“He was human,” Gunnar says. “He had a lot of pressure placed on him. He was always reminded from the time he was very small that if he quit the show or if he violated his morals clause with the network that 50 people were going to be out of work and their families couldn’t eat. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on somebody who is 16 years old.”
And with this sudden television fame came other issues, one being a stunned American viewing audience who had never seen or heard rock and roll music in any form, as it was considered something that was back room and banned from middle America.
“They actually did get a lot of hate mail when dad started to sing rock and roll on the show, and they addressed it one of the episodes. Harriet gave this little speech and it really squashed it,” explains Gunnar.
He goes on to say, “I mean what a lot of the parents didn’t know … Harriet was hip. She was singing at the Cotton Club when she was 16.
They met when Ozzie had a big band, and they were on tour and he had heard about Harriet singing at the Cotton Club and he went down there and saw her and met her later at Sardi’s. She just had this really good feeling about him, and the rest is history.”
Mainstream Americans accepted Harriet’s take on welcoming rock and roll into their living rooms through Ricky’s music each week on the show
“When parents were attacking their son Ricky later on for playing rock and roll or the devil’s music or whatever they were saying, I mean, they were messing with the wrong parents! After Harriet’s speech about it, they didn’t get any hate mail after that. I think people saw that if it was cool enough for Harriet and if Harriet wasn’t worried, I think a lot of people were able to exhale and say ‘Well, maybe my kid is not gonna turn out to be a dopehead, after all.’ You know?”
Gunnar and Matthew carry on the incredible catalog of music that their father bestowed on the world through their “Ricky Nelson
Remembered” shows. As Matthew says, “The reason we do the Ricky Nelson Remembered show is genuinely out of love. We do it because we want to do it, not because we have to do it. People feel it; they sense it, like you mentioned you felt when you saw us play live. And that’s real; that’s a genuine thing. Not only because he deserved to have his flag waved for him, but more than anything because we are the finished product of what he was here on this earth for in the first place.”
“I mean, he could rock with the best of them. On some of those things it felt like he was singing through you. I don’t really think I have that; I have my own thing, where there are kind of echoes in a little bit of what I do. I’m not trying to be him when I sing a song. I’m just trying to interpret, and it’s like from another generation but you hear echoes of him in what I do. If I just copy him, then I’m not doing my job.”
Carrying on Ricky Nelson’s music is what it’s all about, Gunnar adds. “We actually have several records. We have one album that is a live record from 1975 or 1976, when he was in the Stone Canyon Band. It’s fantastic; we will definitely be releasing those in the next few years.”
And there are more tunes in the vault, Matthew says. “There are two albums I’ve been sitting on, but one in particular that I really believe in a lot: A live recording from 1977 at the Sahara in Lake Tahoe. And we found in the vault, two 24-track masters, which was state-of-the art for its time, of these shows, and they are fantastic. I actually mixed one of the songs that was included in his box set for Capitol; it was a cover of “Truck Driving Man,” a Buck Owens song. That song gives you a taste of what the whole album will be. It’s unbelievable, so good.”
So it is said that the best are carried on for generations and generations of musical aficionados, and so is the case with the timeless work of Ricky Nelson.
“He would be proud,” Matthew says of his dad’s legacy. “I just think about how unbelievably fortunate I am to have that, and we feel privileged to carry it on.”
Special thanks to Kent McCombs in his help with this article.
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