“Run over me, Ricky! Please, please, I love you, I love you!” During the height of Rick Nelson hysteria in the late '50s and early '60s, teenyboppers regularly screamed their intense, definitely ill-advised desires while the legendary singer-songwriter performed in cities across America and abroad. In an unprecedentedly wide-ranging interview, the Master of Telecaster, James Burton, relives those heady days spent on the road and just about everywhere else with his longtime guitar compadre.
Achieving a staggering 26 Top 20 hits on the pop charts during a six-year period (more came later), Nelson is one of the best-loved purveyors of the archetypal rock 'n' roll era, regularly scoring with ballads and rockabilly nuggets alike including "Believe What You Say", "Lonesome Town", "It's Late", "Hello Mary Lou", "It's Up to You", and "Fools Rush In."
Fellow luminaries John Fogerty, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, and Keith Richards sing the praises of the "Garden Party" songwriter's effortlessly cool records ably supported by the distinctive string bending of Burton. In fact, the venerable Rolling Stone once famously uttered, "I didn’t buy Ricky Nelson records – I bought James Burton records.”
Both inductees of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [Nelson was inducted posthumously], Burton perfectly encapsulates why his six-string brother's legacy continues to reach millennials: "A lot of it is in feeling, because he had a great feel for the type of songs he sang and what he enjoyed singing, as well as a soft, smooth voice. Rick could sing a lot of different styles of music." With over 400 master recordings to his credit – Burton played on approximately sixty percent during his 11-year tenure – Nelson's lasting impact on rock 'n' roll is assured.
Burton, a charter member of L.A. studio wizards the Wrecking Crew, has assisted 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.
Not one to rest on his laurels, the elder statesman is currently touring to sold-out audiences in Europe with the TCB Band. Burton also contributes guitar solos to new records whenever the mood strikes him. However, his most significant passion is giving back to local communities, especially via The James Burton Foundation, which secures musical instruments, state-of-the-art recording techniques, and scholarships to children in need. And without further ado, the chicken pickin' extraordinaire celebrates his late friend, Rick Nelson.
The Complete James Burton – Rick Nelson Interview
Before we dive in, did your friend prefer “Ricky” or simply “Rick?”
Oh, tricky Ricky [laughs]… for much of his adult life he preferred just Rick. During the early run of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet everyone called him Ricky [Author’s Note: Imperial Records created significant waves of publicity with the release of the “Rick is 21” album, strategically timed to arrive on store shelves for the artist’s 21st birthday on May 8, 1961]. Regardless, being called Rick was his choice.
How did Rick enter your life?
I was working with a rockabilly gentleman named Bob Luman who was signed to Imperial Records, the same record label as Rick. Bob’s group was called the Shadows, also featuring James Kirkland on bass.
Horace Logan, Bob’s manager and the producer of “The Louisiana Hayride” – I played many shows there with Dale Hawkins – got us a part in a Roger Corman B-movie about rock ‘n’ roll called Carnival Rock. We hung around in Hollywood after Logan got us a semi regular gig on Town Hall Party, the most popular country and western music series in Southern California during the 1950s.
If memory serves, we were rehearsing a Billy Lee Riley song called “Red Hot” in October 1957 at the Imperial Records offices of Lew Chudd, the owner of the label. Jimmie Haskell was also present. Jimmie was a musical arranger who worked for both Imperial and Ozzie [Rick’s dad] on the television show doing recordings and such.
Anyway, Rick came in on business and said, “I hear music in the next room. Who is that?” Chudd and Haskell replied, “That’s Bob Luman and the Shadows from Louisiana.” “Would you mind if I go in and say hello and listen to ‘em a little bit?” “Nah, go on in.” So Rick came in and listened to us play for about three hours, and we just had a great time.
The Shadows had a home out in the valley in Tarzana – in Canoga Park. The next day James Kirkland jumped up and ran outside to get the newspaper. When he came back inside, he noticed a telegram hanging on the door, so he grabbed it and brought it in.
It was from Rick, who had invited me over to the General Service Studios, where The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was filming. Rick recommended we bring our instruments, so James and I immediately went over and met his mother and dad, along with everybody involved with the show.
