Second only to Elvis Presley during rock ’n’ roll’s ’50s pinnacle, Rick Nelson ultimately stockpiled 52 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 between 1957 and 1973, beginning with the sappy “A Teenager’s Romance” through the ethereal, self-penned “Palace Guard.”
But audiences first heard about the quietly disarming, natural eight-year-old actor in 1949 when he and elder brother David Nelson joined the radio cast of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Transitioning to ABC television by 1952, the 30-minute situation comedy, drawn from actual Nelson family experiences, was an innovative harbinger of 21st century reality programming and remained in that medium for a staggering, record-setting 14 years.
A pop cover of Fats Domino’s ubiquitous “I’m Walkin’” on the April 1957 “Ricky the Drummer” episode, incidentally directed and co-scripted by visionary father Ozzie Nelson, found high school girls swooning in ecstasy whenever Rick uttered a syllable.
Rick effectively mirrored idol Carl Perkins on rockabilly rave-ups such as “Believe What You Say”, “Just a Little Too Much,” and “It’s Late”, all featuring the innovative chicken pickin’ Telecaster stylings of James Burton.
Rick’s mastery of easy listening ballads knew no bounds on “Travelin’ Man,” “Young World,” “It’s Up to You,” and “Fools Rush In.” Guys also bought Rick’s records by the bucket load, finding a kindred spirit with the heartthrob’s smooth tenor range, authenticity, and believability. Rick was never a dynamic, show-off vocalist.
Rick’s bouncy, keyboard-driven pop reworking of the 1930s standard “The Very Thought of You” stalled at No. 26 in May 1964, four months after the Beatles’ thrilling “I Want to Hold Your Hand” unleashed a Rickenbacker-centric, back to rock ’n’ roll basics sound that would delineate the British Invasion and leave once popular American artists like Rick scrambling for their next move. Rick’s hit-making Top 40 days were in the rear view mirror for the foreseeable future.
Bright Lights and Country Music  and Country Fever  were artistic benchmarks pointing to the embryonic country rock movement. Details-oriented fans scanning the rear jacket of both LPs noticed two Rick compositions in the track listing — the defiant mid-tempo country-infused “You Just Can’t Quit” and the disturbingly resigned “Alone.” Besides the cry in your beer break-up recalled in his songwriting debut, the 1958 B-side “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” Rick’s songwriting had been abandoned if not kept under lock and key for eight years.
The Another Side of Rick  and Perspective  records languished on store shelves, no doubt fueled by the cancellation of Ozzie and Harriet, Rick’s limited touring, and an ill-advised adoption of ornate orchestral overdubbing to already respectable folk rock at the prompting of producer John Boylan. The experience was not entirely for naught, as Boylan inspired confidence and encouraged his pupil to develop a regular writing regimen.
Rick fully emerged from the musical wilderness when he announced the formation of the Stone Canyon Band in the early summer of 1969. Rick Nelson in Concert at the Troubadour, cut six months later at Doug Western’s famed nightclub on Santa Monica Boulevard, is the band’s crowning live document and contains the roadmap for realizing eternal happiness, “Easy to be Free” [the penetrating lyric, “Did you ever wonder why…people tell you not to try?”, bookends the second verse].
Rick’s lyrical awakening and expanding hair grew steadily over the next three years, culminating in Rick Sings Nelson, Rudy the Fifth, and Garden Party. Rick Sings Nelson, as the title implies, was the first and only time that Rick composed every song on a vinyl long player. He frequently explored themes of self-doubt, questioning, heartbreak, acceptance, perseverance, and resilience — step out of the mire and don’t let the bastards bring you down. Rick’s inner strength was astounding.
The autobiographical “Garden Party” A-side became a runaway No. 6 Pop best-seller in 1972, a hit anomaly that nevertheless cemented Rick’s status as the comeback kid who refused to compromise his artistic integrity by riding the coattails of his previous “squeaky clean Ricky” chart toppers.
Maybe it was apathy exacerbated by too many one nighters, declining record sales which the incompetent Decca-MCA promotions team blundered repeatedly, recreational drug use, marital discord, precipitous financial fortune, or the death of his role model-affirming father, but the Rio Bravo star’s songwriting nosedived significantly during the subsequent 12 years of his career, extinguished prematurely on New Year’s Eve 1985 by a malfunctioning heater fire aboard a dilapidated behemoth DC-3 airplane that once belonged to Jerry Lee Lewis.
Inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, songwriting remains an aspect of Rick’s legacy that is rarely explored or given due credit. From 1958 until his final album of new studio material, 1980’s seriously underrated Playing to Win, Rick penned 46 confirmed songs. Eleven were A-sides, 16 were B-sides, 16 were relegated as album cuts, and three were recorded but apparently lost or erased. Only five tunes were collaborations, including the ghastly psychedelic sitar pastiche of “Marshmallow World” with guitar compadre James Burton. Never compiled in chronological order until now, here is the ultimate list of Rick Nelson’s songwriting chops.
