Rick Nelson, an esteemed member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s sophomore class, was hard at work on his first album of original material since Playing to Win appeared with little fanfare in January 1981 on Capitol Records.
Things had been quite bleak for the singer during the early ’80s, but a change in the weather was brewing. A difficult and protracted divorce was over, his kids had moved back in with him, he had a steady girlfriend, Helen Blair, who loved him, he had climbed out of debt, television was beckoning the effortless actor once again, fans were fervently cheering his return to rockabilly and the songs that made him a legend at shows across the USA and abroad, he was reacquainted with his idol, Carl Perkins, recording with him at Sun Studios, and a record label [Curb] was interested in signing him. Above all, Nelson had become comfortable in his own skin and was truly proud of his authentic contributions to rock and roll.
But everything ground to a sickening standstill when a faulty airplane heater caught fire while Nelson was en route to Dallas for a New Year’s Eve show on Dec. 31, 1985. The album was promptly placed in the dustbin whilst various figureheads argued over rights, whether the singer’s vocals were satisfactory, and if the project deserved to see the light of day.
In a valiant attempt to wrangle beyond the so-called myths revolving around the project nearly 30 years later, a wide-ranging series of interviews with Nelson’s friends, family, and experts sets the record straight.
Stick around as the late Jimmie Haskell [Nelson’s original music arranger and conductor who won a Grammy for Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”] James Burton [Nelson’s legendary lead guitarist who later performed with Elvis Presley, John Denver, and Roy Orbison], Sam Nelson [youngest child of the talented artist and current estate manager for Ozzie and Harriet Nelson], author Philip Bashe [Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: The Complete Biography of Rick Nelson], and journalist Sheree Homer [Rick Nelson: Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer] are quite candid. Vintage recollections from Curb Records president Mike Curb and Nelson session archivist Jim Ritz further illuminate the intriguing tale.
The Sam Nelson, Jimmie Haskell, James Burton, Sheree Homer, and Philip Bashe Interview
Is it true that Greg McDonald, Rick’s last manager, owned the tapes at one time and let you listen to them during your research for Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man, ultimately published in 1992?
Philip Bashe: Believe it or not, that is absolutely true. For some reason, Rick had all his masters, and not just for this project. So that Rick could record free of record company dictates, McDonald decided to finance the production himself, then sell it to a label. The day Rick died, Curb Records was finalizing a record contract (i.e. Rick never signed it).
I have no idea why the album hasn’t been released yet. But it was good stuff, very intimate. It would have been a great record. Rick was also surrounded by a terrific band, and he had called Jimmie Haskell, an arranger, producer, composer, conductor, and three-time Grammy winner who he had not worked with in years, and said, “Jimmie, let’s make records the way we used to.” Rick had truly re-embraced his rockabilly roots.
I loved his version of Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways.” It was very chilling to hear it, since it was the last song they recorded on December 26, 1985, before they left for a mini-tour. Featuring just an acoustic guitar, I think they were originally going to embellish it, but it was so powerful just hearing him and guitarist Bobby Neal. They quickly decided, “No, no, no, let’s just leave it as it is.” It’s simply a great performance, very moving and emotional.
[Author’s Note: Nelson recorded an earlier version of “True Love Ways” on November 8, 1978, with producer Larry Rogers during the Memphis Sessions. Inexplicably, Epic Records shelved the song, along with the accompanying album, for years, belatedly releasing it six months after the singer’s death with controversial overdubbed country-style instrumentation. Legacy, the first career-spanning box set devoted to Nelson, was released by Capitol in 2000. Contrary to publicity materials, it contained the original 1978 version, not the 1985 remake, which remains unreleased as of this writing].
Some tracks only contained guide vocals. In fact, Rick was supposed to return after New Year’s Day 1986 and lay down the final vocals. His practice vocals still sounded great. They were using retro mikes, live echo chambers, an antiquated three-track tape machine, and the same mixing board from United Recorders studio B where Rick waxed so many classics in the early 1960s, which lent the project a very, very warm, intimate sound.
Curb Records founder Mike Curb, a onetime lieutenant governor of California who also had several hit records himself in the late ‘60s with the Mike Curb Congregation, spoke to Bashe for Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man:
Mike Curb: It was a thrill to have Rick with our company. In my last conversation with Rick, he indicated that he was ready to go in a progressive country direction, which would have fit in well with our artist roster.
