Ricky Nelson Remembered: Rockabilly Rebel Gets His Due
By David DeRocco
The problem with history is that time creates more of it, and things once held in high regard in one era often fade from memory as time ticks on and history moves forward. With their multi-media production of “Ricky Nelson Remembered,” Matthew and Gunnar Nelson are working hard to ensure the rock and roll legacy of their famous father is not forgotten by musical historians.
Young adults weaned on Drake and Justin Bieber may not recognize him, but Ricky Nelson was once the handsome golden boy of both American music and popular television. As the son of TV’s most famous family on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, Ricky Nelson was the ultimate dream date for swooning sweethearts in the late 50s and early 60s. However, he was also a rock and roll pioneer, selling 35 million records and earning his (posthumous) rightful place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Despite earning critical acclaim as a rockabilly star who out-charted Elvis in the years 1958-59, Ricky’s clean-cut and well-manicured image often lead media critics to lump him into a category with the likes of Pat Boone and Fabian. Unlike those two bastions of banality, Nelson was a rock and roll rebel and outspoken advocate for the genre during a time when cultural forces were rallying against “the devil’s music.” That’s just one of the many reasons why Ricky’s legacy deserves the stage treatment being given to it during “Ricky Nelson Remembered” according to the two sons producing it.
“Pat Boone was crap compared to our pop,” says Matthew Nelson, who along with twin brother Gunnar gained international fame with their early 90s pop-metal band, NELSON. “He was watered down and milquetoast. It was said Elvis scared a lot of parents. Ricky didn’t. Pat Boone turned off a lot of kids. Ricky didn’t. It was completely unfair if you really know the music to compare our dad’s records to Pat Boone or Fabian frankly. He was such a phenomenon at the time that Life Magazine coined the phrase “teen idol” to describe him. He was in a class of his own.”
There are definitely numbers to back up that claim. Ricky Nelson placed an incredible 53 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1957 and 1973 including “Poor Little Fool,” the first #1 song ever listed on the newly established Hot 100 chart. His dual career of music and acting made him popular enough to inspire 9,000 fan clubs, and he was named one of TV Guide’s Top 50 TV personalities of all time. Collectively, the Nelsons are credited as being the only family to have three successive generations hit #1 by the folks at Guinness World Records. And regardless of his family ties, Matthew Nelson is quick to heap praise on his father’s talent and his impressive accomplishments as a musician.
“I think he was amazing,” said Nelson, who along with his brother hit #1 in 1990 with their album After The Rain. “As an entertainer, as a man, as a complete package. He was stunningly beautiful. He was a star on television. I love the fact he had distinctly separate careers as a musician, first as a rockabilly star and then as a pioneering country rocker. I think it surprised people that he emerged from the box that people had put him in, that he was just a made-for-TV star. Things like (1972’s) Garden Party showed how versatile he truly was as an artist. “
Like several of his musical contemporaries, Ricky Nelson’s story comes complete with a tragic ending. On December 31st, 1985, on his way to a New Year’s Eve performance in Dallas, the mechanically-plagued aircraft carrying Nelson and his bandmates crash-landed in a cow pasture less than two miles from a landing strip. Seven of the nine occupants were killed including Nelson. Thankfully, the elder Nelson was around long enough to see his sons successfully following in his footsteps.
“He would come out from time to time to stick his head in on our gigs,” remembers Matthew. “He was super proud and would come to see us. There was a time we had sold out a show at The Viper Room. We had a really nice talk after. He said we had become men, and he admired us as his peers. That was a proud moment. We lost him about a week later. I still feel him every time I’m on stage. I don’t think he’s ever really left. When we do this show it’s just kind of like having my buddy on the stage with me. It’s a pretty amazing thing to get to do that.”
As for “Ricky Nelson Remembered,” Matthew Nelson says the multi-media production features an A-list collection of musicians who are dedicated to performing the music with passion and reverence. For the Nelson twins, however, there's a deeper motivation to deliver a great show.
“We have this unbelievable treasure trove of history to be able to visit each night. As torchbearers for this legacy, this means a lot to us. It’s wonderful that we can go home and take care of our families with the money we get from performing, but this is much bigger than we are. I play every show like I mean it because I’m representing the work of my ancestors on stage. There were a lot of people affected by the ancestors we have in our lives. Ozzie and Harriet did over 400 shows and were like a surrogate family for many people. Our dad was the boyfriend the girls all wanted. We play this music the way he did. He played it like he was a 15 year old kid even when he was 45 because there’s something about the energy in these simple songs. It’s authentic. Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of The Doobie Brothers said they don’t write songs like this anymore. There’s genius in their simplicity. We’ve also got this amazing video and we tell a lot of stories. I think the show is popular because people walk out going ‘wow, I didn’t expect that.’ I think that’s why people who appreciate Ricky Nelson love this show.”
For tickets visit: https://www.fallsviewcasinoresort.com/entertainment.