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Just go in the studio and make hit records: Jimmie Haskell revisits Rick Nelson

Jimmie Haskell, a three-time Grammy-winning music industry veteran who has worked with Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, Chicago, the Everly Brothers, and hundreds of other talents, took off his boxing gloves yesterday for a no-holds-barred conversation recalling his glory years spent supervising the recordings of "Garden Party" songwriter Rick Nelson.

A defiant Rick Nelson accentuates the finale of one of his patented rockabilly rave-ups with a fist pump at the Palais Theatre in Melbourne, Australia, on his second, final tour of the country in October 1985
Image Credit: Photography by Bonnie Griffiths
Possibly taken in April 1962, Rick Nelson and Jimmie Haskell attend a party for the opening of Western Recorders in Hollywood; Rick would begin recording at the studio on June 13, 1962, achieving yet another hit, It's Up To You
Image Credit: The Jimmie Haskell Collection / Courtesy of Sheree Homer (author of "Rick Nelson: Rock 'N' Roll Pioneer")

In his own estimate, the soft-spoken, congenial conductor arranged and produced 75 singles for the posthumously inducted Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. Fashionably late to recording sessions but possessing a tireless work ethic that extended into early morning wake-up calls for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Nelson considered Haskell, only three and a half years older, as an experienced mentor of sorts.

Many all-nighters were spent behind the mixing console as the duo diligently labored over their mutual passion. And it definitely paid off, as energetic bursts of sublime rockabilly or finely crafted ballads rolled off with near superhuman precision – e.g. "Lonesome Town", "It's Late", "Believe What You Say", "Travelin' Man", "Hello Mary Lou", "Milk Cow Blues", and "It's Up to You."

Nelson ruled pop airwaves, sailing 35 Top 40 singles onto the charts with relative ease. He was hands down the prime contender for Elvis' rock 'n' roll crown. But an identity crisis, spurred on by pop's evolving landscape amid the onslaught of Beatlemania, made his music increasingly passé and uninspired. The malady was ultimately remedied when the artist simultaneously reignited his songwriting muse and love of performing with the Stone Canyon Band as the '60s drew to a close.

In an all-encompassing interview, Haskell, a gentleman of many hats who incidentally accompanied Elvis on accordion during the G.I. Blues soundtrack sessions in 1960, sets the record straight on the instrument he played on the iconic "Hello Mary Lou", the day Nelson 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, and Glen Campbell's largely unrecognized guitar and vocal contributions to Nelson's music.

Later, Haskell doesn't shy away from revisiting his strong distaste for manager Greg McDonald, the sessions for Nelson's final album on Curb Records and why the tapes are still sadly locked away after 30 years, 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 Nelson's cruel date with destiny on New Year's Eve 1985.

The Jimmie Haskell / Rick Nelson Interview

How did your relationship with Rick begin?

My boss at Imperial Records, a rude man Lew Chudd, eventually transferred me into A&R after I had been working as a takedown specialist for Fats Domino and other artists. A takedown is the normal musical term for transcription. Anyway, I had an office next to Lew’s in the Warner building in Hollywood. He would assign different artists for me.

Of course, the biggest artist was Rick Nelson. He had originally been with Verve Records for just two singles. Ozzie was very unhappy with their inability to press enough copies of “A Teenager’s Romance” to meet demand and pay royalties as scheduled.

One day Lew casually admitted, “I just signed this kid, Rick Nelson.” Well, I knew who Rick was because I watched The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. He added, “He’s gonna come up here, and you’re gonna produce him.” “What does that mean?” His acerbic response: “Just go in the studio and make hit records!” “Okay.” Over the years I produced and arranged 75 singles for Rick altogether, never big orchestrations.

Later I attended Los Angeles City College to study orchestration. I had a great accordion teacher who was also a wonderful musician. He recommended that I study under Spud Murphy, a fantastic arranger of the time.

After I had worked with Lew for about three years, I wanted to try out my chops with a big orchestra because all I had ever arranged was a basic rock ‘n’ roll ensemble: two guitars, bass, drums, and piano. I admit, we made a lot of good records that way, but I wanted an orchestra.

One day a fellow that I had gone to school with called me. He had become head of A&R for RCA Records. Right off the bat, he got to the crux: “Jimmie, I’d like you to work with us.” “How many musicians would I have?” “Oh, probably in the neighborhood of 40.” “What type of instruments?” “Strings, brass, woodwinds…” Without skipping a beat, I chimed in, “Okay, I’ll take it!”

