Did you know that there is a complete album of unreleased Rick Nelson songs in someone’s possession? Indeed, the “You Just Can’t Quit” songwriter was working on a new rockabilly “comeback” album for Curb Records at the time of his fateful collision with destiny on Dec. 31, 1985.
Nelson had been uncomfortable performing many of his greatest hits live since the counterculture claimed pop airwaves in the late ’60s. His personal mantra of “if memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck” as immortalized in the Stone Canyon Band’s “Garden Party” haunted him, not unlike Pete Townshend’s declaration that “I hope I die before I get old” in the anthemic “My Generation.”
But his fans never stopped yearning to hear Nelson perform the tunes that made him a household name. When rockabilly experienced an unexpected revival in the early ’80s as the Stray Cats landed several huge hits with “Stray Cat Strut” and “(She’s) Sexy + 17”, Nelson finally realized that his legacy was worth celebrating. Consequently, classic artists such as Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, and Nelson himself began to command better-paying gigs in front of screaming, appreciative fans.
The legendary artist had originally tried to return to his earlier rockabilly sound after disbanding the Stone Canyon Band. Traveling to Memphis in late 1978 with producer Larry Rogers, Nelson recorded a terrific set of contemporary and vintage songs. Epic Records, his label at the time, inexplicably rejected the album on the grounds of being out of sync with current pop radio, only releasing the passionate “Dream Lover” as a single. The Memphis Sessions was finally released months after the singer’s death.
Two years later, Nelson rebounded with Capitol, but the resulting record, Playing to Win, was roundly ignored and did little business, although a cover of John Fogerty’s “Almost Saturday Night” was a step in the right direction. Not surprisingly, the label swiftly dropped their client.
So it certainly seemed like the third attempt would be make-or-break. Plans were first set in motion for the new album when Nelson regrouped in summer 1984 in the studio with longtime friend Jimmie Haskell, who arranged Nelson’s greatest hits in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and the Jordanaires, perhaps the best vocal quartet of the 20th century and widely known for their pioneering work with Elvis Presley.
Their goal: to re-record 21 of Nelson’s greatest hits plus an original selection for an album called All My Best. The singer had recently recovered from nearly three years of painful and quite nasty divorce proceedings from his wife and mother of his four children, Kristin Harmon, which nearly bankrupted him and pretty much forced him to perform over 200 live dates annually.
Unfortunately, the rocker did not own the rights to his hits on Verve, Imperial, or Decca, so when best-of compilations hit the market, the singer received meager artist and songwriter royalties at best. Bankrolling the sessions himself and going so far as to set up his own mini label, Silver Eagle Records, to exclusively distribute the album, the plan definitely worked in the long run, as All My Best became the artist’s first album to sell a million copies and go gold since the Garden Party album in 1972.
Free of a record label’s constraints, the final album (a title has never been confirmed) ultimately came to fruition between August and December 1985. Ten documented tracks were recorded on a vintage three-track tape machine at Baby-O Recorders and Conway Studios in North Hollywood with Nelson behind the production reigns.
The recording process was often interrupted by well-received package tours of the United Kingdom and Australia as well as manager Greg McDonald’s penchant for not paying Nelson’s band after each studio session.
Featuring the singer’s road band, led by the great Bobby Neal on lead guitar, Ricky Intveld on drums, Pat Woodward on bass, and Andy Chapin on piano, the sessions were embellished by the presence of rockabilly pianist Bobby Mizzell and rhythm guitarist Bobby Wood [not to be confused with pianist Bobby Wood of the Memphis Boys] on some tracks.
The song selection ran the musical gamut between rock and roll and sublime ballads. In a bit of a letdown to fans of the Stone Canyon Band songwriter era, the singer did not write any of the new material. However, in two May 1984 interviews with The Spokane Chronicle and The Salina Journal to promote the failed NBC pilot High School USA, Nelson stated that he was writing songs for the project.
