Remembering Ricky

December 28, 2005 - On this ominous date, I though I would repost my Ricky Nelson/James Burton story from a couple years ago.
           The recent mentions of James Burton and Ricky Nelson cause Uncle Bill to dwell deep in the past for yet another great moment in Rock & Roll. At least from my perspective.
           It was early July in 1961. I was home in Columbus, Ohio from the service, desperately looking for a job and a band. But things were really tough. I hadn't seen a real rock and roll show since 57 and I needed a shot of good old American rock & roll real bad.
           The ads came out for Ricky Nelson to appear at what we called "Dead Bird Stadium" on Mound Street in Columbus. It was a place where the Columbus Red Birds baseball team played. They weren't very good, and neither was the stadium. Built during the depression, it resembled an old prison from the outside more than a baseball park. I was excited. I had two of Nelsons latest albums and Loved the guitar work by James Burton. So I rushed down to Heatons Music store and purchased a ticket. Since all my buddies were either married, moved away or in the service; I was going alone.
           The night of the concert it decided to rain. I didn't worry much because most of the seats were under a large roof and sheltered from the elements. However, because I was so early to get a seat, my seat was in the box seats between third and home plate. Not under the roof.
           I find my seat. It's raining off and on. I discover that I'm surrounded by thousands of "teenyboppers," Remember them? Mostly young girls. At 21, I'm the oldest there by eight years at least.
           Now I'm miserable, wet, feeling way out of place and thinking very seriously about leaving. The rain stops for a while. There was a stage set up with a big canopy over it covering the pitchers mound. One of the interesting things about this show was that it was sponsored by Coke Cola. The very first sponsored tour I had attended.
           The show starts. Like the Elvis shows I had seen, the preliminary acts looked like the Ed Sullivan Show. Dog act, magician and a female singer who I believe was Cathy Carr, of "Ivory Tower" Fame. Not 100% sure about this but I think I read it the next day in the reviews.
           We get through the first half; Intermission; I gotta pee but there's a line three miles long at both men's rooms. So now I'm wet, feeling out of place and I gotta pee. Not in the greatest mood for Ricky Nelson.
           They clear the small stage of the previous entertainers stuff and began to assemble Nelsons bands things. I see Ritchie Frost come out to help set up his drums, Joe Osborne saunters out carrying the first Fender Jazz base with gold hardware I had ever seen. The piano player came out, "I think it was Glen Garth" followed closely by James Burton. Burton had a bright Red custom painted Fender Telecaster with a chrome pick guard and a maple neck. I watched him closely as he plugged in to what appeared to be a Fender twin reverb amp sitting on a bandmaster bottom. It was fun just listing to him tune.
           About twenty minutes later, lights go down. A local DJ gets up and mumbles some gibberish about not storming the stage and introduces Nelson, who climes out of one of the dugouts and slowly walks to the stage. He's wearing a lavender sports coat and carrying a plain Martin guitar.
           It should be noted that "Traveling Man" was nearly number one in the country, and "Hello Mary Lou" was also charting as well. Nelson was a hot act. The teenyboppers were on their chairs, screaming, screeching throwing all kinds of stuff on to the field.
           I was huddled in the corner of my box with my head down on the rail trying to look disinterested. I mean I was an old man at 21, and to be there was ... It takes forever for Nelson to get to the stage. The band hasn't played a note yet. He stands there adjusting the microphone and gleaning more screams out of the near frantic girls. Looks over his shoulder at Burton and nods his head.
           Click, click, click, click. I could hear Frost do the down beat on his sticks. It's "Hello Mary Lou." Now I raise up from the rail. I loved this song ... It sounded great and you can her everything real good. Nelson comes out of the second chorus and steps back, Burton steps up and just torn into the lead for "Mary Lou." I mean the entire volume of the band went up about five notches. Frost was pounding away on his ride cymbals and James Burton was playing like a man possessed. The spotlight kept hitting the chrome pick guard and light reflected everywhere. It was surreal..Now I'm on my chair, knocking down teenyboppers but I'm not screaming, I am in total awe of what I just heard.
           Through out the evening, Burton kept me mesmerized by the complete elegance of his total mastery of his guitar. Whether it was the simple solo from "Traveling Man,'" or the blazing rip from "Believe what you say," he was just unbelievable. And so was that rest of the band. They were tight, and played all of Nelsons hits with excitement and freshness. Even "I'm Walkin" rocked hard under their care ...
           I left there with many lessons learned. From then on  in every band I had, when it came time for a guitar solo, the crescendo of the band went up to accent the lead. It always worked.
           Many years later I stood in a massive crowd at John Mellencamp's "Lonesome Jubilee" tour, and watched his magnificent band with the great Kenny Aronoff on drums plow into the lead of "Paper in Fire." The volume of the band shot up with a thunderous back beat that brought twenty-six thousand people on to their seats, and I thought about that rainy, miserable night in 1961: Ricky Nelson, James Burton,  and that completely perfect moment in Dead Bird Stadium.
God I love Rock & Roll:
Uncle Bill
Good-bye Heart: in NY

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