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
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
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: CHECK ON THIS FINE PRINTING COMPANY:
Promotional Products, Discount Labels, Post-it Notes,
Rubber Stamps, etc.