I think Rick would have been very successful in the country field during the late ‘80s, because he didn’t have to change his music at all to be accepted. His hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and then particularly ‘Garden Party’ and the other Stone Canyon Band records, had a definite progressive country feel…
Were there any problems during the making of the album?
Jimmie Haskell: One especially sticks out in my mind. We recorded the album over an extended period in late 1985 at Baby-O Studios and then at Conway Recorders, a little studio on Melrose Avenue near Western.
Recording often depended on Ricky’s hectic touring schedule. I would ask him, “Do you have some tunes that you like enough to record?” “Yeah”, he would nonchalantly reply. “Okay, then I’ll get the band together” was always my answer.
I would call bassist Pat Woodward first, who was pretty much the leader of the band, and tell him, “Ricky would like to record on Tuesday.” He would respond, “Can’t do it, Jimmie.” I said, “Why? Is there a conflict of schedule?” “We haven’t been paid for the last session,” he admitted. “But Pat, that was over a month ago,” I said. “I know, but we haven’t been paid, and we don’t think we should play another session until we get paid”, he would admit.
So I called Greg McDonald and told him, “Ricky wants to record again on Tuesday. The guys in the band don’t wanna show up for the session until they get paid for the previous session.” “Awww, are they saying that again? Listen, they’ll be paid immediately. Call the guys and let them know everyone will be fine”, he replied. I could only say, “Okay.”
I called Pat back and relayed McDonald’s message to him. “Okay, Jimmie”, was all Pat could muster. When it was stressful like that, McDonald did pay them. But I faced that same situation about five times in a row. I don’t know why McDonald had to be so stingy and make things awkward for the band. None of us liked him (he’s also the one who bought the plane for Ricky).
Did you have any favorites?
Haskell: I thought “Ain’t Gonna Do You No Good” was utterly fantastic. It was composed by Jerry Fuller, who penned many of Ricky’s early ’60s pop hits including “Travelin’ Man”, “A Wonder Like You” “Young World”, and “It’s Up to You.”
Although Ricky had previously recorded “True Love Ways” in Memphis with producer Larry Rogers in 1978, we made a better recording. I still remember him standing in front of the microphone all by himself, recording a temporary vocal. He was wonderful, but he was always that way. After we finished it, he remarked, “I’m gonna head on out to the airport” (a little landing strip in Van Nuys on Sherman Way).
Then he asked me, “Jimmie, can you handle Neal’s overdubs?” I said, “Sure, and I’ll drive him to the plane.” Rick added a quick “Thanks”, and that was our last conversation. So Neal spent another half hour in the studio adding acoustic guitar. To this day, I feel sad that I drove Neal to the plane that ultimately killed him five days later.
Since Ricky’s death scuttled Curb’s plans to release the album, McDonald decided to have the tracks stored in a vault that kept master tapes fresh. I eventually spoke to the twins, Gunnar and Matthew, and said, “Do you know about his last record? McDonald has the tapes.” They replied, “We don’t have any copies of it.” I said, “Okay, I’ve got a cassette of it, and I’ll send it to you.” That’s how they learned about Ricky’s last record. Gunnar and Matthew eventually bought the rights to it, or at least that’s my understanding.
Did McDonald attempt to release the sessions?
Haskell: As a matter of fact, he called me about three months after Ricky’s death and told me to meet him at a Hollywood studio with the engineer, Lee Miller (he worked on Ricky’s live and studio recordings from 1983-1985). We played the Curb session tapes. They were surprisingly good, although unfinished.
McDonald then took it to another engineer named Gene Shively. Gene was capable of doing good sounds because he used to run a mastering studio across the street from the post office in Hollywood on Wilcox Avenue.
McDonald said, “Jimmie, we’re trying to work out this album and make it sound good.” I said, “Well, it might be difficult. Ricky’s vocals were scratch vocals sung while the band was playing. Unfortunately, the drums leaked into Ricky’s mike. The only thing I can suggest to you is try to match the drums from their mic with the drums coming through Ricky’s vocal mic and phase out the drums.”
I gave Gene my suggestions and told him I would be happy to work with him on it. They said, “That’s okay.” So they worked on it and didn’t call me back for quite some time. I guess they had received all the information they wanted from me, and McDonald certainly didn’t want to pay me for my time to do anything else.
