Ricky Nelson (he later went by Rick) became a huge star, second only to Elvis as the biggest hitmaker of the late '50s and early '60s. Most of his hits, including the #1s "Poor Little Fool" and "Travelin' Man," were written by others, but he was most proud of one he wrote himself: "Garden Party," a song inspired by a nostalgia show he played at Madison Square Garden in 1971 when Nelson played newer material and the crowd booed. His conclusion: You can't please everyone, so you got to please yourself. The song reached #6 and revived his career.
Matthew and Gunnar were born in 1967; they were 18 when their father died in a plane crash on New Year's Eve, 1985. To celebrate his music, they created a show called Ricky Nelson Remembered, where they faithfully re-create their dad's hit songs and tell his story through a series of rare video clips (here are the tour dates). We spoke with Matthew about his father's music and why it is so important to preserve it.
Matthew Nelson: [Laughing] You know, I hope so. I hope he gets tons of pressure. I hope it forces him to write the best song the family's ever written. No, I'm just jokin'.
My dad, I saw old interview footage with him on Carson and things like that. He was asked the same question, "Are your children going to go into music?" And he said, "I just want my kids to be happy."
Of course, Gunnar and I wanted to do music. My little guy is already starting every day running around the house pointing at every guitar hanging on the wall. I have to take it down, he's got to strum on it, then he points at another one. I guess that's the ritual. He loves music. He's dancing, he's singing, he's pounding on the keyboards. He just loves it. And he's never seen me perform. So it's got to be something he was born with - he just has it in him. Right now, his favorite jam is "Got To Get You Into My Life," the Beatles cut. It's at the end of the Minions movie. And when that comes on, he'll scream, run over to the TV, and start dancing. So at least I have a Beatles freak as a son. I'm good with that.
Songfacts: Well, you must have felt that music gene in yourself, as well.
Matthew: Yeah, I did. I had fleeting glimpses of becoming a racecar driver, which I actually wound up doing later on, but I can't remember not having music as a foundation of who I am. I was pounding on the fireplace hardware with spoons, because it made a really cool noise on the brass, and then banging on the drummer's drum kit when my dad was playing with the Stone Canyon Band down the hallway.
I remember making the connection really young that my dad was a singer. He took us on a vacation to Waikiki where he was playing at a hotel. I didn't know that he was going there to perform, I just thought we were going to hang out. I remember looking up on this stage in this big room with velvet seats and seeing everybody clapping. I looked up at what the noise and the lights were, and I said, "Wow, that looks like Papa. It is Papa! Wow! And he's smiling, he's happy, and everybody's smiling and happy."
It was, like, bing! That was it.
Songfacts: Now, your dad didn't start writing songs until later in his career.
Songfacts: But from what I understand, you were writing songs right from the get.
Matthew: I can't say that's entirely accurate, because I started playing when I was about seven. I got my first little Fender bass and Gunnar had a drum set given to him, like a mismatched drum set as a Christmas gift. It was one of those things where we kind of taught ourselves how to play on records - I remember Nick Gilder's "Hot Child In The City" was a big one - and just being a rhythm section.
But I wrote my first song at 11 and we recorded it on our 12th birthday, so that is kind of from the get. It was a song called "Feelings of Love," and I don't really know what kind of feelings of love an 11 or 12 year old has, but I had 'em.
It was a surprise birthday gift - I'd told my pop that I had written this song and I played it for him. He didn't say anything about it. We were told that we had a dentist appointment on our birthday. Gunnar and I were sulky because what kid wants to go to the dentist and get their teeth drilled on their 12th birthday? Our mom came and picked us up in the station wagon and said, "I'm going to go park. You guys go inside."
I was so pissed off I didn't really put it together until I walked in the door and I saw this sparkle from the corner of my eye. I said, "That looks like Gunnar's drums. It is Gunnar's drums." And there was my bass on a little stand. It was a little recording studio in the valley, and my dad was waving from behind the control room glass.