Later, we were in one of those little bungalows, setting up and playing, when Ozzie, Harriet, older brother David, Wally (portrayed by actor Skip Young), and all the gang came over. We met them and played a little bit, and Ozzie loved it.
He said, “Do you boys wanna do something on the TV show? Perhaps a couple of songs?” Everybody said, “Yeah, sure, why not?” This was actually just before I joined Rick as his lead guitar player. We did a few television episodes and had a great time. Rick turned out to be a cool guy to be around and play music with.
Ozzie wanted to film a lot more songs and show-related stuff, but we got homesick and wanted to return to Louisiana and be home for the Christmas holidays. Ozzie offered us a lot more money to stay, but we said, “No, we wanna go home.” So that’s what we did.
I was home maybe two weeks, and I got a phone call from Ozzie. He invited me to come back and be Rick’s official lead guitar player, which I thought was pretty cool. Ozzie said, “If you accept the position, I’ll send you a telegram. Just sign on the dotted line and send it back to me.”
Rick then got on the phone and we talked for an hour or two. He wanted me to come out the next day (laughs). I said, “Wait a minute! I’ve gotta make arrangements and get all my stuff together here.” I was only 18 years old and leaving home. I lived with Rick and his family for the first couple of years we worked together in their beautiful Camino Palmero home in Hollywood. Ozzie and Harriet treated me like their third son.
Did Bob Luman take the news of your impending exit very well?
Bob was happy that Rick was interested in hiring me to be his guitar player. He wasn’t really thrilled about it, but Bob took it in stride. He said, “Boys, that’s a great thing. I wish I could offer you more.” Bob was a great guy to work with and a great talent. We were young and things were going fast with a lot of things happening. Bob gave us his final blessing: “Boys, I’m gonna miss you.”
What was your first official session with Rick?
The first session I did with Rick was for the “Stood Up” b/w “Waitin’ in School” single [Nov. 18, 1957]. Before I joined Rick, studio veterans Howard Roberts, Barney Kessel, and Joe Maphis alternated as lead guitarists. Joe was already booked for the session, so I supplied rhythm guitar only. The drummer was Earl Palmer, a big guy who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman before his death in September 2008. Richie Frost soon took over and became our permanent drummer.
Is it true that Elvis’ original band – guitarist Scotty Moore, bassist Bill Black, and drummer D.J. Fontana – auditioned for Rick just before he met you?
Rick told me that story after I went to work with him [Author’s Note: During the first week of September 1957, Moore and Black turned in their resignations over Colonel Tom Parker’s interference in financial matters].
When Rick was interested in putting a band together, Scotty and Bill were looking for a job, and they had contacted Rick and Ozzie. So they met and went in the studio for a short time. Drummer D.J. Fontana (Elvis hired him after Scotty and Bill) also accompanied them.
Once James Kirkland and I had signed our contracts and officially joined Rick's band shortly after New Year's 1958, we went to eat lunch at the old Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel with Scotty, Bill, and D.J., who were in town since Elvis was filming King Creole. Over the course of the conversation, we excitedly mentioned that we had joined Rick's band. The news caught them totally off guard, and they had these funny looks on their faces. Still, they congratulated us.
Evidently, their sound wasn’t what Rick was looking for, or Rick didn’t want to upset Elvis by hiring them. They’re all excellent musicians, but Rick must have wanted something a bit different. It’s difficult to know for sure exactly what happened, but it all worked out in the end.
[Author’s Note: Moore and Black were rehired by Elvis in mid-October 1957 after a homecoming performance at the Mississippi-Alabama Dairy Show in Tupelo didn’t go that well for Elvis and their temporary replacements. Black left permanently after Elvis’ induction into the Army, soon forming his popular instrumental group the Bill Black Combo. However, Moore returned as Elvis’ lead guitarist upon the singer’s Army discharge in March 1960, staying through the celebrated Comeback Special in June 1968. Later, the Jordanaires began doing backup vocals on the majority of Nelson’s hit singles, beginning with “Poor Little Fool” in April 1958. Their name never appeared on Nelson’s original records, but any listener can easily detect their classic harmonies].
