Too scared to fly: Sam Nelson’s musical odyssey to his legendary father
Though “Hello Mary Lou” hit recording artist Rick Nelson preferred not to share family matters with his band members, John Beland, Nelson’s lead guitarist from 1978 through 1980 who is forever preserved on video accompanying him during an unforgettable Saturday Night Live hosting stint, candidly revealed in Philip Bashe’s Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: The Complete Biography of Rick Nelson that there was one exception to the rule. “He always talked about Sam a lot,” said Beland. “Rick really loved his other kids, but he had a special fondness for Sam.”
For the anniversary of his father’s disturbing December 31, 1985, death aboard a supposedly invulnerable World War II-era DC-3 that actually landed in northeast Texas — albeit engulfed in sweltering flames due to a problematic heater — the youngest Nelson offspring granted a wide-ranging interview covering an at times painful, confusing childhood spent between two warring parents entrenched in a never-ending divorce.
The sensitive, musically gifted six-year-old was placed in the custody of maternal grandparents Tom and Elyse Harmon because of mother Kris Harmon Nelson’s then-alcohol abuse and wildly unpredictable behavior. A mere five years later Sam’s infrequent visits with his perpetually touring father — it really made no difference how much Rick was on the road as contact with his son was restricted in the unfair terms of the divorce — disintegrated forever.
Sam wisely eschewed his family’s celebrity status and became his own man — something that would have definitely pleased his dad immensely — earning a psychology degree and a minor in film from Boston College. He gained invaluable music biz experience interning for MCA Records on an administrative level and working in A&R for Capitol’s legacy division.
Over the past decade and a half Sam has been best known as lead vocalist-songwriter for L.A. based alternative rockers H is Orange and manager of grandparents Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s estate, a treasure trove of unseen concert video and other precious memorabilia.
Encouraged mightily by fans, the burgeoning web designer never felt comfortable capitalizing on his dad’s richly varied discography until Pop Songs: Tribute to Rick Nelson, a lovingly crafted nine-song EP released to coincide with the notable 30th anniversary of the elder Nelson’s demise, a milestone that inexplicably received little attention from mainstream media.
Containing deep cuts from his father’s artistically rewarding years with the Stone Canyon Band as well as one newly written original — ”It Rolls Away” — the project was co-produced and pretty much entirely performed by the multi-instrumentalist who bears an uncanny resemblance — both physically and vocally — to the “Garden Party” troubadour. Hang tight as Sam’s fascinating journey accelerates now.
The Complete Sam Nelson / Rick Nelson Interview
How was your relationship with your dad?
My relationship with Pop was tricky. I loved him very much, I know he loved me very much, but we didn’t really get an opportunity to see each other that often. When I was growing up, my parents were going through a divorce that lasted about seven years. I think I’m being conservative when I say seven years, because it feels like forever. That happened all through my childhood.
I basically had to sneak out to see him, and the big night to see him was Christmas Eve. I would go to Pop’s house on Mulholland Drive — formerly owned by Errol Flynn — and we would spend one glorious night a year together. Then I wouldn’t see him again — he would be off touring or performing.
When he passed away, I was 11 years old. It was profound in all sorts of ways. Mass media was different then. It was very limited in terms of what and how you were informed.
But when he died, literally the whole world mourned with our family, which was amazing and incredibly powerful. Even now you don’t get that — you hear it on the Internet where it happened kind of thing. To be his son, on top of that, was surreal.
What made it even more surreal was the fact that I had seen him on Christmas Day, a few days before he passed away. The whole thing was very hard to wrap my head around. And for a long time I was lost. I didn’t have a clue about what had happened, who he was, who I was, who my family was.
I was very close to my grandmother Harriet. She lived in Laguna Beach, and I would go down and ask her about my dad. Was he like this? Did he do this? Did he enjoy this?
For the most part, she could either tell a story or amazingly, she could pull out an episode of Ozzie and Harriet and say, “Yeah, check it out, this is when your dad was going through such and such.” That was obviously surreal in its own way. I’ve got the most incredible home movies that anybody could ask for.
