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Backstage With The Prince Of Rock 'N Roll    [Press Articles]
From: DISCoveries, Issue 61 (June 1993)

Rock 'n Roll Quiz Question: Name a musician who won 24 gold records, was a tv favorite, a former teen idol and singer, and is the fourth all-time-selling recording artist. He is the only artist in rock & roll history to be on the top-selling albums chart in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s with new material each time. If you answered "Rick Nelson," you are one of a few who have been able to correctly identify him from this description. Most people remember him only as a teen idol from the late '50s and early '60s. Or else, they remember him as the singer/songwriter of "Garden Party" in 1972. Rick was more than either of these achievements, and this is a good time to take a closer look at Rick Nelson's musical contributions. This year on May 8, Rick would have been 53 years old, had he not died an untimely, fiery death in a farmer's field in DeKalb, Texas, in his private plane on December 31, 1985.

Rick Nelson's initial popularity as a teen idol proved to be a detriment to serious recognition of his work during his lifetime. His popularity was second only to Elvis', the King of Rock 'n Roll. During his first rise to fame in the 1950s, he received over 50,000 fan letters a week, a record number that few performers have matched in the 35 years since. However, that popularity and the teen idol image limited the perception people had of him and his career. He was always fighting the milkshake-and-sock-hop image; always answering the same questions about his parents; always being asked, "Where's David?" The limited and erroneous perception of Rick as a one-dimensional teen idol appears to be changing. Slowly, over recent years, recognition is being given to Nelson as the competent musician and songwriter he was. He wrote close to fifty songs himself, including lyrics and melody. His popularity continues to grow each year since his death.

  • TV specials on him and his life turn up periodically.
  • Used vinyl albums of his music that sold for $6-$$12 two years ago are now selling for more than twice that amount. A single 45 rpm record can cost $7-20.
  • A sepia poster of him now sells for $15 that originally came with an album that did not cost that much when it was new in 1970.

    The Rick Nelson International Club of Great Britain hosted a Tribute Gala weekend to him in Los Angeles in 1993, attracting over 200 people including musicians who once played with Rick, writers who wrote songs for him, actors, actresses, and fans from Australia, Wales, Norway, and Germany, as well as the U.S. The International Garden Party Gala, held over Easter Weekend at the Beverley Garland Hotel, was held "to show the world our love, admiration, and respect for Ricky Nelson," explained Andrew Wilkinson, the club president from Penwortham, England. The world is catching up with what some of us always knew -- Rick Nelson was a top-notch musician and song-writer, as well as a shy, complex, caring human being. The International Club, spurred on by avid collectors of Rick's music, such as Alexandria, Virginia's Jack Bertron, are appealing to several record labels to release album material that Rick recorded but that was never released. Epic, Legacy, and Curb say that Rick Nelson records would not sell today, so they do not have plans to release the music they hold in their vaults. Bertron says, "If I were them, I would not be so sure about that. There will be even more recognition of Rick's talent if fans hear these. One album, Back to Vienna, was produced by Al Kooper of Blood, Sweat, and Tears fame, and another is called Rockabilly Renaissance, showing where Rick's true talent was." [Note: This material was eventually released.]

    I watch the growing interest in Rick Nelson with curiosity because Rick and his music have been a preoccupation of mine for many years. It goes back to 1958 when I met (and later married) a young man, Buck Jones, who for many years resembled Rick in manner and looks. Ten years later, in November 1968, Buck and I read in the local Washington, DC newspaper that Rick Nelson was coming to play the Cellar Door in Georgetown. Immediately we made reservations. Rick was our favorite singer and had been since we were in high school and Rick recorded his first song, "I'm Walkin'" and sang it on the "Ozzie and Harriet" television show. We owned five of his albums. Buck and I had named our new baby daughter (born in January 1968) after Rick and Kris' daughter, Tracy, who had been born a few years earlier. Sometimes Buck and I would talk to each other using only lines from Rick Nelson songs. It was fun -- a game between us -- to see how long we could communicate using only his lyrics. The "loser" was the one who reverted first to plain English.