Nelson reached back to one of his primary influences, Elvis Presley, for a cover of the oft-neglected ballad, “As Long As I Have You,” taken from the King Creole soundtrack. And Marty Robbins’ crossover pop hit “Singing the Blues” and Buddy Holly’s tragic ballad “True Love Ways” made the cut.
In a surprising move suggested by Bobby Neal, the singer covered the Beatles’ early rocker, “One After 909”. It was his first acknowledgment on record of the Liverpool lads’ transcendent grasp on pop culture and a good example of Nelson’s decency that he would cover the group who knocked his records off the charts in the summer of 1964 at the height of Beatlemania. The singer would not have another bona fide hit until “Garden Party” eight years later.
Incidentally, Paul McCartney reached out to Nelson in 1979 and offered to produce a rockabilly album at Sun Studios in Memphis. Because Nelson was currently signed with Capitol and McCartney had recently jilted the label for Columbia Record, a Capitol A&R executive nixed the idea with the flimsy excuse that McCartney had not experienced any success as a producer for other artists.
Somehow Nelson located an obscure 1959 demo entitled “Lucky Boy” from the estates of Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, who wrote the iconic “Believe What You Say”, “It’s Late”, and many other rockabilly tunes for the handsome singer. Jerry Fuller, who penned such Nelson classics as “Travelin’ Man” and “It’s Up to You” in the early ’60s, supplied a new song, “Ain’t Gonna Do You No Good.”
Contemporary selections included Mickey Jupp’s rockabilly rave-up “You Know What I Mean”, Mizzell’s piano rocker “You Got Me Gone”, and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Fool.”
The latter had an especially murky back-story until Nelson biographer Sheree Homer verified in March 2013 that it was composed by Bill Rowe, an occasional songwriter. The latter had aided Nelson financially, so the singer graciously returned the favor in the recording studio. Regardless, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Fool” is a driving up-tempo track that could have had chart potential if released as a single.
Just five days prior to the airplane crash, the singer had recorded Holly’s gentle “True Love Ways”. Appropriately, it was Nelson’s last song. Nelson’s death tragically stopped the album in its tracks. Adding more heartbreak to the situation, the Nashville-based Curb Records had heard the preliminary tapes and was in the process of finalizing a contract which would officially sign Nelson to the label.
A few months after Nelson’s untimely demise, “You Know What I Mean” was released [at least three similar versions were recorded] as his final single on MCA, Curb’s parent label. The remaining nine songs are still unreleased, although an earlier November 1978 version of “True Love Ways”, recorded in Memphis with producer Larry Rogers, is widely available.
“Rock ‘N’ Roll Fool”, “Singing the Blues”, and “You Got Me Gone” can be found on generally inferior-sounding bootlegs. Dedicated Nelson fans have also likely heard live versions of “One After 909” and “You Know What I Mean.” The latter was featured heavily in the rocker’s setlist during the final year of his life.
So, should Nelson’s final album be given an official release? This writer definitely believes so, if only for historical purposes. The instrumentation is largely finished, except for lead guitar breaks on several tracks. The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, who played with Nelson and Presley for decades, would be an ideal remedy. However, in a July 2012 interview with Pop Culture Classics, noted English guitarist Albert Lee, best known for his work with Emmylou Harris and the Everly Brothers, revealed that he added overdubs to certain tracks. Overall, his recollections about the project were quite hazy.
Haskell has stated in numerous interviews that Nelson never had the opportunity to record his final vocals and releasing the project might tarnish the singer’s already assured rank in rock and roll. But perhaps this might be in line with Nelson’s original intentions to go back to the basics, recording rockin’, utterly spontaneous music trail blazed by Sun Records and Sam Phillips, the singer’s musical bedrock.
Giving further credence to why the project should see the light of day, unreleased, often unpolished recordings from such diverse artists as Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, John Lennon and Presley flood the market and keep their respective fans’ appetites whetted.
