Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Rick Nelson was hurriedly putting the finishing touches on his 24th studio album of original material on the day after Christmas 1985. The rockabilly-themed songs were designed as a comeback on a new Nashville record label – Curb – after four years of barnstorming, well-received road shows laced with minimal recording activity.
Ironically, upon adding a vocal to Buddy Holly's "True Love Ways" and overseeing lead guitarist Bobby Neal's acoustic overdub, Nelson departed Los Angeles later that day for a mini under the radar tour of the Southeast. Not really wanting to leave home during the holidays, Nelson was cash-strapped due to protracted divorce proceedings. The album would have to wait until the New Year.
But fate had deliberately cruel plans. Nelson's antiquated Douglas DC-3 caught fire – a faulty heater switch was the culprit – while the singer was en route to Dallas for a New Year's Eve show. The plane landed, completely engulfed in flames. Only the two pilots survived. The rockabilly project was inexplicably shelved and forgotten by all but the most dedicated fans. They have clamored for its release for decades.
No one was really sure of its whereabouts until Greg McDonald, a protégé of Colonel Tom Parker and Nelson's personal manager from 1976 until his death, recently called in on Feb. 21 for an impromptu, albeit extensive interview on Memphis Mafioso George Klein's weekly Sirius-XM Elvis show.
During the serendipitous conversation, this writer emailed two questions in to the program pertaining to the unreleased project and whether McDonald remembered his last conversation with the "Garden Party" troubadour.
The controversial raconteur – beloved by some, despised by others in Nelson's inner circle – confirmed he retains possession of the tapes and is in the process of securing their release after nearly 30 years in the can.
Dec. 31, 2015 will mark the 30th anniversary of Rick Nelson’s shocking death. Is there a possibility of his final, unreleased album for Curb Records seeing the light of day?
McDonald: "I own that album. Rick and I were working on it just before he passed. I had a deal to sell it to Mike Curb of Curb Records, but it never happened. Rick never got back to sign the contract.
"It needs to be released. We’ve just always held on to it. We thought there would be a Rick Nelson movie – one big enough to release the album as a tie-in.
"I’ve actually been working with Gunnar and Matthew – Rick’s twin sons – to do a release on that record. We’ve been talking about it in the last couple of weeks. Gunnar and Matthew want to really work on the project – do some duets with their dad. That was always our plan."
Do you recall your final conversation with Rick?
McDonald: "Yes; I was actually at an auditorium show in Pomona, Calif. Rick and I were standing behind a building. He was booked to go back East and do a Florida show – then Alabama and on to Dallas.
"I was booked to go as well but Rick said, 'Greg, you don’t really need to go. We’re only going out for three shows. I’ll have the plane land in Palm Springs, and I’ll come to your house. We’ll spend New Year’s Day together. I’ll drive my car back to L.A.'
"I had Rick’s car – a red Pantera – in my garage in Palm Springs. We just had it all fixed up and painted for him as a Christmas present. So that was our plan. Of course, he never came back" [McDonald signs off at this point].
Ten documented tracks were recorded on a vintage three-track tape machine at Baby-O Recorders and Conway Studios in North Hollywood with Nelson behind the production reigns between August and December 1985. The recording process was often interrupted by nostalgia-filled package tours of the United Kingdom and Australia.
Featuring the singer’s road band, led by Neal, Ricky Intveld on drums, Pat Woodward on bass, and Andy Chapin on piano, the sessions were embellished by the presence of rockabilly pianist Bobby Mizzell and rhythm guitarist Bobby Wood [not to be confused with pianist Bobby Wood of the Memphis Boys] on some tracks.
The song selection ran the musical gamut between rock and roll and sublime ballads. In a bit of a letdown to fans of the Stone Canyon Band songwriter era, none of the cuts were written by Nelson. However, in two May 1984 interviews with The Spokane Chronicle and The Salina Journal to promote the failed NBC television pilot High School USA, Nelson stated that he was writing songs. Whether they were fully fleshed out and recorded is another story.
The effortless vocalist reached back to one of his primary influences, Elvis Presley, for a cover of the oft-neglected ballad, "As Long As I Have You," taken from the King Creole soundtrack. Marty Robbins' crossover pop hit "Singing the Blues" and Holly's "True Love Ways" made the cut as well.
In a surprising move suggested by his guitarist, Nelson covered The Beatles' early rocker, "One After 909". It was his first acknowledgment on record of the Liverpool lads’ transcendent grasp on pop culture and a prime example that he harbored no ill feelings for the group who knocked his records off the charts in the summer of 1964 at the height of Beatlemania [another major hit would not arrive until “Garden Party” eight years later].
Somehow Nelson located an obscure 1959 demo entitled "Lucky Boy" from the estates of Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, old songwriting pals who wrote the iconic "Believe What You Say", "It's Late", and many other rockabilly tunes. Jerry Fuller, who penned such Nelson classics as "Travelin' Man" and "It's Up to You," supplied a new song, “Ain't Gonna Do You No Good."
Contemporary selections consisted of Mickey Jupp's rockabilly rave-up "You Know What I Mean”, Mizzell's piano rocker “You Got Me Gone”, and the driving up-tempo “Rock ‘N’ Roll Fool."
The latter had an especially murky back-story until biographer Sheree Homer, author of the superb Rick Nelson: Rock 'N' Roll Pioneer, verified in March 2013 that it was composed by Bill Rowe, an occasional songwriter. Rowe had aided Nelson financially, so the singer graciously returned the favor in the recording studio.
