But Ricky was, for all intents and purposes, just that. On the television screen, at least.
“My dad used to get into fights all the time,” Gunnar says. “Well, he didn’t mean to … but here is this beautiful guy who was on TV, and if he were out and about on a date or just hanging out minding his own business, there was always some loudmouth guy that was jealous who would try to start something. And he’d knock them out. Yeah, he was pretty tough.”
He continues: “That whole archetypical image of a television set being thrown out of a window in a high-rise by some rocker, that was my dad. He was hanging out with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. My dad always said he was a closet greaser. He was a gang member when he was in high school. He was a member of The Rooks, and those guys used to go out and tear it up and ride their Triumphs all over, their motorcycles, all over Hollywood.”
“Our dad’s whole thing was hit first, hit fast and get the hell out of there. So he was actually down in Hollywood hanging out with some friends and someone grabbed him from behind on the shoulder to turn him around. My dad didn’t even think, just lashed out and knocked out the person who had grabbed him, who turned out to be a cop! So he panicked, and he got in his car and he hauled ass back to the Nelson house to find the entire Hollywood police force sitting there on the front lawn being served coffee by Harriet. And the sergeant was like, ‘Yeah, Rick, like we don’t know where YOU live?’ And, of course, Ozzie intervened, and it was all a mistake, and everything was fine.”
And what of his father’s squeaky clean onscreen image vs. his real life antics?
“That would have been closer to truth of a real Nelson episode,” he said.
Seemingly angelic on the show, Ricky really was, Gunnar emphasizes. “You can imagine being the angelic, beautiful Ricky and being there in real life. He probably got a lot of heat from a lot of the guys. Certainly not from the girls!”
Television character aside, Ricky Nelson was always about the music. In Europe, in fact, he was not known for his onscreen persona at all. His huge success was found exclusively in his No. 1 hit songs.
“In England and Europe,” Matthew Nelson says, “they didn’t get the Ozzie and Harriet show, and he was just as famous for nothing more than the music. So there was never that strange albatross that he had in the states where critics said ‘Oh, [his career] was just made from TV success.’ It wasn’t at all; it was his music.”
The Nelson family tree, in fact, is traced back for generations of entertainers in this family, which continues with Gunnar and Matthew, who today carry on their dad’s musical legacy performing in nationwide shows called “Ricky Nelson Remembered.”
“This is an emotional show for me,” Matthew confesses. “This is my church, and I’m up there and I’m believing and feeling everything I’m singing. It’s real to me.”
Gunnar chimes in: “We felt honored to follow in those footsteps, and we had some pretty big shoes to fill — 200 million singles and having all those number ones. But I think the thing that’s really more important, you know, a lot of people kind of turn their careers into a sound bite, depending on how many sales they have. What I’m talking about here is that the family has had a profound impact on American history and culture that really transcends something as trivial as sales.”
But for Ricky, it was more than Americana or televised entertainment or doing the “right thing.” It did come down to the music. And with many international fan clubs and Web pages dedicated to Ricky, one super fan — and a Ricky Nelson historian of sorts — Kent McCombs says, “Ricky made himself happy with the music he chose to do throughout his career, and his true fans followed. Anyone I’ve ever talked to about Ricky has always mentioned Elvis in the same sentence. I think that says it all.”
“Be songwriters first and foremost,” Gunnar says, repeating, perhaps, the best piece of advice ever given by his dad. “That actually saved us years and years of anguish and frustration.”
Taking the cue from their father, singers Matthew and Gunnar have had their own success over the last 20-plus years as the band Nelson, with two top 10 hits in 1990-91 with their singles “After The Rain” and “(I Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection.”
“Our job, I think, is a noble one,” Gunnar confesses. “It’s going to take people away from their problems, whether or not it’s for a 15-minute radio broadcast or a two-hour rock concert with the lasers and the pyro and the whole thing, or with [just] acoustic guitar, playing a song. Our job has mostly been to communicate with people. I always said that the Nelson family has never been in the entertainment business, we’ve been in the connection business. And when we’re doing what we do best, and we’re not being swayed by what is hip and cool at the time but what’s coming from our heart, then we actually do help people get connected with their emotions and with each other and with us.”
Telling me they never feel any pressure to follow in their dad’s footsteps musically, Gunnar and Matthew relate that with their dad, pressure was something that always stayed on the forefront of his career. With him, however, it was broadcast-wise.
“I’m sure that he definitely would have had an easier time with the acceptance of just a bona fide rock star if he hadn’t had to spend so much time and so many years on a television show making sure that everybody still had a job,” Gunnar insists. “I mean there was a letter sent out by the head of the network a few years into the show’s run saying if Ricky quits the show, we’re canceling Ozzie & Harriet. And so he definitely knew he had to stay. But he definitely would have had an easier time as a rocker if he had been able to focus on that full time rather than just being able to go out on the weekends when he wasn’t filming and do his touring.”