True love ways: A glimpse inside the tangled web of Rick Nelson’s final album
Did you know there is a complete album of unreleased Rick Nelson songs? The posthumous Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was putting the finishing touches on a rockabilly-tinged comeback album for Curb Records at the time of his fateful collision with destiny on December 31, 1985.
The “You Just Can’t Quit” songwriter had been uncomfortable performing many of his greatest hits onstage since the flower power generation seized AM pop airwaves in the late ’60s. His personal mantra — “If memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck” as immortalized in the 1972 Stone Canyon Band-assisted “Garden Party” — haunted him, not unlike Pete Townshend’s declaration that “I hope I die before I get old” in the Who’s anthemic “My Generation.”
But fans never stopped yearning to hear Nelson tackle the tunes that made him a household name. When rockabilly experienced an unexpected revival in the early ’80s as the Stray Cats landed career-making hits with “Stray Cat Strut” and “[She’s] Sexy + 17”, Nelson understood that his legacy was worth celebrating. Vintage ‘50s artists such as Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and Nelson himself began to command better-paying gigs in front of screaming, appreciative fans.
Nelson had originally tried to return to his earlier rockabilly sound after disbanding the Stone Canyon Band. Traveling to Memphis in late 1978 with producer Larry Rogers, he waxed a terrific set of contemporary and vintage songs. Then-label Epic inexplicably rejected the album on the grounds of it being out of sync with Fleetwood Mac-friendly radio, only distributing Nelson’s passionate rendition of Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover” as an A-side. The Memphis Sessions was exhumed eight years later following the singer’s death.
Two years later, Nelson rebounded with Capitol Records, but Playing to Win was roundly ignored and did little business, although a cover of John Fogerty’s “Almost Saturday Night” was a step in the right direction. Capitol dropped their client.
So it felt like the third go-around would be make-or-break. Plans were set in motion for a new album when Nelson regrouped in summer 1984 with longtime friend Jimmie Haskell, who arranged Nelson’s greatest hits in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and the Jordanaires, perhaps the most harmonically gifted quartet of the 20th century and widely known for their pioneering work with Elvis Presley.
Their goal — re-record 21 of Nelson’s greatest hits plus an original selection for an album called All My Best. The singer had recently recovered from nearly three years of painful, nasty divorce proceedings from the wife and mother of his four children, Kristin Harmon, which almost led to bankruptcy and forced him to perform over 200 live dates annually.
Nelson did not own the rights to his hits on Verve, Imperial, or Decca, so when best-of compilations hit the market, the singer received meager artist and songwriter royalties. Bankrolling the sessions himself and going so far as to set up his own mini distribution label, Silver Eagle Records, All My Best became Nelson’s first album to sell a million copies and go gold since the Garden Party album 13 years earlier.
Free of a record label’s constraints, Nelson’s final album [a title has never been confirmed] materialized between August and December 1985. Ten documented tracks were recorded on a vintage three-track tape machine at Baby-O Recorders and Conway Studios in North Hollywood with Nelson holding the production reigns.
The recording process was often interrupted by sold out package tours of the United Kingdom and Australia as well as manager Greg McDonald’s penchant for not paying Nelson’s band after each studio session. Featuring the singer’s road band, led by the lightning fast Bobby Neal on lead guitar, 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 gamut between rock and roll and sublime ballads. In a letdown to fans of the Stone Canyon Band songwriter era, Nelson did not submit any material. However, in two May 1984 interviews with The Spokane Chronicle and The Salina Journal to promote the failed NBC pilot High School USA, Nelson stated that he was still writing.
He reached back to one of his primary influences for a cover of the oft-neglected ballad, “As Long As I Have You,” taken from Presley’s King Creole soundtrack. Marty Robbins’ crossover pop hit “Singing the Blues” and Buddy Holly’s tragic ballad “True Love Ways” were other ‘50s favorites that made the cut.
Suggested by Neal, the singer covered the Beatles’ early, straightforward “One After 909” rocker, re-recorded for the controversial, Spectorized Let It Be soundtrack. It was Nelson’s first acknowledgment on vinyl of the Liverpool lads’ transcendent grasp on pop culture and an example of Nelson’s humility that he would cover the group who knocked his records off the charts in the summer of 1964 at the height of Beatlemania. The singer would not have another bona fide hit until “Garden Party” eight years later.
Incidentally, Paul McCartney reached out to Nelson in 1979 and offered to produce a rockabilly album at Sun Studios in Memphis. Because Nelson was signed with Capitol and McCartney had recently jilted the label for Columbia, a Capitol A&R executive nixed the idea with the flimsy excuse that McCartney had no successful experience as a producer for other artists.
Somehow Nelson located an obscure 1959 demo entitled “Lucky Boy” from the estate of Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, who wrote the iconic “Believe What You Say”, “It’s Late”, and many other rockabilly tunes for the handsome singer. Jerry Fuller, who penned Nelson classics like “Travelin’ Man” and “It’s Up to You” in the early ’60s, supplied an exclusive song, “Ain’t Gonna Do You No Good.”
Contemporary selections included 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 Nelson biographer Sheree Homer verified that it was composed by Bill Rowe, an intermittent songwriter who aided Nelson financially. The singer graciously returned the favor in the recording studio.
Just five days prior to the airplane’s ill-fated Texas flight, Nelson waxed his last recorded song — an appropriate cover of Holly’s gentle “True Love Ways.” Nelson’s death tragically stopped the album in its tracks. Compounding the heartbreak, the Nashville-based Curb Records had heard the preliminary tapes and was in the process of finalizing a contract which would officially sign Nelson to the label.
