Monday, August 6, 2012

Rick Nelson ... and Al Kooper ... Perhaps Not Such Strange Bedfellows After All!

After scoring 26 Top 40 Hits for Imperial Records between 1957 and 1963 (and this on the heels of three straight Top 20 Hits for Verve Records in 1957), Ricky (now Rick) Nelson decided to jump ship and sign with Decca Records.  

In a deal orchestrated by his father Ozzie, a former band-leader (and the brains behind their mega-successful television series "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet"), Rick signed a then unprecedented 20 year deal with Decca Records ... after all, there was no reason to think the hits were going to stop ... in the last three years alone, Rick reached The Top Ten five times with rock and roll / pop classics like "Travelin' Man" (#1, 1961); "Hello Mary Lou" (#9, 1961); "Young World" (#5, 1962); "Teen Age Idol" (#5, 1962) and "It's Up To You" (#6, 1963). 

It sounded like the perfect deal.  What nobody could have possibly foreseen at the time was the infiltration of a little band from Liverpool, England, called The Beatles ... and the launch of The British Invasion ... an unexpected happenstance that turned the music world upside down. 

Rick's first Decca single, "You Don't Love Me Anymore", failed to make The National Top 40, only his second A-Side ever to do so.  He rebounded slightly with his next release, "String Along", which managed a #17 showing in Cash Box Magazine ... and followed that up with one of my all-time favorites, "Fools Rush In", a #12 Hit in the Fall of 1963.  

He started off 1964 with a bang when "For You", (another great, long forgotten Rick Nelson track) soared to #6, just as The Beatles were debuting on the charts with their first American hit single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand".  Nelson reached The Top 20 one more time with "The Very Thought Of You" (#19, 1964) and then the hits stopped all together. 

It was literally as if somebody shut the door ... and then threw away the key.  For the next six years, Rick Nelson would not hit the Top 40 again.  Meanwhile, his long-running family television series "The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet" was cancelled and a few other attempts at acting for the most part fizzled.  

Then, in early 1970, he covered a Bob Dylan tune called "She Belongs To Me" and reached #30 with his countrified version.  In between, Rick had tried any number of avenues, including one of the very first forays into what was later labeled country rock.  Although none of these records proved to be successful on the record charts, Nelson did carve out a following for himself and his new Stone Canyon Band.  Two years later he would reach The Top Three when his autobiographical "Garden Party" was released. (Nelson was booed on stage at an oldies revival show at Madison Square Garden because he didn't present faithful representations of his classic hits ... his hair was considerably longer, he had added instruments like a pedal steel guitar to some of his biggest hits and he even tried to rock the house with his version of a Rolling Stones song, "Honky Tonk Women"!)  It didn't go over very well with the die-hard, true oldies fans in the audience that night, who considered the whole episode sacrilegious ... and totally unacceptable in terms of recreating what was SUPPOSED to be a Rock And Roll Revival.  Rick was able to capture the whole unpleasant experience in a 3 1/2 minute song ... and it became his first Top Five Hit in ten years! Unfortunately, there were no follow-up hits and the following year, Decca (now MCA Records) and Rick amicably parted ways. 

With his contract now up for grabs, Nelson signed with Epic Records who, in 1977 released his "Intakes" album.  A very laid back, MOR-sounding LP, it caught Rick at the next phase of his career.  While a very listenable album, (personally, I loved it!), it failed to find an audience ... and Rick's next two releases for the label never even saw the light of day ... Epic decided that they simply weren't marketable.  (As a lifelong Rick Nelson fan, I was familiar with most of these recordings through bootlegs tapes that I had obtained over the years.  While I found most of this material to be very enjoyable, it was not in step with what was happening musically on the charts at the time ... with the possible exception of his slowed down [what I like to call James Taylor / "Handy Man" version] of "Dream Lover", the old Bobby Darin tune.)   

(EDITOR'S NOTE:  Jimmy Jones, the guy who first took "Handy Man" all the way to #2 back in 1960, passed away last week.)  

This cut is one of my all-time favorite Rick Nelson recordings ... and it deserved a chance.  (While it never even so much as "bubbled under" on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart, it DID reach #29 on their Adult Contemporary Chart ... and received a fair amount of airplay here in the Chicagoland area on the "soft rock" stations.)

Rick then returned to the concert circuit, embracing his earlier roots ... now playing faithful renditions of his earlier hits ... he even started billing himself as "Ricky" again!  An album of re-recorded hits was successfully marketed through a TV ad campaign and soon Rick was packing them in again. Then, on New Year's Eve, 1985, his plane crashed in DeKalb, Texas, and it was all over.  A posthumous release of remixed tunes from his previously unreleased "Rockabilly Renaissance" album was released to little acclaim as "The Memphis Sessions" ... but the rest of his Epic catalog sat in the can untouched for decades. 

Now ... FINALLY ... after a deluxe box set of Rick's material was released by Bear Family Records in Europe a couple of years ago ... Epic Records has seen fit to officially release this material.  (More accurately, Real Gone Music has released these tracks from the Epic vaults ... as you'll learn in the days to come, Epic emphatically declared that they would NEVER release some of these recordings ... and to that degree, they have remained firm and adamant in their decision.)  In a recently released 2-CD Set called "The Complete Epic Recordings", fans are finally being given the chance to hear "Rockabilly Renaissance" in its original, unaltered state ... as well as what was supposed to be Rick's second Epic album, "Back To Vienna", produced by our FH Buddy Al Kooper. 

"Back To Vienna" is an album that I'd venture to say most people know very little about.  In fact, it's probably safe to say that most people probably never even knew it existed ... until now!  (The tapes have sat in Epic's vault since the late '70's when they were first recorded.  Epic refused to release the album when the final recordings were first submitted ... and they have stood firm on this decision ever since.) 

I asked Al if he would like to sit down and discuss this long-forgotten, overlooked gem, thinking that it was probably a topic he really hasn't had much to say about over the years and, as such, might find interesting to discuss now ... especially since fans can finally pick up a copy for themselves. 

To my complete delight, he agreed ... and what follows over the next few days is our  EXCLUSIVE FORGOTTEN HITS INTERVIEW WITH AL KOOPER

Join us as we discuss "Back To Vienna", working with Rick Nelson, the craziness that was Epic Records in the late '70's, and much, much more.  It all kicks off tomorrow in Forgotten Hits!