Were Rick and Elvis similar in any aspect?
While Elvis was number one in the late ‘50s, Rick got up to number two. That’s pretty d--n good. Anytime somebody can run neck and neck with Elvis – that’s pretty d--n close.
Numerous Memphis Mafia members have told me that Rick and Elvis became buddies in the early ‘60s and played tag football together on Sunday afternoons in De Neve Park (near Sunset Boulevard) whenever Elvis was in L.A. filming a movie. I didn’t actually meet Elvis in person until 1969 when I put the TCB Band together for him.
We were traveling doing sold-out tours just like Elvis, although we played around the world and Elvis never did. In 1959 we took our first major intercontinental trip, visiting Australia. We also played London and the Far East, and the crowds were just as wild over there. They loved Rick, and it was great. Most of the time we did a full-on show, normally about an hour.
We were present in Hawaii during 1959 for the official ceremony establishing Hawaii as the 50th state. Rick and I stayed at the famous Royal Hawaiian Village Hotel, and Ozzie and Harriet and everybody came over to join us.
In Rick’s heyday, it was a regular occurrence if the crowds numbered anywhere between 30,000 or 45,000. We played Steel Pier at Atlantic City five years in a row to incredible audiences. There would be six or seven 20-minute shows daily on these package tours with artists like Les Brown’s Orchestra, Bobby Rydell, Jimmy Clanton, or Dion and the Belmonts rotating in and out.
The screaming kids would yell, “Run over me, Ricky! Please, please, I love you, I love you!” You know how some of the die-hard fans can be…they’d just as soon have Rick or Elvis run over ‘em in a car. They didn’t care [laughs].
Did any of those die-hard fans mistake you for Rick?
I remember one time in San Diego we played a ballpark. The fans were crazy, man. We had this truck bed at the pitcher’s base where the stage was set up, and the fans were a little-ways behind a fence. They were dying to get over that fence and come attack us.
We had these little trailers at the back of the stage where we could hang out, get dressed, and keep our instrument cases. We were onstage, and boy, here they come. Our management hollered, “Get off the stage, get off the stage, go get in the limousine!”
I unplugged my guitar, and I had to run to my trailer and throw my guitar in its case. I came out of my dressing room, and I got caught in the middle of those screaming fans. They were tearing my jacket off, my shirt – they just wanted to rip my head off. They didn’t know what they were doing, and it was downright scary.
I was trying to make it to the limousine. The security guys came back to get me. They grabbed me and my guitar and threw me in the car to get away from the fans. They were trying to tear the car up, turn it over, but we managed to get out alive.
If you think about being in a position like that, not realizing how dangerous and scary it is, you hear stories where people go to these shows with 60,000-seaters, and people out there go nuts. They have riots, folks are stomped, trampled, or even killed. We went through all that with Rick, and a little more of it with Elvis. Looking back, traveling with Rick was an awful lot of fun. We were like brothers through the whole thing.
With a rigorous television shooting schedule and constant touring, how did you find time to record?
We simply had to make time and block time out for when we knew we weren’t doing any live shows or in-between filming. Then we’d go into the studio. Sometimes it was tough, but we did it. We recorded mostly at night, sometimes in the afternoon. Most singers like to record at night. I guess it sets them up in the right mood.
Did Rick tell you what to play?
He was never dictatorial or overbearing like some artists tend to be. Rick and I pretty much worked the songs up, and we would put our ideas together. I would tell Rick what I liked and vice versa.
None of the musicians on a Rick Nelson session were ever limited. We could do what we wanted to do and make suggestions to improve a song. Executives couldn’t really tell us what to do or what to play ‘cause we had it down.
We had a good music arranger in Jimmie Haskell, who worked very closely with us. We would give him an idea of what we wanted, and that was cool. I remember Jimmie wrote the notes out for my solo on “Hello Mary Lou.” He explained that was what it looks like on paper, and I innocently replied, “My God, that looks like a bunch of blackbirds on a fence. Who could figure that out?” [laughs].
