Thirty years ago Rick Nelson lost his life in a serene cow pasture some two and a half hours northeast of Dallas, Texas, en route to a New Year’s Eve sock hop sponsored by KLUV-FM at the Park Suite Hotel.
Among the sophomore class posthumously inducted by John Fogerty into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nelson, unassuming fiancé Helen Blair, four band members, and a soundman were passengers in a World War II-era, white with black-and-gold trim DC-3 that caught fire when a gasoline-fed cabin heater failed to light properly. Both pilots, though severely burned, survived the emergency landing. Formerly owned by Jerry Lee Lewis, the malfunction-plagued aircraft prevented Nelson from participating in the inaugural Farm Aid benefit all-star concert held three months prior.
Greatly admiring Nelson’s artistic integrity—the seeds were sown after hearing the moral victory embodied in the singer-songwriter’s “Garden Party” anthem as an enterprising 18-year-old freshman-music magazine editor at Buffalo State College in upstate New York—20 years later veteran journalist Philip Bashe unleashed Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: The Complete Biography of Rick Nelson. The authoritative biography places the reader in the Rio Bravo star’s shoes and in his head—you realize why he did the things that he did.
Currently indulging his passion as a full-time editor—mostly for Simon & Schuster—Bashe intends to spend 2016 writing a book on parenting a child with autism. In the meantime he graciously agreed to take readers on a comprehensive journey examining his fascination for a genuinely talented heartthrob singer who stayed true to his music at a substantial personal cost.
The Complete Philip Bashe / Rick Nelson Interview
What was your background in rock writing, and how did it lead to Rick Nelson?
I’ve always been a writer. While I was in college in Buffalo, New York, I had started my own music magazine called Foxtrot, sort of an ersatz Rolling Stone. When it came time to graduate, it was pretty popular, so I figured, ‘Why be an employee when you can be an employer?’
So I actually incorporated and took the magazine off campus, distributing 35,000 copies all around Erie County. My other interest was radio, and I got hired by the local “progressive rock” radio station, as the format was called at the time.
Being on the radio was infinitely more fun than Foxtrot, and I could not do both. I folded the magazine after about two years. My radio gig ended (the usual story) because we got taken over by a big conglomerate, and they totally changed the nature of the station…
I had already written six books by the time I began work on Rick’s story. I love stories where people think they know the story, and I love being able to say, “Your perception is this, but the reality is this.”
I was too young to be an original Rick Nelson fan. When the song “Garden Party” came out in 1972, I was eighteen. I was intrigued by the story behind the song. I admired him, based on what I had read, for his artistic integrity.
When I began researching Rick’s life nearly 20 years later, I thought, ‘You know what? This is the great, last untold story of the early rock era.’ So I decided to write a biography of him.
Was “Garden Party” how you were introduced to Rick?
I don’t even remember now; oldies radio stations didn’t start in New York until ’72. I probably knew “Travelin’ Man” and “Poor Little Fool,” but I didn’t know the television show, although I had likely seen it in reruns.
I loved rock & roll, so I read Rolling Stone, and I did see reviews of his late 1960s and early 1970s work, most of them highly complimentary, too. I probably read about him in other places as well.
I didn’t have a real appreciation of what the show meant or how many hit records he had. On oldies radio, you might hear “Travelin’ Man,” “Hello Mary Lou, and maybe “Poor Little Fool.” But you never heard his great rockabilly sides, like “Stood Up” or “Waitin’ in School,” so it kind of gave you a skewed sense of who Rick Nelson was musically.
You heard a lot of the ballads, and they’re great, but you didn’t really get the sense that this guy loved rock & roll and made some great rock & roll records.
Those records did not get played, which is weird, as “Stood Up” was a No. 2 hit, “Waitin’ in School” went to No. 18—these were huge records. Even “Believe What You Say,” a No. 4 hit—I doubt I ever heard that on the radio while growing up in the late sixties and early seventies.
I bet I heard his cover of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” (No. 33) and “Easy to Be Free” (No. 48) in late ’69, early ’70. Again, “Garden Party” was where I really learned about him, and the story behind the song is fantastic. It’s a moral victory; how can you not root for this guy?
Why is Rick often lumped in with the teen idols?
One of the things that interested me in writing the book is that Rick Nelson doesn’t get mentioned in the same breath as Elvis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and so forth. Rick was definitely conscious of how he was perceived.
I’d interviewed John Fogerty, a huge fan of Rick’s. He was the guy who inducted Rick into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. I thought he said it beautifully: “Rick was too handsome, too good-looking.” Unfortunately, Fabian had the look of a Rick Nelson. Rick used to laugh at those guys and call them the “shiny-teeth guys.”
Interestingly, there were great parallels between Eric Andersen and Rick. In the seventies, Andersen made intimate folk albums, and he had a very similar voice to Rick’s. He was a guy somewhat hampered by his good looks.
Andersen’s label (Warner Bros. Records) actually put an ad in Rolling Stone saying something to the effect of “Someone who looks as good as this shouldn’t sound as good as this!” The guy had to essentially apologize for being movie star handsome. In fact, he and Rick looked somewhat alike.
But Rick really wanted to be appreciated as a musician. By the time he died, Rick was very much at peace with the fact that even though sometimes rock critics would lump him in with the “shiny teeth guys” like Fabian and Frankie Avalon, Rick knew he had the respect of musicians.
I’m always amazed to this day when you hear a famous guitarist talking about who he grew up listening to—especially English guitarists like George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page—they always cite Rick Nelson’s records, because to them, it was great rockabilly stuff. And they learned their guitar lessons from James Burton.
How much did The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet mirror their real life?
Rick was quite the daredevil. Bullfighting, anyone? Rick did all these things, and Ozzie would write ’em into the show. That’s the cool thing about the show, and I really felt people got that all wrong—‘Well, the Nelsons portrayed themselves as a typical American family, and they weren’t.’ Yeah, except they had it backward.
