Rick Nelson was one of the very few people from the early days of rock who had his head on straight through most of his life, all of which was spent in show business. He was a true professional in the best sense of the word, and one of the most underrated musicians that ever picked up a guitar. The heart and soul of rock and roll had one of its most loyal and devoted champion in Rick Nelson. He helped define what rock music was and what it should be. He was a TV star (and a radio star before that) with his family in their show, "Ozzie and Harriot," and was able to gather an audience for his brand of rock and roll through that medium. He was surrounded by the best musicians available. The legendary James Burton was his early lead guitarist and he lived up to the high standards that Nelson always strived for. Nelson's "teenage idol" status worked at cross purposes to his acceptance as a serious rock musician, but he was not easily dissuaded. He used his slack times wisely to explore different areas of music: composing, county music, folk rock, country rock, and jazz country. He created many fine examples of each style to add to his basic rock and roll repertoire.
Nelson's live shows were a celebration of a successful life in rock and roll, demonstrating that the scores of Stray Cats and such had nothing on the original West Coast rockabilly. His shows were upbeat and genuine. They were the kinds of shows that fit the ambiance of a high school gymnasium. Each song was perfect, beginning to end. There were no cheap- shot medleys. I attended his shows throughout the years (the only rock performer I've seen live more than twice). His single, "It's Late," was just out when I saw him the first time. He came on stage in all his glory, wearing a sharkskin suit, red shirt and white tie. From "Good Rockin' Tonight" to "Shirley Lee," the performance was the best--exciting and loud. Kerry, a sceptical friend of mine, was turned into a life-long fan that night. After that night, we would race to the record shop to see who could buy or steal the latest "rock" record first.
I next saw Nelson at the Troubadour, in a show that preceded the in- concert album by two weeks. Watching him do his folk-rock phase was like having an old friend interpret the '60s for me, something I was badly in need of, as I was finding it hard to relate to the '60s. Seeing rock grow helped me to do so. Then came Garden Party, an informal concert held on the back lot of Columbia Studios, put on by Actors and Others for Pets. This I felt most privileged to attend. The afternoon was magical. Nelson came on stage in a black long-sleeved shirt, sequined studs up the seams of his jeans, and I heard my first jazz rock fusion, performed live by the Stone Canyon Band. They did the most electrifying version of "Believe What You Say" I ever heard played anywhere. It was one of those charmed moments in live performances when your mind is alert and catches each note and nuance, and remembers everything that happened. The concert is still vivid for me today, like no other I've ever attended. It was a rare, precious and unique musical experience.
I later saw him at the Palomino, and finally, I saw him while he was promoting his last Capitol album (the album jacket was yellow on a blue background, a take-off on his first album, both graphically and musically- -a tidy irony). In this last show, he wasn't exploring any new ground, other than pushing "Almost Saturday Night" as a single. The concert was back to basics, slappin' bass and all, and it was in the perfect setting: a college gym. I was amazed at the perfection with which they played the hits, and the authentic care Nelson took with album tracks that hadn't been played on stage in years. It was a joy to see that rock and roll was in such good hands.
Now, Nelson's death must compete with the New Year's news. Ultimately, his passing will be noted with little fanfare and no Rickymania. I think that will suit his memory just fine. I think Rick Nelson saw himself simply as a successful rock and roll singer, able to play the music and make people feel good, beyond all the rock critics' snipes at "teenage idols" and the indifference created by that label. Rick will be remembered as a major figure and founding father of rock and roll. After all, what is rock and roll but the people that played it, and played it well? And few ever played it better than the 45-year-old singer who died New Year's Eve, 1985, in a fiery crash outside DeKalb, Texas.
Bill Fergusson III