowing who owned them to obtain rights. Yet they did list the tracks and their accompanying songwriters in the discography included with The Last Time Around: 1970–1982. I seriously doubt that Bear Family has any future plans to release them.
I know that the songs aren’t finished, but I would like to see them get an official release. I believe it would cause a resurgence to happen within the Rick Nelson community. Many of his fans are yearning for new product.
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 last manager Greg McDonald 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.
I took excerpts from my book to compose an article, which appears in the Dec. 2015 issue of Vintage Rock Magazine. The editor asked me to write an article in tribute to Rick since it marked 30 years since his tragic passing. I was thrilled to learn that not only was it the cover story but also 10 pages in length.
In Oct. 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 on 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.”
Raising hackles with ‘Ricky Nelson: Idol for a Generation’ scribe Joel Selvin
The debut author to substantially chronicle Rick Nelson grants his first interview in decades about the California…
Supermarket serendipity with Rick Nelson
The original ’50s teen idol met Bruce Joyner, the frontman for L.A. surf punk bands the Unknowns and the Plantations…
As long as we had him: Rick Nelson’s inner circle expose his unreleased last record
Sam Nelson, Telecaster picker James Burton, producer Jimmie Haskell and manager Greg McDonald on the myths behind Rick…
True love ways: A glimpse inside the tangled web of Rick Nelson’s final album
Get the scoop on the complete album of unreleased Rick Nelson songs recorded in the days preceding the ‘50s rocker’s…
© Jeremy Roberts, 2012, 2016. All rights reserved. To touch base, email firstname.lastname@example.org and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.