Rick Nelson was the first rock ‘n’ roll star whose rise can be linked directly to television. Nearly a quarter-century before the advent of MTV, “The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet” gave him a national stage to perform and promote his latest singles. The show’s influence was confirmed when Nelson met Elvis Presley at a party in 1957 and was astounded that Elvis could recite dialogue from the show verbatim.
Nelson’s music went beyond his performances on his parents’ TV series. Legacy offers an in-depth look at Nelson from teen idol to country rock pioneer to rockabilly revivalist. He died at age 45 in a New Year’s Eve plane crash in 1985.
The box set’s 100 songs, spread out over four CDs, are weighted toward the early years of his career. The 60 songs on the first two discs cover 1957-1964, when he had more than 30 songs crack Billboard’s Top 40 singles charts and five Top 20 country singles. The last two decades of his life are covered by 40 songs on the last two CDs.
Legacy offers new insights into this first-generation rock ‘n’ roller by offering more than just the hits. Duets with Dean Martin (“My Rifle, My Pony & Me” from the film Rio Bravo) and with Don Everly (a live version of “Bye Bye Love” from 1969), plus a rare gospel recording (“Glory Train”), show the width of his range.
Nelson got hooked on rock ‘n’ roll after hearing Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes”, and his early years pay tribute to the Sun Records sound. After his debut single, a tentative cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” in April 1957, Nelson found his voice on such rockers as “Believe What You Say”, “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” and “Hello Mary Lou”, and on such ballads as “Poor Little Fool”, “Lonesome Town” and “Travelin’ Man”.
It was a collaborative effort, as lead guitarist James Burton provided the punch in Nelson’s music and songwriters such as Johnny Burnette, Dorsey Burnette and Baker Knight supplied first-rate songs. But by 1964, Nelson’s hit streak had ended with the arrival of the British Invasion.
Nelson tried a new direction: country music. A pair of albums, Bright Lights & Country Music and Country Fever (released in 1966 and 1967, respectively), showcased a new direction. While commercially unsuccessful, the albums, with such songs as “Louisiana Man” and “Mystery Train”, show Nelson was not a spent force creatively. His cover of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me” was a Top 40 hit in 1969. Along with artists ranging from Gram Parsons to Poco, Nelson and his Stone Canyon Band were blending country and rock.
“Garden Party”, Nelson’s final #1 single and the only one he wrote himself, was the culmination of this blend. Written by Nelson after playing a rock ‘n’ roll revival show in New York, its chorus stands as a statement of his philosophy (“You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself”).
For the final dozen years of his life, Nelson continued to make some fine recordings featuring songs by contemporary writers (Graham Parker’s “Back To Schooldays”, John Hiatt’s “Doll Hospital”), but he failed to reconnect with the record-buying public.
By the 1980s, after a costly divorce, he was focusing on his past, re-recording his 1950s hits, and performing at oldies shows. Like his contemporary Buddy Holly, he died en route to his next concert. It was Elvis who may have summed up Nelson the best: “If James Dean sang, he would sound just like Ricky Nelson.”