    When the night in November arrived, I found the Cellar Door to be a smaller place than where I imagined a musician of Rick Nelson's stature would play. The popular, but lilliputian, night club held only about 200 people. The waiter sat us at a tiny round table in a corner of the narrow balcony, looking down on the eight steps that led from a closed metal fire door down to a small central stage. "Perfect view," I thought, "but a little far away." On the stage, a lonely microphone stood in the spotlight. I soon learned that no seat was too far away from the stage in the Cellar Door. From most any location, one could see the sweat on a performer's brow and every subtle shift in facial expression. After an opening act and an intermission of thirty long, dragging minutes, the metal fire door opened; I saw it led to an alley. A lean man stood in the shadows holding a guitar. It was Rick Nelson, an arm's length away from where I sat. He was visibly nervous. My husband leaned over the balcony banister and stuck out his hand, saying a few words of encouragement. Rick responded graciously, as I later saw that he always did to all his fans. What did we say next? I don't remember, but a link was made in that brief greeting, and Rick said to come backstage afterwards. His show that night was all that I had hoped it would be -- and more. He sang some of his old hits but spent most of the time creating a softer image with some newer songs. He sang songs from his most recent album, Another Side of Rick (Decca, 1967). I had never seen the earlier "side" of Rick Nelson perform in person, but this newer side was certainly compelling. Not a sound in the room. He seemed shy but related to the audience, talking between numbers, saying who had written each song. Most of the audience from the first show that night did not want to leave; like us, they paid the cover charge and stayed for the second show.

    Backstage was actually upstairs at the Cellar Door, and we found our way there after the last show. Rick, Buck, and I talked long after midnight about new songs and making music and having kids and life in general. My husband and I got a babysitter and went back to the Cellar Door every night for the rest of that week. Rick came to town once or twice each year for the next six years, and we went back every night of every week that Rick headlined there over those next six years. Sometimes we took our son, Gordon, who was in elementary school, and he "helped out" in the Cellar Door's tiny but well-equipped sound and light booth. During this period of time, Rick was not a popular rock star. Truthfully, some thought he was a "has been" at 28. But he was experimenting with new forms, sometimes writing his own music. Local music reviewer John Segraves wrote in his column, "After Dark," in Waashington, DC's Evening Star, "Never has so little talent brought so many people to one night spot. His voice is almost totally unmusical, his choreography consists of biting his lower lip..."

    Despite such stinging reviews, people came to see Rick at the Cellar Door but not in the numbers they had in the late 1950s, nor in the numbers they soon would again. November 1968 was part of a long lull between hits, the beginning of a six- or seven-year period of time that Kris Nelson now says was Rick's most creative and the happiest period of his life. These are the years during which we knew him. Because there were not hordes of fans waiting at the dressing room door during those years, Rick had time to sit around, put his feet up on the dressing room coffee table, and talk between sets. I was amazed at the amount of "down" time performers have, just waiting for the lights to go up again on the stage. The next time we saw him, Rick came alone to the Cellar Door without a band and sat on the stage on a bar stool and sang songs from his recently released Perspective album (Decca, 1969). These were quiet, thoughtful compositions. Some had a folk song quality to them. Backstage afterwards, his old fans expressed puzzlement. They would say things like, "Gee, your hair's long." Sometimes they would say it in an accusatory tone, as if they expected Rick to be the same flat-topped, skinny teenager ten years after 1958's "Poor Little Fool," even though the fans themselves had all grown up and had families of their own by then too. Sometimes, after the sixth or seventh person had said, "Gee, your hair's long," Rick would reply in a low-key way, "Yeah....it grows." He had that kind of low-key sense of humor. Worse were the people who would come backstage and talk about Elvis. One thing a star does not particularly want to hear about is another star. I had no real clear idea at the time of the complex feelings of respect and envy with which Rick regarded Elvis, but I would notice his body always sort of stiffened when people would go into lengthy descriptions about Elvis and his hits and comebacks. I hated that fans would not let Rick grow up and that people kept comparing him to Elvis. However, it was probably inevitable. Carl Perkins once said, "If Elvis was the King, then Rick was the Prince of Rock 'n Roll." Because Rick's vulnerability was so much a part of his charm, it made people like me want to protect him. Even though he had been raised in front of television cameras, it seemed to me that he summoned a great deal of personal courage from deep inside himself each time he walked on stage to do what he was born to do. I watched him and he became an inspiration for me. Rick never seemed to lose that certain vulnerability and shyness I had noticed the first night we met him. He was always modest and polite with fans who came backstage. He remained amiable over the years through the same tiresome questions about Ozzie and Harriet. Philip Bashe, author of a recent sensitive and probing biography, writes that Rick "did not know how to be rude." I agree.

