Rick Nelson’s manager reveals whether final album will ever emerge
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Rick Nelson was hurriedly putting the finishing touches on his 24th studio album of original material on the day after Christmas 1985. The rockabilly-themed songs were designed as a comeback on recently founded Nashville-based Curb Records after four years of barnstorming, well-received road shows laced with minimal recording activity.
Ironically, upon adding a vocal to Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways” and overseeing lead guitarist Bobby Neal’s acoustic overdub, Nelson departed Los Angeles later that day for a mini under the radar tour of the Southeast. Not really wanting to leave home during the holidays, Nelson was cash-strapped due to protracted divorce proceedings. The album would have to wait until the New Year.
But fate had deliberately cruel plans. Nelson’s antiquated Douglas DC-3 caught fire — a faulty heater switch was the culprit — while the singer was en route to Dallas for a New Year’s Eve show. The plane landed, completely engulfed in flames. Only the two pilots survived. The rockabilly project was inexplicably shelved and forgotten by all but the most dedicated fans. They have clamored for its release for decades.
No one was really sure of its whereabouts until Greg McDonald, a protégé of Colonel Tom Parker and Nelson’s personal manager from 1976 until his death, called in on February 21, 2014, for an impromptu, albeit extensive interview on Memphis Mafioso George Klein’s weekly, four-hour SiriusXM Elvis show.
During the serendipitous conversation, this writer emailed two questions in to the program. The controversial raconteur — beloved by some, despised by others in Nelson’s inner circle — expressed no qualms in shedding light on the mysterious recordings.
Is there a possibility that Nelson’s final studio LP may see the light of day? McDonald stated, “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’ve actually been working with Gunnar and Matthew — Rick’s twin sons — 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.”
And did the former manager recall his last conversation with the “Easy to be Free” balladeer? “Yes, I was actually at an auditorium show in Pomona, California,” admitted McDonald. “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.”
Ten documented tracks were recorded on a vintage three-track tape machine at Baby-O Recorders and Conway Studios in North Hollywood with Nelson behind the production reigns between August and December 1985. The recording process was often interrupted by nostalgia-filled package tours of the United Kingdom and Australia.
Featuring the singer’s road band, led by Neal, Ricky Intveld on drums, Pat Woodward on bass, and Andy Chapin on piano, the sessions were embellished by the presence of rockabilly pianist Bobby Mizzell and rhythm guitarist Bobby Wood — not to be confused with pianist Bobby Wood of the Memphis Boys — on some tracks.
The song selection ran the musical gamut between rock and roll and sublime ballads. In a bit of a letdown to fans of the Stone Canyon Band songwriter era, none of the cuts were written by Nelson. However, in two May 1984 interviews with The Spokane Chronicle and The Salina Journal to promote the failed NBC television pilot High School USA, Nelson stated that he was writing songs. Whether they were fully fleshed out and recorded is another story.
The effortless vocalist reached back to one of his primary influences, Elvis Presley, for a cover of the oft-neglected ballad, “As Long As I Have You,” taken from the King Creole soundtrack. Marty Robbins’ crossover pop hit “Singing the Blues” and Holly’s “True Love Ways” made the cut as well.
In a surprising move suggested by his guitarist, Nelson covered the Beatles’ early rocker, “One After 909.” It was his first acknowledgment on record of the Liverpool lads’ transcendent grasp on pop culture and a prime example that he harbored no ill feelings for the group who knocked his records off the charts in the summer of 1964 at the height of Beatlemania — another major hit would not arrive until “Garden Party” eight years later.
Somehow Nelson located an obscure 1959 demo entitled “Lucky Boy” from the estates of Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, old songwriting pals who wrote the iconic “Believe What You Say”, “It’s Late”, and many other rockabilly tunes. Jerry Fuller, who penned such Nelson classics as “Travelin’ Man” and “It’s Up to You,” supplied a new song, “Ain’t Gonna Do You No Good.”
Contemporary selections consisted of Mickey Jupp’s rockabilly rave-up “You Know What I Mean”, Mizzell’s piano rocker “You Got Me Gone”, and the driving up-tempo “Rock ’N’ Roll Fool.”
The latter had an especially murky back-story until biographer Sheree Homer, author of the superb Rick Nelson: Rock ’N’ Roll Pioneer, exclusively verified that it was composed by Bill Rowe. The occasional songwriter had aided Nelson financially, so the singer graciously returned the favor in the recording studio.
A few months after his untimely demise, a version of “You Know What I Mean” — at least three renditions were recorded between 1984 and 1985 — was released as Nelson’s final single on MCA, Curb’s parent label. The remaining nine songs are still hidden apparently in McDonald’s archives. An earlier version of “True Love Ways”, recorded in November 1978 in Memphis with producer Larry Rogers, is widely available and often mistaken as Nelson’s final recording.
“Rock ’N’ Roll Fool”, “Singing the Blues”, and “You Got Me Gone” can be found on generally inferior-sounding bootlegs. Dedicated Nelson fans have also likely heard live versions of “One After 909” and “You Know What I Mean,” both featured heavily in the rocker’s setlist during the final years of his life.
The backing tracks are virtually finished. In a July 2012 interview with Pop Culture Classics, noted English guitarist Albert Lee, best known for his work with Emmylou Harris and the Everly Brothers, revealed that he added overdubs to certain, unspecified tracks shortly after Nelson’s passing.
Opinions are divided among Nelson’s family and close friends as to whether the project deserves release. All four of the singer’s children have expressed reservations in the past — daughter Tracy Nelson and youngest son Sam Nelson still vehemently oppose such a release.
Of course, feelings can evolve over time. The late Jimmie Haskell, Nelson’s official music arranger, has stated in numerous interviews that Nelson never had the opportunity to overdub his final lead vocals and releasing the project might tarnish the singer’s legacy. But perhaps Nelson’s original intention was to go back to the fundamentals of early rock ’n’ roll, recording music with a spontaneous feel — i.e. limited overdubs — in a nod to his idols at Sun Records in Memphis.
A brief ray of hope emerged in 2000 while Capitol was preparing Legacy, the first box set devoted to the songwriter’s career. Jim Ritz, a Nelson historian who listened to the tapes during the selection process, confirmed to Homer that “True Love Ways” was going to be the final cut. He and producer Bob Hyde decided at the last minute that the song was not mixed properly, so they went with the original 1978 version instead. Let’s cross our fingers that Nelson’s final studio album will finally see the light of day, if for historical purposes only.
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