As I said in the book, what, are you going to tell me now, you’re shocked because Buddy Ebsen wasn’t an actual Beverly Hillbilly? What’s more interesting are the many ways in which The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet mirrored their real lives.
Ozzie wrote the show not so much about his family but the family he grew up in. He always thought he had a very idyllic childhood, growing up in New Jersey. So the show people saw in the fifties and sixties was really Ozzie portraying his life growing up in the 1910s and early 1920s.
A lot of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet were the adventures that Rick had with his brother, friends, and parents. Whenever Rick or David got into something, Ozzie worked it into the show. So it was a logical thing when Rick announced, “I wanna make a record.”
At any point, did you consider writing an Ozzie Nelson biography?
I probably wrote a whole other book about Ozzie Nelson. In a way, I found him more interesting than Rick. That was great, but you know what? It was a different book.
In doing the Rick book, after the opening scene, I went back and recounted the family history. I went to Rutgers University, where Ozzie had been the head of the student newspaper. I located these somewhat racist cartoons he had drawn in the 1920s.
Putting it into context, it was the culture of America back then. Ozzie was also great friends with the great bass-baritone singer Paul Robeson. I’m not saying that Ozzie was a racist; but he was young at the time, growing up in a racist culture. It was pretty interesting, though.
I just found him so fascinating, and the antithesis of what people think of him based on his character on the show. His character is the antithesis of the real Ozzie Nelson. I got enamored of my own research, but this was not a book about Ozzie. You can’t go off for one hundred pages on Rick’s father.
Would you venture to say Ozzie and Harriet was an influential program?
The show was hugely influential. Ozzie was the only guy with a TV show, except for Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, smart enough to keep the rights to it. He was totally in charge of everything he ever touched. It does stand to reason that Ozzie wasn’t so good at giving up his position as producer on Rick’s recording sessions.
By 1981, there was MTV, so now you see rock on TV all the time. Now I go on YouTube and see whatever I want to see. But in the 1950s, aside from a handful of artists who played The Ed Sullivan Show and a few of the other variety shows, where else were you gonna see rock & roll performed (often lip-synched) on TV? By the way, Rick was a very good lip-syncher on his television show performances.
Many musicians from that generation remark that at least you knew, once a week, you could get your fix of rock & roll by turning on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. It was the only place where you could find that on a weekly basis.
Ozzie basically smuggled rock & roll into American living rooms under the pretext of this “wholesome family show.” He’s very influential in the rise of rock & roll.
Is it a misnomer that Ozzie didn’t grasp the concept of rock & roll?
Ozzie and Harriet were synonymous with being square. Are you kidding me? I’ve heard the master tapes from Rick’s 1950s sessions on Imperial, and Ozzie Nelson was truly one of the founding fathers of rock & roll. Ozzie was actively producing those sessions and in charge. You hear him and Rick and the band tossing ideas back and forth.
Ozzie Nelson understood Rick’s music. He took a real risk in putting it on the show. Some of the sponsors, like Kodak, threatened to boycott the show on the basis of rock & roll being a so-called nefarious influence.
Ozzie’s response? “Well then, don’t be our sponsor.” Ozzie and Harriet were the pop stars of their era. I analogize them to the big band Sonny & Cher. They had tons of hit records.
There’s that great sort of editorial he gave Harriet to say around 1958. Rick asked, “Mom, what do you think of rock & roll?” They go back and forth for a while, saying it’s a natural expression of teenagers. And the last thing his mom said was, “I’m not gonna knock it, I’ll tell you that much!”
Harriet understood it, because there were people who likely looked down on her and Ozzie when they were making popular music in the thirties and forties. They could totally understand why those rock & roll songs appealed to kids.
However, the joke in the band was that Ozzie would always try to work his damn ukulele or banjo in the arrangements, and Rick would always have to go, “No Dad, we’re not putting ukulele on one of my records.”
Ozzie was a very dominant personality; he wasn’t a tyrant, but he was definitely domineering. Who knows, perhaps he was reliving his bandleader days vicariously through his son. You have to remember—Ozzie was leading a band while he was going to Rutgers. He was a prototypal multitasker and extremely ambitious.
You hear Rick in the sessions. He’s not just kowtowing to his father: “Right, Dad.” He’s a musician, and as all musicians do, you fight for your ideas in the studio. At only eighteen, Rick was asserting himself in the studio.
Later on, in his twenties, Rick banned Ozzie from his studio sessions, and Ozzie’s feelings were hurt. Yet Ozzie was perceptive enough to understand why. Rick wanted to be his own person, like any young man.
It must have been especially trying on Ozzie’s psyche when the television show ended after a record-making 14-year run in 1966.
Rick and David both (and David more so than Rick) separated themselves from their parents when the show ended. When you think about it, the big job of teenager-hood is to separate from your parents, assert your independence, and find your self-identity.
Well, they never got a chance to do that. In fact, they were stuck with their parents all the time because Dad was your Dad, Dad was also your boss on the set, and Dad played your “fake dad” on the TV show. All things considered, I think they weathered a very difficult situation fairly well.
But it was natural that Rick wanted to assert himself. He didn’t get to act out his teenager-hood until he was married and in his mid-twenties. A lot of people were “searching” (it’s a cliché now), but it was legitimate in the 1960s. Here was Rick at twenty-six: at a crossroads with his life. What was he gonna do?
As much as they loved and respected their parents, both he and David needed to get away from them. Not so much Harriet, but Ozzie. Some people might see that as ‘Oh-ho! The Nelsons were not what they seemed.’
I would challenge any family to survive working from 1949 to 1966 (if you include the radio version of The Adventures) on a show produced by and starring your dad. And you’re trying to grow up at the same time. Very convoluted, almost like playing a three-tier game of chess.
