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.