I had that crutch, I suppose, of going through the process of mourning with this unbelievable amount of music, history, photographs, along with my grandmother. Thank God she was still alive to fill me in and help me get through that unbelievably sad time.
What did your dad teach you?
Every time I saw him, it was always a pretty special occasion. It wasn’t extraordinary things, but we would play tennis for example. Pop taught me how to dive in the deep end of our swimming pool.
I know this sounds weird, but he showed me how to wrap a towel around my waist. He didn’t know how to tie a tie, but he sure did a good job teaching me how to wrap that towel.
Did you ever see him live in concert?
I did. My life has been interesting in the sense that I’ve been kind of always in the background. A lot of the time that was intentional. I have had the ability to walk into a room, and people don’t have an association with me like they do with my brothers or sister, since they were always out there in the spotlight.
I like the idea of going anywhere I want to. And when I made friends, I didn’t have to feel concerned about tension and stuff. My first concert with my dad was actually kind of the beginning of that.
I think he was playing Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California. It was more of an open air concert, not really a seated event. I was about four or five years old, and I remember it like it was yesterday. I was out in the crowd with our housekeeper, just walking amongst all the people.
Everybody was especially excited, and girls were giddy about the fact that they were going to see Pop. As he came onstage to loud cheers, I walked up to this one lady.
I exclaimed, “That’s my Pop!” She responded, “Oh, how cute!” So I reiterated, “No, he’s really my dad!,” pointing enthusiastically. Even though I was that young, I remember being subtlety annoyed that she didn’t believe he was actually my dad.
So with a shrug of my shoulders, I said — or at least felt — ”Oh well,” then I moved on. That must have been my first official concert. I never saw him in concert again.
Again, with the divorce, I lived with my mother for awhile, and it was incredibly tumultuous between my mother and father. There was a period of time when I would sneak over to my grandparents’ house to see Pop. We would go get ice cream or eat a burger, but those experiences were really few and far between.
What do you remember about Christmas Day 1985, the last time you saw your dad?
Pop got me a little RC remote-controlled car. I know it was truly important to him, since he only saw me once a year after the divorce. He wanted to make sure the gifts were always incredibly special and sentimental.
He really took a long time to go out and find the right car that he thought I would love, and I did. I actually I have a picture of us holding the car. It was the last picture of us together.
When did you start listening to his music?
I slowly started to listen to his music beginning with his early stuff. I was wowed by it, probably just as much as any other kid was at the time when it first came out. Of course, I loved all sorts of music, even as an 11-year-old in 1986.
I was really taken by rockabilly and ’50s rock & roll very, very early on. I was listening to a slew of artists, especially my dad’s idols like Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly, and my personal favorite, Roy Orbison.
I was trying to get in deeper and deeper to help me understand who Pop was as a person through the music that he loved. I got an incredible music education that way and an appreciation for music that stuck with me forever.
Over time, my dad’s music evolved, and as I got older, so did my understanding of him as an artist. I really focused on his Garden Party era — that period where he was writing his own material.
Consequently, I started writing my own material and began getting more introspective in my own right, trying to figure out what it was that I wanted to do with my life. Breaking away from the family stuff and really kinda being my own man, which is basically the lesson he tried to teach.
You know, ‘You can’t please everyone, so you gotta please yourself.’ You gotta do what you can to be your own man.
Would you ever record and release one of your dad’s songs?
It’s funny, at the same time I archived the Ozzie and Harriet stuff, I started doing my renditions of my dad’s material. My brothers had already done it. However, I wasn’t ready to release anything at that time.
In Dec. 2011 I drove across the country, catching up with the old musicians, singers, and producers who were involved with my dad’s recordings and doing video interviews with them. That went really well.
While I was in Nashville I interviewed bass extraordinaire Ray Walker and the now deceased, first tenor Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires, who backed my dad on many of his greatest songs. They actually performed some classic back-up vocals on a few songs like “Sweeter Than You” and “Lonesome Town.” What an amazing experience.
