I get no rest when I’m feeling weary,
I’ve got to pack my bags and go.
I’ve got to be somewhere tomorrow
To smile and do my show.
--Rick Nelson’s hit song “Teenage Idol”
At 45, perpetual teen rocker Rick Nelson had decided he would get off the county fair circuit in 1986 and make a comeback of sorts with a new single, a record album and a television special that was scheduled to begin airing this month.
The New Year’s Eve crash of his DC-3 charter, en route to Dallas from Guntersville, Ala., ended those plans. The teen idol who grew up on television and became a pop music has-been before his 25th birthday died, along with his fiancee, Helen Blair, and five members of his Stone Canyon Band.
“He was Ricky who became Rick and who ended by becoming Ricky all over again,” said Jimmie Haskell, the original Imperial Records music arranger who helped Nelson produce a string of nine Top 10 hit songs in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
Although Nelson enjoyed some minor success with a country version of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” in 1969 and the 1972 song “Garden Party,” he never dropped his original repertoire. According to some of his critics, he became a musical anachronism, unable to abandon the handful of hits that, as he prophetically sang in 1959, made “people call me a teen-age idol.”
On Sunday, during his last show at the 240-seat P .J.'s Lounge in Guntersville, Nelson and his band performed for an hour. The club is owned by Pat Upton, a drummer for Nelson’s band from 1981 through 1984.
“Rick played Saturday night and did two shows and one more on Sunday,” said Gene Pledger, a musician in Upton’s house band. “He did all the old ones: ‘Hello Mary Lou’ and ‘Garden Party’ and ‘Travelin’ Man.’ That’s what all his fans want to hear because that’s all the stuff he’s famous for.”
Ironically, “Garden Party” is a song about how Nelson sang his own choices and not necessarily the old hits that his audience demanded because “you can’t please everyone so you’ve got to please yourself.”
Thirteen years later, that mild protest against audience tyranny had become just as much an “oldie” hit in his repertoire as “Be Bop Baby” or “Lonesome Town.”
Despite an almost constant touring presence over the last two decades, Nelson never topped the commercial success of that unprecedented string of short, simple adolescent love songs that included “Poor Little Fool” and his best-selling song of all, “Travelin’ Man.”
It was enough, however, to make him one of the most popular recording stars of all time.
“In terms of commercial success, he had 53 chart hits in his career which makes him one of the 10 most prolific hit makers of the rock era,” said Billboard magazine’s chart-watcher columnist Paul Grein.
Musically, Nelson fell somewhere between the gritty rock of his chief role model, Elvis Presley, and the crooning pop sound of Pat Boone.
“As teen idols go, he had more credibility than the ones who followed him, like Frankie Avalon and Fabian (Forte),” Grein said.
Entertainer Gary Owens, who first met Nelson in 1957 while Owens was a disc jockey on St. Louis radio station WIL, said Nelson was among the first to prove the marketing power of television.
Hit TV Show
“The show, ‘The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,’ was a top-rated sitcom when, suddenly, they got the good-looking younger son to sing at the end of the program and the record just took off,” Owens said.
On April 10, 1957, the episode entitled “Ricky the Drummer” featured the 17-year-old real-life younger son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson singing his version of the 1955 Fats Domino hit, “I’m Walkin’,” according to Ozzie Nelson’s autobiography. The record sold a million copies in a week.
Six weeks later, the younger Nelson had a five-year contract with Imperial Records, paying him $1,000 a week against royalties and giving him control over all publicity, advertising, album artwork and song selection--a record deal that even now Haskell calls “unbelievable.”
“Ricky was the same clean-cut kid you saw on TV,” Haskell said. “His contribution was to make rock ‘n’ roll good, tasteful music with a wonderful beat at a time when it had a bad reputation.”
One of those who gave it that reputation, Richard (Little Richard) Penniman, was among those who mourned Nelson’s loss Wednesday.
“The world has lost a great guy, great son, great father and a great entertainer,” Penniman said.
Penniman said Nelson wanted him to join him on a 21-date tour of California cities in a ‘50s rock revival last fall, but the popularizer of such hits as “Lucille” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” declined. Penniman, a born-again Christian, wanted to sing only gospel and Nelson wanted him to sing his old rhythm and blues hits, he said.
“And thank the Lord because I might’ve been on that plane,” Penniman said.
Antoine (Fats) Domino did join Nelson on that tour, beginning last August in Sacramento. The tour ended in September and the two artists went their separate ways.
David Bartholomew, a member of Domino’s band and co-author of Nelson’s first hit song, “I’m Walkin’,” recalled how entertainers like Nelson actually opened doors for black musicians by “covering” their original recordings: rerecording for white audiences hit songs that had originally sold to a primarily black audience during the segregated 1950s.
Pat Boone, for example, covered Little Richard’s “Lucille” and Nelson covered Domino’s “I’m Walkin’.”
Helped Domino’s Career
“We loved that,” Bartholomew said. “It was like a major shot in the arm to Domino’s career. That’s when his record sales just really took off. Last August during the show, Fats leaned over to Rick when he was comin’ on stage and told him: ‘Rick, can you cover another one of my songs so I can retire?’ Of course, that ain’t going to happen now.”
A one-hour television special, featuring Domino and Nelson during a taping of their ‘50s revival show at the Universal Amphitheater last Aug. 22, was to air this month on 143 stations nationwide. The program has been recalled by Nelson’s manager, Greg McDonald. It will be re-edited as a tribute to Nelson and rescheduled for broadcast later this year.
An album was also in the works, according to Haskell. All that will result from four months of work, however, will probably be a single entitled “You Know What I Mean,” Haskell said.