My dad's guitar player was there and he produced it. We recorded this little 3-piece demo of "Feelings of Love," and these great ladies came in and sang backup. I had no idea who they were. They had some cake and then they left. It turned out they were the Pointer Sisters.
But other than that we had a completely normal childhood. [Laughing]
Songfacts: Well, your dad clearly got a lot of satisfaction out of writing the songs he was performing later in his career. Especially with "Garden Party." That was the song that he would end his sets with. So I'm wondering if that was a lesson to you guys to write your own songs?
Matthew: Well, no. It was more than that. I mean, we talked about it. We got to know my dad really well. We were 18 when he passed away, and I felt like I also lost my best friend.
We got a chance to really communicate more through music than anything - I loved to talk to him about music and he loved the fact that Gunnar and I were playing music. We opened the show for him a couple of times when he was in LA.
But he never gave us advice. I'd come in with a song and he'd say, "Well, just believe in what you're doing and keep doing it." I'm, like, "Can we have some specifics on the verse? Do you think the chorus needs a little work?" And he's like, "Nah, just keep on doing what you're doing and believe in it."
I thought it was such a copout or that he wasn't listening, and when he was gone, I realized what he was trying to say is, "You'll get better the more you do it and you've got to believe in the subject matter, even if it's a straight-up pop song." So it was basically about persistence and integrity, and just being part of the music. Do that and it will happen.
But I asked him about songwriting. I said, "Why did you start so late?" And in a nutshell, he said, "Listen, I would have given away all of my #1 records that I had early in my career for 'Garden Party,' because it was a part of me. If you continue to write songs and you're lucky enough to have a hit with a song you wrote, you'll know what I'm talking about, because there's nothing like that feeling."
He said, "Hey, it felt great to have hit records other people wrote for me. But when you've written something that becomes a part of people's lives, a part of their soundtrack, there really is nothing like that. I still get a rush every time I hear one of my songs on the radio."
Gunnar and I are still that way: If one of my songs comes on the radio, it's still a rush. I know what he was talking about.
My dad actually never wound up writing a #1 song, and Gunnar and I were lucky enough to have that. We wrote our hits.
Songfacts: You said that you and your dad used to discuss music a lot. Did you ever find out which songs he really connected with that he sang besides "Garden Party"? It seems hard to take somebody else's song and really connect with it, but your dad was very good at that.
Matthew: He was. And I think it was because back when he started, if you think about guys like him and Elvis, you know, Elvis never actually wound up writing a song, but he was arguably the best song interpreter ever as far as pop music was concerned. And up until the Stone Canyon Band era, the late '60s, our dad didn't write, either. But he really did connect with them.
Let's take a song in his early career, like, "Lonesome Town." A Baker Knight song. Great song. Baker Knight was penniless when my dad met him, loved his songs, brought him into the fold and basically gave him and his family a life. He was very proud of that. And unlike Elvis, he never took publishing for doing one of his writer's songs. It would have been a much better business move, but he didn't think it was fair. He said, "I make enough money playing the songs, playing concerts, and getting the artist share of royalties."
There was obviously a little echo of "Heartbreak Hotel," but it was way deeper, I think. "Heartbreak Hotel" was a very sexy, almost tongue-in-cheek kind of thing, and "Lonesome Town" was like, "Man, I've got a broken heart that I drag around with me on a daily basis and nobody can understand but me." Our pop had a little bit of that.
If you go through his catalog, in the early years, he sincerely identified with that part of himself. And not to say it was a bummer, but he did a song they call the "French suicide song." It's called "Gloomy Sunday." I don't know if you ever heard that song.
Songfacts: I've heard the Billie Holiday version.
It's so haunting, and Ozzie said kids will be throwing themselves out of windows because our dad had such an unbelievable impact on popular culture and kids at that point. Ozzie said, "We can't release this, it's irresponsible. I don't want to censor it, but people will die if this song gets out there."
And he probably was right, because when you listen to his version it's incredible. It came out with a whimper. They made sure they just snuck it out there. They did not put some fanfare on it. It did get out later. But if you listen to his vocal on "Gloomy Sunday," you'll know what I'm talking about. It's not like, "Oh, this is a cute little song." He was in it, and it gives me chills every time I hear it.
