Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Nicest Guy In Show Business

As more and more of my school chums began to take interest in this Rock-N-Roll music, I began to pay some attention too.  At first I hadn't thought much of it. I'd grown up with the jazz records my dad used to love, the Sousa marches my grand dad played over and over on his, little, burgundy, RCA 45 RPM record player, and the pop songs my mom would listen to on the radio. Songs like “Mermories Are Made of This” by Dean Martin, “Moments to Remember” by the Four Lads, “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” and “Three Coins in a Fountain” by the Four Aces.

Does it seem like every singing group in America at the time was a “Four Somethingorother?”

And my favorite “Gilly, Gilly, Ossenfeffer, Katzenellen Bogen by the Sea .” I kid you not... The Four Lads... look it up.

Anyway, I didn't think much of Elvis, he seemed a bit too exotic to me.  Then, right there in glorious black and white in my own living room, my opinion of Rock-N-Roll changed.

His name was Eric Hilliard Nelson, but everybody knew him as Ricky.   He played himself on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and, until one day in 1957, he was just another actor on TV.  On THIS particular day however, he changed the world.

Some back-story is in order here.  Rick was a tennis phenomenon in his teens and intended to become a professional, but one day he noticed his date going nuts over an Elvis song on the car radio.  To impress the girl, Rick casually mentioned that he too had cut a record.   Now he was on the spot, he HAD to come up with something, so with Ozzie's band backing him he cut a one single deal with Verve records and put out a cover of Fats Domino's “I'm Walkin'.”  Never one to miss a golden opportunity to rake in a buck or two, Ozzie wrote an episode for the show which featured Rick standing in for the drummer at a concert, and at the end...  at the end 16 year old Rick Nelson revolutionized the music industry.

He sang the song on national television, thereby not only legitimizing Rock-N-Roll to the millions of parents who LOVED Ricky, but by inventing the music video at the same time.

I was transfixed! Hell man, Rick was the boy next door  He had none of the outrageous clothes or outlandish stage antics of Elvis, he just stood there and sang and the audience went NUTS!   Part of that might have been due to the fact that they were actors who were PAID to go nuts, but who cares?  I KNEW I could do that!!!

I'd already joined the Lapeer High School band, and was a pretty good drummer, now I began to see what I could do with it.   I began to study Rock drummers, especially Billy Gussak, Bill Haley's drummer.  The way he slammed the rhythm home was unlike anything I'd ever heard. It's called “playing in the pocket” and this guy did it like no other.

I knew I was going to become a Rock-N-Roll musician.

Years later, in L.A., I got to know Rick Nelson.  Now to most of us in the broadcast industry “knowing” one of these celebrities actually means being acquainted.  You do concerts with them, you interview them and you come in constant contact with them, but they aint your BFF if you know what I mean.   They maintain their space, you maintain yours.

With Rick it was different.

Cap Cities Broadcasting had assigned a publicist to work with me on getting some ink for my radio show on KLAC.  We were driving through the Hollywood Hills when he suggested we drop in on a couple of his friends.   First we stopped by Rudee Vallee's place, then we drove over to the old Errol Flynn house... Rick lived there at the time.   I remember a huge portrait of Rick in his “Rio Bravo” costume hanging on the wall.  He and his girlfriend Helen were gracious and friendly, I felt as if I'd known the guy my entire life.

He really didn't mind being called “Ricky” by the way, he knew his fans grew up with him that way. What embarrassed him no end was having anyone refer to his status as a rock legend.  Rick was the most humble performer I've ever known.  To get a rise out of him, his band members came up with the nickname “leg...” short for legend.   He'd get a cockeyed smile on has face, and turn red when they called him that.   He didn't give a rat's ass about being a “legend,” what he wanted to be was a musician and a singer.

In 1985 I went to his “comeback” show at the Universal Ampitheater.  I sat right behind the family and couldn't help but notice how Harriet's eyes lit up when she saw her boy, now completely well from years of drug abuse, get up on stage and bring the house down.  I remember one of the Jordonaires referred to him as The Nicest Guy In Show Business.   “That's the truth” I thought.

Some time later, while on the air on New Years Eve I got a call from the publicist.  Rick's plane had gone down somewhere in Texas, and they didn't know anything more.  A little while later he called back, “Greg McDonald (Rick's manager) just called.  Rick, Helen and all the band members are dead!”  He was crying.

I was stunned.  How could this guy, who'd come through so much, and was so universally loved be dead?  I remember when Elvis died. It was a shock, but Rick was JUST LIKE US.  The guy next door.  I felt 10 years of my life slip away.  I went into the john and looked in the mirror.  I'd changed... I'd gotten older.

I was now a middle aged man.

1 comment:

  1. See you're a fan of Rick Nelson's so thought I'd tell you that I wrote a biography about his musical career, Rick Nelson: Rock and Roll Pioneer. It's available for sale now at Amazon.