Story and interview by Don Wilcock
When I told my 29-year-old stepdaughter Tenneal how excited I was that I’d interviewed Rick Nelson’s son Gunnar – who headlines with his twin brother Matthew in the tribute show “Ricky Nelson Remembered” at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Friday night – she gave me a blank look and asked, “Who’s Rick Nelson?”
Even though Nelson was second only to Elvis Presley as the highest-selling singer in rock and roll from the years 1957 to ’62 with 53 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, he’s received only a tiny fraction of the recognition the King of Rock and Roll gets. Life Magazine coined the term “teen idol” for him, and rock and roll guitar great James Burton recorded exclusively with Ricky for 12 years before he joined Presley’s band.
Ricky was the younger son in television’s first family reality show that started on radio in 1952 and ran on the ABC-TV network with 435 half-hour episodes until its cancellation in 1966. Produced by Rick’s dad Ozzie Nelson, himself a musician who had scored a Number One hit in 1934 with his big band number “And Then Some,” the popular situation comedy featured the whole family, Ozzie; his wife, Harriet; older brother David; and Ricky who started performing on the show in 1957.
As popular as Ricky was in the ’50s, he was often dismissed by the music establishment of the day as being an Elvis wannabe riding on the coattails of his family’s TV show. To make matters worse, when he did establish a more unique contemporary sound with his country rock band the Stone Canyon Band in the late ’60s he was booed at a now infamous Madison Square Garden concert dedicated to oldies when he failed to perform his ’50s hits in favor of his newer material. He wrote about the incident in one of his few self-penned songs called “Garden Party,” which became the hit that most people today associate with him.
His sons Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, who will pay tribute to their dad’s early hits in Friday’s show, ran into similar criticism from rock critics in 1990 when they became teen idols performing as Nelson and scored hits with a sound that was much softer than the blues-oriented hard rock of other bands of that decade like Guns N’ Roses. Today, Gunnar says Nelson was not concocted to attract young teens but rather was an attempt to create a more contemporary Hollies sound that he now recognizes in retrospect was influenced by his dad’s combination of rock and roll and smooth balladeering with the Stone Canyon Band.
In our interview, Gunnar revealed the respect that indie producer Sam Phillips of Sun Records had for his dad early on. He says that Dick Clark felt that Rick’s appearance on “Ozzie and Harriet” paved the way for ABC to put his local Philadelphia TV show “American Bandstand” on network television. And perhaps most jaw-dropping is Gunnar’s view of his father’s controversial death in a plane accident on New Year’s Eve in 1985, a catastrophe he says came to his father in a premonition resulting in his withdrawal of an invitation he had previously tendered to his sons to be on the plane with him.
Q: I know you weren’t around then, but you’ve probably heard a lot of people talking about it, and I’m interested in your perspective on the role that your grandmother and father played in making rock and roll okay for the masses, because in 1956 when your father started playing rock and roll on TV there was no other TV show doing that kind of thing. I mean Ed Sullivan would show rock and roll artists after Presley, but really “American Bandstand” started on the same network that your grandfather and grandmother were on. How much credit do you think your father deserves in terms of bringing rock and roll to the masses and making it okay to listen to that kind of music?
A: Wow. It’s amazing that you mention “American Bandstand.” I had a conversation with Mr. (Dick) Clark before he passed, and he gave Ozzie and Harriet the main credit for “American Bandstand” actually winding up on a network. If our dad hadn’t begun playing music on the show when he did, and the network had not had an example of how positive it could be and also have another guinea pig I suppose it kind of like withstood all the chaff from the public blow-back that Ozzie and Harriet did, that they never would have signed “American Bandstand” to the same network. It would have just wound up being a little regional show because you’re right.
I mean because back in the day they couldn’t even call it rock and roll, and they had to call it rhythm ’n’ blues. It was kind of a perfect storm because Ozzie and Harriet, first and foremost, if you read Ozzie’s biography – his autobiography, actually – it’s really apparent, man. Despite the fact that he actually pioneered so many things in television, he viewed himself as a musician first and foremost. I mean it’s really clear.
Back in that particular day business-wise the whole view was “free milk and a cow.” (It was thought that if) the kids could see the music performed for free on TV that they wouldn’t go down and buy the records, and now we have “American Idol.” I mean Ricky Nelson was the first guy to really utilize the power of television to market music to create that paradigm, and he was also the fist kid that actually went out there, the first middle American kid when it was kind of viewed as race music. He went out there and said, “I love this music,” and the parents really didn’t publicly stand by him, and they got a lot of hate mail when that whole thing happened.