Was Rick committed to acting?
Rick had such a skewed perspective on everything, as everything came very naturally to him. He just fell into certain things. That was definitely true of acting. He wasn’t particularly enamored of acting; he saw himself as a musician. He didn’t feel any deep connection to acting, but he enjoyed it.
Working on the show was like anybody working in the family business. Some people stocked shelves in Dad’s grocery store; well, Rick’s parents’ business happened to be a TV show. Ozzie always liked to work his family into anything, partly as a way to keep the family together—no small feat in the entertainment biz.
Music was a big part of Rick. Maybe now it’s different, but at the time I don’t think people really got that. This guy was more committed to rock & roll than many of the artists who get far more respect doing what Rick used to call the “balloons and feathers” Las Vegas–type show.
Rick could have totally transformed his life financially by just playing a handful of those shows a year, and yet he wouldn’t do it. He had a great deal of musical integrity.
For the 25th anniversary of Rick’s death I interviewed Telecaster maestro James Burton. He told me that Elvis’ band (i.e. Scotty Moore, D. J. Fontana, and Bill Black) auditioned for Rick. Could you shed more light on this intriguing story?
Rick’s band was better than Elvis’s. I tell the story in the book. James Burton was a little reluctant to say this, since he’s friends with Scotty Moore, and he doesn’t want to put anybody down.
It was funny, too, as I had already interviewed Scotty, and he had told me that in the fall of 1957, he, Bill, and D.J. were having a dispute with Colonel Tom Parker about not being paid enough. They were ready to quit.
So they heard that Rick, who had just done his first couple of records for Verve Records using great studio musicians like Barney Kessel and Joe Maphis, was looking to form his own band. Scotty, Bill, and D.J. tried out and jammed with Rick in the studio. When Scotty talked to me, he remarked, “It was strange; we never heard from him again.”
Well, the reason why, according to James Burton, was that Rick thought they were great, but not that great. Also, maybe the age difference was a problem, since those guys were well older than Rick. James was a kid just like Rick. He ended up auditioning and forming his own band and was much happier with that.
Frankly, I really believe, as good as Elvis’ players were, Rick’s band was better. On “Believe What You Say,” that’s about as exciting as rock & roll got in 1958. Another thing that’s amazing to me: Rick had just turned seventeen when he made his first single (“I’m Walkin’”), and he sounded like a kid.
But by “Believe What You Say,” only a year later, his voice had deepened, and he sounded much more confident. Richie Frost was a little older, but these were basically kids, and they made great records.
In the book you discuss hearing “Gloomy Sunday,” recorded in November 1958 during sessions for third album Ricky Sings Again, for the first time. Why did it leave such an impact with you?
Talk about a mighty performance. Here’s this eighteen-year-old kid singing this very, very powerful song about suicide. Imperial Records freaked and said he couldn’t release it. Rick loved it, and he did a great performance, with just him and guitar. Those kinds of songs really suited his voice. It’s hard to imagine it getting any airplay; it sounded like nothing else, not to mention the subject matter.
I’m so glad it came out over forty years later on the Legacy box set in 2000. People should hear it. Rick was much deeper than people thought.
In 1959, Rick temporarily abandoned his rockabilly sound, particularly on his single releases. Why did he make such an ill-advised decision?
Those songs are “very produced.” The thing that people forget is that no one expected rock & roll to last. People were writing its obituary by 1959. Suddenly Bobby Darin has this hit with “Mack the Knife,” and then every record company was pushing its teen rock artists in that direction.
They figured, ‘Well, this rock & roll thing is a fad; it’s gonna die. So why don’t we move them now into this more adult kind of music?’
Unfortunately, you hear it on Rick’s records. Those horrible chick singers—oh my god. It wasn’t just his records, it was everyone’s. It wasn’t Rick and his little band anymore. Orchestrations, brass, and in particular, those horrible girl singers.
Those are the records I would hear on the radio, and I wouldn’t hear the stripped down, very authentic rockabilly stuff. In fact, it wasn’t until I started researching for the book and getting all his old records that I associated “Stood Up” or “Waitin’ in School” with Rick.
That’s what’s so cool about rediscovering a rock artist. The way he was portrayed by rock radio gave you a skewed idea of who he was. They totally left out the rockin’ stuff and mostly replayed his hit ballads. The rockers were just as big hits as the ballads. I never quite understood that.
Rick filmed Rio Bravo and The Wackiest Ship in the Navy—costarring Jack Lemmon—back to back and then virtually halted his major theatrical appearances. Did Ozzie want Rick to concentrate only on the TV show?
Not at all; the fact that Rick was a pop star and a film star probably kept the show on the air longer than it might have otherwise. Whatever Rick and David did on the side, if it made them popular, it only enhanced the TV show.
Now, it’s possible that Ozzie might have resented in a way his son achieving a level of fame that he didn’t quite achieve. That would be a natural dynamic, too. As popular and influential as Ozzie and Harriet was, it was never among the top shows.
However, a lot of that likely had to do with the fact that it was on the baby network (ABC), which didn’t have as many affiliates as NBC or CBS. The show could have gone off the air a few years earlier, but they still had Rick.
How would you describe Rick’s sense of humor?
He was a very dry, quiet guy who was very aware of how he was perceived. He would poke fun at himself. For example, when he met people at the airport, they had really grown up with him to a degree that you can’t say about Elvis or pretty much anybody else.
Folks related to Rick on two levels: there was the music, but there was also the fact that he was like America’s kid brother. Not having lived at that time, I don’t know that I can fully appreciate how popular he was. He had his popular little catchphrase, “I don’t mess around, boy.”
Rick was a huge, huge star, as were the whole family. To this day, you still hear people talk about an “Ozzie and Harriet family.” America really did measure itself against the Nelsons. He would sometimes play with the fact that a lot of people thought of him as this clean-cut guy they saw on TV from 1952 to 1966.
