As long as we had him: Rick Nelson’s inner circle expose his unreleased last record

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Rick Nelson insiders and experts — youngest child Sam Nelson, Telecaster maestro James Burton, arranger-producer Jimmie Haskell, personal manager Greg McDonald, authors Philip Bashe and Sheree Homer — set the record straight on the rock entertainer’s final recording project left undisturbed for nearly 35 years. Seen above is the single cover for Nelson’s “You Know What I Mean” b/w “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” distributed on February 24, 1986, via Silver Eagle / MCA Records. The passionate stage shot originates from Nelson’s August 22, 1985, televised show with Fats Domino at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. Image Credit: 45Cat user MusicTom / Universal Music Group

Rick Nelson, an esteemed member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s sophomore class, was hard at work on his first album of original material since Playing to Win was unleashed to scant fanfare in January 1981 on Capitol Records.

Things had been bleak for the singer during the early ’80s, but a change in the weather was brewing. A difficult and protracted divorce was over, his kids had moved back in with him, he had a steady girlfriend in Helen Blair who loved him, and he had climbed out of debt. Television was beckoning the effortless Rio Bravo costar. Nelson finally met idol Carl Perkins at Sun Studios and contributed backing vocals to John Fogerty’s “Big Train from Memphis.” Curb Records was interested in signing him. Fans were fervently cheering his embrace of rockabilly and pop ballads at shows spanning continents. Above all, Nelson had become comfortable in his own skin and was cognizant of his authentic contributions to rock ‘n’ roll.

But everything ground to a sickening standstill when a faulty airplane heater caught fire while Nelson and his band were en route to Dallas for a New Year’s Eve 1985 show. The album 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.

In a valiant attempt to shatter the myths revolving around the project 35 years later, Nelson insiders and experts contribute exclusive commentary. Stick around for James Burton [Nelson’s chicken pickin’ lead axeman who later performed with Elvis Presley, John Denver, and Roy Orbison], Sam Nelson [youngest child of the charming entertainer and estate manager for grandparents Ozzie and Harriet], the late Jimmie Haskell [Nelson’s original music arranger and conductor who won a Grammy for Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”], Nelson’s final personal manager Greg McDonald, and biographers Philip Bashe [Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: The Complete Biography of Rick Nelson] and Sheree Homer [Rick Nelson: Rock ’N’ Roll Pioneer]. Vintage recollections from Curb Records president Mike Curb and Nelson session archivist Jim Ritz further illuminate the intriguing tale.

The Sam Nelson, James Burton, Jimmie Haskell, Greg McDonald, Philip Bashe, and Sheree Homer Interview

Is it true that Rick’s manager Greg McDonald [1976–1985] owns the masters for his client’s final record and let you listen to them during your research for Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: The Complete Biography of Rick Nelson [1992]?

Philip Bashe: Believe it or not, that is absolutely true. For some reason, Rick had all his masters, and not just for this project. So that Rick could record free of record company dictates, Greg decided to finance the production himself, then sell it to a label. The day Rick died, Curb Records was finalizing a record contract [i.e. Rick never signed it].

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 also surrounded by a terrific band, and he had called Jimmie Haskell, an arranger, producer, composer, conductor, and three-time Grammy winner who he had not worked with in years, and said, “Jimmie, let’s make records the way we used to.” Rick had truly 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 cut an earlier version of “True Love Ways” on November 8, 1978, with producer Larry Rogers during The Memphis Sessions. Inexplicably, Epic Records shelved the song, along with the accompanying album, belatedly distributing 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 under lock and key].

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, live echo chambers, an antiquated three-track tape machine, and the same mixing board from United Recorders studio B where Rick waxed so many classics in the early 1960s, which lent the project a very, very warm, intimate sound.

Full disclosure — Greg and I did Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man together. Rick had willed him the rights to handle a biography and /or movie of his life. I’m the author, but Greg and I share the copyright. I finally found Greg back in Palm Springs in February 2017. I don’t think I’d spoken to him in 23 years or so. We had a nice chat about Echo Point Books republishing Teenage Idol [the deal sadly failed to materialize].

Curb Records founder Mike Curb, a onetime lieutenant governor of California who notched several hit records in the early ’70s with the Mike Curb Congregation, relayed the following anecdotes in Bashe’s Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man:

Mike Curb: It was a thrill to have Rick with our company. In my last conversation with Rick, he indicated that he was ready to go in a progressive country direction, which would have fit in well with our artist roster.

I think Rick would have been very successful in the country field during the late ’80s, because he didn’t have to change his music at all to be accepted. His hits from the ’50s and ’60s, and then particularly “Garden Party” and the other Stone Canyon Band records, had a definite progressive country feel…

Were there any problems during the making of Rick’s last album?