Next, I had to alert Lew, who didn’t like anyone working for him and anybody else. I meekly said, “Uh, I’ve accepted a recording from RCA.” “Yeah, I’ve already heard about your decision. Finish up Friday and you’re out of here, except for one thing. I want you to continue to produce Rick Nelson independently for this company.”

The reason that Lew did that is because Ozzie – also Rick’s manager – didn’t get along with Lew. He rushed out an unfinished single master during Rick’s early tenure with Imperial, so Ozzie forbade him from attending any subsequent recording sessions.

Ozzie called me on a Sunday after I had been working with Rick for about two months, and he started to really put Lew down. Ozzie had the greatest vocabulary – although he didn’t use one single word of profanity – but he put him down mercilessly.

When Monday arrived, I spoke with Lew and told him what Ozzie had said. All he could muster was an, “Okay, thank you for the message.” The following Monday Lew asked me, “Did Ozzie call you again?” “Yeah, do you wanna hear what he said?” “No!”

Since Lew recognized that I had a good relationship with Ozzie, he had me continue to produce Rick. Of course, a lot of artists came to know me through my fruitful association with Rick. During my tenure with RCA, I eventually began working for other companies, and it was good.

What do you remember about your first session with Rick?

“Be-Bop Baby” was my very first production in August 1957 at Master Recorders on Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood. The B-side was Scotty Wiseman’s country pop standard “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You.” The primary reason why Rick chose the B-side is that he was a tremendous Elvis Presley fan. “Have I Told You Lately” was one of the tunes Elvis had recorded on his best-selling Loving You soundtrack released one month earlier.

“Be-Bop Baby” was a tune that had been submitted to him by songwriter Pearl Lendhurst, and Ozzie felt that it would be just right for Rick. Ozzie screened Rick’s song submissions in the early years. Long story short, Rick was very happy with the way I produced and arranged it.

I was three and a half years older than Rick, so he considered me to be an old man [laughs]. He was 17 when I started working with him. Rick appreciated that I was able to stay up as late as he did. We’d start a session at 7 p.m. To be honest, I’d be on time and he wouldn’t show up until an hour later [laughs]. On at least two occasions we’d actually work until 5 a.m. Rick had to be at General Service Studios at 9 a.m. to shoot Ozzie and Harriet. He was indefatigable.

If handclapping was required on a song, I would get on the intercom from my booth and say, “I’ll come out there and handclap with you.” Rick’s reply: “No, no Jimmie. That’s all right, you stay in the booth.” He knew I was good at capturing his sound, so he didn’t want to risk any mishaps. Perhaps I hadn’t proven myself as a capable performer at that point, either [laughs].

What are some of Rick’s songs featuring you as a member of his band?

One day in 1961 we were preparing to record “Hello Mary Lou”, probably the biggest record that I arranged for him. There was a need for a cowbell on it. Of course, I got to the studio at 7 p.m. and started rehearsing the band. Richie Frost was our drummer, and I wanted him to play full drums and not be encumbered by also playing cowbell simultaneously.

Rick showed up at his usual 8 p.m. start time. He heard me playing cowbell, and he admitted, “Jimmie, that sounds pretty good.” “Do I get to play it on the record?” “Yeah,” he nonchalantly replied, like he was still kinda surprised. I like to tell people my claim to fame…I played cowbell on “Hello Mary Lou” [laughs].

Five years later, Rick used me on accordion when he did his first country music album, Bright Lights and Country Music. It was Doug Kershaw’s Cajun-inspired “Louisiana Man.” Did you know…when I was nine years old and living in Brooklyn, my mother took me down to the Wurlitzer Co. and asked me to pick out an instrument. I don’t know exactly why, but I chose an accordion. I later played it during Elvis’ sessions for the G.I. Blues soundtrack, including his cute hit single, “Wooden Heart.”

Did Rick fancy you overdubbing strings to his music?

Rick generally didn’t like strings. However, there were a few times that Rick wanted strings added, likely due to Ozzie’s instigation. I imagine he figured, ‘If I’m going to have strings, I might as well ask Jimmie to write them.’

“Young Emotions”, Rick’s 11th single and nearly a Top 10 record [No. 12, April 1960] was the first, “I Need You” was next, and his own composition, the philosophical “Life”, was last. For the latter, I only scored the album version that appears on Rudy the Fifth [1971], not the undubbed single.

Incidentally, “I Need You” is not the beautiful acoustic ballad written by Baker Knight that became the B-side of “It’s Up to You” in 1962 but another entirely different song recorded three years later for Decca that remained unreleased for nearly 40 years [available on Ace Records’ excellent Rick’s Rarities compilation]. I have no idea why we shelved it as it is a lovely performance.

