From: "Sound & Music" (April 1981)
Rick Nelson just may be the reigning patriarch of rock. It was not, after all, 17-year-old Ricky Nelson who asked his dad to let him sing on television. No, says Rick today at 4l. it was Ozzie who suggested that Ricky sing "I'm Walkin' ” in May 1957 on the Nelson family's weekly TV show, The Adventure of Ozzie and Harriet. One week later the newly released record had sold a million copies, and Ricky Nelson, who began on radio at age eight and on television at I I and who at 12 was in his first feature film (The Story of Three Loves, with Leslie Caron and Ethel Barrymore), was now a legitimate pop-music star.
But another oft-told story is accurate, he confirms in his setting-the-record mood. Ricky may have always been interested in music (he says he got' his first drum kit when he was 10). but he didn't think of singing until he felt compelled to by the need to impress a girl. He was 17 when a girlfriend mentioned with some fervor that she was mightily taken by a new, exciting singer named Elvis Presley. After that, Rick says that he swiftly found a couple of nice songs ("A Teenager's Romance" and "I'm Walkin' "), put a band together, rented a few hours of studio time and had his single out on Verve Records a week later.
It was certainly a whim with the whiff of destiny behind it: By the time he was 22, Rick had sold 35 million records and had 17 Top 10 hits. And early this year, with the release of his 31st album “Playing to Win” Nelson had expanded these totals to 50 million copies sold of more than 100 combined L.Ps, EPs and singles. When you think about these impressive numbers, it's easy to understand why it has finally begun to dawn on music history historians that Rick Nelson is, in fact, one of the most popular and best-selling pop artists we have.
Clearly, he is one of the most enduring. After all, he has relentlessly kept at it for more than two decades without becoming a relic playing Vegas in a glitter suit. That kind of staying power is remarkable in a business geared to career cycles of only a few years, and it is a staying power affirmed by the interest that major labels (Capitol is his latest) continue to show in him. Some have even called him the-reigning patriarch of rock 'n' roll--an appellation that understandably makes Nelson squirm a little. "I don't know," he protests mildly. "The granddaddy of rock 'n' roll?"
Nelson is a man of few words and fewer boasts, and much or what he offers verbally comes with the sort of "aw, shucks" diffidence that's hardly what you'd expect when a wisecracking kid like the irrepressible Ricky grows up. Nelson claims that he's never thought much of his pioneering music career, yet that's just what it has been when you place it in the context of his times. Maybe Presley was first, but Nelson was the guy who made rock ‘n’ roll all right, acceptable. Elvis was, well, dangerous, but Ricky was Ricky--titillating instead of threatening.
"Yeah," admits Nelson matter-of-factly. "I know when I started singing rock 'n' roll it wasn't exactly accepted. We played a lot of places where they'd never even seen an electric guitar before."
Rockabilly, of course, was hauled out of the South and into the mainstream by Elvis, but Nelson, was just an eager step behind. Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, soon to be recognized as composers of classic rockabilly tunes, cornered Nelson in his driveway when he was 16 and begged him to listen to their songs. He did, and he loved them-at a time when love of such music bordered on the sinful. Nelson later recorded several of the Burnette brothers' songs, including "Believe What You Say" and "It's Late." They became hits.
We tend to forget facts like that about Nelson and dismiss him musically. If we are old enough we tend to identify him with a pleasant family sitcom first on radio and then for 13 years on television. We think of him as the handsome adolescent adored by the girls and picked by John Wayne to star with him in 1958's Rio Bravo.
We forget that he was a buddy of bad-boy seminal rockers such as Elvis, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent and that Life put him on its cover not for his precocious television persona but for his wildly popular music. We tend to forget that:
He was the first to capitalize on the power of television to sell records.
He was the first real "teen idol," the first teenager to emerge as a sex symbol, arguably the inventor of a genre; he was followed by Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Paul Anka, Fabian, and later by the Cassidy brothers, Barry Gibb, Michael Jackson and Leif Garrett.
He was the first mainstream star, in 1966, to explore the possibilities of country music. and his two country albums (Country Fever and Bright Lights and Country Music) are now recognized as landmark works.
He was among the first solo performers to recognize the value of individually superb band members. Among several noteworthy musicians who were in his band and later went on to star on their own were Randy Meisner (later of Poco and the Eagles), Richie Hayward (Little Feat) and virtuoso steel guitarist James Burton.
Perhaps arguably, Nelson was the first to fuse rock with country to produce what we now call country rock, with formation or the Stone Canyon Band in 1969.
Nelson is apparently moderate by temperament, never too enthusiastic, never too depressed. Quite possibly, it is this even, placid nature that has enabled him to endure. His career seems to have mirrored his temperament since superstardom faded in the mid '60s, rarely booming, always maintaining, never plummeting.
It is true that he hasn't maintained his career in the usual flashy pop-star manner, but those are the careers that flame brightly, then abruptly burn out. Instead, Nelson's career may seem a tedious, tidy and self-starting continuum. Year in, year out, he tours with his band, 150 to 200 days on the road each year. Nelson is a very big hit out there where many of us never venture, and the gigs he plays often than not are the huge fairs where he is the major attraction.
He says he loves playing fairs and dotes on appearing in front of so many thousands of people representing so many different generations. In fact, it was at the 1957 Ohio State Fair that his singing career really began.
Sure, Nelson is liked by Middle America, but it would be a mistake to assume that this is his franchise. He plays the key show clubs (the Roxy last February, for example), even when he doesn't have a new album to hype. As it turns out, there is an album every two years or so. In the past 10 years, for example, there have been dozen of singles and four albums: Garden Party (1972), Windfall (1974), Intakes (1977) and Playing to Win (1981).
Nelson is also blessed with the coveted "high TVQ"; television audiences apparently still love him. When he hosted Saturday Night Live a couple of years ago, the show received one of its highest ratings. But he says he doesn't like to do much television, except when he has a record to sell. (At least not that hyping of television. He says he's at the point where another TV series just might appeal to him-as long as it doesn't last 13 years like his previous one did.) Earlier this year when Playing to Win was released, he made appearances on, among others, The Tonight Show, Tomorrow Coast-to-Coast and Good Morning America.
There was also a lip-sync stint on late-night Midnight Special. He wore purple trousers, a silver jacket and running shoes, and he seemed entirely relaxed up there on stage. "He looks exactly he did years ago, man," said a hushed amazed stagehand. Everyone agreed.
Nelson says he never wants to give up his music, and he is as serious about current offerings as he is offhand about past accomplishments (Nelson can’t remember how many gold records he has, those he does have are hung out of sight in a clothes closet). "I love to get up on stage and perform," he says. "There's s thing that happens to me when I sing songs. It's like electricity."
Perhaps a song he sang on the disappointing Intakes album - "Stay Young" - may well contain lyrics the closest thing Rick Nelson will have to a personal anthem:
Stay young, keep your wheels in motion
You've got everything that you need,
Stay young with your rock and rolling
Don't let them tell you it's not for you
Don't go growin' old before you're due.