He had fun with his image. He was very conscious of the fact that people would search his face for lines, because if he looked old, that meant they looked old. Luckily for Rick, not only was he incredibly handsome, he was aging quite well.
Did Rick “disappoint” you in any aspect?
I believed in the character I was writing about. When you’re writing a biography, you truly come to feel that you know the person you’re writing about. You kinda figure out how they think, what was important to them, and why they did certain things in their lives.
The person you’re writing about lives with you for however long you’re working on the book (a year, two years). It’s a nicer experience when the person isn’t a sh–head! I look at Rick as wearing the white hat and being admirable in many ways.
The only way in which he “disappointed” me is that he was not a great father. I happen to have a son with autism. I’m a very involved father, and I don’t get people who aren’t. But it was a different time. Back then, a lot of young men—and young women, for that matter—got married whether they were ready or not.
In Rick’s case, he certainly wasn’t, as he got Kris knocked up. He definitely wasn’t ready for fatherhood. But that’s kinda what people did in those days: the “right thing.” In retrospect, that’s probably a poor choice of words.
How was Rick a pioneering artist?
Rick was pioneering in a couple of respects. By 1966, his hits had dried up like most American recording artists (including Elvis), because of the Beatles, the rest of the British Invasion, and the subsequent changes in music.
He loved country music and rockabilly. He put out two terrific country albums in 1966 and 1967 which really foreshadowed the country rock movement: the Byrds, with their 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Poco, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Eagles. Rick beat all those guys.
Rick ultimately went more into a singer-songwriter mode. He made some really good music. It didn’t get airplay, though. Most people probably did not hear it, but if you look at the reviews that he got in a “hip” publication like Rolling Stone, he always got good reviews.
The two country albums that are both critical and fan favorites today but bombed upon original release are Bright Lights & Country Music (1966) and Country Fever (1967).
Those two country albums are fantastic. Rick was definitely ahead of his time. The song “You Just Can’t Quit” from Bright Lights is saying the same thing as “Garden Party,” in a way. He hadn’t had a hit record in two years, the show was winding down, and that song was a statement or declaration of purpose.
Other great songs on those albums included Doug Kershaw’s “Louisiana Man,” “Welcome to My World,” “Hello Walls,” “Night Train to Memphis”—just good stuff.
Rick was a little ahead of the curve there. The Woodstock generation got into that music right around 1969, and suddenly you had all these so-called country rock groups. Poco released its first album [Pickin’ Up the Pieces], the Flying Burrito Brothers [The Gilded Palace of Sin], the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo—these weren’t huge hit records, but they definitely had an audience.
So maybe if Rick had recorded those two albums two years later, he might have seen more acceptance. Also, remember he made those two records when he was only twenty-six. The show had just ended, and America had him in their minds as the sort of “teen idol” and the young, handsome man on the family TV show.
In a way, having time away from the show is what enabled him to reinvent himself a little bit. I think it was too soon to reinvent himself when the TV show has just gone off the air. That was a blessing for him to be off the TV, out of the public eye, and then to come back.
Again, it wasn’t any big stretch. It’s not like in the mid-seventies he went disco. For Rick to go into country music was a totally logical progression, considering the artists he loved: Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
What is your opinion on Rick’s psychedelic, orchestrated recordings following his ground-breaking Country Fever in 1967?
Clearly, Rick was struggling to find direction in 1967-69, and Another Side of Rick [released in November 1967] and Perspective [February 1969] lack identity. Truthfully, I don’t know those albums at all or the accompanying singles, except for (ugh) “Don’t Make Promises.”
But Rick found himself pretty quickly with In Concert [February 1970] and then Rick Sings Nelson.
It must have depressed Rick when his music stopped selling in significant quantities once the British Invasion erupted. “Garden Party” fortunately ignited a fluke comeback eight years later.
Being an artist and making probably the best music of your life, or at least the most personal music of your life, and not having it be given a fair listen, stung Rick at first. However, if you go back and look at the Rolling Stone reviews, they’re always very complimentary.
Rick wasn’t gonna get played on Top 40 unless he had a hit, which he did with “Garden Party.” But what Rick was doing post 1968 was more country rock and really didn’t fit in with artists ten years younger than him.
That image did kind of imprison him in a way, and there was probably a part of him resentful of that. Fortunately, Rick came to terms with it. He had tremendous fame throughout his whole life, and yet his desires were really simple: he just wanted to be able to play music, but on his own terms.
And he was able to do that throughout his entire life. The way he looked at it, he had been super rich, and then he wasn’t so rich. But Rick probably would have been rich again.
He had seen and done it all by the time he was thirty. By the time he was thirty-two, when most people are lucky to enjoy fame the first time, he’d already had this incredible comeback. Rick quickly adapted to fame and the way it waxes and wanes.
Does Rick’s folk-based material from 1969 to 1971 resonate with you?
Most of his contemporaries weren’t getting reviewed favorably in Rolling Stone for new music and being accepted as a current artist. Rolling Stone was for that younger audience, and they did accept him on his own terms and just looked at it as ‘This is Ricky Nelson—you probably remember him from ‘Poor Little Fool’—well guess what…’
They gave him an excellent review for Rick Nelson in Concert at the Troubadour. It’s a really good record: a nice mix of the old stuff along with new covers like Eric Andersen’s “Violets of Dawn,” Tim Hardin’s “Red Balloon,” and three Dylan songs (“I Shall Be Released,” “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” and “She Belongs to Me.”)
As he went more folk, he still had Tom Brumley on pedal steel guitar. It was folk with a country tinge. A lot of his folk-type stuff stands up very well against the bigger voices of that era, like James Taylor or John Prine. But the older folks who grew up with Rick were not going to like that music no matter who made it or what he did.