2015 was an extremely important — if not somber — anniversary year for my father. Not only did it mark the 75th anniversary of his birth, but also the 30-year anniversary of his passing. I can’t believe how fast all the years have flown by, and aside from the spectacular Ronnie Mack and his outstanding birthday tribute to Rick Nelson on May 2, 2015, at Burbank’s Pickwick Gardens, it probably would have all come and gone without a whisper. It’s a travesty how little was done to celebrate it.
That said, for the very special once in a lifetime occasion I put together an intimate, stripped down collection of my favorite Rick Nelson recordings entitled Pop Songs: Tribute to Rick Nelson. With contributions from the legendary Jordanaires, pedal steel by Dave Pearlman, drums by Silas Hite, and production/co-production by Enoch Jensen, this nine-song EP serves as my tribute to his outstanding life and legacy. I really do hope you enjoy it. The EP is only available via digital form. For more information and to take a listen please visit SamsSong.com.
Tell us about your grandparents on the Harmon side.
I lived with my grandparents on the Harmon side during my parents’ divorce. My grandfather passed away in 1990 of a massive heart attack. It was especially difficult to lose him, as he was a father figure to me. I also referred to him as “Pop” [Tom Harmon won the Heisman Trophy while playing football for the University of Michigan in 1940].
My grandmother Elyse lived to be 94 years old. She was an actress and a model for Universal and later Monogram Pictures in the 1940s [her stage name was Elyse Knox; The Mummy’s Tomb with Lon Chaney, Jr. is one of her most notable films].
She became a stay-at-home mom when my grandfather married her. She raised my mom, Aunt Kelly, and Uncle Mark, who stars in ratings blockbuster NCIS. She was one of the most incredible people in the world [Elyse succumbed to natural causes in 2012].
Has your relationship with your mom, Kris Harmon, improved over the years?
We’re absolutely close. She lives in New Mexico, so it’s a little bit of a trip to visit her. She’s incredibly creative. I’ll call her and ask her about ideas and what she thinks.
As you get older, things that were important aren’t important anymore. Problems aren’t problems anymore. You work through them, or you don’t. But for the most part, you hope to. I think we’re in a good way together, and we have a good relationship.
She and Uncle Dave never really mended fences. They were cordial. Again, as time goes by, time goes by. I know that after Uncle Dave passed away on Jan. 11, 2011, my mom wrote a fantastic letter to his wife, Yvonne. They’re starting to rekindle and communicate a little more. Hopefully that will spawn into something more meaningful.
What was your Grandma Harriet like?
She was awesome. She was funny, smart, witty, very classy, and possessed an incredible grace about her until she passed away on Oct. 2, 1994. She had that energy, that thing. When Grandma walked into a room, you knew she was there. All eyes turned to her.
There was no arrogance about who she was. Grandma wasn’t a jerk to anybody ever. She was just an amazing, amazing woman. I couldn’t have asked for a better grandmother.
I think she realized when my dad died how cheated I was for the most part, growing up without parents, being left to my own devices to figure everything out. Grandma really made an effort to take me under her wing and educate me to a certain degree and indulge me with the family history, make me know I was part of something incredible.
She didn’t have to do that. Honestly, in a lot of ways it really set the course for me and my confidence in wanting to do things that other people in the family didn’t. For example, school. Grandpa Ozzie was the last person in my family to attend college until I went. That wanting to “be better” feeling happened when she took that chance with me.
So, where did you attend college?
I went to college in Europe for a little while, but I ended up at Boston College, where I ultimately graduated. In fact, I went to high school in Massachusetts, so I spent a lot of time on the East Coast, in a boarding school, actually.
I have a degree in Psychology and a minor in Film. Music was not a part of that process, and I did that on purpose. I just didn’t want music to become a task. I didn’t want to start feeling like my understanding of what I know music to be needed a grade attached to it.
So I kept those separate. Psychology is the study of human behavior; it’s connected to everything you do in life. Working in business, being in music, writing, and being creative is all a part of that process.
What was your first job?
