Rick Nelson was there at the beginning of the modern rock era. He starred and sang on a television show during the early ‘50s and ‘60s. He was straight enough for mom and dad to like, but cute and rebellious enough to be adored by the kids. He oozed charm without trying. He sang really good material (like “Travelin’ Man”, “Hello Mary Lou”, “Poor Little Fool”) backed by some of the best side musicians (e.g., James Burton, Joe Maphis, Scotty Moore) of the time period. Nelson had a rockabilly streak that gave him an edge, even when performing love ballads.
Nelson was left in the dust when the British Invasion came and knocked American music off from the charts. He want back to his country rock roots and recorded material that suited his own tastes. As he famously sang later, “You can’t please everyone so you got to please yourself.” That song (“Garden Party”) was among the more famous ones that led to his revival in the ‘70s. But that fame too was short lived. By the end of that decade, his record company (Epic) had such little faith in him that they did not release many of these songs in the United States.
Thankfully, the 41 tracks he recorded for Epic have just been issued, and they are amazingly good. The 2-CD set includes 1977’s Intakes, the only disc to be released during his life time. The Al Kooper produced 1978 Back to Vienna Sessions that was posthumously remixed and released and in 1986 is issued here for the first time as Kooper intended. These each are both 10 cuts long.
The new anthology also includes 21 cuts known as the Memphis Sessions from 1978-9 that have been largely unavailable in America until now. He covers songs made famous by Elvis Presley (“That’s Alright Mama”), Bobby Darin (“Dream Lover”), and Buddy Holly (“Rave On”), and many others. In fact, there are three versions of “Rave On” and two of “Dream Lover”, but the tracks are different enough and good enough to bear repeated listenings. For example, Nelson takes on “Rave On” first as a straightforward pop song with an almost martial beat. The second time around the groove is much looser. He lets the musicians jam more and allows his voice to slither as well as hiccup during the appropriate moments. The third is live and features the audiences’ reactions to his performance.
Nelson turns both versions of “Dream Lover” into acoustic, heartfelt pleas for a mate. He annunciates every word with a slight ache. Nelson offers an intimate prayer for love that makes the listener feel like someone eavesdropping on a private moment. It’s beautiful. But the Memphis sessions aren’t always so serious. He has fun with Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now”, John Forgerty’s “Almost Saturday Night” and other more uptempo material.
The 1978 Back to Vienna Sessions was originally issued in a remixed version that stripped off Al Kooper’s production. This is the first time one can hear his original Kooper lets each song have a separate personality. Nelson takes on some excellent creative material such as Arthur Alexander’s “Everyday I Have to Cry Some”, Allen Toussaint’s “What is Success”, Randall Bramblett’s “Carl of the Jungle”, and Terry Allen’s “New Delhi Freight Train”. Nelson’s phrasing adds to the depth of the material just as Kooper’s production gives the songs a frame.
Nelson always covered Bob Dylan well. He had a hit in 1970 with “She Belongs to Me”. Here he performs “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind” with a wistful touch that serves the song well.
Intakes captures that sunny California sound of 1976-7 with sweet guitar melodies/or piano lines mixed harmony vocals that evoke good times. Self-penned tracks like “It’s Another Day” and “Something You Can’t Buy” just beg to be heard while driving to the beach or the mountains. And other tunes, like the appropriately entitled “I Wanna Move With You”, make you want to move. While there is something slight about the 10 tracks, that’s also their charm. Life in this post-Watergate era was heavy enough. This is meant to take one’s mind off of such things and just party.
Times are different now, or not, you figure it out. But Nelson’s main concern was always the music. During this period of his life Nelson was making fine music that most people never heard—until now.