I mean all the haters were really barking up the wrong tree. I’m proud of the fact that it was Ozzie and Harriet who very publicly put their foot down and said, ‘Hey, man, this is okay,’ and “that’s fine.” In the video collection called Ricky Nelson Sings, one of my favorite quotes was from the executive producer that put that whole thing together, and my friend Bob said, “Pat Boone turned off a lot of kids. Ricky didn’t. Elvis turned off an awful lot of parents. Ricky didn’t.” He was one of these guys who just by being himself was in the right place at the right time and had the courage to really see the whole thing through.
Q: Sam Phillips is one of my idols, and in some of the material I got on you, it talks about Sam Phillips. I’m quoting here that your father, “As big as he was, he didn’t get the recognition he deserved,” and I’ve always felt that way. I felt that way when I went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and saw the display on your dad, and I wondered if you’d ever gotten a chance to talk to Sam Phillips about his attitude toward your dad.
A: I did. We actually were doing some work with Elvis Presley Enterprises before Sam died, and we had a chance to hook up with Sam at the Elvis Restaurant down there for an evening, and we talked about all kinds of stuff. He said a bunch of stuff to me that, “You know, we tried to get your dad on Sun back in the day, but obviously air travel was not what it is nowadays, and your dad was filming the show five days a week. So, physically your dad could not get out here to Memphis to record and to get back in time to actually film the show.” So that was kind of a non-starter.
So he wound up making his records out there in California at night after he worked during the day on the TV set. He would go into Sunset Sound, and he and my grandfather would actually sit down and dad would (start pinch hitting) from the hip and making music they wanted to hear, and really kind of making up the rules as he went. Sam said, “No bones about it. All of us Sun guys, as soon as a new Ricky Nelson single would come out, we’d be running down to the store like all the other kids, buying the single to see what the California kid was doing in relative seclusion up there in California because his records sounded very different than our formula out here. But they were just as vital, and we were just as interested to hear what he was up to as all the other kids.”
Q: How did he and James Burton get together?
A: James had just come out of Bob Luman’s band, and the TV show that James was on had just gotten cancelled, which was “Louisiana Hayride.” Our dad actually met Joe Osborn first at the music publisher’s office, and the timing was perfect because the first gig our dad ever did was at a state fair. The first single had just blown up, and they were gonna book him at a state fair, and at that point he didn’t have a band. He was concerned about it. He talked to the promoter, and the promoter said, “No problem. We have a professional band here ready to back you up, and you’re gonna do great. Just show up with your guitar.”
And our dad showed up, and he went into his first song, “I’m Walkin’,” and he heard this marching drum, this marching music behind him, and he turned around, and the promoter had actually picked up the local Salvation Army Band. And at that moment he just kind of said, “Man, I’ve got to get my own band together. I gotta do this for real.” He was actually at the music publisher’s two days later and ran into Joe Osborn, who was very good friends with James.
They got into a conversation about the whole thing, and our dad was really familiar with James from his work on the “Hayride,” and Ozzie was so impressed with James, basically he signed James to a seven-year exclusive contract and gave him a bedroom in the Nelson family house. I mean, James actually lived in the Nelson house as an honorary Nelson boy for seven years.
Q: Wow, I think its very telling that your father worked with James Burton for seven years before Elvis Presley ever got a hold of him.
A: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. James was – and is – the man. I mean, he’s the first guitar hero for a reason. I mean the guy is so freakin’ good, even to this day. I love being in a room with James and seeing the Eddie Van Halens of the world being reduced to children in front of him for a reason. The guy is incredibly humble.
A: He’s forgotten more about guitar than any of us will ever learn.
Here’s what’s really telling. Matt and I were on tour about two years ago with Bobby Vee’s kids doing this show, and we found ourselves at a Waffle House in the middle of Nowhere, America. So we got into a conversation about the early records and how they were recorded. As a producer, I sat there and said, “Listen, there is absolutely no way that those guys went into the studio and recorded this stuff – given the limitations of the technology they had – without rehearsing these things out thoroughly.”
And Tommy Vee said, “That’s not true. My dad said that he was told they literally went in and did it off the cuff.” And I said, “Let’s settle it.” I picked up the phone. I’ve got James on my speed dial, and I asked him, and James said, “Well, you know back in the day you basically had two tracks. You had one that the band played on around the microphone and a second one that all the singing was on. And that was it.” I said, “That was it?” He said, “We just went in and we did it.” (I said) “You never heard these songs before?” “Never! We just kind of went in and jammed it out.” “You mean to tell me the solo for “Hello, Mary Lou” – one of the most perfect guitar solos – was something you just did on the fly?” He said, “Yeah, it was different every time.”
Q: Is it true you were supposed to be on the flight that killed your dad?
A: Yeah, it was.
Q: What happened?