Ultimately, the most significant stumbling block to releasing the album has to do with who owns the rights. There is a ton of controversy over the matter. In the words of Sam Nelson, the musician’s youngest son, “everybody wanted a piece of the pie” during his dad’s final years.
McDonald, who claimed he was related to Colonel Tom Parker, often made deals with shady individuals in order to alleviate his client’s financial burdens, aggravated by the lack of a long-term fiscal plan. Ozzie Nelson had long shielded his son from business, and when the brilliant creator/producer/director of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet succumbed to liver cancer in June 1975, his non-confrontational, easy-going child faced a tough final decade of business decisions that he never quite fully comprehended.
Regardless, McDonald did in fact own the last album for a season. He attempted to properly mix the tunes in 1986 but nothing came of it. A significant portion of Nelson’s friends and family dislike McDonald with an intense passion, and his whereabouts are currently unknown. Still, it would be interesting to hear his side of the story.
In 2000 there was a brief ray of hope when Capitol was preparing Legacy, the first box set devoted to the songwriter’s career. Jim Ritz, a Nelson historian who listened to the tapes during the selection process, confirmed to Homer that “True Love Ways” was going to be the final cut. Unfortunately, he and producer Bob Hyde decided at the last minute that the song was not mixed properly, so they went with the original version instead. As of February 2013, Rick Nelson fans are still waiting…
Unfortunately, there has not been a major record label compilation on the singer since Capitol’s Greatest Love Songs in January 2008. However, indie collector labels are beginning to fill the substantial demand for Nelson music product, and these fan-friendly labels may be the best shot at releasing the final album.
Bear Family, a mail-order record label in Germany, chronicled Nelson’s complete recording career through 1982 in three well-received box sets released during the past decade. Real Gone Music, a relatively recent reissue label, finally released the singer’s complete Epic recordings [Intakes, Back to Vienna, and The Memphis Sessions, 1977–1979] in the USA for the first time in 2012. Let’s hope Nelson’s ultimate record sees the light of day soon.
Confirmed Tracks 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]
- “Do 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 the former]
- “True Love Ways” [Buddy Holly / Norman Petty]
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! A far-reaching series of interviews with Jimmie Haskell, James Burton, Sam Nelson, author Philip Bashe [Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: The Complete Biography of Rick Nelson], and journalist Sheree Homer [Rick Nelson: Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer] devoted to the making of the charming singer’s 1985 album for Curb Records and whether it should be released is also available. Entitled “As Long As We Had Him: Rick Nelson’s Friends and Family Recall His Last Record”, vintage recollections from Curb Records president Mike Curb and Nelson historian Jim Ritz further illustrate the oft-complicated final chapter of Nelson’s enviable life. And don’t forget to investigate the 7-image slideshow accompanying this article. Featuring exclusive images from the final year of Nelson’s all-too brief life, there is definitely something for everybody. Images include Playgirl’s “Sexiest Man Alive” backstage at the Universal Amphitheatre, posing at PJ’s Alley in Guntersville, smiling alongside bassist Pat Upton mere hours before his final flight, and the cover of his final single, “Do You Know What I Mean.”
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Exclusive Interview: 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. 2: 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. 3: Jimmie Haskell won his first of three Grammys for arranging chanteuse Bobbie Gentry’s mysterious “Ode to Billie Joe” in 1967. But before Haskell received widespread recognition in the recording industry, he earned his musical chops in a decade-long partnership with Rick that yielded a ton of essential hits. In “Just Go in the Studio and Make Hit Records…” Haskell examines his role in the “Lonesome Town” balladeer’s career, revealing what instrument he played on the iconic “Hello Mary Lou”, the day Rick nearly got in big trouble with his father for smoking in the studio, the singer’s surprise cowboy expertise on the set of Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin, Glen Campbell’s largely unrecognized guitar and vocal contributions to Rick’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 Rick’s cruel date with destiny on New Year’s Eve 1985.
- 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’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.
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