His voice especially lent itself to those quieter, intimate songs. I think he’s a fantastic singer with a very unique voice. Rick always said he wanted to sound like Ray Charles and couldn’t. Rick wasn’t a screamer, but he had a more understated way of expressing himself. I liken it to a quiet intensity.
I was initially bowled over when I discovered that Bob Dylan was a huge Rick Nelson fan.
Rick was one of the foremost interpreters of Dylan from that time. Nobody gives him any credit except Dylan. In his book Chronicles, he talks about Rick. And when Dylan toured in 1986, not long after Rick’s death, he covered “Lonesome Town.”
Dylan, who hardly ever says anything onstage, said something to the effect of “Ricky Nelson did some of my songs, so now I’m gonna do one of his.” That was his little tribute.
Dylan supposedly really liked Rick’s version of “She Belongs to Me.” What a compliment. Rick took a lot of satisfaction in knowing he was appreciated by all these major musicians, not only his contemporaries.
What’s an “undiscovered” song from Rick’s years with the Stone Canyon Band?
“Gypsy Pilot,” from his 1971 LP, Rudy the Fifth. Featuring slide guitar, just a very dirty-sounding, heavy band, I love it. Rick wasn’t yelling; he was doing his regular singing. Again, in his understated way, his voice definitely had presence.
There weren’t many people who sounded like Rick. His voice suited itself to many different styles, including folk, country, country rock, and rockabilly. Not so much on heavy stuff, but he didn’t play much heavy stuff.
But when he did, like on “Gypsy Pilot,” his voice sounds really impassioned. He’s pushing it a little bit, which makes you take notice, because it’s not how you usually think of Rick singing. But where’s it written that you have to be an R&B screamer to be “authentic?”
Was Rick really booed at Madison Square Garden? Regardless, the experience led to his final million-seller, the life-affirming narrative “Garden Party.”
Yes, I interviewed plenty of people who were there. Richard Nader, the promoter of that show, was kinda responsible for the whole fifties/oldies concept. It was only about two years old in 1971. You were talking about a show for people who grew up in the 1950s who probably did not relate to what was going on musically and politically in the country.
All the other acts played the game, and they came out dressed and sounding just like they did in the fifties. Frankly, for most of them, their careers ended early on. Rick was still a very relevant recording artist, except that he had gone in a different direction.
Rick’s new songs really suited his deep, kinda intimate voice. Some of the themes were actually profound, but that’s not what an audience at a rock & roll oldies show back then was looking for.
Rick also had long hair, and the crowd reacted partly to that. Rick came out with the Stone Canyon Band, and he was making country rock. He had a pedal steel guitarist. He came out in this great embroidered western shirt with hair down to his shoulders. Nobody else on the bill quite looked like that.
If you look at the set list from that night, he did perform plenty of the older hits. In fact, he structured the set chronologically, and he worked his way up into the late sixties/early seventies material with the Stone Canyon Band. They were not real pleased with him right from the get-go, just because of the way he looked.
And also, Rick reconfigured the songs a little bit, making them a little country rock. To be honest, that was hardly a stretch, as Rick’s early stuff was great, great rockabilly, songs like “Waitin’ in School” and “It’s Late.”
The fact that he had a Top Ten hit at age thirty-two with “Garden Party” (eight years after his previous hit) was pretty amazing. That didn’t happen too often. Chuck Berry had another hit record that same year, but it was the embarrassing “My Ding-a-Ling.”
It was very unusual for anybody from the fifties to have a hit record in the early seventies. Elvis was about the only one, and it’s not like he regularly had hit records like he used to. After the Garden experience, Rick wanted nothing to do with the oldies circuit.
He stayed true to his word—“If memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck”—for pretty much the next 10 years. Also quoting from the song, he aimed to please himself as an artist first and foremost.
Did Rick ever play Vegas?
I believe Rick did one show in Vegas, but he wasn’t doing the Vegas thing. Rick was in a smaller room with the Stone Canyon Band doing their regular show. The big money was in doing a great big production with a big band, weeks at a time, wearing a tux, and doing the Elvis thing.
That wasn’t what he loved about music; he loved having that small little band (guitar, bass, drums, and piano) and maybe the Jordanaires.
What was Rick’s take on Elvis Presley’s jumpsuit-Vegas era?
Rick was friends with Elvis; he went to see some of Elvis’ shows. To be honest, Rick was appalled. He was in deep financial trouble because he had a very protracted, expensive divorce from Kris that basically left him broke.
Rick was offered some really big money to play a Vegas engagement in the late seventies—as he used to call it, “the balloons and feathers show.” By now, the hotels were starting to incorporate some of those fifties artists into their entertainment.
The Hilton offered Rick a long-term contract for $400,000 to share equal billing with Bill Cosby. Four option periods raised its potential worth to $1.4 million. To his credit, he just wouldn’t do it.
It’s admirable that Rick never compromised his principles and became a broken down Vegas lounge act.
Rick’s life was harder than it needed to be because he was not going to do something he didn’t believe in. A lot of people looked at him as this sort of passive figure. He was quiet, but he wasn’t passive. Rick wouldn’t do what Rick didn’t want to do.
And Rick would do what Rick wanted to do even if there were people around him saying, “Hey come on, you don’t need to be playing small clubs. You’re a big star!” “No, I wanna play rock & roll.” Nowadays it would be no big deal for Rick to take his band to Vegas and do his standard rock & roll show, but you couldn’t do it in 1985.
Vegas was still waiting for that audience that grew up on the Rat Pack and all those guys to die. Today the people who go to Vegas have grown up on rock & roll, and that’s who they wanna see. Actually, half of the venues your biggest acts play are casinos.
Was there a reason why Rick didn’t write more songs after the mid-’70s?
To be honest, Rick wasn’t really writing songs at the end of his life, which is not to say he wouldn’t have again. He didn’t have a record deal after Playing to Win came out. For the first time in his life, he went a couple of years without a record deal, but that was being rectified in late 1985 with Curb Records.
