Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ricky Nelson

Ricky Nelson (or Rick Nelson as was called for much of his career) was a pop idol at the same time as Elvis and arguably even better looking.

Though churning out a succession of hits over a number of years he has been largely forgotten at this stage suggesting perhaps that his success was due more to image and marketing rather than any exceptional talent. However I would not share this perception and would consider him one of the true greats of the early rock and roll era.

What I particularly liked about Ricky Nelson was the absolutely clear quality of his singing voice. Others indeed possessed more powerful and exciting voices but no male performer - with the possible exception of Don McLean - can match him on this score. Indeed in this respect he reminds me very much of Karen Carpenter.

To be honest I was never a great fan of Bob Dylan's as I always found it very difficult to hear what he was saying (due to a voice that sometimes resembled the scraping of sandpaper). With so much of his material dependent on conveying story through song this for me constituted a major problem!

Ricky Nelson was especially at home in the rockabilly style that defined the earlier careers of artists such as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis (who all regarded him highly). Indeed his own great idol was Carl Perkins who never really deviated from this genre.

A good example of his rockabilly style can be fund in a song such as "It's Late". Indeed you could well imagine Elvis doing this number in a similar style. What I like however about Nelson's approach is a slightly understated approach. In other words he has the style and ability to perform the song very well without resorting to any histrionics.

I mentioned Don McLean who in many respects has a very similar voice. It is fascinating therefore to compare their respective versions of the Skyliners hit "Since I Don't Have You". I must say I love both versions. Once again the Nelson version is somewhat understated (which I actually see as a virtue). He sings the song as a smooth romantic ballad. Though showing superb falsetto ability when required, this is not allowed to dominate the overall performance.

The McLean version sounds as if it may have been modelled on the Nelson version. However it is given a somewhat more commercialised - and perhaps slightly exaggerated style - again displaying superb falsetto ability. If one ignores these differences one can see how similar and clear are the two voices. Which is the better version? In this case I would probably pick Nelson's by a short head which is really saying something as I consider Don McLean a superb performer.

So Ricky Nelson was equally good - if not better - in ballad than in rock mode. However precisely because he does not resort to any special effects, the sheer competence - and indeed quality - of his performances is not properly recognised.

Like many others, his career went into decline following the British group invasion. Gradually he diverted into - what is now known as - country rock and enjoyed short-lived success in 1972 with his self-written song "Garden Party". Once again there are interesting parallels here with Don McLean who enjoyed his own first success with "American Pie" in the same year. Also "Garden Party" sounds like the kind of song that Don himself might have written!

Just as McLean's hero Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash, likewise Ricky Nelson tragically died in the same manner in 1985. Eerily, he had just recorded two of Holly's songs "True Love Ways" and "Rave On" before he died as he prepared to make yet another attempt at a comeback.

Best Song

I like many of his early songs especially "Poor Little Fool", "Travellin' Man" and "Hello Mary Lou".
The last two were two sides of the same single. Indeed Ricky Nelson must hold the record with the greatest proportion (by far) of hits where both sides reached the upper reaches of the charts!

His best recording however would have to be "Lonesome Town", a plaintive - and once again understated - beautifully sung effort (representing two minutes of sheer pop perfection).

Favourite Song

My own favourite however is "Fool's Rush In" in a great uptempo style which I have always loved. Funnily there is another up tempo song "Don't Get Me Wrong" by the Pretenders in the mid 80's which I equally enjoy. It always reminded me of some other song that I knew but I could never put my finger on it. Then it just struck me the other night that that song was in fact "Fool's Rush In"!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

John Denver

To be honest I was not a great fan of John Denver during his period of great commercial success in the US in the early 70's. His first great hit - apart from "Leaving on a Jet Plane" recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary - was "Take Me Home Country Roads". I have to say this is just one of those songs that does nothing for me (whether sung by John Denver or on a cover such as that of Olivia Newton John). I felt the same about many of his other popular "country" efforts such as "Rocky Mountain High"and "Sunshine on My Shoulder". Indeed I did not even like his voice at the time! Though this changed somewhat with "Annie's Song" and "I'm Sorry" it was not till the early 80's that I became a fan (and a big one at that!)

What changed my opinion so much was the album "Seasons of the Heart" given to me by a Denver fan at work. It left an indelible impression on me with a couple of tracks on it still among my favourites.

The most famous song on the album is "Perhaps Love" . Though this is recognised as a classic (largely due to a hit version featuring John with Placido Domingo) there are other tracks that I prefer. The title track "Seasons of the Heart" is a truly beautiful song and one of Denver's best. However the standout for me is "Heart to Heart" which I like even more now nearly 30 years on.

It was clear that Denver was going through a period of pain and readjustment when he was recording the album and gave free rein to philosophical speculation on the meaning of life. And this comes to the fore brilliantly on this track in a manner that is moving and sincere evoking a genuine depth of feeling. As mystics of all ages have discovered we cannot really explain life's suffering but ultimately its meaning is to be found in love. And this is the answer that Denver also arrives at that is beautifully expressed in the line "love is a light that shines from heart to heart". There is a wonderfully affirmative transcendent quality to this song greatly assisted by the soaring ability of Denver's voice that has never been used to better effect.

As is well known Denver died in a somewhat mysterious plane crash in 1997. Apart from Roy Orbison the death of no other pop singer has left me with such a residual sadness. It is not really the quantity of an artist's output that I find important. Much better that even one song strikes a rich chord and this one song has left a truly lasting impression which still moves me today.

However one more unexpected surprise was to await.

Though it is now - perhaps rightly - made illegal, there was a glorious period of freedom on the Internet when music downloading sites such as Napster were in their prime.

What fascinated me at the time is that such sites had the capacity to serve somewhat as archaeological digs where certain forgotten treasures of an artist's recordings could be unexpectedly found.

I found several tracks in this manner of various artists - of which I had not been previously aware - which now rank among my favourites.

Of these, pride of place has to be given to a Jim Webb song "Postcard from Paris". Though this had been recorded by John Denver, I had not been aware of it and was in fact hidden away on an album released in 1990 "The Flower that Shattered the Stone".

It really baffles me as to why John Denver's version remains so unknown. I have never heard it on radio, and believe that if it was played it would evoke considerable interest from listeners. It is a really class song with a truly lovely nostalgic quality and has joined "Heart to Heart" as my two all time favourites of his recordings.

Even at this late stage it should be promoted for I am sure that many others who have not yet heard the song would react on hearing it in the same manner that I did!