Was Ozzie a major guiding force while you were recording?
Not really. Ozzie would come in and mainly be interested in the song selection. He was very knowledgable and could tell you right from wrong pretty fast. Even though he was from the Big Band swing and dance era, Ozzie still possessed a winning ear decades later, picking old standards like “Fools Rush In”, “For You”, and “The Nearness of You” for us to put our spin on.
Sometimes he suggested to Rick how to sing, but we would usually end up doing it the way Rick wanted to do it. Never one for confrontations, Rick usually kept quiet until Ozzie left the studio, but I can vividly remember him saying at least one time, “Dad, it’s my record. I gotta do it my way” [laughs]. Rick appreciated his dad’s opinion and ideas, but Rick thought that to do the type of music he really wanted to do, he didn’t want to emulate his dad’s big band sound.
When we recorded the solo for “Fools Rush In,” Ozzie came to me and said, “Man that solo you played was so good it reminded me of a solo my saxophone player would play in my old orchestra.” I thought it would have been cool to have replied with something to the effect of ‘Gee, that sax player had pretty good taste’ [laughs]. Regardless, there was almost nothing that Ozzie couldn’t do successfully – he was a brilliant businessman, producer, director, writer, bandleader, and vocalist.
Why did original bassist James Kirkland leave the band in early summer 1960?
James Kirkland wanted to do more country and rockabilly-type stuff, and he had a job offer from Jim Reeves, another legend I probably played behind while I was on the Louisiana Hayride (I was only 14 years old then).
Anyway, James took the offer, moved to Nashville, and worked with the crooner until Reeves’ sudden death in 1964 from a plane crash. Today James lives in a little town outside of Dallas. I would love to see him again and catch up on old times.
Rick and I were having lunch one day, and we both had the same idea at the same time. We looked at each other and exclaimed, “Wow, man, we’ve only got two weeks, and we gotta get a bass player. We’re going on tour in Australia and all over Europe.”
I told him I had a friend in Shreveport, Joe Osborn, and I would give him a call. I called Joe and I talked to him a little bit, and I later told Rick that Joe was interested. Rick then talked to him, and before you knew it, we had a new bass player, and we were ready to go. I still see Joe every now and then – he only lives about 15 minutes away from me.
Was there a reason why Rick never had a permanent piano player?
We didn’t use piano players on the road – we wanted to keep the sound down to a basic combo. For doing sessions, you could use a variety of guys well-versed in their respective field.
Gene Garff, a great jazz pianist, was on the earlier rockabilly sides. One of the last guys that played with us was Ray Johnson, Plas Johnson’s elder brother. Plas was an African American who played great saxophone. Ray played piano with us on a lot of stuff, including “Travelin’ Man.”
How would you characterize Rick’s personality?
Rick was wonderful. If you met him for the first time, your impression would be, ‘Boy, this guy is really quiet and shy’. He was the type of guy that once you got to know him, you understood more about his personality. There were just certain things you couldn’t talk about. He was easy to blush.
A lot of times when I do interviews, people ask, “How come Rick closes his eyes when he sings?” A lot of it is in feeling, because he had a great feel for the type of songs he sang and what he enjoyed singing, as well as a soft, smooth voice. Rick could sing a lot of different styles of music.
We did a lot of old ballads like “Fools Rush In,” which we hopped up a little bit. Instead of one carburetor, we had three carburetors on it [Author’s Note: Burton later suggested Elvis record “Fools Rush In” during sessions at Nashville’s RCA’s Studio B in May 1971, which he promptly did after running through 25 takes of it].
It just seems like our music really went together well. We were a good team who worked closely, and we made some really nice music in our time span. Rick’s music is still very popular, and it’s just as good today as the day we recorded it.
What memories spring to mind when you hear the following songs featuring your patented Telecaster notes?
- “Believe What You Say” [No. 4, also No. 10 C&W, No. 6 R&B April 1958]
That was the very first song of Rick’s that I played the lead guitar solo. What was it that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones said? “Hell, I didn’t buy Ricky Nelson records – I bought James Burton records” [laughs].