For the next album, he probably would have written one or two. But he had written a lot of songs in the late sixties and early seventies. To be honest, if you listen to the records after Garden Party, it’s not the most inspired stuff.
Maybe Rick got a little too pleased with himself after his song “Garden Party.” Maybe he was distracted by the divorce, or perhaps he ran dry. It happens to songwriters: just look at John Lennon. Rick wasn’t coming up with really great stuff compared to the material on the albums from ’69 to ’72.
Is it true that both John Fogerty and Paul McCartney wanted to produce Rick?
Yes, but in 1976 Fogerty had had an album, Hoodoo, cancelled by his record company. Fogerty, who’d had all those hit records with Creedence Clearwater Revival, was without a record deal only a few years later.
Then Fogerty has a huge comeback with the Centerfield album. Unfortunately, it was right after that when Rick died. My suspicion is that in the late eighties, now that Fogerty was back in the game, he would have produced an album for Rick.
I saw Fogerty here in New York in summer ’07, and it was beyond fantastic. The show was very much like Rick’s: mostly older songs, but played with conviction featuring a killer band (Kenny Aronoff on drums and Billy Burnette on rhythm guitar—his dad wrote many songs for Rick). It was not nostalgic (ugh), but wholly contemporary and of the moment.
Paul McCartney wanted to produce an album with Rick in 1979. Believe it or not, Capitol (Rick’s label at the time) didn’t think that was a good idea. You’ve got to be kidding me.
What do you make of Rick’s final studio album of new material, Playing to Win?
Capitol Records was trying to figure out, “How do we make Rick contemporary?” It’s 1980, and recording had certainly changed dramatically in just the past few years. I think it was a legitimate attempt, but sometimes you do that, and you lose your essence. It was not a great record.
Did Rick perform many Stone Canyon Band numbers during his final years besides “Garden Party?”
The Los Angeles Amphitheatre show, recorded in August 1985, was a good example of what he was playing at that time. I can’t imagine it was too much of the Stone Canyon Band stuff. I didn’t hear any great singles on those albums, other than “Garden Party.”
Truthfully, I’m not much of a fan of Rick’s Stone Canyon Band era. I just don’t think the material was that inspired. The band was good, not great. But there were a couple of really good songs from those years. Mainly rockabilly stuff.
The difference between Rick Nelson and a lot of the older rockers…I’m sure that for some members of the audience, it was nostalgia. But that was a very contemporary band, totally in love with what they were doing. Just playing a lot of rockabilly music. They weren’t looking at it as nostalgia. For them, the music lived, and they made it live onstage through their performances.
Rick was in a whole different category. Yeah, he was an older artist performing mostly older songs, but he was doing it very much: ‘This is me in 1985, doing this material that I loved when I was 16, and almost 30 years later, I still love it.’
Here you have this upper-class kid who spent his first five years in Tenafly, New Jersey, and then grows up in Hollywood as a star on TV. He hears this music mostly made by artists in the rural South, and it struck a chord in him.
Rick related to this stuff, although he had nothing in common in terms of his growing up compared to Elvis, Johnny Cash, or Carl Perkins. All these guys who he absolutely worshipped. Interestingly enough, they were big fans of his as well.
How was Rick idiosyncratic when compared to contemporaries like Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Freddie “Boom Boom” Cannon?
The difference wasn’t so much the age. Rick was still a current recording artist. They were great performers and the pioneers of rock, but they were not current artists anymore. Rick Nelson was.
He may not have been that successful a current artist, but he had a record deal for four decades straight (unlike almost probably anybody). Sadly, Rick was in the process of signing a new record deal with Curb Records the day he died.
I love when you come across a musician who’s been doing it for so long, and yet they still get jazzed by playing music. That was so true of Rick. You could see how much fun he was having onstage.
Compared to Chuck Berry, Rick had a touring band. Then you have Chuck, who until just recently would turn up in a town, and the promoter would throw together a couple of pick-up players. That’s what Chuck would perform with, and it sounded like it.
It wasn’t very good, but Chuck wanted to grab as much money as he could. Rick could have taken all those easy routes to making money, but he really stayed true to the music.
Why did Rick abandon his country-rock songs and return to performing his golden oldies?
You have to remember, when The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet television show ended in 1966, Rick was only twenty-six, and he had already accumulated twenty-six hit records. He wasn’t ready at that age to pack it in and do an oldies show.
To be honest, there wasn’t an oldies circuit in 1966 anyway, so you would have been talking about sort of a nightclub, cabaret, Vegas-style show. He had no interest in that whatsoever.
But almost twenty years later, he was comfortable with performing his old hits because everything had changed, including the audience. He got to play the music he loved. Rick had a fantastic band that was practically as good as his original band with James Burton, Joe Osborn, and Richie Frost.
If you see the August 1985 concert at the L.A. Universal Amphitheatre with Fats Domino (available on DVD), Rick and his band were terrific. “Stood Up” and “Waitin’ in School” were great. They did a Mickey Jupp song called “Do You Know What I Mean,” which was fantastic; it totally fit in with the older stuff.
It sounds authentic because it was. Look, by then you’re not twenty-six, you’re a forty-five-year-old guy, and the reality is, in the music business you’re probably not gonna have hit records anymore.
How often was Rick touring by the early-80’s?
Rick might have done a little more than 250 performances annually. One year it came very close to 300 dates per year. But by the last year of his life, he was averaging about 250 shows. You know, that’s a grinding pace for anybody.
The schedule bothered his manager and the band. If you’re gonna play that many shows a year in 1984, 1985, they’re not all gonna be great venues. Some will be crappy clubs.
It didn’t really bother Rick. Others around him thought, ‘Oh, a star like Rick Nelson, what’s he doing in a place like this?’ Maybe because he’d seen and done it all and knew fame was quite fickle.
