"He was broke and badly in debt. He kept vampire hours, rising as the sun set and going to bed at dawn. His children rarely saw him, although they lived in the same rambling mansion in the Hollywood Hills, originally built by the dissolute movie star Errol Flynn. His startling good looks were fading, and even on a post-midnight grocery shopping trip, he would never leave his house without full makeup.
Many people take charge of their destinies and make things happen. Rick was the sort of person that things happened to. He was the fortunate son who stood still while providence came to him. When life smiled on him, he accepted its gifts gratefully. When his luck ran dry, he never complained.
Ricky and James Burton
He grew up the sunniest of California’s golden boys, a teenager whose wealth and fame exceeded that of powerful statesmen, lauded scholars and literary geniuses many years his age. Raised as the celebrated son of an almost mythical American family, Rick Nelson never escaped a life of frustration and defeat despite a youth of unparalleled privilege and glory.
Rick himself was a cipher. His closest friends remembered him fondly but not well, invariably first and foremost recalling him as “nice.” Other, more pointed details always proved vague or missing entirely. It was as if he had been there in shape but not substance. The shadowy figure bundled together contradictions: warm and remote, witty and dull, fortunate and hapless, confident and shy, proud and docile.
He learned to be cautious around strangers, shy to the point of paranoia, and he grew to read his life from a script. Over the years, he would respond to the questions of interviewers with identical answers, almost word for word, like little speeches he had memorized."
I saw Ricky Nelson perform in person only once. It was at the Bottom Line, a very nice club in Manhattan, and I think he was promoting the album he made for Epic Records.
He had been playing for a long time as “Rick Nelson” by then; this was several years after “Garden Party" and the affecting Bob Dylan covers (“She Belongs To Me” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.”)
Ricky was magnificent, simply the most natural and unaffected performer I’d ever seen. His band was quite good also and he played all of his many hits, making each and every one of them live and shine.
Of course it would have been nice to see him with his original band, including the great James Burton, but you can’t have everything.
I can recommend Joel Selvin’s biography, Ricky Nelson: Idol For A Generation (Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1990), for the information it conveys and the stories it tells more than I can for its prose and attempts at psychology. While it might be nice, I suppose, to know what made Ricky tick, he left such an enduring body of work, and I really think the “message,” such as it is, and the meaning lies there – in the records, the television and movie acting, the live concerts, and in his single (I believe) Saturday Night Live appearance where he was so natural and deft it was scary.
In my experience, musicians are often naturally quiet people and basically all about music all the time. Selvin’s observation about Ricky’s “pat” interview answers reminds me of something Caroline once told me about one of her label artists, who shared a love of rockabilly with Ricky (also enormous musical talent).
At the height of this musician’s dizzying rise to fame, he told Caroline, his publicist, that he couldn’t do any more interviews because he had run out of things to say. He was being utterly sincere and he'd been at the task many fewer years than Ricky. Caroline coached him back into the game, but with a lot of sympathy and affection because of his honesty.
After Ricky died, I remember Roy Orbison saying with sardonic admiration that Ricky was the only person he knew who had learned how to sing on Number 1 records. It didn’t take Ricky very long to do this, he admitted, and Roy’s candor about his own jealousy – of Rick’s looks, his easy, natural, disarming manner, his great records, and his astonishing lead guitarist - was appealing.
Ricky Nelson: Teenage Idol (Link)
Ricky Nelson: It's Late (Link)
Ricky Nelson: Believe What You Say (Link)