Matthew Nelson talks with Pollstar about the show he and his brother, Gunnar, have put together honoring their late father, Ricky.
If Ricky Nelson had never made a record to impress a girl, then he probably would be remembered solely as the younger of two brothers who appeared on their parents’ television show, “The Adventures Of Ozzie & Harriett.”
Not only did Nelson make that record for his girlfriend, he went on to record million-selling hits such as “Hello Mary Lou,” “Travelin Man,” “I’m Walkin’” and “Teenage Idol.”
Then, as his career seemed to wane following the British Invasion and the psychedelic ’60s, Nelson returned in the early 1970s with a new song, the hit “Garden Party,” and a new group, the country-rock pioneering Stone Canyon Band.
But Nelson’s life was cut short when the plane carrying him and the Stone Canyon Band crashed in De Kalb, Texas, on Dec. 31, 1985.
Now Matthew and Gunnar, founders of the band Nelson and twin sons from Ricky Nelson’s marriage to actress/author/painter Kristin Harmon, have created a show celebrating his legacy – “Ricky Nelson Remembered” – consisting of music along with photos and film clips of their famous dad. While chatting with Pollstar, Matthew Nelson talked about his father’s TV origins, how he influenced other artists and what it was like to grow up as a son of a then-future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member.
Along with his band in 1957
What were your family’s home movies like?
The way I look at it “[The Adventures Of] Ozzie & Harriet” are my home movies. The entire country shared that for 14 years. I make a comment about that at our shows. It really is the truth. Our own family playing themselves and growing up in front of everybody for that long. We obviously have some private home movies and things like that, that I’ve never seen before and I’m just now starting to discover. Things like YouTube have brought people out of the woodwork and it’s pretty neat.
For the most part, I grew up in a very professional family. They were all working really hard. When I came around, the show had ended and my dad was just starting the Stone Canyon Band, sort of a second phase of his career. My grandparents were out doing theatrical plays. For the most part, they were pretty much gone a whole lot … It kind of went with the territory knowing that Pop was on the road for another three weeks, he’ll be home for four days and he’s going to be gone for another two weeks. It got us in touch with the fact that the family, for the most part, our dad, especially, was into live performance. We really embraced the times when he was home. We didn’t take it for granted.
Kind of a surreal thing, too. Our friends had no idea who our dad was. They had no clue. But their parents, they went crazy.
Did your parents ever try to shelter you and Gunnar from the show biz life? That is, to give you a somewhat normal environment while growing up?
Kind of a loaded question. I think they were pretty well aware of the fact that our lives weren’t going to be exactly cookie-cutter or normal in the sense of most kids. By virtue of grandparents on both sides, my mom’s parents were celebrities, too (Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox), so it was a pretty normal thing.
My grandparents seemed to be the most normal out of anybody I knew. They expressed their feelings. You kind of knew where they stood. My dad wrote it in songs, my mom painted it. They definitely didn’t have a problem talking about stuff … For us, there was always art around, especially when we were growing up in the late ’60s in the Hollywood Hills. It was very normal to see all kinds of people around the house. A lot of hippie freaks. I joke about it, live. We didn’t know those hippie freaks were really famous. Bob Dylan would hang around the house, trying to get our dad to write songs. George Harrison lived next door. We called him “Uncle George.” Had no idea who he was. He was hanging out in the pool room and listening to records with my dad. Cass Elliot used to baby-sit us.
What was cool about it is going back and realizing that all these people that were there when my brother and I were born, were all doing the same thing. They were trying to repay my dad for inspiring them in their own chosen professions. They felt like they owed him a debt of gratitude and what they were trying to do was encourage him to be a part of the music scene, again.
I see these films now and he’s so clear-eyed, so on a mission. It kind of reminds me of Gunnar and myself around 1990 when we get that “Hey, we’re going to do something big here. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ it’s a matter of ‘when’ and if not, get out of our way. And you need that single-minded focus in order to achieve. He really had that and it was neat to see. And I have to thank all those people for doing that because he made some amazing music around that time. Not that the earlier stuff wasn’t great – “Hello, Mary Lou,” “Travelin’ Man” and all that – but there weren’t too many of those guys who got a chance, especially for people who grew up on television to reinvent themselves. And I’m really proud of our dad for doing that.
He also helped introduce rock ’n’ roll to mainstream America. Wasn’t one episode of “The Adventures Of Ozzie & Harriet” cut short in order for your father to sing at the end of the broadcast?