Rick loved that song and kept that in his set list until he passed away. Dorsey and Johnny Burnette wrote “Believe What You Say.” Dorsey was a good friend of mine. I played on records by both of them as well as their children, Billy (Dorsey’s son) and Rocky (Johnny’s boy).
- “Travelin’ Man” [No. 1 April 1961]
“Travelin’ Man” was the very first music video played on television, a remarkable accomplishment for a cool song. Jerry Fuller composed it. He was also an excellent singer who sang background vocals with Glen Campbell and Dave Burgess on a good number of our early ‘60s sessions with Rick.
Jerry later became an in-demand producer for people like Johnny Mathis, and I was on many of those sessions as well. Fans of Paul Revere and the Raiders might not know, but Jerry guided lead singer Mark Lindsay’s early solo hits such as “Arizona” and “Silver Bird.”
- “Fire Breathin’ Dragon” [A-side January 1966]
We played “Fire Breathin’ Dragon” during our first and only appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. We also performed the B-side, “Your Kind of Lovin’”. To quote Sullivan’s famous introduction, “And now, ladies and gentlemen…” (laughs). Sullivan was one-of-a-kind, very business-oriented, but a fun guy to talk with. I met and shook hands with him, and he was very nice to me.
Doing his show was a cut and dry experience. You went in, turned the radio on, and that was it [laughs]. We were there 30 minutes. I do remember that it was cold and snowy in New York City that January evening. I don’t think I’ve seen our guest appearance in decades [Author’s Note: After playing the YouTube video over the phone for Burton, he remarked, “That sounds good!”].
Rick seemed to lose much of his creative edge by 1964, and his hit singles consequently started drying up. Coupled with the onslaught of the British Invasion, “The Very Thought of You” was his last Top 40 hit until a sublime cover of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” five years later. Simultaneously, you received a unique offer to join an innovative musical variety series on ABC. How did that come about?
Johnny Cash called me to play slide dobro with him on the very first pilot show for Shindig! Soon I met Jack Good, the series’ producer. A big fan of mine, he casually said, “Oh man, I love all your solos on Rick’s records. I want you to be on the show every week.” “Gee, Jack, what would I do?” “We’ll form this group, and you’ll be called the Shindogs.” “Okay.”
Delaney Bramlett sang and played bass, Joey Cooper sang and played rhythm guitar, Glen D. Hardin was on piano, Chuck Blackwell on drums, and myself on lead guitar. That was the Shindogs. We did 90 percent of the recording for the show with all the artists that came on. I remember I bought a brand new ’65 Buick Wildcat convertible [laughs].
Chuck came out from Oklahoma with future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Leon Russell. The pianist was working at Sun Valley Rancho with some buddies of mine. We became real good friends and still are. I would go out and visit or take him to work (Leon didn’t have a vehicle then).
Leon and I started doing studio work together. I played on his records, and we both played on a number of Rick’s mid-‘60s recordings, including “Mean Old World” [Author’s Note: The song has received much critical praise in recent years but inexplicably had no commercial impact when released as a single in March 1965]. Leon also arranged and produced a lot of classic singles in the ‘60s for many artists – i.e. Gary Lewis and the Playboys and The Byrds – before he became a star in his own right.
While we were on Shindig!, Joey wrote several tunes that Rick covered [Author’s Note: Along with Memphis Mafia member Red West, Cooper co-wrote the poppy “I’m A Fool,” available on the November 1964 LP “Spotlight on Rick”, as well as the fuzz rocker “Love Is Where You Find It,” released exactly one year later on the otherwise lackluster “Love and Kisses”]. I haven’t heard anything or any rumors regarding Joey’s whereabouts.
I kept working with Rick during and after my 18-month Shindig! stint, although the cancellation of Ozzie and Harriet in 1966 and Rick’s declining popularity curtailed much of our activity. I especially have fond memories of a highly successful April 1966 tour of the Far East with Glen Campbell substituting for Joe Osborn on bass.
Joe, deathly afraid of flying, broke out in hives as the plane got ready for takeoff [laughs]. Glen had played rhythm guitar and sang background vocals for us in the studio for the past five years, so he had relatively little trouble adjusting to Rick’s repertoire.
