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From the Vaults

Boxed Set Deftly Traces Arc of Rick Nelson's Career

November 24, 2000|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It seems impossible to believe, 45 years later, that Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and other early rockers were viewed by adults as hellions unleashed by Satan to corrupt America's youth.

Yet it was a pivotal moment in the evolution of rock 'n' roll when Ed Sullivan, the nation's arbiter of culture for the masses, pronounced Presley "a real decent, fine boy" to his millions of viewers in 1956 after one of Presley's appearances.

If Sullivan cracked open the door to rock's eventual mainstream acceptance, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson helped pull it wide open by letting their clean-cut younger son, "the irrepressible Ricky," sing rock 'n' roll on their popular weekly sitcom.

They even positioned Harriet as defender of the new music in one episode, where rising teen idol Ricky asks her what she thinks about rock 'n' roll. And if a mom like Harriet Nelson could give rock her blessing, how dangerous could it really be?

*** 1/2 Rick Nelson, "Rick Nelson--Legacy," Capitol. Nelson's role as one of rock's first teenage idols--the phrase reportedly was coined by Life magazine for a story on him--and later as a country-rock innovator has been well documented, if not always well remembered by the public.

This exhaustive 100-song, four-CD boxed set was assembled to paint a fuller picture of the intriguing musical journey that was central to his life, which ended tragically on New Year's Eve 1985 in a plane crash that killed Nelson, 45, and six other members of his band and entourage.

His first recording--of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin' " at age 16--certainly didn't give Fats, Elvis or Jerry Lee anything to fret about. But that and his other early hits--"Be Bop Baby," "Stood Up," "Poor Little Fool"--did present the masses with a take on rock that may have been less raw than those firebrands but far more palatable than the soulless re-creations of Pat Boone. Ricky Nelson was the happy medium.

A big part of the appeal of those records came from the band that backed him. Although both his parents had been big-band musicians and Ozzie was a shrewd director and businessman, Rick wanted not just top Hollywood studio pros on his records, but also a real band that could play as credibly as the guys on the Sun Records recordings of Elvis he loved so much. What he got was a group led by Shreveport, La., guitarist James Burton--the influential player later hired by Elvis, and then Jerry Lee, Emmylou Harris and scores of others.

As writer Colin Escott puts it in his lengthy essay with the accompanying 48-page CD book, "Unlike, say, a Paul Anka or Bobby Darin, Ricky never wanted to be Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra. He wanted to be Carl Perkins."

Nelson also had good taste in selecting songs--taste that was allowed to flourish since Ozzie negotiated a recording contract that gave the family, rather than a record company, complete control over his material.

That meant Rick could tackle the likes of Willie Dixon's "My Babe" and several songs by his new pals, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, among them perhaps his most fiery hit, "Believe What You Say."

Still, because of the huge fan response to such forlorn romantic ballads as "A Teenager's Romance," "Lonesome Town," et al, he also recorded many subpar attempts to repeat those successes. The inclusion of several of them on Discs 1 and 2 make for historical comprehensiveness but keep them from being top-notch musically.

They do, however underscore the frustration he must have been feeling by 1966, where Disc 3 picks up three years after he'd last had a Top 10 single ("For You"). Nelson, like so many other '50s stars, was struggling in the '60s for relevancy in the face of the British invasion.

Nelson went country--not a huge leap given his own musical leanings and the milieu in Southern California, which had a burgeoning folk, country and bluegrass community. He tried switching out of pop idol mold with a recording of Doug Kershaw's "Louisiana Man" that had lots of country flavor with a bit of Cajun spice but generated little attention.

He fared better by turning to Dylan. His comforting 1969 version of "She Belongs to Me" got him back on the charts. He also recorded "Love Minus Zero/No Limit" at the time, bringing out more of the musical beauty of the song than Dylan's original.

He soon returned to the Top 10 for the final time with "Garden Party," in which he looks with amused frustration on the fans who booed him at a Madison Square Garden rock revival show when he shifted away from his early hits to play the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman."

His records with his Stone Canyon Band, which at one point included a pre-Eagles Randy Meisner, didn't invent the sound of country-rock. Lots of L.A.-based musicians, from Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons in the Byrds to Linda Ronstadt and Monkee Michael Nesmith, were contributors to that collaborative birth. But Nelson certainly helped with his rootsy yet soothing '70s recordings.

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