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.
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.”
“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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