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Ricky Nelson

Rick Nelson was one of the very biggest of the '50s teen idols, so it took awhile for him to attain the same level of critical respectability as other early rock greats. Yet now the consensus is that he made some of the finest pop/rock recordings of his era. Sure, he had more promotional push than any other rock musician of the '50s; no, he wasn't the greatest singer; and yes, Elvis, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, and others rocked harder. But Nelson was extraordinarily consistent during the first five years of his recording career, crafting pleasant pop-rockabilly hybrids with ace session players and projecting an archetype of the sensitive, reticent young adult with his accomplished vocals. He also played a somewhat underestimated role in rock & roll's absorption into mainstream America -- how bad could rock be if it was featured on one of America's favorite family situation comedies on a weekly basis?

Nelson entered professional entertainment before his tenth birthday, when he appeared with father Ozzie (once a jazz musician), mother Harriet, and brother David on a radio comedy series based around the family. By the early '50s, the series was on television, and Ricky grew into a teenager in public. He was just the right age to have his life turned around by rock & roll in 1956 and started his recording career almost accidentally the following year. The story's sometimes been told that he had no professional singing ambitions until he recorded his debut single to impress a girlfriend. The single, a cover of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'" that went to number four, was helped immensely (as all of his early singles would be) by plugs on the Ozzie & Harriet TV show.

So far the script was adhering to the Pat Boone teen idol prototype -- a whitewash of an R&B hit stealing the thunder from the pop audience, sung by a young, good-looking fella with barely any musical experience to speak of. What happened next was easy to predict commercially but surprisingly satisfying musically as well. Nelson was a fairly hip kid who preferred the rockabilly of Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley to the fodder dished out for teen idols, and over the next five years he would offer his own brand of rockabilly music, albeit one with some smooth Hollywood production touches and occasional pure pop ballads. Nelson recruited one of the greatest early rock guitarists, James Burton, to supply authentic licks (another great guitarist, Joe Maphis, played on some early sides). Some of his best and toughest songs ("Believe What You Say," "It's Late") were written by Johnny and/or Dorsey Burnette, who had previously been in one of the best rockabilly combos, the Johnny Burnette Rock 'n Roll Trio. Ricky could rock pretty hard when he wanted to, as on "Be-Bop Baby" and "Stood Up," though in a polished fashion that wasn't quite as wild and threatening as rockabilly's Southern originators.

Nelson really hit his stride, though, with mid-tempo numbers and ballads that provided a more secure niche for his calm vocals and narrow range. From 1957 to 1962, he was about the highest-selling singer in the U.S. except for Elvis, making the Top 40 about 30 times. "Poor Little Fool" and "Lonesome Town" (1958) were early indications of his ballad style; in the early '60s, "Travelin' Man," "Young World," "Teen Age Idol," and other hits pointed to a more countrified, mature style as he honed in on his 21st birthday (by which time he would shorten his billing from "Ricky" to "Rick"). He could still play rockabilly from time to time, the most memorable example being "Hello, Mary Lou" (co-written by Gene Pitney), with its electrifying James Burton solos.

Nelson was lured away from the Imperial label by a mammoth 20-year contract with Decca in 1963 (which would be terminated prematurely in the mid-'70s), and for a year or so the hits continued, at a less frenetic pace. Early-1964's "For You," however, would be his last big smash of the '60s. The fault wasn't all the Beatles and changing music trends -- on both singles and albums, much of the material was either substandard pop or dusty Tin Pan Alley standards, although isolated tracks still generated some sparks. He wasn't exactly starving, as he continued to appear on Ozzie and Harriet. But by the mid-'60s even that institution was declining in popularity, leading to its cancellation in 1966.

Nelson had a strong country feel to much of his material from the beginning, and by the late '60s it was becoming dominant. He covered straight country material by the likes of Willie Nelson and Doug Kershaw and formed one of the earliest country-rock groups, the Stone Canyon Band, with musicians who had played (or would play) with Poco, Buck Owens, Little Feat, and Roger McGuinn. A cover of Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me" made the Top 40 in 1970, but his country-rock outings attracted more critical acclaim than commercial success, until 1972's "Garden Party." A rare self-composed number, based around the frosty reception granted his contemporary material at a rock & roll oldies show, it became his last Top Ten hit.