    Rick's contributions to contemporary music, especially country, are significant. In fact, the sound that Rick pioneered has become the country music sound of today. Rick was one of the first musicians to play country rock, which was not even a genre with a name when he recorded two country albums in the mid-1960s. National Public Radio's Jerry Gray (WAMU, Washington, DC) says that today Rick's two albums, Bright Lights and Country Music (Decca, 1966) and Country Fever (Decca, 1967) are collector's items. In the next 10 years after Rick recorded these, many other musicians followed his example, and recording in Nashville became quite popular for a while among top rock performers. Rick was proud of those country albums, including the two songs he wrote for them. Those songs, "Alone" (on Country Fever) and "You Just Can't Quit," (on Bright Lights and Country Music) were among Rick's first recordings of his own compositions. His first recording of his own composition was in 1958 with "Don't Leave Me This Way." The same theme of loneliness runs through many of his compositions. "Alone" and "You Just Can't Quit" are classic country ballads. Listen to them sometime. Listen to the twist near the end of "Alone" where he realizes that whether he returns home or stays away, that he will "always be alone." Then listen to later songs of his own composition, such as "Sing Me A Song," (1971) about a man who "left home to be alone but now he needs a friend." If you put Rick's compositions on a single tape together (1958-1986), the result is an aching, poignant, powerful autobiography. During his lifetime, Rick was thought by many to be a superficial, good-looking teen-age idol. An examination of his lyrics proves otherwise. For instance, "Easy to Be Free," a Top Fifty single in 1970, was inspired by Hermann Hesse's book, Siddhartha. And, "[This Is My] Last Time Around" (1973) is a stark song about reincarnation. I hope someone expands on these brief observations someday, and, I hope that a record company sees the artistic merit in the idea and someday releases "Rick Nelson: An Autobiography" -- a compendium of all his own songs. He recorded an album of his own songs, Rick Sings Nelson, in 1970, for which he composed every track. His soft vocal style on this album has been compared to James Taylor's. He used a steel guitar although the album is not country music. He told me once that he had a continual struggle with his record company to keep a steel guitar in his band, backing up his music. The record executives did not think a pedal-steel guitar belonged in a rock and roll band. Tom Brumley, who played the pedal-steel behind Rick steadily for years, wove musical magic in the air, and Rick often featured him. Earlier, Brumley had played with Buck Owens. He played with Rick off and on over many years. Rick had a number of good musicians in his back up bands. James Burton, who started with him in the 1950s, later became a session musician for Elvis, as did Jimmie Haskell on guitar, James Kirkland on bass, and Richie Frost on drums. Rick always performed with dignity his old rock hits, such as "Travelin' Man," "Hello Mary Lou," and "Lonesome Town." He treated the music with respect in those days when many musicians parodied their own old '50s hits, and both rock and country music were earning sneers and scorn from reviewers and fans alike. Even his record company is said to have considered him a novelty act, but he remains the only one of his peers from the 1950s to have transcended his past and became considered current by a new generation in the 1970s. He grew and changed with the times. Rick's peers -- Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry -- still perform and record, but they are not considered contemporary. They are respected "golden oldies." Rick, on the other hand, transcended the "oldies" category many times during his lifetime without losing connection with his rockabilly roots. This is a remarkable feat. In a 1981 interview in England, Rick said that rockabilly is a "certain form of music that's ... always been around, but has sort of had a rebirth." Interviewer Susan Whitehall writes that rockabilly was the mainstream music in 1956 or so, when Carl Perkins and Rick Nelson were on every kid's radio. Today, the name "rockabilly" trivializes the genre, perhaps because it rhymes with "silly." To call this type of music "rockabilly" is wrong because, as Rick has said, "Carl Perkins, had THAT SOUND before the word "rockabilly" was ever around. To me, that WAS rock 'n roll...slap bass and stuff like that...."