“Ricky The Drummer” was the first episode. Ricky Nelson [sang] “I’m Walkin.’” There’s a story [behind] that, one of those deals where he was trying to impress a girl in his private life. She started swooning to an Elvis song on the car radio. To impress her, he said he was going to cut a record and she laughed at him.
So he got pissed off, went to a local music store in Hollywood called Wallichs Music City and had the mission of singing a kareoke version of one song and hand it to her, saying, “Okay. Now laugh.”
It was actually pretty good. They made a little 45 and took it home. You couldn’t do anything around Ozzie because he would write [the record] into a show. My dad’s idea was to play it enough times where Ozzie came in and asked what it was.
Ozzie wrote, produced, edited and directed every show. He was short of material and said, “Hey, let’s put this in the show. This is a great idea.”
The thing about it, if you look back on it, he really took a shot at it. They couldn’t even call it “rock ’n’ roll.” They had to call it a “rhythm and blues” number. Rock ’n’ roll was a salacious thing. The fact is, Elvis was scaring a lot of parents. My grandmother told me they got a bunch of hate mail when my dad sang on the show. “How can you give credibility to this devil music?” and the whole thing.
After the “I’m Walkin’” episode, Harriet addressed it. My dad came down the stairs and said, “Hey, Mom, what do you think about rock ’n’ roll?”
And she said, “Well, I’m pretty much brainwashed by it, by now. Look, I just really think it’s the modern expression, the average teenager’s enthusiasm. I’m not going to knock it, I’ll tell you that much.”
Funny, enough, all that hate mail subsided. It was almost like the endorsement from Harriet really carried. I guess ABC, their network at the time, was looking at a local show called “American Bandstand.” And when that episode aired, ABC bought “Bandstand” and put it on nationally three months later.
Ricky and Elvis were the only two biggies never to be on “Bandstand,” which I thought was interesting. You had to tune into Steve Allen to see Elvis, or, of course, Ed Sullivan. For our dad, you had to tune into “Ozzie & Harriet.”
When you began planning “Ricky Nelson Remembered,” what were some of the first things you and Gunnar discussed?”
It kind of came around fairly organically. We’ve been lucky enough to make our own mark. It was our tour with Styx and Peter Frampton. We were special guests on it and we did a summer of sheds with them. Tommy Shaw from Styx [said] “Hey, man, can I come up and sing ‘Garden Party’ with you? Can we do one of your dad’s tunes?”
We had no plan on doing that, but [Tommy] is one of our heroes. … I’m not going to say “no” to singing with Tommy Shaw. We did it and it was magnificent.
Did you and Tommy work up a version before show time, or was the performance totally spontaneous?
It was spontaneous. It’s Tommy Shaw here. He’s not an amateur. He’s like, “Hey, man, I know it.” Right before we started, I said, “How about I take the melody, you take the second harmony and Gunnar takes the high harmony.” And we just drilled it.
I love people that talented. It really inspires me. If you’re a tennis player, it’s [like] playing at the top of the game.
For Gunnar and myself, we spent a lot of time in Nashville and the musicians there are like that. It’s not like where I grew up in L.A. and you had to have five rehearsals before you did a show.
We went out with Gerry [Beckley] and Dewey [Bunnell] in America for a while and it was the same thing. All these guys either knew our dad, grew up with him, whatever, but they loved the tunes. What Gunnar and I did was the occasional song in our set or [during] those kind of special moments with guys we were on tour with.
Moraine Valley Community College performing arts series, Palos Hills, Ill.
November 12, 2011
Gunnar will attest this; it was actually my idea to make [Ricky Nelson Remembered] more of its own show. I really felt the best way of paying justice was to try not to be all things to all people … to give our dad and his music the respect it deserved by making it its own thing.
When I put the show together, I thought, “Well, we gotta have two versions of it. One with an all-star lineup of band members. And one just the duo, Gunnar and myself, doing it like we’re telling the story.”
We went in and got footage from the family archives, some interview footage and things I found interesting, and put together a video tapestry that goes really well with the songs. We get a chance to tell the audience the story in person, from the point of view of people who really knew our pop, really loved him and missed him. The fact was he was a really sweet, self-effacing, funny guy. Hopefully we come off that way ourselves. I can’t take credit for the songs that were written except for a couple of ours we do in the set. We close with one of ours that’s a new one and we play one of our No. 1s. It’s a point we illustrate that he wanted us to be writers.