Jimmie Haskell: One especially sticks out in my mind. We recorded the album over an extended period in late 1985 at Baby-O Studios and then at Conway Recorders, a little studio on Melrose Avenue near Western.

Recording often depended on Ricky’s hectic touring schedule. I would ask him, “Do you have some tunes that you like enough to record?” “Yeah”, he would nonchalantly reply. “Okay, then I’ll get the band together” was always my answer.

I would call bassist Pat Woodward first, who was pretty much the leader of the band, and tell him, “Ricky would like to record on Tuesday.” He would respond, “Can’t do it, Jimmie.” I said, “Why? Is there a conflict of schedule?” “We haven’t been paid for the last session,” he admitted. “But Pat, that was over a month ago,” I said. “I know, but we haven’t been paid, and we don’t think we should play another session until we get paid”, he would admit.

So I called Greg McDonald and told him, “Ricky wants to record again on Tuesday. The guys in the band don’t wanna show up for the session until they get paid for the previous session.” “Awww, are they saying that again? Listen, they’ll be paid immediately. Call the guys and let them know everyone will be fine”, he replied. I could only say, “Okay.”

I called Pat back and relayed McDonald’s message to him. “Okay, Jimmie”, was all Pat could muster. When it was stressful like that, McDonald did pay them. But I faced that same situation about five times in a row. I don’t know why McDonald had to be so stingy and make things awkward for the band. None of us liked McDonald — he’s also the one who bought the plane for Ricky.

Did you have any favorites?

Haskell: I thought “Ain’t Gonna Do You No Good” was utterly fantastic. It was composed by Jerry Fuller, who penned many of Ricky’s early ’60s pop hits including “Travelin’ Man”, “A Wonder Like You” “Young World”, and “It’s Up to You.”

Although Ricky had previously recorded “True Love Ways” in Memphis with producer Larry Rogers in 1978, we made a better recording. I still remember him standing in front of the microphone all by himself, recording a temporary vocal. He was wonderful, but he was always that way. After we finished it, he said, “I’m gonna head on out to the airport” [a little landing strip in Van Nuys on Sherman Way].

Then he asked me, “Jimmie, can you handle Neal’s overdubs?” I said, “Sure, and I’ll drive him to the plane.” Rick added a quick “Thanks”, and that was our last conversation. So Neal spent another half hour in the studio adding acoustic guitar. To this day, I feel sad that I drove Neal to the plane that ultimately killed him five days later.

Since Ricky’s death scuttled Curb’s plans to release the album, McDonald decided to have the tracks stored in a vault that kept master tapes fresh. I eventually spoke to the twins, Gunnar and Matthew, and said, “Do you know about his last record? McDonald has the tapes.” They replied, “We don’t have any copies of it.” I said, “Okay, I’ve got a cassette of it, and I’ll send it to you.” That’s how they learned about Ricky’s last record. Gunnar and Matthew eventually bought the rights to it, or at least that’s my understanding.

Did McDonald attempt to release the sessions?

Haskell: As a matter of fact, he called me about three months after Ricky’s death and told me to meet him at a Hollywood studio with the engineer, Lee Miller [he worked on Nelson’s live and studio recordings from 1983–1985]. We played the Curb session tapes. They were surprisingly good, although unfinished.

McDonald then took it to another engineer named Gene Shively. Gene was capable of doing good sounds because he used to run a mastering studio across the street from the post office in Hollywood on Wilcox Avenue.

McDonald said, “Jimmie, we’re trying to work out this album and make it sound good.” I said, “Well, it might be difficult. Ricky’s vocals were scratch vocals sung while the band was playing. Unfortunately, the drums leaked into Ricky’s mike. The only thing I can suggest to you is try to match the drums from their mic with the drums coming through Ricky’s vocal mic and phase out the drums.”

I gave Gene my suggestions and told him I would be happy to work with him on it. They said, “That’s okay.” So they worked on it and didn’t call me back for quite some time. I guess they had received all the information they wanted from me, and McDonald certainly didn’t want to pay me for my time to do anything else.

About 10 months later, Gene got ahold of me out of the blue and said, “Jimmie, do you know what’s going on with that album? I’ve got it, but I’m not gonna release it until McDonald pays me.” I said, “Well, I have nothing to do with that. I hope you get paid” [laughs]. So, evidently, those recordings were upgraded.

Of course, the only way I had copies of the songs is because after each session, I would get a rough copy of it so I would know what to do the next time I’m in the studio with Ricky. Unfortunately, my copies were on cassette, which are not the best [laughs].

Would you like to see the album finally released?