    In 1970, Rick recorded "She Belongs to Me," a refinement of an original Bob Dylan song that sounded new. It was both sensitive and energetic, and Rick often sang it while looking at his wife Kris as if it had been written expressly for her. No one ever recognizes this song by its title, but you would recognize the sound immediately. It's the one that goes "She's an artist/She don't look back/She can take the dark out of the day/and make the nighttime black." Rick added a catch chorus of ba-dada-da's to Dylan's original, and it went to # 33, giving him his first hit since 1965. Rick was a good interpreter of Dylan and recorded many Dylan numbers over the years. The summer following Rick's death, Dylan returned the compliment, playing "Lonesome Town" on his 1986 world tour. Rick Nelson In Concert, recorded live at the Troubadour in L.A. in 1970, is often regarded as Rick's best album. "The album is an unmitigated delight," Rolling Stone reported. "Clearly now, the dude who can sing songs like 'Hello Mary Lou' is also a member of that great company which includes the likes of Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds. Listening to this album, and recalling Nelson's early work, the extent of his influence on styles of composition and delivery of above artists becomes obvious." His hits with his Stone Canyon band in the early 1970s have a progressive-country feel to them, and, as others have pointed out, this is the direction country music took in the 1980s with groups such as the Judds, Hal Ketchum, Sawyer Brown, and Travis ("Let's Put Some Drive into Country") Tritt. Some contemporary rockabilly and country songs, such as Don Seals" song simply called "Bop," sound as if they were written for Rick. Randy Meisner, who played bass guitar on Rick Nelson In Concert, was a crucial part of Rick's Stone Canyon Band in 1970. Meisner left in 1971 to form the Eagles. The Eagles' country rock sound soon became more popular than the Stone Canyon band had been, and Rick's developmental role in that sound has not yet been publicly recognized. The Byrds, Poco, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Buffalo Springfield are often considered the founders of country rock, but Rick's influence on the entire country rock genre cannot be denied. Rick followed his In Concert album with the single (and album) "Garden Party" in 1972, which climbed to #6, and won back for Rick briefly some of the accoutrements of success, but his following recordings never did match this success.

    The healthy, raw energy of Rick's distinctive sound that came to realization in his later songs never received the public attention nor the airplay they deserve. The modern, cynical power in songs like "The Loser Babe Is You," "It's Another Day," and "Call It What You Want/It's All Rock 'n Roll To Me" is still waiting to be heard by the masses who were his audience. Before he died unexpectedly in 1985, Rick was experimenting by recording ten tracks for an album in exactly the same manner in which he had recorded in the early 1960s. He shunned the new high-tech digital recording devices in favor of tube microphones, live echo chambers, and a three-tape track machine. In his biography of Rick, author Philip Bashe reports that the day Rick died, Curb Records was ready to finalize a contract. Rick Nelson's music is varied, from raucous rockers to soulful ballads to gospels. The last song he sang in live performance in December 1985, in Texas, before he died at age forty-five was, ironically, Buddy Holly's "Rave On," sometimes said to be Holly's last song performed before his plane crashed. Epic released Memphis Sessions in May 1986, an album on which "Rave On" appears. However, this album is disliked by collectors and fans who would like to see the original tracks released, because the record company removed Rick's original backup music and over-dubbed some overly loud, disco-type, primitive drum sounds that unfortunately almost drown out Rick's vocals throughout the Memphis Sessions album.