I think the whole night is kind of a work in progress. My sister Tracy [Nelson] … is a pretty well-known actress and really neat lady. She’s actually going to start hosting the nights.
We’ve had people calling us, saying “I’d really like to play with you guys. It sounds like a lot of fun.” Gunnar and I have been doing some shows with James Burton on guitar, who’s the man. Period. End of story. He was there for all those early hits with our pop. David Morgan, my dad’s keyboard player all through the ’70s. Skunk Baxter from time to time on the steel when he’s available because they recorded together.
It’s really neat, these people are showing up, they all have some wonderful, personal memories of my pop. The best way they can feel connected is to play these amazing songs and have a laugh.
Who else is playing in the show that played with your father?
We lost a lot of people in the plane crash. His whole band [Stone Canyon Band] went down with him. We lost everybody. David Morgan is a member of our band. He left our dad’s band, ironically, about a month before the accident. They were very close. He had some family stuff, so he had to get off the road. I’m really glad he’s still here. James Burton played with our dad for seven years before he joined Elvis.
So there’s that. Right now the band is made up of, believe it or not, Bobby Vee’s sons. They’re amazing musicians in their own right and connected to that era in their own personal way. I think their dad had, what, 36 top 40 hits? He was pretty awesome as well. And we have our special guests when they can join us.
With all the video clips, narration and other elements, did you find you had way more material than you could fit into an evening’s performance?
No question. I always have someone who comes up afterwards, kind of disappointed, [who says] “Why didn’t you play ‘Be-Bop Baby?’ Why didn’t you play ‘A Teenager’s Romance?’ Why didn’t you play some of the Dylan stuff your dad covered in the ’60s?” It’s a wonderful thing.
And I always say, “I guess you can’t please everybody.” But we joke about it. It’s a pretty wonderful place to be in.
Wasn’t your father’s Stone Canyon Band very well-received by critics and even considered hip at the time?
For the first time in his life [laughs]. He was so shy, so quiet. But the charisma just fell off him. I don’t even have to say it in the show. Sam Phillips from Sun Records actually said it. I have a clip of him saying it. “As much credit as he’s got, it ain’t nearly enough.” And it’s really the truth.
There’s a blessing in growing up and having the output of a television show … it was wonderful, sold a lot of records. But what kind of culminated in, at least, his professional life, were things like “Garden Party.” You get asked to play an oldies concert, you show up with your new band, and people boo you off the stage. You write a song about it, it becomes a big middle finger to the entire record industry and that’s probably why the critics respected him for the first time. He didn’t take it lying down.
I have a clip of Paul McCartney in the show saying, “Back in England we knew nothing of the Nelson Family, Ozzie and Harriet – To us, Ricky was the famous one” And there’s no refuting the fact that he had 18 Top-10 records in the United Kingdom where they didn’t even get the show.
What do you see when you look out into the audience?
The thing that’s really nice is I see people laughing. I see 70-year-olds turning into teenagers right in front of me. Everybody has this thing about music. It doesn’t matter if it’s my music, my dad’s music or Madonna. Everybody has an experience that they have with a piece of music. Or, in our dad’s case, a visual along with a piece of music.
I’ve never done anything like this before that’s been as rewarding. We always meet people after the shows. I don’t care where we are, if we’re playing to 2,000 that night or we’re playing to 400, we’ll stay as long as it takes to meet everyone. At least a third of the entire audience stays and wants to meet us. I’ve never experienced that before. They always want to tell us a story about where they were, take a picture. The women want to say how they used to kiss the television set when he came on.
The only irony here, I always say, is our pop was probably the last person in the world to wave his own flag, so it’s a good thing he had twin sons to do it for him. I do think he would have been really proud of the fact that we’ve kind of done our own thing and that’s why the show needs to be different. This is something we love to do, not have to do.
When Gunnar(left) and Matthew(right) were 18 years old.
Upcoming dates for “Ricky Nelson Remembered” include Brea, Calif., at the Curtis Theatre June 16-17; Hardin, Mont., during the “Street Dance” at Center Avenue June 23; Sloan, Iowa, at the WinnaVegas Casino July 14 and Highlands, N.C., at the Performing Arts Center July 17. For more information, please visit RickyNelsonRemembered.com.