This month the spotlight is on a real legend of rock’n’roll, from its golden era. The man wrote and performed some of the greatest songs in rock’n’roll history. But what makes this story even more significant is that it has two sides. One is the greatness and rock’n’roll legacy of the man, the other is the dark and tragic side to his life.
On 15th April we organised a tribute concert to celebrate this legend. I booked the band Rock’n’Lora to perform for us at the Esse Café. The event began as usual with my free rock’n’roll dance class, followed by Rock’n’Lora putting on a fantastic show for us. My column in this magazine last month focused on Lara Markeeva, the group’s leader and vocalist. Suffice to say that on 15/04/17 she was the real star of the whole show and once more performed some brilliant rock’n’roll for us. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the event.
And the legend we were celebrating ? Ricky Nelson. We have to thank him for unforgettable rockin’ songs. Just look at this list of just a few of his mega-hits: Hello Mary Lou, Travelin’ Man, It’s Late, Poor Little Fool, Stood Up, Believe What You Say, Never Be Anyone Else But You and Lonesome Town. If most of these songs are not familiar to you, you must be new to rock’n’roll ! Of the above songs, for me his two all-time classics are “Stood Up” and “Believe What You Say”. There aren’t many better songs than those two in the history of rock’n’roll. In the two years 1958 to 1959, he notched up twelve big song hits on the charts, only one less than the great Elvis himself. In fact it’s true to say that with the exception of Elvis, at that time he was the biggest rock’n’roll teen idol of them all.
To understand Nelson and find out why he became such a star, a lot of the answers relate to his upbringing and his family. It is true to say he was, to use the old expression, “born with a silver spoon in his mouth”, in terms of becoming a rock’n’roll star. His Mum and Dad were already big national stars in the radio sitcom “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett”, where his parents played themselves in the comedy series. When eight years old, Ricky joined the series, playing himself. So from a very early age he was a big national star. This radio show developed into a hugely successful TV series from the early 1950s, further consolidating his fame and fortune. By the age of sixteen he had a personal fortune of $500 000: In the 1950s that was Huge. In other words, unlike performers like Elvis and Carl Perkins his was the exact opposite of a poor background and upbringing.
The TV series was tailor-made for turning him into a rock star. He performed his first songs on the TV show, ensuring a large audience for his records. But Nelson really was a genuine rock’n’roll star. His songs were brilliant and he had good looks and charisma to go with it. Allied to this the fact that he was already a big star in the States, due to his appearances on the TV series, meant his rock’n’roll stardom was more or less inevitable.
But the story wasn’t quite that simple. Born into privilege and wealth, as detailed above, Nelson in fact as a boy was described by those who knew him as shy and reserved. He grew to hate having to perform in the Ozzie and Harriett TV shows. As he was not emotionally strong enough to complain to his dominant father about this, his rebellion took the form of Rock’n’Roll.
The writer Joel Selvin described it this way; “For Rick, rock’n’roll offered an escape. Like so many other youths of the 1950s, he heard its clarion call and instinctively understood its message.” But here’s the irony. His father, recognising the commercial potential of Ricky as a rock star, ensured his image was that of a clean-cut young boy, to increase his popularity to a wider audience. So even Ricky’s rebellion became “sanitised” by his over-powering father. Again, here is how Selvin explains it; “His father swarmed all over that, prodding his son from singing in the bathroom directly to a recording studio and onto nationwide TV. In the process Rick gave this budding music, at the time widely identified with juvenile delinquency and other social ills of the nation’s young, a credibility it could never get from some greasy-haired Memphis truck driver shaking his hips. This was ‘Little Ricky’ after all, the adored scion of the country’s model middle class family. It has been said Ricky smuggled rock’n’roll into America’s living room.”
Selvin’s quote above underlines how important Nelson was to the history of rock’n’roll. Whilst people like me relate much more to the “greasy-haired Memphis truck driver” and youth rebellion, it was as a result of the part Nelson played in 1950’s rock’n’roll that much of middle-class mainstream America accepted and enjoyed it too.
And there is further irony to the Nelson story. As already mentioned, Nelson’s songs were iconic and brilliant. But his father and the other promoters controlling his career, made sure the focus was on his good looks and TV star image to ensure he became the ultimate teen idol. Ricky always felt he did not get enough recognition for the quality of his music and in fact did not like the image created for him at all. As a result of all this, it’s true to say he did not enjoy the fame and the stardom.
Nelson achieved his first number one hit in 1958, at the age of eighteen. The song “Poor Little Fool”, was written for him by Sharon Sheeley. If you have a good memory, you will remember I wrote a column about Sharon, a really under-recognised hero of rock’n’roll. The words of the song reflected Sharon’s own unfortunate relationship with Don Everly from the Everly Brothers. After that, the number ones just kept on coming for Ricky. In the golden years of rock’n’roll, the latter 1950s, only Elvis sold more records than Nelson.
Nelson’s teen idol image made it kind of inevitable that, as with Elvis, he would be propelled into the movie business. His most famous movie was “Rio Bravo” made in 1959, which starred the great John Wayne as well as Dean Martin. The director Howard Hawks estimated that having the teenage star in his movie attracted at least another million dollars at the box office (again, a huge figure for the 1950s). I’m delighted now to be able to include one of my heroes, John Wayne, in this rock’n’roll article ! It turns out Wayne got on well with Nelson while making the movie. Here’s one example of this, again quoting from Joel Selvin: “Rick Nelson turned eighteen in Tucson, Arizona, on the set of ‘Rio Bravo’. For his birthday, co-star John Wayne gave him a three hundred pound bag of cow manure. The contents were dumped unceremoniously on the ground and Wayne and Dean Martin grabbed hold of the birthday boy and tossed him on top.”
Nelson’s social life was not a bed of roses. He had a reputation for being cold in his female relationships. In 1961 he married Kristin Harmon, like Nelson already a national celebrity as she was the daughter of the football legend Tom Harmon and the actress Elyse Knox. But the marriage was not a happy one. The terms of the divorce were financially devastating for Nelson, especially as there were four children by the marriage to support. This was one of the reasons he kept on touring and performing, right up to his death in 1985.
In his later performances, he moved away from the rock’n’roll style and was still trying to gain the musical recognition he felt he deserved. But by the time of his death, he was no longer a star and it seemed that the sparkle had gone out of his music. On a tour of the Southern States in 1985 to a gig in Texas, the plane he was flying in crash landed killing all seven passengers, including Nelson. Only the two pilots survived, by climbing through the cockpit windows. It was a sad end, to what had been at the beginning a brilliant rock’n’roll career.
But his place in rock’n’roll history is assured, thanks to those great years he had in the late 1950s; and above all those legendary songs of his, some of the very best in rock’n’roll history. So thanks, Ricky. As a Travelin’ Man, you travelled a long, difficult road, despite your privileged upbringing. And you left us with a great rock’n’roll legacy.