My career as a session guitarist with the Wrecking Crew in L.A. grew busier and busier – I was doing five to six sessions per day – seven days a week – working with every artist you can think of. Still, I fit in recording sessions with Rick on such cool albums as Bright Lights and Country Music and Country Fever.
[Author’s Note: After finishing his groundbreaking initial forays into country, Nelson started chasing trends on his two subsequent albums – Another Side of Rick and Perspective. The elaborate psychedelic arrangements, combined with Nelson’s often uncomfortable-sounding vocals, represented the arguable nadir of his career. Burton actually composed the “turn on, tune in, drop out” pastiche “Marshmallow Skies” with his longtime buddy. Sadly, after an April 13, 1968 session at Wally Heider Studios for “Hello to the Wind” and “Stop By My Window” – both destined to be album cuts on Perspective – the duo’s legendary partnership ended with minimal fanfare. The Stone Canyon Band was formed the following year, marking the birth of a creative renaissance for Nelson. For audiophiles, Burton’s chicken pickin’ is plainly discernible on the extended outro of "Stop By My Window"].
What did you think of Rick’s decision to form the Stone Canyon Band in 1969?
I was just so happy that he was still out working. He seemed to be contented doing it. I only wished the best for him. Rick eventually became quite the songwriter.
“Garden Party” was one of the nicer things he did during that era. There’s a story behind Rick’s final million seller – some strange things happened when he went up to New York City and played a rock and roll revival package show spearheaded by promoter Richard Nader at Madison Square Garden [Oct. 15, 1971]. Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, the Shirelles, and other artists past their prime were on the bill.
Rick had hair down to his shoulders, an embroidered western shirt, and played a different type of music – country rock – and the crowd wasn’t ready for it. They wanted to hear Rick’s original hits played the way they remembered them. Some of the audience apparently booed him, as they weren’t quite sure how to accept him. Of course, that was after I had left, and Tom Brumley, who unfortunately passed away in February 2009, had taken my place on steel guitar.
I admire Rick for exploring different musical directions that mattered to him, whether his longtime fans accepted it or not. Rick was such a great artist that he should have been able to do anything stylistically, and his fans would have accepted him unconditionally. I’m not sure why, but whatever music suited Elvis’ fancy, his fans tended to buy it. In a perfect world, this should have happened in a similar manner with Rick.
It was quite hard for him to break away from his classic sound and image, but he persevered and did things his way, even if it meant performing up to 300 shows per year, often in small clubs near the end of his life. By the early ‘80s, he was finally persuaded that it was okay to revisit his past rockabilly hits from the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Those songs have stood the test of time, and I’m glad Rick came to recognize their legacy.
Did you consider rejoining Rick’s band at any point?
Our paths simply went in different directions. I had to make a tough decision to go with Elvis when he called for the second time and asked me to put a band together and go to Vegas with him in 1969 because I didn’t want to lose all my clients. Elvis actually called me while he was making the ’68 Comeback Special but I was too busy on sessions. Thankfully, I didn’t actually lose anything, and I gained another wonderful person to work with doing live shows. Elvis was an incredible person to work with.
I also worked with Jerry Lee Lewis after Elvis’ death. We were at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve 1984. Rick opened the show, we closed the show, and we would do another set of shows that same night. They weren’t very long, probably 45-minute shows.
I never got onstage again with Rick because Jerry Lee’s band would never be backstage until maybe Rick’s closing number. Once in awhile, I would go down early and hang out. I don’t know if Jerry Lee would have liked that. It would be like working with Elvis – you wouldn’t want to go onstage with somebody before Elvis’ show – it wouldn’t look good [laughs].
Still, Rick and I spent two great weeks together – talking, visiting, just hanging out. We were always friends and very close. That was exactly a year before Rick’s plane, engulfed in flames, landed in De Kalb, Texas, very close to my hometown in Shreveport. Ironically, the 1944 Douglas DC-3 airplane had originally belonged to Jerry Lee, but he realized the plane was unsafe and refused to fly in it.