A: We hadn’t actually flown the DC3 yet. It’s strange ’cause he was really scared of flying his whole life. He really didn’t like it. He really didn’t like flying, but then he actually got talked into flying – he called it the flying bus, Jerry Lee Lewis’ old plane. The selling point was it was a DC3, statistically speaking the safest plane ever made if you actually look at hours in the air, as opposed to incidents, the single safest plane. And also he loved the fact that the plane flew so slowly that if all the engines went out you could glide it in for a landing. So he loved that plane. He really did, and he was telling us all the time it got him double the amount of work because he could actually go in to these small towns and stuff and pick up a date here that he just physically couldn’t do when he was flying commercially. And he loved the fact that the band was getting to be together.
He’d had it for about eight months or so, and he had a tour that he had to do. Mom needed the alimony, so she said, and stuff, so he didn’t really want to go out for that New Year’s gig, but he put it together anyways. I guess she was gonna spend New Year’s Eve with us, and he wanted us to fly into Huntsville, Alabama, see that show there at PJ’s Alley, and then jump on the plane with the band to Dallas, so we could actually get to enjoy New Year’s with him, which would have been great.
We were looking forward to it, and I’ve heard a couple different stories. All I know, the end result was the day before I was supposed to leave, I’d already told all of our friends we wouldn’t be able to go to all of their New Year’s parties and all that stuff with them. We were going to be hanging out with our dad, and they all knew that. I got a call from my pop. He said, “Look, I’ve been thinking about it. I want you guys to fly commercial into Dallas and meet us there. I don’t want you to actually fly into Alabama.”
And I got a little salty with him, and I said, “Pop, the whole point with this was that we were actually going to get to ride on the plane.” He said, “Yeah, I know. But I’ve been rethinking that whole thing. I do want to spend time with you, but it’s gonna have to be commercial.” I said, “Well, you’re gonna be back home in a couple of days. You’re back on the second. So, if that’s the case, it seems like a lot of wear and tear. I’m just gonna hang out with our friends, and we’ll see you on the second.”
And so that was what it was. I did not know they actually had some engine trouble the day before. The plane had been grounded and worked on, and I think our dad had a little bit of an honest premonition. But it was that phone call that saved our lives. And when the plane went down, all of our friends, well, the last thing they had heard was we were going down to meet our dad and go to the New Year’s party with him on the plane.
Q: Oh, my God.
A: So, for two or three days, all of our friends thought we were actually in the incident. It’s important to note that plane never crashed. You know that, right?
A: No, the plane never crashed. They landed the plane. The plane burned up on the ground. There was no crash about it. They say a whole conspiracy of events has to come together exactly right in order for the air disaster to occur. You take one little moment, one little incident, and it won’t go down the same way. And it was just like this perfect storm that happened. I mean they went to land on a country road, and there was a woman in a station wagon who froze on the road, and they had to come back around again. If they’d been able to land, the first time everybody would have been able to get out. Everybody died of smoke inhalation.
And so little things – like the plane was built during World War II. There was a shortage of aluminum. So that particular plane was made out of half aluminum and half magnesium, which is what they tip books of matches with. And the seat fabric on there when it was refurbished was that horrible Pan Am pink nylon sort of stuff you don’t see anymore, and the reason for that is when it ignites it actually creates a cyanide gas.
The thing that makes me sad is that drug use had nothing to do with this tragedy. I mean absolutely nothing to do with it, and it’s all public record and knowledge.
We lost our best friend and our surrogate family because the band, they were our brothers. So we lost all our guys, and the press was being really irresponsible and starting all kinds of rumors. Then, of course, when the truth finally came out, that was page 30 news, that was back pages news. That wasn’t front page news because it didn’t sell papers. Every now and again I’ll get somebody come and ask me, “Hey, man, I love your dad. It was just such a shame that drugs caused that plane crash,” and I have to sit ’em down. I stop the autograph line and pull them aside, and I patiently explain what really happened.
The tragedy about that whole thing is that it’s overshadowed the fact that our father truly lived and died for music… and for his fans. Up until the day he died, he was bringing the music, and he was playing it like he played it (when) he was 16 years old. That same kind of joy, that same kind of passion. And that same kind of spirit that keeps all of us musicians going all of these years – whether you’re a blues legend or a pop star – is that folks need to be entertained, and the show must go on in the middle of all that stuff.
We’re all professionals, and when it really comes down to it – when it really comes down to our personal needs, our family, our relationships, all of that – the show must go on. That makes me really proud. My dad died with his boots on, and he died doing what he loved, and he found a way of doing what he loved doing, and here we are all these years later.
I mean he wasn’t around for our early success. Every single night I take to the stage, I play it like it could be my last because it very well could be. It’s not to be morbid or anything like that. I just feel honored to be part of such a huge tradition, a long-standing tradition and not just with my family.
I feel like we’re brothers out there. We’re soldiers, and we’re fighting this same fight. It’s nice actually looking back and realizing the reason why the “Ricky Nelson Remembered” show even came to be was because we were playing for a bunch of soldiers and doing that happily. And we’ll continue to do stuff like that because we all know what it feels like to be away from the ones we love, doing what we were born to do.