By Carol Anne Szel
There’s the man, the myth, the legend and, with Ricky Nelson, a musical legacy that will always be revered. And now with his twin sons Matthew and Gunnar Nelson carrying on his music in the form of the “Ricky Nelson Remembered” concerts nationwide, the music lives on.
“We like to say that he was responsible for smuggling rock and roll into mainstream American living rooms at a critical point in rock history,” Gunnar Nelson says of his dad’s years as the boy-next-door, singing son on the long-running “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” television show.
Running from 1952 to 1966, the television show was a huge part of life for families across the country, setting standards and making the Nelsons role models for the nation.
“Our family has had a profound impact on American history and culture,” Gunnar says. “And that’s something that I’m proud of. Our family was just inducted and given a permanent display in the Smithsonian Institute, and it had nothing to do with entertainment, music or television, although it could be. It was for the cultural impact on American history. So that’s pretty intense.”
Indeed. An impact that the teenaged Ricky Nelson brought into households each week with his music, as well as his acting, making an impact on a society that was still skeptical of this new-fangled rock-and-roll sound.
“If you think about it, rock and roll was really at a precarious place, because it was a niche art form until that point. It was considered race music,” Gunnar says. “Rock and roll was rejected mostly in prime-time television, because it was considered music to have sex to. That’s where it came from. Then, you have Ricky Nelson, who people grew up with and was considered everyone’s surrogate little brother, who was part of a surrogate family that they saw every week, and all of a sudden, your little brother is an amazing rock and roller. Elvis turned off a lot of parents, but not Ricky. Elvis turned off some little kids. Ricky didn’t He was the right guy for the job at a crucial time.”
And a record-breaking job he did. Between the time of his first hit in 1957, when his debut album “Ricky” shot up to No. 1, and by 1961, Ricky Nelson had 29 Hot 100 singles, and at only 21 years old had amassed nine gold records. His hit “Travelin’ Man” went to No. 1, selling more than two million singles, and his biggest hit came with “Hello Mary Lou,” which hit No. 1 in 32 countries and sold more than seven million copies worldwide.
“He was a legend,” Matthew Nelson says of his dad. “He was the comeback kid, and he was genuine and extremely talented. I think John Fogerty said it best when he wrote the article for Rolling Stone [the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time].He said [that] admitting Ricky Nelson had talent was like admitting the head cheerleader or the prom queen had a brain. He was one of those rare people that had it all.“
Gunnar agrees. “When you have the John Fogertys of the world all sitting down in front of their TV at the same time, and their brother Ricky up there, rather confidently playing and singing and making all the girls scream, when a little light bulb goes off and he says ‘Man, I’m gonna learn how to play guitar.’ Then we have Creedence Clearwater [Revival] and a whole new generation who was brought up on rock and roll, but our dad was really the guy who was really responsible for that.”
Breaking Frank Sinatra’s record at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, N.J., as 43,000 screaming fans showed up in attendance, Ricky Nelson was often compared to the likes of Elvis at the time, with one exception. Elvis was not widely accepted as the boy next door; he was far from it.