How did Glen Campbell contribute to Rick’s recording sessions?

After a while, Rick was getting so popular that we couldn’t wait for the Jordanaires’ schedule to clear, so around March 1961 we started using the trio of “Travelin’ Man” songwriter Jerry Fuller [he also wrote numerous other songs for Rick], Dave Burgess, best known as a founding member of the Champs and the rhythm guitarist on their definitive 1958 instrumental, “Tequila”, and Glen, who also played with the Champs for a time, to provide vocal backup. They were really a good backup trio. Along with Rick [uncredited for licensing purposes], they recorded some rare pop/doo-wop tunes under band names including the Fleas and Trophies.

Jerry and Glen were both from the South, and they’d known each other for several years. One time they were facing each other and singing some backup. Rick was in the sound booth with me. I forget whether it was Jerry or Glen, but one of them said to the other, “Your breath smells like the hind end of a hog!” I still laugh at that.

Rick played rhythm guitar on many of his records, and he was an excellent player. But by the end of 1961, Rick confided, “I’d rather sit in the booth with you and help produce. Let’s put Glen on rhythm guitar instead of me.” I had no problems with that.

With James Burton on lead, Glen played second guitar on the majority of Rick’s sessions into March 1967. “Gentle on My Mind” made Glen a bona fide superstar shortly thereafter. Rick still played guitar occasionally in the studio. He returned to the instrument full-time in 1969 when he founded the Stone Canyon Band and began composing songs in earnest.

What is an aspect of Rick’s character that might surprise fans?

Hmmm… Rick was an exceptional tennis player. He could have been a tennis champion because his reflexes were so good. Rick was in a Western called Rio Bravo [1959] with John Wayne and Dean Martin. They told him that he had to be a quick-draw artist. Naturally, he practiced quite a bit. On the day they were filming it, director Howard Hawks hollered, “Wait, wait a minute! Slow down, that’s too fast” [laughs]. Rick became the greatest quick-draw artist ever.

Do any stories come to mind regarding Ozzie and Rick?

We would be here all day if I told you everything I remember [laughs]. Rick was starting to smoke once in awhile. He knew that his father wouldn’t allow it. The engineer at Imperial got a message that Ozzie was on the way to the studio and he relayed it to Rick. He exclaimed, “Oh wow!” and wisely put out the cigarette. We opened all the doors to the studio – there were no windows – and tried to air it out as quickly as possible. The band was waving music sheets, their hands, you name it [laughs].

One time we were about to start a recording date. I had already rehearsed the band, and Rick showed up in a depressed mood. I asked him, “Hey, what’s the matter?” He replied, “Oh, I liked that new girl I was dating, but she granted an interview and discussed our relationship. My dad doesn’t want me to see her anymore.” I thought, ‘What a shame.’

Years later in 1974 Ozzie told me, “Jimmie, I’ve got cancer. I swim every morning. I don’t know why.” Of course, Harriet smoked prolifically, so that could have affected him.

My wife and I loved going to Laguna Beach, and we would visit Harriet. The last time I saw her, I was aware that she had emphysema. She was smoking. By then, not only had her husband died, but Rick had died. I asked, “Harriet, why are you still smoking? Why don’t you quit?” And she sadly replied, “Why?” She had no reason to live.

Rick’s mutual respect for Elvis Presley was certainly well-known.

Rick met Elvis on several occasions, and they both told each other that they admired each other. He loved Elvis so much that he also became a fan of the Jordanaires. Ozzie knew that when they were out in Hollywood making movies with Elvis, their travel and lodging expenses would already be paid for by the film company. That’s when he would hire them to overdub backing vocals on Rick’s latest records that hadn’t been released yet [laughs].

I heard that one of the reasons Elvis died so early was because he had no interest in life. He was surrounded by people that only showed him the world that they wanted him to see, while Rick could go anyplace he wanted to. Unfortunately, Elvis was not as well-rounded and did not get to enjoy life as much as Rick did.

I’ll tell you why Rick chose Greg McDonald as his manager, which was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made. He found out that McDonald was an assistant to Colonel Tom Parker, and he figured McDonald was the closest that he’d ever get to Elvis’ people.

By the way, Colonel Parker showed up at Rick’s memorial with a driver. That was an interesting thing. We were all there in the church at Forest Lawn in North Hollywood. Harriet was there, and the twins were there. Now there was Harriet, who had lost her husband and her son. The twins were more upset than Harriet, so she had to console them. She was an amazing lady.