Rick was returning to his rockabilly roots on his final, still-unreleased album for Curb Records. Would you consider overdubbing guitar if the family had a change of heart and decided to release it?
While we were in Vegas with Jerry Lee, Rick asked me to come and play on what turned out to be his final album. I told him, “Absolutely, I’d love to.” Unfortunately, it never happened. Jimmie Haskell also called and asked me if I would play on it, as Rick had asked him to contact me.
I really don’t know the status of the recordings – whether it was finished or if they would consider releasing it. I could find out real easy, though. It’s possible that I could be called in to overdub my guitar parts after all these years. If his family called me, I would be more than happy to do that.
Where were you when you received the awful news of Rick’s untimely demise?
My wife, Louise, and I had a home in Las Vegas since I had worked with Elvis for so long [1969–1977]. We were there during that New Year’s Eve 1985 weekend. My son’s ex-wife called to tell us the news, but I didn’t take the call. I answered the phone and gave it to Louise. Minutes later, I heard a chilling scream.
I ran back into the room and yelled, “What happened?” Clearly upset, Louise replied, “Turn the TV on. Rick and his entire band just had a plane crash!” That’s how I found out about it. The band, including road manager Donald Clark Russell, guitarist Bobby Neal, bassist Patrick Woodward, drummer Ricky Intveld, and keyboardist Andy Chapin, were all good friends of mine.
It was such an incredible shock and sad time for us, especially being in Vegas and thinking of what might have been had I been able to reunite in the studio with Rick. When you lose somebody that close, they’re like family to you. We lost a wonderful entertainer and an all-around great guy.
Can you fathom how much time has transpired since Rick’s passing?
It doesn’t seem like it’s been nearly 30 years at all. I think about him so often. When I go out and do shows, those old tunes like “Hello Mary Lou”, “Travelin’ Man,” and even “Mystery Train” and “I Got a Woman” are top of the line [Author’s Note: Elvis also had early hits with the latter two].
Rick was a talented individual who had a wonderful career. All the music we did is just as good today as when we recorded it. Rick was on the verge of being a real gigantic superstar.
He was one of the sweetest, finest guys I’ve ever worked with, and the whole family is unbelievably fantastic. He loved his kids. Rick’s twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew, performed at my very first James Burton International Guitar Festival in 2005. I still sit in with them occasionally on Ricky Nelson Remembered, a show they do in cities throughout the USA. His youngest child, Sam, is a great singer, too.
I did a thing with Sam, Matthew, and Gunnar for the documentary Ricky Nelson Sings , which was released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Rick’s passing. We went in the studio and played live together on “It’s Late,” “Believe What You Say,” and “Garden Party.” Hey man, it was cool. We also got together for an amazing evening on Larry King Live to remember Rick during that same anniversary. I remain the absolute best of friends with his whole family.
What are some of your favorite recordings by Rick?
Probably my two favorites are “Travelin’ Man” and “Hello Mary Lou.” If you can believe it, those two songs were the A and B side of the same single. “Lonesome Town” – that’s one I love. I played the sole acoustic guitar part on it. An obscure one is Hoagy Carmichael’s jazz standard “The Nearness of You,” a really cool album cut on Rick Nelson Sings “For You” [December 1963]. And remember “That’s All,” a fine ballad [June 1959]?
What would you like to say to Rick’s many worldwide fans?
I’d like to tell all the fans hello and may God bless each and every one of them. Every place I travel around the world, someone always mentions Rick’s name. His music truly lives on. I miss him, and I hope to continue doing great work with his kids – Tracy, Gunnar, Matthew, and Sam.
- DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! 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 Nelson 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: 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 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..." Don't miss it!
Exclusive Interview No. 2: 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. 3: 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: 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 the singer 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 Rick'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.
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© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2010, 2014. All rights reserved. An earlier version of the James Burton interview debuted in this column as four installments marking the 25th anniversary of Rick Nelson's death on Dec. 31, 2010. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Do not copy or paste the article text—please share the URL instead. Headlines with links are also fine. Posting any links on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, or Google Plus is sincerely appreciated.