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"!

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