“You know what, I’ve had hit records, I’ve not had hit records, I had a hit record again, now I’m not having hit records, but who knows?” Rick said that to his manager, Greg McDonald, one day. At the time he was just 45 years oold; maybe something could have happened. He was very comfortable with who he was and what he was doing. He accepted life.
Obviously, Rick preferred the better gigs. If he wasn’t in debt from the divorce (and I suspect that part of staying on the road was to escape all the emotional turmoil awaiting him in L.A. because of his divorce), he wouldn’t have had to play those little shows. He wanted to eventually pick and choose where he played. But he still put on a good show even if it was in a small, sparsely attended club.
Were David and Rick close near the end of the latter’s life?
They were getting there; they were very different personalities. I’m an only child, so I don’t know. In families this is a common dynamic. David was closer to Harriet, and Rick was closer to Ozzie. That makes perfect sense: Harriet played a subordinate role to Ozzie just as David had to play a subordinate role to his younger brother.
Everyone who knew them said that David might have had some resentment, but he dealt with it pretty well. These were people who lived a pretty strange life, when you think about it. Rick was nine when he joined the TV show, and David was thirteen.
They had grown up with fame their entire lives, and even before that, they were around fame. From the time they were born, their parents were already extremely popular recording artists.
People tend to project how they think they would act, but very few people had the life experience that Rick and David had. Fame was all they knew; it was normal to them. Maybe that’s why they weren’t as desperate as other celebrities to hang onto it. They rode the waves a little better than many people. Rick and David were different personalities. I enjoyed talking to David. He was very deep.
Is it true that Greg McDonald, Rick’s last manager, owned the tapes at one time for his artist’s final recording project and let you listen to them during your research?
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, McDonald 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 Dec. 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.
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.
It was such a devastating New Year’s Eve when Rick, his band, and girlfriend Helen Blair suddenly met their premature destiny.
Unfortunately, Rick, Helen, lead guitarist Bobby Neal, drummer Ricky Intveld, pianist Andy Chapin, bassist Pat Woodward, and road manager Donald Clark Russell all perished in the plane crash.
Actually, I shouldn’t say “plane crash.” They landed the damn thing, except that it was on fire. That’s the thing about a DC-3. I had done a lot of research on the plane while I was researching the book.
There are great stories about DC-3s. They’re almost impossible to crash. DC-3s used in World War II might get their tail shot off or a wing, and the pilot was still able to land it. And in the case of Rick and his band, the pilot and copilot were, despite the fact the plane was burning, able to land it. The problem was the faultily repaired heater in back.
The Washington Post took a lot of criticism, but if you go back and read the article, it’s quite fair. All they wrote was, the day after the crash, some aerosol cans had been found in the wreckage, which can be used for freebasing.
They were just investigating the possibility. They weren’t saying, ‘Oh, we think somebody was freebasing in the back of the plane.’ The National Transportation Safety Board released a report six months later, and that theory was discounted.
Of course, the Washington Post and other newspapers printed it, but that kinda ended up way in the middle of the paper, and no one saw it. For years, if you asked people, they thought Rick Nelson and his band basically killed themselves by bringing down their own plane.
Was he a recreational drug user? Yeah, like many, many other people. But freebasing, no, and did he cause his own death? Absolutely not.
Of course, there’s some irony, because Rick always feared dying in a plane crash. He was a pretty fearless guy. Actually he had another fear: dying in a fire. He ended up dying in both. And late in his life, Rick had played a Buddy Holly festival, and Rick had talked about that.
If you talk to musicians, particularly from that era, that was a common conversation, because you’re on the road, you’re in these planes, and it was on their mind. When you think of rock stars who died in plane crashes, you instantly think of Buddy Holly.
Did you have any difficulty gaining access to the Nelson family?
At first I did. First of all, given the negative press after the accident, you’re talking about a family used to controlling things. They had their success in an era where the press kinda polished stars’ images. Now we’ve gone to the other extreme; neither one I consider to be journalism, the fan magazines and the search-and-destroy books, to me, are both crap.
There were no threats or “No, I’m not gonna talk to you.” I did a book on the crappy Yankees of the sixties and seventies called Dog Days, and I always use the same kind of strategy. I start with the “small people,” and I gradually interview and work my way up.
Eventually word will filter upward, whether, ‘Is this guy an a–hole or is this guy a responsible journalist who’s looking to do a fair story?’ Most people don’t expect you to write a hagiography. If they sense that you intend to tell the story in a fair way, that’s usually good enough for most celebrities.
Finally, toward the end I did start speaking to Nelsons, but by that time I had already interviewed about two hundred people. I know when I interviewed Don DeFore (he played the Nelsons’ friendly neighbor “Thorny”) and Jimmie Haskell (who arranged and produced many of Rick’s hit recordings), those guys were still very loyal to the Nelsons.
Word got back that “This guy was okay. He’s written books before, he’s a legitimate journalist, and he seems to have a fair take on Rick, and he’s simply trying to tell his story.” I went off in different directions; I started with the musicians, the people on the TV show, his close friends, the football guys…
Did someone turn you down for the project?
I wrote to Kris. Of course, she didn’t know me, and she knew I was writing a book about her ex. She probably figured I was not gonna be favorable toward her, because nobody was at that time. I wrote a very honest letter, saying “here’s my take. I do see your side of things and how this was not an idyllic marriage.” Rick really was not a true partner, certainly not in terms of raising the kids.
Anyway, her then husband, Mark Tinker (a TV producer), called me up. I was staying at the Chateau Marmont. He was very nice, just trying to feel me out. He said, “You know, I think you’re on the level; I’ll try to talk to her and see what I can do.” But in the end she said no.
Remember, this was after a summer when she had been savaged. People magazine had her brother, actor Mark Harmon, on the cover talking about what a terrible mother and person she was.