About 10 months later, Gene got ahold of me out of the blue and said, “Jimmie, do you know what’s going on with that album? I’ve got it, but I’m not gonna release it until McDonald pays me.” I said, “Well, I have nothing to do with that. I hope you get paid” [laughs]. So, evidently, those recordings were upgraded.
Of course, the only way I had copies of the songs is because after each session, I would get a rough copy of it so I would know what to do the next time I’m in the studio with Ricky. Unfortunately, my copies were on cassette, which are not the best [laughs].
Would you like to see the album finally released?
Haskell: I have mixed feelings about it. There are two things that I can say. Ricky’s voice was not perfect on the album because his vocals were scratch vocals, just so that the band could hear what he was singing. Lead guitar had not been overdubbed on most of the tracks, either.
After Ricky passed away, David Nelson represented the family. I asked him, “What are you gonna do about Ricky’s last album?” He replied, “I’ve discussed it with the family, and we want people to remember Ricky at his best. We don’t think it would be wise to release the album.” Sadly, David succumbed to complications from colon cancer in January 2011. I have since heard that there are pirated versions of that album that are out there somewhere.
What is the state of the instrumentation and vocals on the album?
Sam Nelson: First of all, it was Pop’s last bastion or gesture to the public. Everybody and their mother have heard it by now, or at least it feels that way. I’ve heard about that thing since I was a kid, and I have a copy of the whole record. The music tracks that I’ve heard are finished and locked in. It’s just the other finessing of the production that needs some work.
Pop’s vocals are basically scratch tracks. What I heard was basically one pass through. I can only assume that there are better vocal takes. Of course, as technology advances exponentially every year, there will be ways to make it sound really good.
But that will take some digging and a lot of hard work to make it a best foot forward project. In terms of editing together the best vocal takes, absolutely. The same would apply for instrumentation, too.
The big attraction, perhaps, for that record is its authenticity. You have to be careful that you don’t overdub it with a bunch of brand new artists that never had a relationship with my father or don’t really care about the music.
They might be fine musicians, but there has to be a sentimental tie-in to make it what it should be. Sonically it should sound great, but at the same time, it’s Pop’s last endeavor. It needs to stay authentic in that regard, mostly, so it’s a tricky thing.
Why has the album not seen the light of day?
Nelson: My knowledge of it is pretty limited, to be honest with you. I feel like it’s Eddie and the Cruisers a little bit. Throughout the course of time, I’ve heard, “This guy has the masters, this guy has the rights, and this guy…” You know, it’s like down the rabbit hole.
There’s a reason it hasn’t been released. Mainly, who owns the rights to the album is ambiguous and up in the air to say the least. Or everyone thinks they own a piece of the pie, which happened towards the end of my dad’s career.
You sent me that information about an attorney who supposedly owns the rights. I can’t tell you how many people from all walks of life have told me they worked on his last record. Or they know who own the rights.
Just for fun, I checked on Google Maps to see specifically what that address was that you sent me. Literally, it was an empty salvage yard, where they drop off dead cars (laughs). You know what I’m saying? I’m sure there’s some sort of connection to that place with whoever says he owns something, but that’s its own kind of adventure.
In my experience, everybody talks a big game and nobody really has any kind of control at all. Unless somebody can prove to me that somebody owns something, I think our hands are tied.
More importantly, would you like to see it released some day?
Nelson: That’s a really good question. I would say yes, of course I do. I would definitely want it to be the best it could possibly be in every regard. Do I think it’s there now? No, I feel it needs a lot of work.
Ultimately, it would have to come out together with another well-known collection, some sort of push or commemorative anniversary, perhaps a bonus record. I don’t know. It would have to be a creative release for sure.
Whatever we put out, we’re definitely gonna make sure it’s a family endeavor, not nine random people coming in saying, “Oh that’s mine, and this is my input for the record.” I think we would have a better idea of what Pop would have wanted released. Nevertheless, there’s bigger stuff to be dealing with at this point [i.e. I recently became estate manager for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet].
As a longtime fan and recent biographer, do you think Rick’s tapes should be released?
Sheree Homer: The songs that I have heard, i.e. the live version of “One After 909”, “You Got Me Gone”, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Fool”, and “Singing the Blues” are all great rockabilly rave-ups. In their completed form, I think they all could have been charted singles. Those are the only songs that have been bootlegged.
