Wednesday, May 8, 2013

"You Can Buy a Dream or Two..."

Every now and again, the almanac information for a particular day contains something that makes me stop whatever I am doing (usually perusing the almanac listings) and leads me down paths of imagination or reverie. Needless to say, today's listing of the famous, the infamous, the worthy, the athletes, and the entertainers contained one name in particular which caught my attention and started me thinking of musical and other memories.

Maybe you had to have to have been a child in the 1950's, and remember music before Elvis, an era when the last of the big bands and the likes of the McGuire sisters, or doo wop anthems like "Sh-Boom" caught and/or created the public mood to really appreciate the name which caught my attention. Today is Ricky Nelson's birthday. I just called him Ricky, even though at age 21 he became Rick. I wonder if my calling him "Ricky" has to do with nostalgia or habit.

Rick Nelson was the son of big band leader Ozzie Nelson. His mother, Harriet Hilliard, had been the band's "girl singer", and gave up a potential career in the movies to continue with the band. (She'd sung "Get Thee Behind Me Satan" in the Fred Astaire - Ginger Rogers movie, "Follow the Fleet". The song had originally been intended for Rogers to sing in "Top Hat".) The band had been on tour in Los Angeles when they were signed as the house band for a radio show hosted by Red Skelton. When Skelton was drafted during WWII, Ozzie was given the chance to create his own show. The most popular radio program in the country at the time was "Fibber McGee and Molly", which had a recurring cast of characters who moved through Fibber and Molly's lives - it's regarded as the first situation comedy. Ozzie created a show about his family's life. His two sons were played by professional actors for several years before the boys were considered old enough to take on the roles themselves. After a successful movie version, Ozzie moved the show to tv, where it premiered in 1952. It must have been a trifle strange for the boys to go to work everyday pretending to be versions of themselves, working in a set that was a duplicate of their real life home. Ricky was often described as an odd little kid who suffered from asthma, and who encountered problems fitting in at his school. He got into trouble a lot. In 1957 when he was 16, he wanted to impress a girl who liked Elvis Presley. He bragged that he could make a record, too, and used his Dad's connections to do it. Ozzie was happy to see Ricky channel his energies, and wrote the song into the show. It was a Fats Domino's, "I'm Walking".

The episode aired in April of 1957. America changed a little bit that night.

Rock and Roll was still considered something wild and unruly. Preachers condemned it as an evil influence from their pulpits, and held public burnings of Elvis' records. Suddenly here was that nice Nelson boy, a kid who was growing up in front of America, a kid everyone liked, singing rock and roll. If Ricky Nelson liked it, if Ozzie and Harriet liked it, well then - it must be all right. Elvis, Bill Haley and the rest may have made rock and roll popular, but it was Ricky Nelson and his rock-a-billy infused style which made it acceptable. I was 6 years old at the time, and bought the 45 rpm record of "I'm Walkin" from the allowance I received for doing household chores.

Ricky didn't care for the musicians his dad had hired to back him so he put together his own band, starting with a kid around his own age, 18 year old James Burton, who became one of the great guitarists of rock and roll. Hit followed hit, with Ricky and his band preforming every couple of weeks on the show. During the 1958-1959 season (the year Elvis went into the army), Ricky Nelson had 12 big hits, one more than Elvis. Here's one of his biggest hits, "Hello Mary-Lou". Sadly, I  couldn't find a good copy on You Tube of the first version from the show, with Burton's electrifying guitar solo.

Ricky was a good looking kid, and there was something about him. There was a slight touch of a sneer that could turn into a smile, or which could hint at something slightly dangerous - but in a "nice" way. And, while he could really rock when his Dad would let him, he could also handle a ballad with style. For one big hit, Ozzie added a little bit of film imagery which some argue was a precursor of the first music videos.

The big hits, around 60 of them, continued until 1963, when the "British Invasion" moved rock and roll away from its rockabilly roots, girl groups, and doo-wop. Times were a'changing; the family tv show ended in 1966. Rick Nelson moved on to pioneer a blend of rock and country that paved the way for groups like The Eagles.

There would be one last big hit. In 1971, Rick was booked into a rock and roll revival show at Madison Square Garden. He made his entrance wearing long hair and bell bottoms, and launched into a couple of the old songs. For his third number, he performed a country tinged version of the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman". The audience began booing. Some say the audience had expected young Ricky, but got Rick. Some say it was due to a police action against concert goers in the back of the auditorium. Whatever really happened,  the booing was loud and Rick left the stage. He wrote a song about it called "Garden Party" :

Over the next several years, Rick had his share of personal problems, including the very public break up of his marriage. He and his wife tried to reconcile, but neither were able to curtail the style of spending they had once enjoyed during his years at the top, which meant that he had to constantly tour to pay the bills, which further affected their marriage. When they finally divorced the financial settlement left him with no choice but to continue his life on the road, playing engagements in small clubs where he could still get bookings.  He acknowledged his predilection for marijuana (he used to bury his stash in his back yard), and publicly supported legalization (as did other 'smokers' like Bing Crosby). In interviews on tv he was always quiet, soft spoken, a little hesitant, often very funny, and quite modest. He usually made sure he gave credit to the people who performed with him or who wrote the songs he sang. On New Year's Eve in 1985, he was on his way to the last stop of a three concert tour when his rented plane crashed, killing everyone but the pilots. He was 45 years old.

While I've been putting this post together over several stops and starts, I can't help but notice that the little globe on my blog page shows my point of origin as "Nelson, NH"...

In all of his hits, both the rockers and the ballads, there is one song that I rediscovered as an adult that haunts me. I don't know why, maybe it's feelings of lost youth, or the passing of time, of an era when life was allegedly simpler. I grew up without a mom. My Aunt Lorraine filled that role for a few years. The tv shows I liked to watch had families with moms. I identified with two particular characters - the Beav, and Ricky. Both were younger brothers like I was. Maybe this song haunts me because it was one of the songs to which I first "slow danced", holding someone close. Maybe it's because I think the song catches something of the kid who didn't fit in, the real Ricky Nelson. Maybe it's the stirring of long lost feelings of another kid who didn't fit into his own small town in the southern part of New Jersey, who now finds himself writing from a place called "Nelson"...

So Happy Birthday, Rick Nelson. Thanks for the music, and the memories. Miss you.


Anonymous said...

He had such a lovely mellow sound.

sdt (a.k.a. stevil) said...

mbj/Delores - he sure did. He lost some of the timbre and tone as he got older, but he was still great in my book. I thought for years and years that I was one of a small handful of people who liked him. The, when running a video store some years ago, a tribute to him was released on DVD. I ordered a few copies - the first was sold to the store's owner who was a fan. By the end of the day, I was sold out and had to reorder. That's when I realized that I wasn't the only person who remembered.