Cover story: Rick Nelson was more than just another pretty face

Being the protective, image-conscious father he was, Ozzie Nelson took great pains to groom his son, Ricky, as a clean-cut, all-American teen idol in the white-washed, conservative 1950s.
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Being the protective, image-conscious father he was, Ozzie Nelson took great pains to groom his son, Ricky, as a clean-cut, all-American teen idol in the white-washed, conservative 1950s.

Always the dutiful son, Ricky tried to respect his father’s wishes when it came to overseeing his music career, even if he didn’t always see eye to eye with the old man.

Things came to a head with “Gloomy Sunday.” Intrigued by its unusual chord progressions, according to Ian Cooke, a family friend of the Nelsons, Ricky badly wanted to cut a version himself and put it out.

Ozzie, the family patriarch who built an entertainment empire around the hit TV series “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” had his objections.

“Ozzie didn’t want him to do it,” recalls Cooke. “He said, ‘Rick, you’re such a popular kid, and this is a song about suicide. We’re afraid kids will go out and commit suicide.’ And Rick said, ‘Oh, no. I’m going to do it.’ And Ozzie said, ‘No, you’re not.’ He said, ‘That’s not coming out.’”

While Ozzie may have won the battle, it was Rick who won the war.

Originally recorded in 1958, Rick’s “Gloomy Sunday” remained in the vaults until 2000, when the Rick Nelson — Legacy box set was released by Capitol Records.

“[Rick] was under so much pressure, because there were other songs he wanted to do, and Ozzie would say, ‘Son, those don’t fit the image of our show,’” says Cooke. “So, the show was a blessing and a curse, because he wanted to do ‘Gloomy Sunday.’ I mean, I would imagine if critics had heard him doing ‘Gloomy Sunday’ way back then, they would have said, ‘Hey, this guy is good.’” And perhaps, Rick wouldn’t have had to fight so hard to escape the stigma of being a teen idol and gain credibility as an artist.

Who knows if Nelson’s career would have suffered horrible repercussions had the song seen the light of day during his golden period, spanning the years 1957 to 1962, an era that saw him infiltrate the Top 40 an astounding 30 times with his soft, sincere ballads and a sunny, easygoing kind of pop-rockabilly that could, on occasion, turn rowdy and raucous.

Perhaps nothing would have come of it. Whatever the case, it’s all pure speculation. What the whole episode does prove is this: For all his wholesome qualities, his quiet way and all the pressure that comes with being adored by millions and living up to their expectations, Nelson was willing to risk it all to do a song he felt strongly about.

“[He recorded that] when he was 18, 19 years old,” says Cooke. “That was pretty hip, considering we’re talking about teenagers from the ’50s.”

Just picture it: Rick Nelson could have been the Ozzy Osbourne or Judas Priest of his day had the suicide solution of “Gloomy Sunday” — a song most closely linked to Billie Holiday — influenced some impressionable teenager in the ‘50s to off himself. Luckily, that never happened.



The making of a teen idol

Much has been made over the years of the relationship between Ozzie and Rick. To hear Jimmie Haskell, Rick’s longtime record producer, tell it, the two had what he characterizes as &ldq

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