A few months after his untimely demise, a version of “You Know What I Mean” was released as Nelson's final single on MCA, Curb’s parent label [at least three renditions were recorded in 1984/1985]. The remaining nine songs are still unreleased. An earlier version of "True Love Ways", recorded in November 1978 in Memphis with producer Larry Rogers, is widely available and often mistaken as Nelson's final recording.
"Rock 'N' Roll Fool", "Singing the Blues", and "You Got Me Gone" can be found on generally inferior-sounding bootlegs. Dedicated Nelson fans have also likely heard live versions of "One After 909" and "You Know What I Mean," both featured heavily in the rocker's setlist during the final years of his life.
The backing tracks are virtually finished. In a July 2012 interview with Pop Culture Classics, noted English guitarist Albert Lee, best known for his work with Emmylou Harris and the Everly Brothers, revealed that he added overdubs to certain, unspecified tracks shortly after Nelson's passing.
Opinions are divided among Nelson's family and close friends as to whether the project deserves release. All four of the singer's children have expressed reservations in the past. Of course, feelings can evolve over time. Jimmie Haskell, Nelson's official music arranger, has stated in numerous interviews that Nelson never had the opportunity to overdub his final lead vocals and releasing the project might tarnish the singer’s legacy. But perhaps Nelson's original intention was to go back to the fundamentals of early rock 'n' roll, recording music with a spontaneous feel [i.e. limited overdubs] in a nod to his idols at Sun Records in Memphis.
A brief ray of hope emerged in 2000 while Capitol was preparing Legacy, the first box set devoted to the songwriter's career. Jim Ritz, a Nelson historian who listened to the tapes during the selection process, confirmed to Homer that "True Love Ways" was going to be the final cut. He and producer Bob Hyde decided at the last minute that the song was not mixed properly, so they went with the original 1978 version instead. Let's cross our fingers that Nelson's final studio album will finally see the light of day in time for the 30th anniversary of his premature demise, if for historical purposes only.
- DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! 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, "Pop" was inexplicably gone forever. Sam was only 11 years old. Now manager of Ozzie and Harriet's estate and a fine singer-songwriter in his own right, Sam has broken his silence to remember what it was like to grow up as the son of a deceased rock 'n' roll star in the touching "Rick Nelson Was Really My Dad..." Don't miss it!
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Exclusive Interview: The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, is a charter member of legendary '60s L.A. studio wizards the Wrecking Crew. Burton has supported a who's who list of preeminent movers and shakers in a nearly 60-year career – notably Elvis Presley, John Denver, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Merle Haggard, and recently Brad Paisley. Burton joined Rick in late 1957 for the driving "Stood Up" b/w "Waitin' in School" rockabilly single, soon rooming with the Nelson family and ultimately forging an 11-year friendship with the handsome singer. To read a revealing in-depth feature with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer commemorating his fascinating journey with Nelson ["Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson"], simply click on the highlighted link.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Jimmie Haskell won his first of three Grammys for arranging chanteuse Bobbie Gentry's mysterious "Ode to Billie Joe" in 1967. But before Haskell received widespread recognition in the recording industry, he earned his musical chops in a decade-long partnership with Rick that yielded a ton of essential hits. In "Just Go in the Studio and Make Hit Records..." Haskell examines his role in the "Lonesome Town" balladeer's career, revealing what instrument he played on the iconic "Hello Mary Lou", the day Rick 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, Glen Campbell's largely unrecognized guitar and vocal contributions to Rick's music, 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 Rick's cruel date with destiny on New Year's Eve 1985.
- Exclusive Interview No. 3: One aspect of Rick's legacy that is rarely explored or given proper credit is his songwriting. And if it is, his only claim to fame is the autobiographical "Garden Party." While never a prolific wordsmith, the artist reached his critical zenith during the early '70s, ultimately penning approximately 44 compositions that were released on various records through 1981's "Playing to Win." In an extensive series of conversations ["Rick Nelson, Songwriter: A Candid Take..."], Sheree Homer, author of the engrossing "Rick Nelson: Rock 'N' Roll Pioneer", unearths the debut song composed by the singer about an unfortunate break-up with his girlfriend, and why it took nearly eight years before he gained enough confidence to release a second composition. The sublime country rock tune "You Just Can't Quit", the ethereal ode to making one's own destiny, "Easy To Be Free", and Nelson's highly underrated debut studio album, "Rick Sings Nelson", are reviewed track-by-track and placed in proper historical context, too.
Exclusive Interview No. 4: 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 the singer on early '70s AM radio. 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, the singer's acting aspirations, contextualizes the vastly neglected work of the Stone Canyon Band, and reveals why legends including Bob Dylan and John Fogerty still idolize the gifted artist.
Further Reading: David Nelson had to come to terms with living in the shadow of his younger teen idol sibling. According to an interview for Philip Bashe's Teenage Idol, Travelin' Man, the one question always posed to David was whether he experienced any jealousy over his brother's success. While he denied the accusation, the actor did recount one revealing anecdote that might have encouraged a certain degree of resentment. While the Nelsons were singing "Happy Birthday to You" on David's 21st birthday in 1957, Imperial Records mogul Lew Chudd burst in unannounced to award Rick with a gold record for "Be-Bop Baby." David chuckled as he told Bashe, "At least Chudd could have waited until I blew out the candles." To learn more about David’s respectable life and career, including anecdotes from nephew Sam Nelson, head on over to “David Nelson Enters the Limelight.”
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