When Ricky Nelson Started
Rocking, the World Took Notice

Courtesy: www.sfgate.com  - Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Critic, Jan. 2006
           By the time he was a teenager, Ricky Nelson had grown to hate working in the family business, a weekly ABC-TV series called "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." His father found a way to work anything from Ricky's life into the show somehow, so it was probably inevitable that his growing fascination with rock 'n' roll would turn up sooner or later. It's just that neither Ricky nor his father, Ozzie, was prepared for the results.
           After the 16-year-old TV star sang his timid version of the Fats Domino song "I'm Walkin'" on the show in April 1957, the record simply exploded up the charts upon its release three weeks later. He landed seven more records on the charts before the end of the year and, by the time his ballad "Poor Little Fool" hit No. 1 the following summer, with Elvis in the Army, Ricky Nelson was the biggest rock 'n' roll star in the world.
           His music hasn't really endured and he is practically a forgotten figure today, but a new DVD, "Ricky Nelson Sings" (EMI), uncovers for the first time on any home video format the original black-and-white performances from his parents' often insipid half-hour family comedy show, never really seen since their original broadcasts more than 40 years ago - performances that not only made young Nelson a star, but that first demonstrated the incendiary potential of mixing rock 'n' roll and television.
           Think about it: Ozzie Nelson - Godfather of MTV. Ricky's dad not only wrote, directed, produced and starred in his thriving family enterprise, he was a former Mickey Mouse dance bandleader - and his wife Harriet, his former band singer - who knew the ins and outs of the music business. Ozzie Nelson immediately recognized the possibilities for his youngest son when his first single release sold more than 700,000 in a matter of weeks. Not only did he renegotiate a better record deal with another label immediately, but he was also able to orchestrate his son's career from the bully pulpit of a top-rated weekly sitcom. He did have the good sense, though, to leave the music to his son.
           The happy Nelson parents were frequently filmed nodding their heads appreciatively as their son sang his latest song in the show's final moments, as if to assure the older generation in their audience that the music was OK. His brother David and the other young actors who played their friends were also shown, always politely enjoying the music, the boys wearing ties, the girls in chiffon and petticoats, no juvenile delinquents anywhere to be seen.
           But that last, brief segment of the show, where Ricky returned to sing his latest rock 'n' roll song, was not only the first important regular prime-time exposure for the nascent musical form, other than sporadic appearances on variety shows such as Ed Sullivan or Perry Como's shows as a bone thrown to younger viewers, but it became the tail that wagged the dog of a show. In no time, Ricky's music became the only reason anybody still watched the square, corny old program that Ozzie Nelson had been making since the series first began on radio in 1944.
           When Ozzie Nelson sold the series to syndication in the '70s, the shows all needed to be trimmed by three minutes. He gave the editing job to Ricky's older brother, David, who had aspirations as a director at that point in his career. His first move was to cut all of Ricky's musical numbers, one of the reasons these performances have not been seen since their original broadcasts.
           For the first few years of "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" - adventures like Ozzie getting locked in the garage or stuck on the roof - actors portrayed the Nelson kids, but their actual children, Ricky and David, joined the cast in 1949 at the ages of 9 and 13 respectively. They were old hands and the show was already getting old when Ricky's rock 'n' roll juggernaut gave the series a second life.
           Ricky knew the music. He was an obvious fan of Sun Records' Memphis rock 'n' roll; Carl Perkins was a special favorite. He found guitarist James Burton and bassist James Kirkland playing with Texas rockabilly man Bob Luman and lured them away with the promise of a regular paycheck. Burton, who had already etched himself into rock history by playing the guitar part on the original recording of "Suzie Q" by Dale Hawkins, moved into the Nelsons' Hollywood home and became Ricky's creative collaborator. He was only a year older than Nelson, but his guitar playing - and the prominent role it played in Nelson's music - made him one of the three great stylists of early rock guitar.
           Burton went on to have one of the great careers any instrumentalist could have - playing Hollywood sessions for everybody, touring the country through the '70s with Elvis Presley - but he never topped his exciting, raw, almost reckless playing on Nelson's recordings. Burton invented so-called "slinky strings" on the session that produced Ricky's "Waitin' In School," stringing his guitar with much lighter banjo strings that allowed him to stretch notes that much further.
           Nelson's songs were also written for him by authentic Southern rockabilly musicians living in Hollywood, such as Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, whose Memphis-based Rock 'n' Roll Trio was the first band Elvis ever sang with, or Baker Knight, an Alabama rock 'n' roller introduced to Ricky by Sharon Sheeley, songwriter of "Poor Little Fool" and girlfriend of Eddie Cochran.
           But the appeal of the music lies with Nelson, who is seen invariably in close-up singing his songs, looking off-camera, his eyes slowly opening and closing, his swollen lower lip bobbing. His detachment seems almost like indolence, but he sings with an underlying commitment that hints at, but never gives way to, greater passion. His delicate features only enhance the appeal. In the role of the respectful, if vaguely impertinent younger son of Ozzie and Harriet, a part written for him by his father, Ricky Nelson brought the subversion of rock 'n' roll safely into America's '50s living rooms disguised as family entertainment.
           His father, in fact, may have unwittingly invented the rock music video in a 1960 episode when he took Ricky's performance of his latest hit, "Travelin' Man," and matched it with stock travelogue footage to give the performance a conceptual context (the producers of the "Ricky Nelson Sings" DVD, for some reason, substituted a straightforward performance of the song).
           If Ricky chafed under his father's strictures, he never openly rebelled. As far as he went was to not learn the hardly Shakespearean scripts ("Hi, Pop"), but instead tear them up and paste the pieces all over the set. He would walk into a room, inexplicably open a drawer, glance at the scrap of script he posted there, look up and deliver the line, the audience at home none the wiser.
           But the music was his safe harbor. Inside a song, he was in his own world. You can see him slip into it as he sings. His love for the music is unquestioned, and it probably saved his life. He spent his remaining days on Earth chasing that muse until the very end when, reduced to grinding out one-nighters at county fairs and bowling alleys on a beat-up old DC-3 puddle jumper, he, his fiancee and his band died in a fiery plane crash on their way to a New Year's Eve job in 1985. But these black-and-white moments remain crucial rock 'n' roll archaeology and his most significant legacy.

Back to the "Take Note" Main Page


Promotional Products, Discount Labels, Post-it Notes, Rubber Stamps, etc.