During my senior year in high school, I did a summer internship at MCA Records around 1993 at an administrative level, nothing profound. But I was definitely listening to new music, dealing with record labels, trying to secure demo deals, helping other bands, and in a band myself. Basically just running the L.A. rat race.
I quickly got an idea of what the music business was all about. Seeing how things work, how everything is politics, how everything is who you know [i.e. networking], just figuring all that stuff out at a very young age. Thankfully that later evolved into my gig with Capitol.
You know, music has always been the key in my career. I believe you are where you need to be. That’s exactly where I needed to be at the time. Working for the labels was an incredible education, an incredible school for what I’m doing now.
I made great friends and an outstanding network of people. They don’t talk, they do. That’s the most important thing. I’ve learned a lot, and now I’m taking those tools with me to really do well by my family.
Did you work on your dad’s well-received Legacy box set, released in 2000?
Yes, I helped Bob Hyde — then-Vice President of A&R for EMI-Capitol Music Special Markets — and my siblings, bringing in song suggestions and to a certain degree, A&Ring the project.
I was much younger then, and I wasn’t at Capitol at that point. It was a collective family experience, sort of a magical little moment in my dad’s retrospective career. I’m very proud of that box set.
What were some of the projects you worked on during your tenure with Capitol Records?
Beginning in 2005, I started working at Capitol in A&R in catalog with these legacy artists — amazing talents like N.E.R.D., Megadeth, Pat Benatar, Merle Haggard, Glen Campbell, the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin [e.g. the platinum-selling Dino: The Essential Dean Martin], Nat King Cole, and my dad.
I helped put together some pretty big projects over there that were very successful, including the Ricky Nelson Sings DVD [2005, directed by John Scheinfeld], Greatest Hits  and Greatest Love Songs . By the way, I helped produce the latter.
The label was virtually done with legacy or catalogue artists at that time. With my dad, it was like, ‘Oh whatever, we’ll just put something out.’ Oddly enough, Ricky Nelson Sings went gold and Greatest Hits almost did. That blew everybody’s mind. It was the first time my dad had really shone in a long time, perhaps 25 years.
I also A&R’d Greatest Love Songs a couple of years later, and unfortunately, it didn’t get the love it deserved. The players changed, and the label itself was just looking for the fastest way to the finish line. No marketing and they blew the opportunity. Regardless, I’m really proud of that record.
Initially when I first started working there, Capitol was very creative. There was an incredible team of people trying to be innovative, and it wasn’t just an artist’s “greatest hits.” And if it was a greatest hits, it was released with a strategy to make it more interesting and successful. What a concept.
Unfortunately, as time went on, it became basically unimaginative greatest hits packages only. As we all know, the record industry for the most part, especially over at EMI, has gotten a little rough. That idea of creativity and trying to breathe new life into older projects sadly went away.
Documentarian John Scheinfeld, who I have also extensively interviewed, directed Ricky Nelson Sings. Do you think he might tackle a biography of your dad?
John is a fantastic, great guy. He basically helped launch us again. He put my father in a completely different place with the performance special. I wish him nothing but success, and he’s definitely earned it. John has talked about doing a film about my dad…it’s something that might really happen. It’s a pretty exciting thought.
Are you a musician first and foremost?
How do I say this? Music is my life. I grew up with entertainment all around me, all the time. Music was obviously an enormous part of my life. I grew up with my brothers, Matthew and Gunnar, who were doing something great but completely different than the direction I had ever thought myself to go in.
I always kinda played on the back burner musically for a long time until I got to college. I know this might sound silly, but the opportunities musically that I wanted to take weren’t available until I got away from my family.
Then I started focusing on my own thing, completely independent of everybody else. My brothers were very successful as the band Nelson [“After the Rain,” “More Than Ever,” and “Can’t Live Without Your Love and Affection” were Top 20 Billboard pop singles in 1990. The latter climbed to an impressive №1].
So people thought, ‘Maybe you should start emulating your brothers.’ Pop was a legend, so maybe you should start doing that kind of stuff. As an artist, it’s hard enough figuring out who you are yourself. It’s that much more difficult when you’re constantly bombarded by these preconceived notions of who you should be.
