Ricky Nelson’s twin sons remember his musical legacy
Ricky Nelson Remembered,” featuring Nelson’s twin sons Matthew and Gunnar, comes to the King Center Nov. 13. Ricky Nelson was television’s first teen idol. He went on to record 53 songs that made the Billboard magazine Hot 100.
Four years ago, twins Gunnar and Matthew Nelson agreed to perform a few concerts to publicize a newly released box set of hits by their late father, TV star and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Ricky Nelson.
They never imagined that they’d still be on the road today, sharing their father’s music and their memories of him with fans. The tour comes to the King Center for the Performing Arts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13.
“The response was so overwhelmingly positive, we thought ‘Hey, we might have something here,’ ” Gunnar Nelson, 47, said of the shows that morphed into “Ricky Nelson Remembered,” a multimedia presentation that features the twins performing some of their father’s biggest hits, including “Traveling Man, “Hello, Mary Lou” and “Garden Party.” The concert is interspersed with footage from Nelson family home movies and commentary from musicians he influenced, including Paul McCartney, John Fogerty and Chris Isaak. The twins also present a few of their own hits from their days as Nelson, including “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection,” which rose to No. 1 in 1990.
“Ricky Nelson was the most televised rock artist in history and we had all the home movies,” Gunnar Nelson said. “What we have now is kind of a combination of a rock concert and an A&E Biography episode. It’s really very different from what it started out as and it’s kind of nice that it’s been building and growing organically.”
Ricky Nelson, who died at 45 when the plane he and his band were aboard crash-landed in Texas on New Year’s Eve 1985, was television’s first teen idol, acting and singing on his bandleader father Ozzie Nelson’s hit ABC show “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” from 1952 to 1966. The show starred all four members of the Nelson family: Ozzie, Harriet, older brother David and Ricky. It remains the longest-running live-action American TV sitcom.
From 1957 to 1972, Ricky Nelson placed 53 songs on the Billboard magazine Hot 100, including 1958’s “Poor Little Fool,” the magazine’s first No. 1 single on its newly created list. After an appearance in the 1959 John Wayne western “Rio Bravo,” Ricky Nelson became the only artist to have a No. 1 song, a No. 1 movie and a No. 1 TV show in the same week.
“Our dad could have gone down the arguably easier road that of being a film actor, but he decided to go out there and play his music,” Gunnar Nelson said. “That was his first love. I reread my grandpa Ozzie’s autobiography and I just wasn’t really aware of this, but my grandfather felt the same way. He always regarded himself as a musician who happened to act. He thought TV was going to be a fad, and it’s really sad because he constantly kept on wanting to go back out with his band and go out with Harriet and sing and do his thing. But the show kept getting picked up so he never got to go back out again.”
After the show was canceled, Ricky Nelson shifted his musical focus away from Elvis-style rockabilly. He started writing his own material, becoming a pioneer in the Southern California country-rock movement, which launched the careers of such acts as the Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt.
Born in 1967, the twins grew up among rock royalty who flocked to their father’s California home.
“There were a bunch of furry, fuzzy people over at the house at that time,” Gunnar Nelson recalled. “It was a blur. Remember, we were kids. We were babies. Everyone was really nice. I didn’t know what an accent was at that age, but I finally figured out that Uncle George, who lived next door and came over all the time, was actually George Harrison. And the guy with the crazy hair who wouldn’t leave the house and was always writing with our dad was actually Bob Dylan. Cass Elliott used to babysit us.”
Ironically, Nelson’s new look and sound led to a 1971 incident that later inspired his last top 40 hit, “Garden Party.” Nelson had agreed to perform in a rock and roll revue at New York City’s Madison Square Garden with his new group, the Stone Canyon Band. But Nelson, sporting long hair and performing country-tinged music, was booed off the stage by 22,000 fans. In 1972, “Garden Party” rose to No. 6 on the Billboard charts.
“He took an experience that might have been the undoing of anyone else and wrote a song about it and just knocked it out of the park,” Gunnar Nelson said. “That’s really cool. That’s who our dad really was: a guy who just wouldn’t quit.”
“Garden Party” is Matthew’s favorite song to perform at the shows, while Gunnar prefers his father’s 1958 ballad “Lonesome Town.” “The approach is so honest,” he said. “It’s a guitar and a voice and I love that. I love the vulnerability in that song and I also think, too, that when my dad chose that song it would be pretty challenging walking around in his shoes and figuring out who were his friends for the right reason. I bet he was pretty lonely at the time. I bet there were maybe a handful of people on the planet who could identify with his life and his lifestyle.”
The twins were 18 when they heard a radio announcement about their father’s death. “We lost our best friend,” Gunnar said. Weeks later, they found a set list from their father’s ill-fated tour. It’s the same playlist they use for “Ricky Nelson Remembered,” he said.
“When Matt and I were starting out, our dad gave us some rare advice,” Gunnar Nelson said. “He was a man of few words, but one of the things that he really strongly suggested to us was to write your own songs from your own experiences, and if you’re lucky, people make them a part of their lives and you can connect that way and become an indelible part of their lives and a thread in the fabric that creates them and their good memories. So Matthew and I started out being writers and we were fortunate enough to write our own number ones and feel the incredible satisfaction from having done that.”
Audiences for the “Ricky Nelson Remembered” are equally split between fans of Ricky Nelson and Nelson, Gunnar Nelson said. “Honest to God, we get a four-generation audience and it’s pretty much equally balanced now,” he said, “and that’s actually pretty cool for us because there are a lot of people of my generation who didn’t grow up with ‘The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.’ And of course their kids now who they’re bringing have no idea about the early history of rock and roll. So that’s what makes the show so compelling.”
Gunnar, who got married in October, is acutely aware of the costs – and risks – of life on the road. “You keep that in mind that this is what we’re getting compensated for, but it doesn’t make it any easier when you miss a baseball game with your kids or a birthday or an anniversary because you’re out doing what you’re really born to do,” he said. “But I’m really lucky. I’m with the right woman and with the right kids who really understand that there’s nothing I’d more dearly love than to hang out with them. But I was born with a calling to make music and the one down side to that is you gotta bring the rock to the people.”
Three generations of Nelsons have recorded No. 1 singles – a feat mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records – and Gunnar said there might be a fourth: Matthew’s newborn son, Ozzie. “He’s just an awesome little guy and Matthew’s already signed him to a management contract, so we’ll keep you informed as to whether he winds up being musical,” Gunnar said. “But I tell you what: I wouldn’t be opposed to it. Making music is a really wonderful thing, to be able to stand up there and show people how you feel.”
“Ricky Nelson Remembered,” starring Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 13 at the King Center for the Performing Arts, 3865 N. Wickham Road, Melbourne. Tickets start at $35. For tickets or more information, call 321-242-2219.