Written by Rick Nelson
- “My Gal” [whereabouts unknown; written during Nelson’s brief March-August 1957 tenure on Verve Records about girlfriend Lorrie Collins; thank you to Kent McCombs for supplying details]
- “Don’t Leave Me This Way” [a lovesick plea to Collins and B-side of “Poor Little Fool;” on second album Ricky Nelson released by Imperial in July 1958]
- “Freedom and Liberty” [Recorded twice between December 1965 and March 1967 but still left in the archives until the Rick’s Rarities 2004 Ace Records compilation]
- “You Just Can’t Quit” [No. 108 POP; on Bright Lights and Country Music released by Decca on May 30, 1966]
- “Alone” [B-side October 17, 1966 of “Things You Gave Me;” on Country Fever released by Decca on April 12, 1967]
- “I’m Called Lonely” [B-side April 22, 1967 of “Take a City Bride”]
- “Thinkin’ How You Left Me” [Lost master recorded on March 8, 1967, during the same session as “I’m Called Lonely” and the second version of “Freedom and Liberty”]
- “Marshmallow Skies” [co-written with James Burton; on Another Side of Rick released by Decca on November 25, 1967]
- “Promenade in Green” [co-written with John Boylan and contains elements of “Green Rocky Road” traditional folk song which Tim Hardin and Fred Neil both covered earlier; B-side of “Don’t Blame It on Your Wife;” Another Side of Rick]
- “Hello to the Wind” [co-written with John Boylan; on Perspective released by Decca in August 1968]
- “Promises” [B-side August 25, 1969 of “She Belongs to Me;” live version on Rick Nelson in Concert released by Decca on January 5, 1970 ]
- “Who Cares About Tomorrow” [Rick Nelson in Concert]
- “Easy to be Free” [No. 48 POP, No. 21 Adult Contemporary; Rick Nelson in Concert]
- “Come on In” [B-side of “Easy to be Free;” Rick Nelson in Concert]
- “We’ve Got Such a Long Way to Go” [A-side; on Rick Sings Nelson released by Decca on September 3, 1970]
- “Look at Mary” [B-side of “We’ve Got Such a Long Way to Go;” Rick Sings Nelson]
- “How Long” [A-side; Rick Sings Nelson]
- “Down Along the Bayou Country” [B-side of “How Long;” Rick Sings Nelson]
- “California” [B-side of “Life;” Rick Sings Nelson]
- “Sweet Mary” [Rick Sings Nelson]
- “My Woman” [Rick Sings Nelson]
- “Anytime” [Rick Sings Nelson]
- “Mr. Dolphin” [Rick Sings Nelson]
- “The Reason Why” [Rick Sings Nelson]
- “Life” [No. 109 POP, No. 15 Adult Contemporary; on Rudy the Fifth released by Decca on October 4, 1971]
- “The Last Time Around” [Rudy the Fifth]
- “Gypsy Pilot” [A-side; Rudy the Fifth]
- “Thank You Lord” [A-side; Rudy the Fifth]
- “Sing Me a Song” [B-side of “Thank You Lord;” Rudy the Fifth]
- “This Train” [Rudy the Fifth]
- “Song for Kristin” [Instrumental; Rudy the Fifth]
- “Garden Party” [No. 6 POP, No. 44 C&W, No. 1 Adult Contemporary; title cut of album released by Decca on November 27, 1972]
- “So Long, Mama” [B-side of “Garden Party;” Garden Party album]
- “Palace Guard” [No. 65 POP; Garden Party]
- “A Flower Opens Gently By” [B-side of “Palace Guard;” Garden Party]
- “Are You Really Real?” [Garden Party]
- “Night Time Lady” [Garden Party]
- “Someone to Love” [on Windfall released by MCA on January 14, 1974]
- “Lifestream” [A-side October 20, 1973; Windfall]
- “Windfall” [co-written with Dennis Larden; No. 46 Adult Contemporary; title cut of 1974 album]
- “On My Own” [A lost master recorded on April 25, 1977, during Intakes with producer Keith Olsen and the Stone Canyon Band. A September 5, 1976, radio interview with Vancouver, Canada-based deejay Red Robinson found Nelson mentioning a new song he had performed earlier that evening at the PNE Star Spectacular called “On Dreams Alone.” Rehearsing new material for the upcoming Intakes sessions, Nelson had not been on the road in awhile. His Stone Canyon Band lead guitarist and occasional writing collaborator Dennis Larden aka Denny Sarokin was asked about the veracity of Nelson’s claim and said, “Rick really loved ‘On Dreams Alone,’ but I felt it was way too slow.” Nelson expert Kent McCombs adds, “There’s no catalog or matrix number for ‘On Dreams Alone,’ nor is it mentioned in any of Rick’s biographies.” It’s reasonable both titles refer to the same song although this is not certain.
- “Something You Can’t Buy” [B-side of “Gimme a Little Sign;” on Intakes released by Epic on September 21, 1977]
- “It’s Another Day” [B-side September 1977 of “You Can’t Dance;” Intakes]
- “That Ain’t the Way Love’s Supposed to Be” [co-written with John Beland; B-side April 14, 1979 of “Dream Lover”]
- “The Loser Babe Is You” [on Playing to Win released by Capitol on January 15, 1981]
- “Call It What You Want” [B-side January 1981 of “It Hasn’t Happened Yet;” Playing to Win]
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