From: "The Globe" (1980)
Every few years Rick Nelson pulls back into town, and all the same questions start flooding out. What did he think of being a teenage heartthrob? Were his parents, Ozzie and Harriet, really as straight as their TV roles, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" made them appear? Does he miss television? Does he think he will ever do another film?
And then every once in a while, someone will ask him about his music.
Even though the.40-year-old Nelson has become a highly rated singer - he anticipated the country-rock movement and is now doing very believable, Mernphis-style rockabilly - it's always the 150's-era "Ozzie and Harriet" TV show, where Rick was then "Little Ricky," that gets the attention first.
"It's something I don't feel I have to live down, or whatever. The TV show is something I did, and I'm not embarrassed by it," said a friendly, nothing-to-hide Nelson as he sat in a Framingham hotel last week in a T-shirt and cords, waiting to perform for a sellout crowd at the nearby Chateau de Ville.
"My Dad wrote the TV show," Nelson continues, smoking one of his occasional cigarettes. "The values on the show were his values, and it really was an extension of our real family back in the '50s. If you look at it now, it would seem kind of like Milquetoast and that sort of thing, but I look at the show now and I'm amazed at the pressure he had to work under -- of coming up with a show every single week, writing it, 'directing it and doing the whole thing. Yeah, they were his values, and there really were drive-ins and malt shops and things like that in the 1950s. So it wasn't unusual back then."
As he has tried to do since the TV show ended in the mid-'60's, Nelson has trumpeted his music over his teen idol nostalgia. Sure, it was "fun" to have been a heartthrob, but he now says so halfheartedly ("Oh sure, whatever") and manages only a weak laugh when reminded that many women--a lot of them now mothers--still view him as a sex symbol.
If given his druthers, Nelson would much prefer talking about music -- A true musician -- rather than a showbiz delettante -- he loves discussing the Memphis .Sun Records sound of Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins ("the first rock record I ever bought was Perkins' Blue Suede Shoes"). Or the pedal steel guitar licks of- Tom Brumley, who was with Nelson's Stone Canyon Band for years and recently retired to Austin, Texas, to run a steel guitar business. Or his many side-men who later made names for themselves--guitarist James Burton, who went with Elvis Presley; bassist Randy Meisner, who went with the Eagles and has since launched a solo career; and drummer Richie Hayward, who went with Little Feat.
What is clear in talking to Nelson, who now has four children (including twin sons) and resides in LA, is that he's an oft-overlooked figure in the history of rock music. When people do discuss his music they tend to bring up his easy-listening hits like "Travelin' Man,” "Fools Rush In” and “Garden Party.” They forget that Nelson could also rock (dig out his 1958 version of the Burnettes “Believe What You Say" and Hank Williams' "My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It"), and was an accepted member of the late-50's rock renaissance.
Nelson’s friends include Presley ("we used to play a lot of football together"), and early rockers like (Cochran arid Gene Vincent.)
"Cochran was a close friend, and so was Vincent. We used to hang out together and ride motorcycles all over the place ... We placed music together-, and I was really fortunate to have been around at the very beginning stages of rock 'n' roll."
Drugs were to take their toll on some of these early rockers, but Nelson steered clear of a similar fate. "I never really got involved with that part of it. When I really knew them well, it was 1957 and 1958, and there really wasn’t a big drug cult back then. That came much later."
Before his involvement with rock, Nelson's love of music had come from his parents. "They met because of music," Rick says. "My Mom was a vocalist, and he had a big band back then called Ozzie and His Orchestra, featuring Harriet Hilliard. They did one-nighters and travelled all over. In fact.. I play a lot of places now that they played." (His father died of cancer six years ago, while his mother still does an occasional TV movie role.)
The young Rick was initially steered into jazz. "I was always playing as a kid ... I had drums, and I used to play brushes to Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson records. I remember my grandmother taking to me to a jaizz concert when I was about 8 years old in Los-Angeles, and I remember seeing Art Blakey, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker and all these people. And I remember sitting there thinking, I can't believe these people get paid for that! I would have paid anything to do that, you know. It just gave me that sort of feeling.”
Nelson's recording career began with Memphis-style rockabilly, but he later branched into everything from Sinatra ballads to country-rock (his late-60's addition of steel guitarist Brumley, who had been on Buck Owens' earlier hits, foreshadowed country-rock even before Graham Parsons and the Byrds added a steel guitar to their landmark "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" LP). But the 1970s were a snakebelt time for Nelson, who hasn't had a major hit since 1972's "Garden Party" and has felt alienated-both from the record industry and from himself. "I really was fishing around," he confesses.
In the past 2 years, Nelson has veered away from country (no more steel guitar in his band) and swung back to rockabilly - the music of his youth. "I've gone back to trying to get the best parts of the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll, which is what I know the most about...
For a while I was going from company to company, and with Epic Records on my last album, everybody had their own idea of what I should sound like, or what I should be doing. But then I went with Capitol, arid they brought up the idea that maybe l should make an auburn that sounds like me. So it's like I’ve come full circle."
The result is the recent "Playing to Win” album, on which he does a remake of his 1958 hit "Believe What You Say" (he's also released it as a single, another sign of coming full circle), and does hard driving versions of John Fogerty's "Almost Saturday Night." The album was produced by Jack Nitzsche – who’s worked with the Rolling Stones and Mink DeVille -. and is the best thing Nelson's done in years. (Some of the recording, though, is muddy; too bad he couldn't release a live version of his Chateau show, which was an exquisitely hot night aided by Memphis guitarist Bobby Neal, whose command of rockabilly was masterful.)
For much of the 1970s, Nelson never felt he had control over his records. "It's really hard to work when you talk to a vice president who's an attorney, and he's telling you that you need more bass on a record. It gets crazy." The clincher came, he adds, when his last company, Epic, financed some Memphis sessions two years ago - sessions that signaled his return to rockabilly - yet tampered with the tapes. After a long postponement, Epic just decided to release a 10-inch EP of four songs from those sessions (including covers of Buddy Holly's "Rave On" and the Elvis hit "That's All Right Momma” but the results outraged Nelson.
"Epic happens to own the tapes, and all of a sudden I come to find - out that someone else has put his name on it as a producer, has wiped off the standup base we used, and has smoothed it all out, which is really a shame. It's like a glossy version of what we did."
Little Ricky, who just happens to have a black.belt in Karate, has obviously grown up. Maybe he's been, too much of a Mr. Nice Guy in his business dealings, he says, but adds, "if anything, I feel now I really know what I want. I feel I can stand up and argue with someone now. Before I was like listening to all these people, and it's a wierd position you can get in. You have so many self-doubts about yourself as to what is the right direction, and you end up making a record company semi-happy, and you end up copping out in a lot of ways. So I just set out not to do that this time."
But business hassles aside, Nelson still loves to perform (he does 200 shows a year), especially when playing in front of kids who don't remember him from his family's TV show.
"It's wonderful when I get a reaction that's similar to when I started." he says.