Haskell: I have mixed feelings about it. There are two things that I can say. Ricky’s voice was not perfect on the album because his vocals were scratch vocals, just so that the band could hear what he was singing. Lead guitar had not been overdubbed on most of the tracks, either.

After Ricky passed away, David Nelson represented the family. I asked him, “What are you gonna do about Ricky’s last album?” He replied, “I’ve discussed it with the family, and we want people to remember Ricky at his best. We don’t think it would be wise to release the album.” Sadly, David succumbed to complications from colon cancer [January 2011]. I have since heard that there are pirated versions of that album that are out there somewhere.

What is the state of the instrumentation and vocals on the album?

Sam Nelson: It was Pop’s last bastion or gesture to the public. Everybody and their mother have heard it by now, or at least it feels that way. I’ve heard about that thing since I was a kid, and I have a copy of the whole record. The music tracks that I’ve heard are finished and locked in. It’s just the other finessing of the production that needs some work.

Pop’s vocals are basically scratch tracks. What I heard was basically one pass through. I can only assume that there are better vocal takes. Of course, as technology advances exponentially every year, there will be ways to make it sound really good.

But that will take some digging and a lot of hard work to make it a best foot forward project. In terms of editing together the best vocal takes, absolutely. The same would apply for instrumentation, too.

The big attraction, perhaps, for that record is its authenticity. You have to be careful that you don’t overdub it with a bunch of brand new artists that never had a relationship with my father or don’t really care about the music.

They might be fine musicians, but there has to be a sentimental tie-in to make it what it should be. Sonically it should sound great, but at the same time, it’s Pop’s last endeavor. It needs to stay authentic in that regard, mostly, so it’s a tricky thing.

Why has the album not seen the light of day?

Nelson: My knowledge of it is pretty limited, to be honest with you. I feel like it’s Eddie and the Cruisers a little bit. Throughout the course of time, I’ve heard, “This guy has the masters, this guy has the rights, and this guy…” You know, it’s like down the rabbit hole.

There’s a reason it hasn’t been released. Mainly, who owns the rights to the album is ambiguous and up in the air to say the least. Or everyone thinks they own a piece of the pie, which happened towards the end of my dad’s career.

You sent me that information about an attorney who supposedly owns the rights. I can’t tell you how many people from all walks of life have told me they worked on his last record. Or they know who own the rights.

Just for fun, I checked on Google Maps to see specifically what that address was that you sent me. Literally, it was an empty salvage yard, where they drop off dead cars [laughs]. You know what I’m saying? I’m sure there’s some sort of connection to that place with whoever says he owns something, but that’s its own kind of adventure.

In my experience, everybody talks a big game and nobody really has any kind of control at all. Unless somebody can prove to me that somebody owns something, I think our hands are tied.

More importantly, would you like to see it released some day?

Nelson: That’s a really good question. I would say yes, of course I do. I would definitely want it to be the best it could possibly be in every regard. Do I think it’s there now? No, I feel it needs a lot of work.

Ultimately, it would have to come out together with another well-known collection, some sort of push or commemorative anniversary, perhaps a bonus record. I don’t know. It would have to be a creative release for sure.

Whatever we put out, we’re definitely gonna make sure it’s a family endeavor, not nine random people coming in saying, “Oh that’s mine, and this is my input for the record.” I think we would have a better idea of what Pop would have wanted released. Nevertheless, there’s bigger stuff to be dealing with at this point [Sam is estate manager for Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and the frontman of H is Orange].

As a dyed in the wool fan and author of Rick Nelson: Rock ’N’ Roll Pioneer [2012], do you think Rick’s final record merits distribution?

Sheree Homer: 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.

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 the 1985 unreleased tracks because they did not know who owned them to obtain copyrights. Yet they did list the song titles 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.

In an interview included in Homer’s Rick Nelson: Rock ’N’ Roll Pioneer, Nelson annotator Jim Ritz revealed:

Jim Ritz: The producer of the Legacy box set for Capitol, Bob Hyde, had gotten an unmixed copy of Rick’s final sessions, so I heard all 10 songs. “One After 909” and “As Long As I Have You” sound like finished products. “You Got Me Gone” and “Ain’t Gonna Do You No Good” were also great.

We were going to include “True Love Ways” since we wanted to cover Rick’s entire career on Legacy. But at the last moment, we both looked it over and decided it was unfinished. I don’t think it was a scratch vocal, but it just wasn’t mixed properly. We decided to go with the original 1978 Epic version instead.

Someone should untangle the legalities and get the songs out there. I’m hoping the family does it. From a historical point of view, they should be released.

Would you be willing to play on the record?