Did you stay in touch with any of the Nelson family after the publication of Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man?
No, it’s a book. I’m not there to be their buddy; I’m there to report a story. I know that David liked the book. I think I was very fair to Kris, to be honest with you. I don’t think it was easy being, for the most part, a single mom of four kids because your husband is off touring all the time. Kris had some legitimate complaints.
Kris was going through a really awful time while I was finishing the book. I don’t know what’s happened since. As people get older, they do tend to reconcile. By 1992, her son Sam was estranged from her; the twins, Matthew and Gunnar, definitely were. As time passes and people pass on, those who remain tend to be able to overlook stuff. She’s still your mom.
I was in California in 1988, and David really had strong feelings against her. He was very close to all of Rick’s kids; they really looked up to him as Uncle David. Not only was he angry at Kris for what he perceived as her treatment of Rick and the divorce, but also for the hell that the kids were put through.
What did Rick’s family members and close friends think of the bio?
Based on the feedback I received from family members and some of the musicians, everyone felt it was a very fair and balanced portrayal. To me, that’s the ultimate compliment. Now if I was Albert Goldman and looking to do a search-and-destroy job, that’s not what I would want.
But that’s not what I set out to do. It wasn’t to lionize Rick, it was to tell the story and try to get people to understand him. I remember reading the Goldman book about John Lennon. If you just present the things people do without any context, it can make someone look really bad.
You’ve got to put everything in context to understand why people made decisions they made at a certain time. If you examined anybody’s life, and your goal is to make them look like this terrible person, you can certainly find stories to tell that will paint the person in a negative light. Or you can do the opposite, which is equally uninteresting to me.
Famous people do encounter temptations in life that most of us never will. It’s very easy to be judgmental. Oh, so-and-so slept around. If you were young and women were throwing themselves at you, you might find it difficult to resist. To judge them based on your life experience is not fair.
That’s what a good biography does: it puts the reader in that person’s shoes and in their head, so that you come to understand why they did the things they did.
Was there any film interest in the biography?
There was some film interest. It’s laughable, but David Hasselhoff wanted to play Rick. It was a funny idea to us twenty years ago, much less today. Unfortunately, you don’t see many of the rock biopics anymore. Aside from The Buddy Holly Story (1978) and maybe La Bamba (1987), most of them were not very successful. I haven’t pursued any film offers in over 20 years, because I just don’t see it happening…
Where do you see Rick’s career going if he had lived?
The thing was, had Rick lived, things were really changing by the mid-eighties. All of a sudden the fifties rockers were being rediscovered and re-appreciated again: Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, and Gary U.S. Bonds.
You know, things go in cycles. There was more work than he knew what to do with in terms of being on the road, but the gigs were getting progressively better.
A lot of rock people at that time were transitioning over to country music. Rock radio was not gonna play Rick Nelson, who’s now forty-five years old, but country radio would. It wasn’t a stretch at all for Rick to make a bit of a countrified record, so they were gonna move in that direction. He probably would have found success in the country field.
To top it off, suddenly there was interest in him for possibly a television show, and he had resisted that for a long time. However, he was getting comfortable with that idea, too.
Financially, it would have been nice, and he could stay home most of the time, keeping LA as his home base. He could tour on the weekends and during the summer, picking the best shows to do. That sounded like a smart, viable way to do things.
There were many, many other kid actors who didn’t adjust very well to success. All things considered, Rick Nelson adjusted to fame, losing fame, and regaining fame, although he was always famous, even when he didn’t have hit records.
He was very well-liked in general; people usually had a good feeling about him, which is why he probably would have found success again in TV. His Q rating (your likability and recognizability) was very high.
What might Rick be doing today?
In view of being in his mid-seventies, Rick would have probably been financially secure. He was well on his way. He had finally paid off the million dollars surrounding the divorce’s legal proceedings that dragged on and on. This was when a million dollars was still a lot of money.
He probably could have had a TV show. He very easily could have had a few records on the country charts. What I think would have happened: in the eighties, you started to have what I call “rock star rescue missions.”
Bruce Springsteen did an album with Gary U.S. Bonds, John Cougar Mellencamp produced and wrote songs for Mitch Ryder, Tom Petty worked with Del Shannon [“Runaway” is his best-known song) on an album, Dave Edmunds produced an LP for the Everly Brothers, and Eddie Money featured Ronnie Spector on backup vocals on 1986’s big hit “Take Me Home Tonight.”
I think John Fogerty or Paul McCartney might have tried again. Someone who appreciated him. Rick would have had very successful decades in the late 1980s and 1990s. If he was physically able, he’d definitely still be touring, but at a much healthier pace—not 250 dates per year.
What is Rick’s ultimate legacy?
I think his legacy is one that would surprise a lot of people: that he was the real deal. Despite his image, he’s always thought of in the second tier. He’s appreciated for sure, but this is a guy who was drawn to this music and really stayed true to it.
Rick could have sold out a million times, and plenty of his contemporaries, who get more respect than he did, did sell out (Elvis probably being the best example). Rick stayed true to this music at great personal cost. In that sense, he’s a very admirable figure.
And he led such an interesting, odd life. His reality was stardom from the age of nine up. All things considered, Rick handled it quite well. To me, U2 have tremendous integrity, and Rick was the same way. The two songs “You Just Can’t Quit” and “Garden Party”—his whole philosophy is summed up in those. He really lived it; it wasn’t just words.
© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2011, 2015. All rights reserved. An earlier version of the Philip Bashe interview debuted in this column as four installments between Sept. 17 and 19, 2011. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Do not copy or paste the article text—please share the URL instead. Headlines with links are also acceptable. Posting any links on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, or Google Plus is sincerely appreciated. To receive future articles from Jeremy emailed directly to your inbox, simply click on the pink “Subscribe to Author” rectangular button below. Thank you.