A few months after Nelson’s untimely demise, “You Know What I Mean” was distributed [at least three similar versions were recorded] as his final single on MCA, Curb’s parent label. The remaining nine songs are still unexcavated, although an earlier November 1978 version of “True Love Ways”, recorded in Memphis with Rogers, is widely available.
“Rock ’N’ Roll Fool”, “Singing the Blues”, and “You Got Me Gone” can be found on generally inferior-sounding bootlegs. Dedicated Nelson aficionados have also likely heard live versions of “One After 909” and “You Know What I Mean.” The latter was featured heavily in the rocker’s setlist during the final year of his life.
So, should Nelson’s final album be given an official release? Yes, if only for historical purposes. The instrumentation is largely finished, except for lead guitar breaks on several tracks. Master of Telecaster James Burton, who played with Nelson and Presley for decades, would be an ideal remedy. However, in an interview with Pop Culture Classics, English guitarist Albert Lee, best known for his work with Emmylou Harris and the Everly Brothers, revealed that he added overdubs to certain tracks but his timeline recollections were hazy at best.
Before his own death, Haskell repeatedly said that Nelson never had the opportunity to record final, polished vocals and that releasing the project might tarnish the singer’s already assured rank in rock and roll. But perhaps this might be in line with Nelson’s original intentions to go back to the basics, recording rockin’, utterly spontaneous music trailblazed by Sun Records and Sam Phillips, the singer’s musical bedrock.
Giving further credence to why the project should come out, unreleased, work-in-progress recordings from Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, John Lennon, and Presley flood the market and keep fans’ appetites whetted.
The most significant stumbling block to releasing the album is who owns the rights. In the words of Nelson’s youngest child Sam, “Everybody wanted a piece of the pie” during his dad’s final years.
McDonald, who claimed he was related to Presley’s carnival huckster of a manager Colonel Tom Parker, made deals with shady individuals in order to alleviate his client’s financial burdens, aggravated by the lack of a long-term fiscal plan. Ozzie Nelson had long shielded his son from business, and when the multifaceted creator-producer-director of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet succumbed to liver cancer in June 1975, his non-confrontational, easy-going child faced a tough final decade of business decisions that he never quite fully comprehended.
McDonald attempted to properly mix Nelson’s final record in 1986 but nothing came of it. No one was really sure of its whereabouts until February 21, 2014, when McDonald was interviewed on Memphis Mafioso George Klein’s weekly, four-hour SiriusXM Elvis show. During the serendipitous conversation, this writer emailed two questions. The controversial raconteur — beloved by some, despised by others in the musician’s inner circle including kids Tracy and Sam — expressed no qualms in shedding light on the mysterious recordings.
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 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.” Attempts to reach McDonald for clarification were not returned.
In 2000 there was a brief ray of hope when Capitol was prepping Legacy, the debut 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 earmarked as the final cut. He and producer Bob Hyde decided at the last minute that the reimagined Curb version was not mixed properly, so they chose the already released 1978 Epic recording instead.
There has not been a major record label compilation on the singer since Capitol’s scant 11-song Icon in 2014. However, indie collector labels are filling the demand for Nelson product, and these fan-friendly labels may be the best shot at releasing the final album. Bear Family, a mail-order record label in Germany, chronicled Nelson’s complete discography through the 1982 Capitol sessions in three lavish box sets released in the aughts. Real Gone Music, a reissue label launched in 2011, unveiled the singer’s entire 1977–1979 Epic tenure [Intakes, Back to Vienna, and The Memphis Sessions] in the USA for the first time. Let’s hope Nelson’s ultimate record finally sees the light of day.
DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! A far-reaching series of interviews with youngest child Sam Nelson, Master of Telecaster James Burton, arranger-producer Jimmie Haskell, personal manager Greg McDonald, and authors Philip Bashe [“Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: The Complete Biography of Rick Nelson”] and Sheree Homer [“Rick Nelson: Rock ’N’ Roll Pioneer”] explore the making of the charming singer’s 1985 album for Curb Records and whether it should be released.“As Long As We Had Him: Rick Nelson’s Inner Circle Expose His Unreleased Last Record” also uncovers vintage recollections from Curb Records president Mike Curb and Nelson historian Jim Ritz illustrating the oft-complicated final chapter of Nelson’s enviable life.
As long as we had him: Rick Nelson’s inner circle expose his unreleased last record
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Confirmed tracks recorded for Rick Nelson’s final studio album
- “Rock ‘N’ Roll Fool” [written by Bill Rowe; not recorded by any other artists]
- “Ain’t Gonna Do You No Good” [Jerry Fuller; not recorded by any other artists]
- “Do You Know What I Mean” [Mickey Jupp]
- “One After 909” [John Lennon / Paul McCartney]
- “You Got Me Gone” [Bobby Mizzell]
- “Singing the Blues” [Melvin Endsley; hit for Marty Robbins and others]
- “As Long as I Have You” [Ben Weisman / Fred Wise; recorded by Elvis Presley on the King Creole 1958 soundtrack]
- “Moon Enough” [Jack Wesley Routh / Randy Sharp; not recorded by any other artists]
- “Lucky Boy” [Johnny and Dorsey Burnette; obscure 1959 demo by the former]
- “True Love Ways” [Buddy Holly / Norman Petty]
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