Later on in his career you had songs that he wrote about what he was going through. "Garden Party," perfect example. He started experimenting before that - he had an album that I love called Rudy the Fifth where he wrote most of the cuts. The songs "Palace Guard" and "Life" are two of my favorites of all time. And also another song called "Last Time Around."
He wrote "Last Time Around" because he was hanging out in New York and he walked up to a homeless man just to talk to him, and the guy kind of gave him a "reading." He said, "You're an old soul, but this is your last time around." So my dad took that and wrote a song called "The Last Time Around."
It's a magical song and you can feel that he took those words that man said and thought it was Jesus speaking to him or something like that. He wrote this amazing song about it that's actually kind of universal.
And another one that I love is called "Something You Can't Buy." He was going through domestic troubles with my mother, who had a habit of spending money before he could make it and was trying to tear him down in a divorce. My dad could really write a velvet-gloved middle finger. With "Garden Party," he did the same thing to the haters in the music industry in general. They wanted to write them off as washed up and over. "Something You Can't Buy" is kind of the same way. The lyrics are:
You can buy you a house and big shiny car
You can go without, but it won't get too far
Till you find someone to see you through
Someone that tells you it's all right
Because you get back what you've given
And love is something you can't buy
He'd learned that it wasn't about the money.
That's what's great about songwriting. When I write a song and I'm in the zone, it doesn't come from me. I wish I could take credit for it, and I've been lucky enough to be the channel for a lot of pretty cool music. It's my tangible example of a higher power. It's the only way I can describe it. It's like somebody turning on a radio and the song comes through me.
Songfacts: Well, now you're in a position where you're interpreting some of these classic songs that your dad was interpreting. When you were talking about going to Hawaii, I thought of "Travelin' Man," how the audience must have liked the "Pretty Polynesian baby" line. A lot of these songs are very upbeat and chipper, and some of them are very, as you say, melancholy. Your dad had his approach to doing them and got very good at it, and now you find yourself doing these, as well. Can you explain how that works?
Matthew: Yeah. I was just thinking about what an amazing interpreter of Bob Dylan songs he was. Even Dylan said the same thing: "I wish that I could sing my songs and sound like that." You could tell when Pop did "She Belongs To Me" or "Just Like A Woman," he was in it. He got it. He just understood it.
And I think it's the same thing with us. I'm not going to say it's an acting job, because it's not: Music is much, much more than just trying on a suit. You have to find the truth in anything that you perform or sing. And for us, doing "Ricky Nelson Remembered," it's like our own ongoing musical mission to make sure that his music doesn't die. It's obviously selfish, but also I think it serves a real purpose for people that grew up with him. I can see it in their eyes.
But these are the songs I grew up with, just like the audience did. So I have a personal experience with every one of those songs that he did that I'm now doing. Some people hear a song and they think about a friend or some experience they had or a place they were when they heard it. When I'm singing "Travelin' Man," it's 1977 at the Sahara in Las Vegas, when I hung out for a week while Pop did a residency there. And I think about the guys who were in the band.
To me it's kind of like visiting old friends every night, and I feel him on stage when I play. I feel a conspiracy of our ancestors on stage with us every night.
So it seems very natural to me. They're great songs. I had to arm wrestle with Gunnar to even do a verse and a chorus of "Love and Affection," because it's a song we wrote. He's like, "Well, I really want it to be all about Pop when we do that show and that's it." And we actually have two or three songs that we've written that we do in the show that are appropriate. That one is kind of our area in the middle of the show when we talk about our dad encouraging us to be songwriters and having that hit and what that meant as far as multiple generations having Number Ones and that type of thing.
The last song we sing isn't a hit yet, but up until that point the show's a really nice show that brings people back to their memories of these songs being hits. And the last song that we wrote called "Just Once More" is about having one more chance. I threw it out there to Gunnar once when we were co-writing with some people and I said, "If we had five minutes and one song to sing, what would it be?" You have one song to sing to the world before you're going to die, what's that?