As I got older, I found my own voice. It definitely parlayed with school. When you ask if I’m a musician first, I would say I’m an artist first, in the sense that I love ideas and creativity. I express them in every aspect of my life, every way that I possibly can. Music is a huge proponent of that.
What is the genesis behind your L.A. based band, H is Orange, and its ill-fated attachment to Sept. 11, 2001?
If you go to iTunes, YouTube, or Amazon, you can find my material with my alternative hard rock band, H is Orange [Marcel Blanco — bass; Guy Staniar — original drummer; Rich Abagon — drums; David Iscove — guitar; and Troy Brittain — guitar].
I first played in a band with Guy back in high school. We formed a band immediately after I graduated from college. We finished our first three-song demo in about a month. Two months later, we started getting calls from every major label in town.
From there, things got very rocky very quickly for H is Orange. We did the dog and pony show, ran the ride. But as soon as the luck came…it went.
If you can believe it, this is how long ago it was — we arrived in New York City on Sept. 10, 2001, to showcase for a bunch of different labels. The next day, the whole world changed. That kind of threw a wrench in the momentum of things.
We spent a long time trying to regain that momentum. But you can’t chase that. The second you start running after your own momentum, you’re done. There is nothing worse than trying to recapture an energy long gone.
We realized that pretty early on and started to prioritize. So, I moved on to the other, in my opinion, more interesting side of things, business. I actually went directly from H is Orange straight to Capitol Records.
However, we never stopped recording and playing occasional gigs. In Aug. 2009 we released our third album, Thrill of Escape. It’s a fantastic record. “Nothing All the Time,” a song from that album, was licensed for the popular video game Guitar Hero.
It’s been nearly six years since our last gig. It was a CD release party for Thrill of Escape, although the album had been out for a year. We had just licensed the song for Guitar Hero, too, so it was kind of an all-around celebration.
Everybody was clamoring for us to go onstage and play again. It was more or less one last hurrah for our band. The guys are married, have kids, and some have moved out of California, so other priorities have taken over.
We don’t have any plans to get back together just yet for shows, although we might for a special studio session dealing with licensing purposes like commercials, video games, etc. That’s our bread and butter. Oddly enough, we have an incredible fan base. They’re very, very consistent and loyal.
Today my business hat is on over my artist hat, which I love. I’ve taken the reins on the Ozzie and Harriet entity, and it’s a very daunting process. As it gains more momentum and structure, I’ll devote more time to my music. But I’ll always be a singer/songwriter.
In 2009 I began working on my solo material again. It’s more acoustic, singer/songwriter based, kinda in line with the Stone Canyon Band. I have about 45 songs that I’m looking forward to releasing at some point. Hopefully I’ll have some listeners.
Do you recall the first song you composed?
Yes, it was called “Too Scared to Fly.” It appeared on Telepathetic, my first record ever, released in late 2000. It’s available for download under H is Orange’s discography, but the band doesn’t appear.
It’s just me, kind of a subtle but powerful folk/rocktronica sound. I can play all instruments for the most part. I wish I was a little more proficient on keyboards. It’s a pretty rare record. Look for the bullfighter on the album cover.
That song is definitely autobiographical, but it’s also metaphorical. It is really about fear — fear is a powerful force, and you have to be able to break through it. The song was cathartic when I wrote it, as I was going through a bad breakup and an emotional, tumultuous relationship. It was breaking through that whole process of fear, losing, longing, and loss.
Flying has always been the biggest fear I’ve had as I was growing up for obvious reasons. Of course, I fly all the time now. There’s no question I’m not the biggest fan of flying. Fortunately, as I’ve gotten older I don’t fear flying nearly as much.
How did you become the estate manager for Ozzie and Harriet?
It probably started around 2007 during the end of my tenure at Capitol. Uncle Dave got in touch with me. His health wasn’t great, but we weren’t sure how bad it was at that point. But I think he saw the success of the projects I had worked on through Capitol.
Being at Capitol and working on all these artists, I was like, ‘My God, I’m basically doing all this work for something that I should instead be pursuing for my own family.’
