by Robert Wilkinson
Today we send up a big happy birthday to a Taurus rock 'n roll trailblazer, Ricky Nelson. He bridged the gap between early Rockabilly Rock and Roll and the great American Top 40 music machine, and was enormously popular for years. From the Rick Nelson website, a quote from Bob Dylan: "He sang his songs calm and steady like he was in the middle of a storm, men hurling past him. His voice was sort of mysterious and made you fall into a certain mood." Today we have lots of videos!
Ricky (later Rick and then, thanks to Carl Perkins, back to Ricky) Nelson (May 8, 1940 – December 31, 1985) was one of the definitive talents of his era, and the first "Teen Superstar," a teenager singing to teenagers about teenage themes. He placed fifty-three songs on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1957 and 1973, including nineteen top-ten hits.
I was given the 45 (remember them?) of his first number 1 single, "Poor Little Fool," for my 8th birthday in 1959, and his voice hooked me as a fan for years. His performances on the Ozzie and Harriet Show are generally accepted as the first music videos, making him a pioneer in what has become a global art form.
It's generally acknowledged that Ricky made rock and roll more accessible to millions of teens through his exposure on the Ozzie and Harriet Show. That makes him a primary key allowing American teens to rock with parental permission due to him being so very sweet, safe, and beautiful.
Welcome to an America past, filled with dreams and songs and young hearts hoping for something better than the war vibe that preceded this flowering of America's youth so long, long ago. For your enjoyment, Ricky Nelson!
From the golden era of television, we begin with Ricky performing on the Ozzie and Harriet Show. This is classic b/w American television with lip synching, but who cared? With the Jordanaires singing backup and the awesome teenage James Burton (and occasionally the legendary Scotty Moore) on guitar, these songs smoked! I suppose when you have Elvis' backup band, it's hard not to create major hits...
First, a real treat! A 41+ minute compilation of Ricky on the Ozzie and Harriet Show doing a whole bunch of his hits! Here’s “Ricky Nelson’s Greatest Hits”
Now for some individual performances!
Here’s Ricky looking a bit stiff (and 17!) doing the Everly Brothers' first hit, "Bye Bye Love" in 1957.
While I couldn't find all the hits, I found a string of his major league charting tunes across the next few years!
One of his first! From 1957, Ricky doing do-wop! “A Teenager’s Romance”
"Boppin'The Blues" (1957)
From 1958, “Stood Up”
A rare treat from 1958! From the Ozzie and Harriet Show, Ricky and the great James Burton playing acoustic guitar sampling several songs of the era.
“Lonesome Town” (1958)
“Believe What You Say” (1958)
"It's Late" (1959)
The next two were huge chart toppers in 1961, a double sided "top of the pops" single for Ricky, known to millions!
I found him performing the flip side (as we used to call it) of "Hello Mary Lou," his smash number one hit, "Travelin' Man"
He didn't stop there. From 1962, I found
From 1963, I found
We'll finish this trip through the Ozzie and Harriet years with a final performance many never saw, "The Christmas Song"
Here are a couple of original studio recordings of early major hits, set to still photos:
From 1957, “Be Bop Baby”
From 1958, complete with the Jordanaires, "Poor Little Fool."
From 1962, “Teenage Idol”
Updating the resume by a few years, I found a treat! From 1983, a Christmas tune along with a zinger! Here's "Merry Christmas Baby" and "Honky Tonk Woman."
Here's a great treat! A duet of the immortal Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson doing "I'm Walkin'," a major hit for both and Ricky's first chart placement!Another early hit, courtesy of fellow rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins, "Boppin' The Blues" live in 1982.
Rick does a rockin' version of the great John Fogerty hit, "Almost Saturday Night" live in 1981.
From an undated Dick Clark production, here's Rick Nelson doing the Elvis classic "Mystery Train."
Now we segue into the last chapter of his life, where he and the Stone Canyon Band created a cynical look at those caught in the past. From 1972, here's Rick Nelson doing his last major hit, "Garden Party"
Here’s a live performance in 1977 with Rick doing a country version of his first number 1 hit, “Poor Little Fool”
Lest you think they were just a bunch of rockers gone country, here Rick Nelson & The Stone Canyon Band do a great performance of "Mystery Train" live in 1978.
We'll keep up with Rick and the band through the 1980s doing
"Good Rockin' Tonight" (1983)
"Fools Rush In" (1983).
"Poor Little Fool" (1983 )
For the finale, here’s Rick with the Jordanaires live on "The Motown Revue" hosted by Smokey Robinson, August 30th, 1985, performing “Lonesome Town”
For our encore, here’s Rick doing "Garden Party" from August 1985, less than 5 months before he died.
Here are his sons, Matthew, Gunnar, and Sam Nelson, playing together for the first time, doing Rick's hit "Garden Party"
If you want to know more about this quiet force that bridged generations of music, this site includes a great article from the LA Times outlining just how important Ricky Nelson was in the history of rockabilly as well as rock and roll.
On a final note, Ricky Nelson is also part of a unique occurrence in the history of music. In an interesting historical piece of trivia, he, his dad, and his sons are the only instance of three generations in the same family all scoring a number one hit on the pop charts.
Happy Birthday, Rick. You would have been 73 if you hadn't gone down New Year's Eve in a plane crash like so many other legends of rock and roll, killed too young (45) but leaving a legacy for the ages. Thanks for the memories. Your sweet, steady voice will resonate forever.
Copyright © 2013 Robert Wilkinson