And this song, for some reason, it happened that day we cowrote it with Victoria Shaw who wrote "The River" for Garth Brooks. We were at her place and our friend Steve McClintock who wrote a bunch of stuff for Tiffany, believe it or not, but they kind of got out of the room because they wanted it to be really personal. Victoria said, "I've heard you guys write great pop songs, but I don't know you guys. I don't know your heart. So do something about that." And this was if we had five more minutes to say everything that we wanted to say that we didn't get a chance to. That's what the song is about.
It's universal. It's one of those songs that when we play this show, you see people weeping, you see them going to a place where everybody has an experience like that, whether it be a lover or a family member or both. And that's the one that we get the standing O for. It's a song that's not a hit, that we really haven't released yet.
We did it once at Austin City Limits when they had something called At The Drive In. I think there's a video on Youtube with it now. It's Gunnar and myself and a string quartet. There's this sea of people that were there to see oldies, 12,000 people. The song ends, and I love the cellos as they go out. The whole audience just erupts. Because people love to feel something in themselves by listening to a piece of music. It can be a pop song or something really serious, as long as you make them feel.
People come up to us after the show and they say, "You really had me crying on that last one." Or I've had a lot of people say, "I lost my husband last year, and that song move me." It chokes me up, too.
But I'm so lucky, I'm so blessed to be able to connect people with themselves with what I do. I feel it's such an amazing opportunity that I have that a lot of people have never gotten regardless of who I'm related to. Just as a songwriter, I feel so blessed to be able to do that.
We play a great 90-minute-plus show with my dad with video and telling stories and yakking it up, and that one song at the end, that's the killer. That's the one we leave them thinking on, and I love that.
Songfacts: What was the family discussion about that?
Matthew: About MTV?
Matthew: There really wasn't a discussion about it, although I do remember the music my dad was doing, recording a record for Capitol called Playing To Win. This was right around the time of the video explosion, and two things happened at the same time if you remember. It was the explosion and proliferation of video games: Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, all that kind of stuff, sucking a whole lot of money out of what was counted on by the recording industry. And, of course, video. And let's face it, there were a lot of artists that were huge stars that did not make that cut. The minute people saw them, they went, "Holy crap! They looked really different in my mind."
But it also did the opposite, too. I grew up really conscious of it. Gunnar and I were playing in new wave and punk bands in Los Angeles clubs around that time, and in '77, '78, '79, video started creeping in with bands like Devo that were really about visuals, and we were hot for it. When MTV came out, I was so happy. I was thrilled to be able to see music being played and people doing cool things with visuals. There was very little technology, but it was exciting, and it really was a revolution.
And I'm saying this now as a guy that really caught, in my opinion, the tail end of an entire era of MTV. We were one of the last really big bands before Nirvana. And if you think about it, we were kind of like our dad in the sense that Ozzie and Harriet was his outlet that people tuned into, and for Gunnar and I, it was MTV. People voted our video #1 for months, whichever video we had. So it was kind of a similar vibe, just a different era.
Things have changed so much since Gunnar and I - it's been 25 years. So we have generations that have perfect digital copies of things. And if not, they don't care if it's an MP3 as long as they don't have to pay for it, and they listen to it not even with headphones, just holding their phone up. They're not excited about bands anymore coming out with new music. It's just a different thing. It's like music is a little bit more in the background than it's been, but I think that's why it's so important for a lot of these kids now that when they rediscover stuff that came before that wasn't as turned out and fabricated, and was created by people that actually played instruments and really sang before Auto-Tune and recorded on analog tape. I remember we used to edit with a razor blade. You didn't have unlimited track counts and you went into a studio and it cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars for the day. No pressure or anything: just make it amazing, because the clock's running. And now you've got kids with laptops and unlimited track counts and file sharing.
So I don't know how it's going to be for my kid. I want him to listen to his family's music, and I want him to listen to all those amazing artists that happened before he was ever around. I want him to know where this stuff came from, and that people created this stuff before you could just loop it.