James Burton: While I was playing in Vegas with Jerry Lee Lewis around New Year’s Eve 1984, Rick actually asked me to come and play on what turned out to be his final album. I told him, “Absolutely, I’d love to.” Unfortunately, it never happened. Jimmie Haskell also called later and asked me if I would play on it, as Rick had asked him to contact me.

I really don’t know the status of the recordings — whether it was finished or if they would consider releasing it. I could find out real easy, though. It’s possible that I could be called in to overdub my guitar parts after all these years. If his family called me, I would be more than happy to do that.

Where were you when you received the dreadful news of Rick’s demise?

Burton: My wife, Louise, and I had a home in Las Vegas since I had worked with Elvis so long, and we had gone to Vegas during that weekend in 1985 for New Year’s Eve. My son’s ex-wife called to tell us the news, but I didn’t take the call. I answered the phone and gave it to my wife.

Suddenly I heard her scream. I ran back into the room and said, “What happened?” Louise shouted, “Turn the TV on — Rick and his entire band just had a plane crash!” That’s how I found out about it.

The whole band, including road manager Donald Clark Russell, guitarist Bobby Neal, bassist Patrick Woodward, drummer Ricky Intveld, and keyboardist Andy Chapin, were all good friends of mine.

It was such a sad and incredibly shocking time for us, thinking of what might have been, and what an amazing guy Rick was. When you lose somebody that close, they’re like family to you. We lost a wonderful entertainer and a great friend.

On February 21, 2014, McDonald was interviewed on Memphis Mafioso George Klein’s weekly, four-hour SiriusXM Elvis show. I emailed two questions to segment producer Big Jim Sykes which were graciously posed to McDonald. First, is there a possibility that Rick’s final studio LP may see the light of day?

Greg McDonald: I own that album. Rick and I were working on it just before he passed. I had a deal to sell it to Mike Curb of Curb Records, but it never happened. Rick never got back to sign the contract. It needs to be released. We’ve just always held on to it. We thought there would be a Rick Nelson movie — one big enough to release the album as a tie-in. I still book shows for Gunnar and Matthew — Rick’s twin sons — and have been working with them to do a release on that record…Gunnar and Matthew want to really work on the project — do some duets with their dad. That was always our plan.

What was your last conversation with the “Easy to be Free” balladeer?

McDonald: I was actually at an auditorium show in Pomona, California. Rick and I were standing behind a building. He was booked to go back East and do a Florida show — then Alabama and on to Dallas. I was booked to go as well but Rick said, “Greg, you don’t really need to go. We’re only going out for three shows. I’ll have the plane land in Palm Springs, and I’ll come to your house. We’ll spend New Year’s Day together. I’ll drive my car back to L.A.”

I had Rick’s car — a red Pantera — in my garage in Palm Springs. We just had it all fixed up and painted for him as a Christmas present. So that was our plan. Of course, he never came back.

Attempts to reach Nelson’s last manager for clarification were not returned, although Bashe has a theory for McDonald’s reticence to go on the record.

Bashe: Greg is pretty well burnt out on talking about Rick. He feels the family blamed him unfairly for Rick’s drug use and the plane crash, and is just…tired of it. Although interestingly enough, he gets along great with Gunnar and Matthew and books all their shows. I think sometimes family members blame the manager for certain decisions, when in fact it’s the artist who’s actually behind those decisions, and the manager is merely carrying out his wishes. Besides, if Greg’s son hadn’t been in an accident, causing Greg to miss the end-of-December tour, he would have been on that plane himself. DC-3’s are legendarily indestructible.

DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! True Love Ways: A Glimpse Inside the Tangled Web of Rick Nelson’s Final Album” is a companion feature-length article placing the shelved Curb sessions in proper historical perspective by discussing the circumstances leading up to the project and their inexplicable aftermath.

Confirmed songs recorded for Rick Nelson’s final studio album

  1. “Rock ’N’ Roll Fool” [written by Bill Rowe; not recorded by any other artists]
  2. “Ain’t Gonna Do You No Good” [Jerry Fuller; not recorded by any other artists]
  3. “You Know What I Mean” [Mickey Jupp]
  4. “One After 909” [John Lennon / Paul McCartney]
  5. “You Got Me Gone” [Bobby Mizzell]
  6. “Singing the Blues” [Melvin Endsley; hit for Marty Robbins and others]
  7. “As Long as I Have You” [Ben Weisman / Fred Wise; recorded by Elvis Presley on the King Creole 1958 soundtrack]
  8. “Moon Enough” [Jack Wesley Routh / Randy Sharp; not recorded by any other artists]
  9. “Lucky Boy” [Johnny and Dorsey Burnette; obscure 1959 demo by Johnny]
  10. “True Love Ways” [Buddy Holly / Norman Petty]

© Jeremy Roberts, 2013, 2018. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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