It was kind of a nice synergy when he called me in and said, “Listen, I want you to be co-captain with me on Ozzie and Harriet.” I think he felt confident with me in that position, and it was a good choice. It was perfect timing for me, and I dove right in.
How would you characterize your Uncle David?
When Pop died, everybody was kinda lost. Uncle Dave was responsible for putting everything in order. He was a quiet, good guy. As a son, I was looking for my dad, so I definitely wish that he was more like my dad than he was. But he had his own family and his own stuff going on.
I wish he had taken Ozzie and Harriet in different directions. I wish he had been a little better in that regard, but I’m glad he had the courage in me later on to bring me into the fold. He must have been watching the decisions I had made in my life and career, so I’m proud and honored that he had the courage to bring me on.
One of the best episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was when Rick performed “I’m Walkin’”.
The funny thing is, the premise for each show was all built on real-life events. An incident would happen one week, and it would be in the show the next week, which is pretty incredible. The music was the same way.
With the “I’m Walkin”’ story, my grandfather heard the record playing in my dad’s bedroom. You could record vinyl demos in those days. My grandfather asked, “What’s that?” And my dad admitted, “It’s me singing.” My grandfather replied, “Oh, really?”
By the next week the “Ricky the Drummer” episode was prepared. It aired on a Wednesday evening — April 10, 1957 — and by Monday morning every record store stocked my dad’s cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin.”’ It sold a million copies in a week.
What were some of your dad’s other stand-out performances on Ozzie and Harriet?
Pop does a rendition of “If You Can’t Rock Me” in a live appearance that I think was taken from the Louisiana Hayride [the song appears on the artist’s debut album Ricky released in Nov. 1957 on Imperial Records].
It’s just so cool. That’s why we need to go through all the episodes of the series, track down every single performance, and know what show they come from.
Although a lot of the Ozzie and Harriet performances were recorded or lip-synched, this performance was as raw as raw can get. James Kirkland is in the rear, plucking away on his stand-up bass.
James Burton is on lead electric guitar, and my dad is on rhythm acoustic. I can’t remember if Richie Frost play drums or not. Pop has this young, pure, soft voice which resonates like crazy.
The song is completely out of place in the episode, entering almost like a blast. Grandpa must have said, “Okay, insert Rick Nelson song here.” Pop goes into a little dance/swing ensemble with a girl during James Burton’s solo. Although it’s only two minutes, “If You Can’t Rock Me” is fantastic.
Another time Pop sang a live acoustic version of “Lonesome Town” which is amazing. It’s just him on guitar, as intimate as it can be. He was just in a room somewhere. In my opinion, the performance brings out the best of Rick Nelson — pure, young, clean, crisp and powerful, but subtle, too [“Lonesome Town” was a №7 pop single in Oct. 1958].
Do you have a perfect day?
Happiness is elusive, right? I don’t know if there’s such a thing as a perfect day, but I would love to live a life where I wake up and I’m constantly creatively challenged. I would love more to be in an environment where I can work through ideas. I would love to be creative for a living. That would make me most happy.
As to hobbies, I write short stories, poetry, and songs like crazy. I love music; I’m also a producer, and I make electronic music. I’m athletic; I like climbing, hiking, and all that outdoorsy stuff.
I’m starting to learn more tech stuff like HTML and coding, since you have 12-year-olds building websites.
The creative process always excites me. I suppose if you put that all in one place, a perfect day would be a feeling of accomplishment after taking an idea and creating something from nothing. The idea would then of course go on to make 12 million dollars…you said the perfect day, right?
What is your official role in your dad’s estate, the Rick Nelson Company?
Technically, I’m a principal — one of four — of the Rick Nelson Company and estate manager for Ozzie and Harriet. At this point, my brother Gunnar is technically “managing” our dad’s estate if there’s such a title for that.
He’s at the helm of Pop’s stuff, and I’m more at the helm with The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet for now. I’m doing what I can to get it to a place with some push and momentum, and we’ll go from there.