Whether or not he does music as a vocation, I think it's going to be something where music is going to be a part of his life. He's not even two, he's not even speaking yet, and the minute he hears a song he likes, it just takes him over, and I love watching that. It's as primal as it gets.
I always say, and I really believe this: Music is as close to magic as we have on this planet. It's a visual representation of God. It's a big deal. So anybody that doesn't really believe that, just ask them, "What if there was no music?" And see how they respond to that. Even if it's in the background in their lives, it sure makes your life a whole lot more colorful.
Songfacts: Matt, what was the biggest misconception about your dad?
Matthew: I think he addressed it with "Garden Party." The biggest misconception, it that's he wasn't for real. He was impossibly good looking, and he also had a weekly television show that he was playing music on it before they could even call it rock & roll because It wouldn't pass the censors. They had to call it rhythm & blues. He was a rock & roll sleeper cell.
He and Roy Orbison, who I'm a big fan of, wound up becoming really good friends. Roy said, "We used to joke about Ricky Nelson learning how to sing on million selling records. I didn't laugh at him when he knocked me off the #1 spot with one of his songs. We had to take him really seriously." And then, of course, they became really good friends and considered him one of them.
But he was very quiet, very shy, so it was really easy for people that didn't want to get into the music to say, "He's not for real, he's just propped up, made for TV. He just decided he wanted to sing some rock & roll."
He could have continued on as an actor. He was nominated for a Golden Glove for Rio Bravo. He was very good at television, obviously: 435 episodes of the TV show, he knew what he was doing.
But he loved music, and he gave his life for it. And with "Garden Party," getting booed off the stage for playing some new tunes and looking different, he just kind of got to a place where it just came through him. The chorus says it all: "You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself." I think that's what he was trying to tell me when I was asking him for songwriting advice: As long as you believe it, everybody else will, and if they don't, doesn't matter, because as long as you do, you can look yourself in the mirror and say, "I dig it. It's okay."
And I think it was a great gift that he gave me personally, but I think that he gave the world that song. And as a songwriter, we can only hope that we can do the same.
Songfacts: I just want to comment that I don't think that Ricky Nelson Remembered is an egotistical endeavor on your part at all, because it really is doing a service to bring these songs back. When something from Jersey Boys comes on TV, I try to bring my daughter into the room so she'll hear some Frankie Valli songs. You've got to give this stuff a push, because the next generation has a lot to distract them.
Matthew: Yeah, they do. There's a lot of white noise. I've noticed that even with my kid. He's not two, and he can unlock my iPhone, whip through it, find YouTube Kids and find a Mickey Mouse video. So their brains have so much thrown at them and to get them to slow down and listen to this stuff is important.
Recently, I got a visit from Carnie Wilson, Brian's daughter. We have a lot in common, clearly. We had #1 songs around the same time - we're good friends with those girls. If we can pin them down, we're trying to put together something where it's going to be Matt and Gunnar and Carnie and Wendy and be like a new Mamas & the Papas. I think that'd be amazing. I would be so thrilled to do that, because the vocals would be stunning.
But we were at a car show in Nashville and I was looking around at all these hot rodders, and I can hear Beach Boys music on the air. I said, "Hey, Carnie, I know that your family stuff is really hard, but how cool is it when you look around and this entire hot rod and car culture was almost created by your dad's music?" And we were talking acres of beautiful vintage cars.
And she looked at me, she kind of got teary. I said, "I just think that's so cool. Good for you and good for your dad." Because I'm a big Beach Boys fan. I mean, who isn't? The genius of some of these tunes. Our dad was a pop star, but he used to hang out with those guys, too. The whole California thing, Beach Boys and Ricky Nelson and Eddie Cochran, and of course, everything that happened down at the Troubador club, and the San Francisco thing. There were so many cool things that happened out of the West Coast that were territorial phenomenons.
But I love that years later this music still matters. I always say, as long as people want to hear these songs, I'll keep playing 'em.
July 28, 2016.
More on Ricky Nelson Remembered.
Our interview with Gunnar Nelson from 2015.
More Songwriter Interviews