Because of the confusion over the rights to the record, Bear Family Records, who chronicled Rick’s complete recording sessions through his stint with Capitol in 1982 on three acclaimed box sets, didn’t issue them because of not knowing who owned them to obtain rights. Yet they did list the tracks and their accompanying songwriters in the discography included with The Last Around: 1970 – 1982. I seriously doubt that Bear Family has any future plans to release them.
I know that the songs aren’t finished, but I would like to see them get an official release. I believe it would cause a resurgence to happen within the Rick Nelson community. Many of his fans are yearning for new product.
In an interview for Homer’s Rick Nelson: Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer, a renowned annotator for the “Garden Party” songwriter revealed:
Jim Ritz: The producer of the Legacy box set for Capitol, Bob Hyde, had gotten an unmixed copy of the final sessions, so I heard all 10 songs. ‘One After 909’ and ‘As Long As I Have You’ sound like finished products. ‘You Got Me Gone’ and ‘Ain’t Gonna Do You No Good’ were also great.
We were going to include ‘True Love Ways’ since we wanted to cover Rick’s entire career on Legacy. But at the last moment, we both looked it over and decided it was unfinished. I don’t think it was a scratch vocal, but it just wasn’t mixed properly. We decided to go with the original 1978 Epic version instead.
Someone should untangle the legalities and get the songs out there. I’m hoping the family does it. From a historical point of view, they should be released.
Would you be willing to play on the record?
James Burton: While I was playing in Vegas with Jerry Lee Lewis around New Year’s Eve 1984, Rick actually asked me to come and play on what turned out to be his final album. I told him, “Absolutely, I’d love to.” Unfortunately, it never happened. Jimmie Haskell also called later and asked me if I would play on it, as Rick had asked him to contact me.
I really don’t know the status of the recordings – whether it was finished or if they would consider releasing it. I could find out real easy, though. It’s possible that I could be called in to overdub my guitar parts after all these years. If his family called me, I would be more than happy to do that.
Where were you when you received the news of Rick’s plane crash?
Burton: My wife, Louise, and I had a home in Las Vegas since I had worked with Elvis so long, and we had gone to Vegas during that weekend in 1985 for New Year’s Eve. My son’s ex-wife called to tell us the news, but I didn’t take the call. I answered the phone and gave it to my wife.
Suddenly I heard her scream. I ran back into the room and said, “What happened?” Louise shouted, “Turn the TV on – Rick and his entire band just had a plane crash!” That’s how I found out about it.
The whole band, including road manager Donald Clark Russell, guitarist Bobby Neal, bassist Patrick Woodward, drummer Ricky Intveld, and keyboardist Andy Chapin, were all good friends of mine.
It was such a sad and incredibly shocking time for us, thinking of what might have been, and what an amazing guy Rick was. When you lose somebody that close, they’re like family to you. We lost a wonderful entertainer and a great friend.
Confirmed Songs Recorded for Rick Nelson’s Final Studio Album
- “Rock ‘N’ Roll Fool” [written by Bill Rowe; not recorded by any other artists]
- “Ain’t Gonna Do You No Good” [Jerry Fuller; not recorded by any other artists]
- “You Know What I Mean” [Mickey Jupp]
- “One After 909” [John Lennon / Paul McCartney]
- “You Got Me Gone” [Bobby Mizzell]
- “Singing the Blues” [Melvin Endsley; hit for Marty Robbins and others]
- “As Long as I Have You” [Ben Weisman / Fred Wise; recorded by Elvis Presley on the King Creole 1958 soundtrack]
- “Moon Enough” [Jack Wesley Routh / Randy Sharp; not recorded by any other artists]
- “Lucky Boy” [Johnny and Dorsey Burnette; obscure 1959 demo by Johnny]
- “True Love Ways” [Buddy Holly / Norman Petty]
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! “True Love Ways: A Glimpse Inside the Tangled Web of Rick Nelson’s Final Album” is a companion feature-length article placing the shelved Curb sessions in proper historical perspective by discussing the circumstances leading up to the project and their inexplicable aftermath. Meanwhile, back at the ranch…a seven-image slideshow of recently unearthed images accompanies this article. Candid moments depict the superstar grinning on the set of a 1984 NBC pilot in character as a charming high school teacher, at ease in a black leather jacket on the cover of People magazine, backstage at the Universal Amphitheatre with Fats Domino and musician Al Kooper, performing at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall shortly before his death, and much more.