One of the biggest problems we’ve faced over the years is people getting involved that shouldn’t be. Towards the end of Pop’s life, there were a lot of people that weren’t great who all had their fingers in the pie.
That was also true with the past few decades concerning Ozzie and Harriet — it became very muddy. So it’s fantastic that we can re-harness our family’s legacy. More importantly, it’s amazing that there’s still a desire and passion for all things Nelson, especially since the show has been off the air for 50 years.
Tracy isn’t really actively involved in the estate. She and I are very similar creatively speaking. For the most part, she participates when there’s a specific project to get up and running.
Is Tracy musically inclined?
It’s funny — she says she isn’t, but she really, really is. She’s got a fantastic voice. She has great pitch, she’s always in tune, but she needs a little more confidence to get out there and sing. But don’t let anybody fool you, she can definitely sing. She was “Rizzo” during a two-month run of Grease on Broadway that commenced in Nov. 1996.
Some people might be surprised to learn that the Rick Nelson Company once had a business relationship with Elvis Presley Enterprises.
Yeah, that’s a tricky thing. It’s been at least 15 years since we had the relationship with them [several seasonal catalogs were mailed to Elvis fans containing a few pages of Rick Nelson merchandise].
EPE are great people down there, but their priority is obviously Elvis. Some of his fans are Rick fans, but they’re all definitively Elvis fans. It’s just a little hairy, because we don’t want to step on toes. Everybody gets very, very possessive, even with my dad’s stuff. Imagine that with Elvis. They think things should be a certain way.
It’s difficult when you have another asset that you have to treat the same way. People resent that, and there could be a backlash. It’s basically business — doing business smart or not smart. Regardless, we had a really good time with EPE.
The irony is that Elvis was a friend of my dad. I wish that could have been parlayed or communicated a little better with regards to campaigns we were involved with. Unfortunately, it didn’t go in that direction, which is fine.
I hope we can make Rick Nelson a third as relevant as Elvis has become since his death in 1977. I think a lot of that has to do with the bigger picture, which is the Ozzie and Harriet component that continues to resonate. Through that comes the Rick Nelson component. From there, he extends out like he did in life — as a musician, as his own man, and as an artist.
Name some of your favorite Rick Nelson recordings.
The latter part of his career especially resonated with me. Rudy the Fifth is his seminal record. I don’t think it got the love that it deserved when it was released. It’s phenomenal; in fact, a lot of my solo material is similar in sound to the direction that record went.
Between October and December 1978, Pop recorded in Memphis with producer Larry Rogers. It was the only occasion where he recorded outside of L.A. Most of the sessions were finally released as The Memphis Sessions shortly after his death.
Maybe it was because the album came out while I was grieving, but I was really, really absorbed into the music. I love that album and all the songs. It brings me so much peace. That’s probably my second favorite album of his.
My dad performed an amazing cover of Elvis’ “That’s All Right” on the album. In addition, “Dream Lover” is on there, and it’s unbelievably great. There’s a guitar solo in the album version at the very end of the song — not in the original single — that makes me weep every time I hear it.
Playing to Win is another great rockin’ record [a one-time album deal for Capitol in 1981]. Again, it got underplayed, and it should have had more love, too. I think it came from his heart. That album contained one of the final songs he wrote, “The Loser Babe Is You,” a very telling song.
Pop also covered John Fogerty’s “Almost Saturday Night” [Author’s Note: Creedence Clearwater Revival originally covered “Hello Mary Lou” on their final album, 1972’s Mardi Gras. Decades later, Fogerty returned the favor by selecting “Garden Party” for The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again. To read about Fogerty’s gallant attempts to produce a Rick Nelson record in the late ’70s, visit this exclusive interview with biographer Philip Bashe].
What is your dad’s legacy?
He was a true artist. He did as an artist what everyone in life aspires to do — find out who they really are.
My pop’s true success, impact, and legacy on the world is that he lived the hero’s journey. He broke away from a world created for him, as surreal as it was, to truly become his own man and leave his own mark. He was a pure, pure artist and lived life it to its fullest.
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