Were there any problems during the making of Rick’s final, still-unreleased album?

One especially sticks out in my mind. We recorded the album over an extended period in late 1985 at Baby-O Studios and then at Conway Recorders, a little studio on Melrose Avenue near Western.

Recording often depended on Rick's hectic touring schedule. I would ask him, “Do you have some tunes that you like enough to record?" "Yeah", he would nonchalantly reply. "Okay, then I’ll get the band together" was always my answer.

I would call bassist Pat Woodward first, who was pretty much the leader of the band, and tell him, “Rick would like to record on Tuesday.” He would respond, “Can’t do it, Jimmie.” I said, “Why? Is there a conflict of schedule?” “We haven’t been paid for the last session,” he admitted. “But Pat, that was over a month ago,” I said. “I know, but we haven’t been paid, and we don’t think we should play another session until we get paid”, he would admit.

So I called Greg McDonald and told him, “Rick wants to record again on Tuesday. The guys in the band don’t wanna show up for the session until they get paid for the previous session.” “Awww, are they saying that again? Listen, they’ll be paid immediately. Call the guys and let them know everyone will be fine", he replied. I could only say, “Okay.”

I called Pat back and relayed McDonald’s message to him. “Okay, Jimmie" was all Pat could muster. When it was stressful like that, McDonald did pay them. But I faced that same situation about five times in a row. I don’t know why McDonald had to be so stingy and make things awkward for the band. None of us liked him. He’s also the one who bought the plane for Rick.

What are some of your favorite tracks from the sessions?

I thought “Ain’t Gonna Do You No Good” was utterly fantastic. It was composed by Jerry Fuller, who penned many of Rick's early '60s pop hits including "A Wonder Like You" "Young World", and "It's Up to You."

Although Rick had previously recorded “True Love Ways” in Memphis with producer Larry Rogers in 1978, we made a better recording. I still remember him standing in front of the microphone all by himself, recording a temporary vocal. He was wonderful, but he was always that way. After we finished it, he remarked, “I’m gonna head on out to the airport" (a little landing strip in Van Nuys on Sherman Way).

Then he asked me, “Jimmie, can you handle Neal’s overdubs?” I said, “Sure, and I’ll drive him to the plane.” Rick added a quick “Thanks”, and that was our last conversation. So Neal spent another half hour in the studio adding acoustic guitar. To this day, I feel sad that I drove Neal to the plane that ultimately killed him five days later.

Since Rick’s death scuttled Curb’s plans to release the album, McDonald decided to have the tracks stored in a vault that kept master tapes fresh. I eventually spoke to the twins, Gunnar and Matthew, and said, “Do you know about his last record? McDonald has the tapes.” They replied, “We don’t have any copies of it.” I said, “Okay, I’ve got a cassette of it, and I’ll send it to you.” That’s how they learned about Rick’s last record. Gunnar and Matthew eventually bought the rights to it, or at least that's my understanding.

Did Greg McDonald attempt to release the sessions?

As a matter of fact, he called me about three months after Rick’s death and told me to meet him at a Hollywood studio with the engineer, Lee Miller (he worked on Rick’s live and studio recordings from 1983-1985). We played the Curb session tapes. They were surprisingly good, although unfinished.

McDonald then took it to another engineer named Gene Shively. Gene was capable of doing good sounds because he used to run a mastering studio across the street from the post office in Hollywood on Wilcox Avenue.

McDonald said, “Jimmie, we’re trying to work out this album and make it sound good.” I said, “Well, it might be difficult. Rick’s vocals were scratch vocals sung while the band was playing. Unfortunately, the drums leaked into Rick’s mike. The only thing I can suggest to you is try to match the drums from their mic with the drums coming through Rick’s vocal mic and phase out the drums."

I gave Gene my suggestions and told him I would be happy to work with him on it. They said, “That’s okay.” So they worked on it and didn’t call me back for quite some time. I guess they had received all the information they wanted from me, and McDonald certainly didn’t want to pay me for my time to do anything else.

About 10 months later, Gene got ahold of me out of the blue and said, “Jimmie, do you know what’s going on with that album? I’ve got it, but I’m not gonna release it until McDonald pays me.” I said, “Well, I have nothing to do with that. I hope you get paid” [laughs]. So, evidently, those recordings were upgraded.

Of course, the only way I had copies of the songs is because after each session, I would get a rough copy of it so I would know what to do the next time I’m in the studio with Rick. Unfortunately, my copies were on cassette, which are not the best [laughs].

Would you like the album to have an official release?