    By the 1980s, three generations were often in Rick's audiences, but my memories are mostly from the early 1970s. Just outside Philadelphia, there was a large, Las Vegas-type night club with a long, curving bar that Rick played one weekend after playing the Cellar Door. Buck and I drove up to see the show and visit with Rick. For this particular audience in Pennsylvania, he played more songs off the Decca "middle-years" albums, as I call them -- songs like "Georgia On My Mind" -- rather than his more recent, folk-oriented work and rock songs. I teased him that the songs for the show sounded like they were picked out by his mother, Harriet Nelson. He didn't say anything but his jaw tightened, and it was clear that he did not appreciate my remark. Years later, I realize that it was his father who more often chose his material for him in the early days. Backstage in between sets, Rick gave a lengthy radio interview, which an announcer taped for airing the next day. I sat with them and listened to the questions and to Rick's polite, thoughtful replies. Fans kept knocking on the dressing room door, interrupting the taping, so Buck went to the door to tell people to wait a minute and to please be quiet. The fans mistook my husband Buck for Rick and started pushing papers in front of him to autograph. Rick waved at him from where he was sitting behind the door to go ahead, so there are fans somewhere in Pennsylvania today who are probably saving a Rick Nelson autograph that Buck Jones really signed. But then again, maybe Buck signed his own name. Who knows? Rick and Buck and I had a good laugh over it at breakfast the next morning. That time in Chadd's Ford I watched Rick apply makeup before he went onstage. He had a heavy beard and used some powder to cover the shadows on his cheek and chin. He was a handsome man. And sexy. He had the bluest eyes I have ever seen. Dark hair on his chest would curl through the open front of his shirt. He stirred feelings in me with his vulnerability and his sensuality on stage. That never changed. But always, when I'd stand next to him, he seemed smaller than onstage -- more slight, more fragile -- and I'd think to myself, "He and Kris are really made for each other. Their bodies are both the same; they have the same slightness." And I'd look at Buck, who was taller and much more solid to hold onto. And so, it was clear who belonged to who and who belonged to whom. At the club in Chadd's Ford, I was witness to a brief scene that made me cringe. A fan told Rick about a "good cause" he was involved in, helping children or a church camp or something, and he asked Rick for a donation. At the end of the evening, I saw Rick hand the man a check, and I looked at the amount as it exchanged hands. It was for $6,000. I thought to myself, "Rick sure is an easy touch. He didn't check anything out first. I bet Kris would be made if she knew. Even if he's rich, this is crazy. People will take advantage of him." I vowed never to ask him for anything. And then I decided it was none of my business. But I vividly recall my uncomfortable feeling at seeing the extent of Rick's vulnerability to a possible con artist. In reading recent biographies of him, I see he was vulnerable to questionable management in his life after his father, Ozzie Nelson, died in 1975. Ozzie had managed much of Rick's business for him. In fact, Kris says that Rick did not know even how to write a check until after his father died in 1975.

    The role of drugs in the airplane crash that caused Rick's death has been disproved, but the matter of his drug use in general has not (although David Nelson seems to be a victim of denial in this matter). Many people have observed that Rick did use cocaine and other drugs in the years prior to his death (he never did like to drink much, and evidently that did not change). The toxicologist's report at autopsy confirms that cocaine was in his system. However, drugs were not the cause of the plane crash. He had made a bad decision in buying the 1944 airplane from country singer Jerry Lee Lewis. The fact is that Jerry Lee Lewis, who at times has been known as a wild and crazy man, did not want to fly in the plane anymore. In retrospect, Rick's purchase does not seem like a completely sane, straight, and sober decision. In the years that we knew him, he had a great fear of airplanes and there were certain types of commercial planes he refused to fly in. I wonder now if he had a premonition of some type. I never saw him use alcohol or other drugs before going on stage in the years of 1968 through 1973. He undoubtedly got into trouble with drugs later, but during the time period I'm talking about, I did not see any signs of trouble with drugs. Kris Nelson indicates that the drug abuse came later, in the years after his father's death in 1975, and before and after she left the marriage in 1981. "For awhile before I left, I lived upstairs. We had a big house. Rick stayed downstairs with his manager, who would bring drugs to him. I would hate him for not bringing me drugs. It was terrible. I had this image of him that I was supposed to maintain. I knew that I was not supposed to speak out or talk about it." After Rick died, Kris went back to the house they had lived in together. In a 1987 interview, she said, "It was awful. Blackout shades on the windows. Did you see the Elvis special on TV? They showed how Elvis in the end would go into Vegas and a team would staple these blackout curtains over the windows, so he couldn't tell night from day. And that's what Rick had done. And the windows had been stapled over and over again like some sort of insane paranoia. I believe that cocaine had taken over."

    The last time I talked with Rick in 1978. He was playing at a country club in Crofton, Maryland, not too far from my home. I sent a note backstage and was ushered by a band member into a locker room. After the show, Rick and I stood between the rows of metal lockers and fumbled for words. I told him that Buck and I were divorced. He said that his marriage was in trouble. I believe it was the only time I had ever been alone in a room with him, and he did not seem to be the same. His eyes were red and his nose was runny. He kept sniffing. He said he was sick and getting a cold. There was a lack of connection between us -- a lack of the chemistry and spark and laughter that had been there. I felt a sadness. My life had changed, and his was changing, too. I could not find the words to reach across the void, and we did not talk long. Over the years, my record collection continued to grow slowly. There are now almost 40 albums of Rick's, compared to the handful in 1968. In listening to Rick's music today, the single most identifiable quality that comes through is a sincere warmth. He sounds as if he is in the room. He sang as intimately to crowds of thousands as he did on records. I know the world would have been a colder place without him.
    Sandie Johnson