The American Dream: Ricky Nelson
“If James Dean sang, he would sound just like Rick Nelson.”
- Elvis Presley
Growing up in front of America on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet--a long-running sitcom featuring his real-life family--Ricky Nelson was America’s sweetheart if there ever was one.
Born to show-biz parents, he was quiet, modest, athletic (a nationally ranked tennis player by age 15), and good-looking as all get out; the perfect teenage television star. As if that wasn’t enough, he was blessed with one of the smoothest, most velvety voices of all time. Low and rich, it’s what teenage swoons are made of.
Deciding he wanted to sing after witnessing all the fuss over Elvis Presley, his music career took off almost immediately--thanks to his built-in TV fan base and ready-made publicity provided by singing spots on the same show. He sold millions upon millions of records, and carried the pretty-boy, rockabilly flag when Elvis got shipped out.
His domineering father liked Ricky to sing ballads which he thought suited his voice best--and kept his image squeaky clean--but Rick wanted to rock. Though he was no virtuoso, he knew his way around a guitar, made sure had had a great backing band (he borrowed Presley’s Jordanaires, and James Burton stayed with him for nearly 10 years), and he had that voice.
Success came fast-- screaming fans, movie deals and all. The 50s and most of the 60s were good times. Unfortunately, by the time he started writing his own stuff, the Beatles had come, obliterated pop music, divorced, and poor Rick was washed up. He struggled against his teenage image until his tragic death in the mid-80s when his plane caught on fire on New Year’s Eve. The worst part--he hated flying.
I fell in love with Rick in the 7th grade, downloaded a huge compilation--from Limewire no less--and never looked back. The golden boy is very dear to my heart, and I think a lot of his stuff is fantastic. There was some real talent there, not just a pretty face, something that's been recognized by lots of music luminaries like Bob Dylan, Jimmy Page, and John Fogerty--who personally inducted Ricky into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
His catalog is worth a deep-dive, but here are some of my favorites:
True Love: A classic ballad, showing off that velvet voice (and raking in the screaming teenage fans). Note the extremely sparse production, just like all the famous Sun recordings.
Am I Blue: I love the change from major to minor, the handclaps, the James Burton solo, and THAT DAMN VOICE.
Waitin’ in School: TV promotion at its finest. Should be up there with the other rockabilly classics. Enjoy the cheesy laugh track, and the close-ups.
Shirley Lee: Now we’re cooking. More in line with what I think he actually wanted to be doing. Letting loose a little bit.
I’m Feelin’ Sorry: Who is this girl? How is there any possible way she’s not forgiving him? HE'S KILLING IT.
My Babe: This is incredible. Straight rockabilly. Probably a little too hot to trot for his pops. Reminds me of a Ryan Adams song that I can’t remember the name of right now.
Lonesome Town: He was born to sing this song. Also--Pulp Fiction!
It’s All in the Game: I love the strolling guitar riff, the gentle sixteenth-notes on the piano, how he goes into the lower parts of his range. Trying some doo-wop on for size. Lovely.
Gloomy Sunday: If you only listen to one song on the list, make it this one. It’s so different from anything else he was doing, and it's completely entrancing. His voice was never more powerful.
So Long: Smooth as silk. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
A Long Vacation: Upbeat little ditty and the lyrics are really adorable. Perfect summer song, perfect material for the teeny boppers to eat up.
Hey Pretty Baby: Rollicking little number with a great guitar sound going on. Add this to your driving playlist.
Travelin’ Man: This song and "Teenage Idol" are his "My Way's, but that doesn't make me love them any less. Bob Dylan talks about hearing this song for the first time in his book, Chronicles Vol. 1. He says, “Ricky has a smooth touch…his voice was sort of mysterious.” They dug each other.
Oh Yeah, I’m in Love: Catchy beyond all get out. Check out James Burton getting down!
Teenage Idol: His classic song. The term "Teenage Idol" was basically invented for him in a Life magazine article. The lyrics of this are pretty accurate as well, which makes me sad.
My Rifle, My Pony, and Me: From the movie Rio Bravo. I love his voice with Dean’s. I find myself humming this from time to time; just a lovely tune. The movie is really good too actually.
Walkin’ Down the Line: Later in the career, doing some Dylan material, still looking fly. Then he goes into "Time After Time" and just kills me.
Garden Party: A song about his later career struggles. This is supposedly about a real event. He got booed off the stage at Madison Square Garden by some yahoos. His voice is losing it a little bit, but he’s still got it. “You see you can’t please everyone/So you got to please yourself.”