I have mixed feelings about it. There are two things that I can say. Rick’s voice was not perfect on the album because his vocals were scratch vocals, just so that the band could hear what he was singing. Lead guitar had not been overdubbed on most of the tracks, either.

After Rick passed away, David Nelson represented the family. I asked him, “What are you gonna do about Rick’s last album?” He replied, “I’ve discussed it with the family, and we want people to remember Rick at his best. We don’t think it would be wise to release the album.” Sadly, David succumbed to complications from colon cancer in January 2011. I have since heard that there are pirated versions of that album that are out there somewhere.

Refusing to travel by bus, Rick purchased a luxurious 14-seat, 1944 Douglas DC-3 airplane previously owned by the DuPont family seven months before his death. Were there any misgivings about the plane’s condition?

We did a concert with Fats Domino at the Universal Amphitheatre in August 1985. I was asked to handle the sound that the audience heard, so I was at the board. Before and after the show, I was with Rick in his dressing room. He told me about his plane.

Rick mentioned Jerry Lee Lewis, since he was traveling to Memphis the next month to record vocals on John Fogerty’s “Big Train from Memphis” for the historic Class of ’55 sessions featuring Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison.

Rick admitted, “Did you know that Greg [McDonald] bought the plane from Jerry Lee? We were gonna perform at Farm Aid. I asked Jerry Lee, ‘Do you wanna go with me?’ And Jerry quickly replied, ‘Not on that plane.’”

I talked to Pat Woodward on multiple occasions. I asked him, “How come I didn’t see you when Farm Aid was televised?” He grimaced and replied, “Aww, the plane had problems that day. It’s gonna kill me yet.” Well, it was a few short months later when that inexplicably happened.

How did you learn about Rick’s tragic death?

On New Year’s Eve I got a call from a newsman in Dallas, Texas, via my answering service. He asked, “What are your comments about Rick?” I said, “I think he’s fantastic. But why are you calling me on New Year’s Eve with a question like that?” “Because he just got killed in a plane crash”, came the terse reply. I thought, ‘Oh, wow…’ That’s how I learned about it.

The reporter also wanted to know if Rick was freebasing on the plane. I vividly remember saying, “I can tell you for sure that he wasn’t. While I wasn’t on the plane with him, Rick was definitely afraid of flying. He would never start a fire on the plane. I was always in the recording studio with him…behind closed doors. If he was gonna freebase, I would have known it.” He quickly backed off, replying, “Oh okay, okay…”

Nevertheless, they put the misguided freebasing theory in the papers anyway, right on page one. About eight days later the authorities determined that the reason for the crash was due to a faulty heater catching fire. But they buried the truth on page eight, not page one. It was a shame. Rick was an amazing person to be around. Everybody in his band was just wonderful, too. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. Rick was one of the good guys.

DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, first joined Rick 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 his handsome buddy. Burton was also a chicken pickin' lead guitarist for such legends as Elvis Presley, John Denver, Jerry Lee Lewis, Emmylou Harris, Roy Orbison and Glen Campbell. To read a revealing in-depth feature with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer commemorating his fascinating journey with Rick ["Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson"], simply click on the highlighted link.

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Further Reading: Rick was on the verge of a mini comeback when his plane tragically caught on fire en route to a New Year's Eve gig on December 31, 1985. A rockabilly-themed album was in the final recording stages, and Nelson had found a new record label in Nashville named Curb Records. Unfortunately, the project was promptly placed in the dustbin whilst various figureheads argued over rights, whether the singer's vocals were satisfactory, and if the project deserved to see the light of day. Wrangling beyond the so-called myths revolving around the project, an in-depth feature ["True Love Ways: A Glimpse Inside the Tangled Web of Rick Nelson's Final Album"] sheds light on the ill-fated Curb sessions nearly 30 years later.

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.

Further Reading No. 2: Jimmie Haskell won his first Grammy for arranging chanteuse Bobbie Gentry's mysterious "Ode to Billie Joe." When Gentry burst onto the pop music landscape during the trippy Summer of Love with the song, usurping the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" from its number one perch, who could have imagined the massive success awaiting her? Gentry was an innovative lyricist and confident acoustic guitarist who wove rural narratives together with ease and poignancy. "Billie Joe" is a brilliant Southern gothic tale sprinkled with controversial subject matter such as young love, a disapproving family, a baby born out of wedlock, and suicide. In "Bobbie Had the Most Gorgeous Legs Ever!", Haskell examines his role in the singer's climb to the spotlight and exactly why she abandoned the bright lights of fame for relative obscurity. Don't miss it!

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