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Exclusive Interview: Rick Nelson ruled pop airwaves in the ’50s and ’60s, sailing 35 Top 40 singles onto the charts with relative ease. Female fans felt comfortable bringing him home to meet their parents, while guys had no qualms taking him out for a round of drinks. Three-time Grammy winner Jimmie Haskell got his start producing Nelson’s impressive oeuvre. In “Just Go in the Studio and Make Hit Records: Jimmie Haskell Revisits Rick Nelson”, Haskell sets the record straight on the day Nelson nearly got in big trouble with his demanding father for smoking in the studio, Glen Campbell’s largely unrecognized guitar and vocal contributions to Nelson’s music, a premonitory conversation about the unsafe 40-year-old Douglas DC-3 airplane that the singer refused to sell, and where he was when he received the news of Nelson’s cruel date with destiny on New Year’s Eve 1985.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Rick’s youngest child, Sam, had a complicated relationship with his dad. While he recognized that his famous father loved him, they rarely had a chance to see each other due to drawn out, often nasty divorce proceedings. Just when it seemed like things were getting back to relative normalcy, Rick was inexplicably gone forever. Sam was only 11 years old. Now manager of his grandparents’ estate and a fine musician, Sam has broken his silence to remember what it was like to grow up the son of a deceased rock ‘n’ roll star in the touching “Rick Nelson Was Really My Dad…”
Exclusive Interview No. 3: Philip Bashe wrote one of the first books on Rick’s meteoric trajectory in 1992. In his 40-year journalism career, Bashe can still recall the moment when he first heard Rick’s “Garden Party.” Instantly rooting for Rick’s moral victory after being booed at Madison Square Garden and refusing to compromise, the author began a decade-long quest to uncover the man behind the myth. In the splendid 11,000 word conversation entitled “Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man…”, Bashe refutes the misnomer that Ozzie didn’t understand rock ‘n’ roll, explains why Rick is often lumped in with teen idols, reveals the singer’s acting aspirations, contextualizes the vastly neglected work of the Stone Canyon Band, and why legends including Bob Dylan and John Fogerty idolize the “Poor Little Fool” balladeer.
- Exclusive Interview No. 4: The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, is a charter member of L.A. studio wizards the Wrecking Crew and has supported a who’s who list of preeminent movers and shakers in a nearly 60-year career – notably Elvis Presley, John Denver, the Beach Boys, and Simon and Garfunkel. Burton joined Rick Nelson in late 1957 for the classic “Stood Up” b/w “Waitin’ in School” driving rockabilly single, actually rooming with the Nelson family and ultimately forging an 11-year friendship with the handsome singer. To read a revealing in-depth feature with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer commemorating his fascinating journey with Nelson [“Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson”], simply click on the highlighted link.
Exclusive Interview No. 5: One aspect of Rick Nelson’s legacy that is rarely explored or given proper credit is his songwriting. And if it is, his only claim to fame is the autobiographical “Garden Party.” While never a prolific wordsmith, the artist reached his critical zenith during the early ’70s, ultimately penning approximately 44 compositions that were released on various records through 1981’s Playing to Win. In an extensive series of conversations [“Rick Nelson, Songwriter: A Candid Take…”], Sheree Homer, author of the engrossing Rick Nelson: Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer, unearths the debut song composed by the singer about an unfortunate break-up with his girlfriend, and why it took nearly eight years before he gained enough confidence to release a second composition. The sublime country rock tune “You Just Can’t Quit”, the ethereal ode to making one’s own destiny, “Easy to Be Free”, and Nelson’s highly underrated debut studio album, Rick Sings Nelson, are reviewed track-by-track and placed in proper historical context, too.
Further Reading: David Nelson had to come to terms with living in the shadow of his younger teen idol sibling. According to an interview for Philip Bashe’s Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man, the one question always posed to David was whether he experienced any jealousy over his brother’s success. While he denied the accusation, the actor did recount one revealing anecdote that might have encouraged a certain degree of resentment. While the Nelsons were singing “Happy Birthday to You” on David’s 21st birthday in 1957, Imperial Records mogul Lew Chudd burst in unannounced to award Rick with a gold record for “Be-Bop Baby.” David chuckled as he told Bashe, “At least Chudd could have waited until I blew out the candles.” To learn more about David’s respectable life and career, including anecdotes from nephew Sam Nelson, head on over to “David Nelson Enters the Limelight.”
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