Nelson would continue to record off and on for the next dozen years and toured constantly, yet he was unable to capitalize on his assets. A big part of the problem was that although Nelson wanted to play contemporary music, he didn't write much of his own material, which was a basic precept of self-respecting rock acts after the advent of the Beatles. Nor did he tap into good outside compositions, and there's little of interest on the albums he recorded over the last decade or so of his life. He died (along with his fiancée) in a private plane crash on December 31, 1985, on his way to a New Year's Eve gig in Dallas, at the age of 45. ~ Richie Unterberger, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography

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Track List: For You: The Decca Years 1963-1969

Disc 1
Disc 2
Disc 3
Disc 4
Disc 5
Disc 6

Comments

marvins39
underrated, great rocker. saw the tribute show about a yr. ago. w/his twin sons. very touching show
It's late ---- we're about to run out of gas
I hope you're comfortable wherever you are. REST IN PEACE RICK! Love from Joey
Ricky. Have. A. . Lot. Of Great. Song. On. His. Albums
ssapler
God bless Rick.
He was a Handsome man.
bevbevan
The impeccable James Burton on guitar
I have always loved ricky handsome and a great singer
dlknobloch
String Along never mentioned, ever. Great, if simple little song
love ricky what pretty eyes
Since I don't have you - oh no Ricky, this song is not for you - you're better than this.
Travelin' man - Ricky's one artist where only his original versions should be played, these later re-recording s done merely to capture new recording techniques don't do it for me - originals only please Pandora.
It's Up To You is an amazing song, direct, no clutter, and a sincere delivery.
Garden Party, sweet revenge
I saw Nelson with the Stone Canyon Band around 1980 or 81. He was great, professional & laid back and put on a good show. RIP
Oh my.....I would sit 1" from the TV when Ricky started singing at the end of "Ozzie & Harriet" & cry like a fool....that ' s what we did back then ;)
i love this travelin man!! those eyes
one of the great Rock N rollers
latingeek
Wonderful wonderful singer with the eyes of a man with a good heart :)
Elvis never took James Burton from Rick Nelson.
brg1124
poor little fools
i am in love
Rick Nelson got his start because of his parents but quickly showed the listening public that he deserved it. I still enjoy his music.
kvons1
Ozzie & Harriet----- - - - - - t h i s only goes back a FEW years! RIP: Rick
Rick Nelson still rocks!!!11
He had a voice well suited for his stlye of soft rock. and what a nice looking young man to go with it. Tragedy he left us so young can you imagine his oldies tour today .
HIM AND HIS MUSIC ARE WELL MISSED!
Does anyone know how Elvis liked Rick Nelson's style and wished he'd been able to do original releases of many of Nelson's big hits. Just imagine Elvis doing Bee Bop Baby or Stood Up Broken Hearted...it makes you think, right?
Ricky's mother was a big band singer with Ozzie. She was never in a kitchen until the Ozzie + Harriet show.
cacalafacci
I admired his humbleness, as he seemed to stay the same over the years ... unlike Elvis, who was 'cool' until he got out of the Army and started to believe all the hype. BTW -- Elvis 'stole' James Burton from Nelson. Nelson stuck to his music instincts (Stone Canyon Band). He came from a music background. My father hired his father's (Ozzie Nelson) band for some corporate gig, 'back-in-the - d a y ' ... and, his mother (Harriet Hilliard) was a BigBand songstress.
miss you rick...you were one of the best
When show ended he'd sing a song..this was A ROCKER back in the 50's
Both, my husband and I love to listen to his songs.

They bring back wonderful moments!
vix07
I fell in love with him when I was 5. My first crush. I was so sad when he died.
rick nelson, i have loved you all my life, hope to see you when i leave this world
i miss rick tom
He had a daughter and 3 sons. Matthew and Gunnar Nelson are singers as well. Anyone remember them from the 90s with (I cant live without your) Love and Affection. Youtube it they look and sound just like him its scary.
back in the 60's my cousin Nancy was Ricky Nelson crazy=her bedroom was full of pictures=cou l d not see the ceiling or walls=she is 6 years older than me and it was her influence on me that got me listening to Ricky=I am so glad she did=thank you cousin Nancy=and Dear Ricky R.I.P.
what a shame it was to loose such a good talent at such a young age as Ricky, we certainly miss his music
keithspi007
I really liked his song Down Home .
One of my favorite memories of Rick, was when he co-starred with John Wayne and Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and Angie Dickenson. He sung a duet with Dean Martin. Rio Bravo remains one of my favorite movies. His acting was pretty good too.
Rick Nelson was great, but his band was absolutely superb...the best rock band in the business, imo.
rickteam
To say we don't have performers today like there was then is a vast understateme n t . The Nelsons showed an appreciation and manner which we do not see now. I hope the kids and grandkids of the Ozzie, Harriet, Dave and Rick Nelson family, know that we miss them and appreciate their legacy in both music and television.

Also, screaminriem a n : That makes two of us. My older sister insisted on choosing my name.
I was named after Ricky Nelson. Just wish I could sing like him LOL He's one of those talents that shouldn't Have passed so early.
Ricky Nelson was tops in my book. One of the best singing voices I ever heard. I really hated it , that he died so tragically and so soon. My favorite song is Poor Little Fool. Miss you man.
got tons of ricky's 45s
Is there a better voice than Rick Nelson? He could rock and ballad equally well. Don't know of many better at this than John Lennon and Rick Nelson.
I thought Ricky Nelson left behind a wife and kids when he died. !!!
bayberry10
I played Garden Party on the air at WRCP in Phila. It was great. Nick Reynolds from the Country Radio Station in the 70's.
franjfried
BTW: The version of Traveling Man here just now was a later re-recording , not the original.
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