If you had to think about the most influential musical act in the popularization of rock and roll who would be your answer? Elvis Presley? The Beatles? Buddy Holly? The Rolling Stones? Yes, all of these are good answers and there’s no arguing the talent and influence that these artists had over the early days of rock. However, when I am asked I don’t answer any of these. Instead only one name comes to my mind. The answer….Ricky Nelson. What? Did you read that right? Did I say Ricky Nelson? You bet I did. Let me explain in something I like to call…
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
THE BOY WHO DIDN’T MESS AROUND
Now, I know what you are all thinking. I must be biased because I actually like Ricky Nelson or something. Actually, you might be surprised to know that I’m not really all that much of a Ricky Nelson fan!. I mean, he’s alright but compared to the real stars of the era I find him to be kind of dull. However, that is where my reasoning lies for believing that Ricky Nelson had a lot to do with influencing the popularity of rock music. Look at my wording; I am not saying that he was an influential musician as much as I am saying that he influenced the growth of the industry.
Okay, perhaps it’s time that I explain.
It’s no secret that when rock and roll first hit the airwaves in the mid 1950′s it was seen as a very controversial art form. I know it’s hard to believe now but fifty years before Marilyn Manson or gangster rap good old time Rock and Roll was seen as being the devil’s music. “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and The Comets was causing riots. Elvis’ gyrations were deemed indecent. Jerry Lee Lewis’ marriage was seen as an abomination. Even The Platters were getting busted for drugs. Frank Sinatra was saying that it was only a passing fad. Preachers and decency groups were pointing to rock music for corrupting the seemingly innocent American youth. Sure, Alan Freed was organizing rock shows and Ed Sullivan was putting it on television but, in the end, rock and roll was about as underground as it got, and the only people listening to it and appreciating it were teenagers. To this day adults won’t understand the music of their children but in the late 1950s/early 1960s the most innocent rock songs were deemed to be dangerous, indecent and evil.
Enter Ozzie and Harriet Nelson’s little boy Ricky. Now, America was no stranger to Ricky Nelson when he recorded a watered down version of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” in 1957. In fact, America was on a first name basis with him and his parents. Ozzie and Harriet Nelson had been entertaining America as early as the 1940s, first as a big band leader and his girl singer and then later on radio. When Ozzie and Harriet switched from radio to television in 1952 they brought along with them their two sons; sixteen year old David and twelve year old Ricky. “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” was an early example of reality television. Whatever was going on in the Nelson’s life, Ozzie would bring along the cameras and it suddenly became a television episode. There was a strange grey boundary between fiction and reality in the Nelson’s world. However, America fell in love with the Nelsons. Ozzie and Harriet were good parents and David and Ricky were good all-American boys. As post war America grew into a middle class suburban landscape, America could see a bit of themselves in the Nelsons, or at the very least a bit of what they wish they could be. Ozzie and Harriet were an example to be held as parents, and David and Ricky were the good kids next door.
Now, the way the story goes is that in 1957, at age seventeen, Ricky Nelson was bothered when he heard a girl he was dating swoon over Elvis Presley. He told her that Elvis wasn’t all that hot and he could do whatever Elvis could do. So, to impress the girl, he went to his Dad and said he wanted to perform a rock song on the show. Ozzie, being a former band leader, was obviously thrilled of Ricky’s sudden interest in music so at the first opportunity he orchestrated it so that Ricky would not only perform “I’m Walkin’” on the show but a single of the recording would be released in record stores as well. The result was a giant success. Not only was “I’m Walkin’” a huge hit but soon Ricky Nelson, who grew up to be a teenage girl’s dreamboat, began to rival Elvis Presley as top teen idol. For the next year or so Ozzie included a musical number by Ricky on each episode of “Ozzie and Harriet”. This would, in turn, promote albums and increase Ricky’s popularity. Soon Ricky was doing films like “The Longest Day,” and “Rio Bravo.” Through this a genuine teen sensation was born.
Now, was Ricky Nelson as good as Elvis? Not even close. Ricky Nelson had a good voice but all he was really doing was crooning watered down covers of songs made popular by mainly black rock singers of a few years earlier. In fact, Ricky Nelson’s influence on the years prior to Elvis and before The Beatles could be argued to be have been damaging to the rawness and excitement of the early rock music industry. What happened after Ricky Nelson’s success was a flood of imitators that felt that all you had to be was a squeaky clean white kid singing inoffensive material to become a rock superstar. Soon we were assaulted by such acts as Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Curtola, Bobby Vee, and even a few not named Bobby – like Pat Boone, Paul Anka, Fabian, and Frankie Avalon. It was a truly dark and sad time for rock music and it may have been all Ricky Nelson’s fault. Thank god The Beatles would make the scene a few years later and shake things up again to make the industry a bit more interesting.
So, if Ricky Nelson may have unwillingly had a hand at almost destroying rock and roll prematurely than why do I think that he had more to do with the popularization of rock than anyone before him? Well, it was Ricky Nelson that helped bring the dark and dreaded rock music out of the underground to be accepted by the American public at large. To American parents, if Ozzie and Harriet’s boy was singing it, rock and roll couldn’t be that bad of a thing. Ricky Nelson was a nice boy – not like that nasty Jerry Lee Lewis or sicko Chuck Berry. Ricky Nelson made rock music seem nothing but harmless and fun, which allowed rock music to continue without retaliation or the threatening stigma attached to it. It helped pave the way to the acceptance and the manic fascination for The Beatles.
Mind you, Ricky Nelson and the parents of America weren’t prepared for Black Sabbath a decade and a half later.
Ricky Nelson went on to have some further adventures in the rock industry. When booed off the stage for not performing 1950′s material at a Madison Square Garden Rock Rival show in 1971 Ricky wrote the song “Garden Party” about the event, which became a comeback hit for him in 1972 – proving that Ricky Nelson was more then just a teen idol and could actually write a decent and thoughtful song. Thirteen years later, in 1985 Ricky Nelson achieved ultimate rock legend status when he, his fiancé, and his band were killed in a plane crash over De Kalb Texas on New Years Eve. Nothing will make you more legendary than being a dead rock star. Years later Ricky’s twin sons Matthew and Gunnar became the easy metal duo known simply as Nelson, who briefly walked in their father’s footsteps as being teen idols themselves, and having their legitimacy questioned by “serious” music fans..
But what I’m trying to say is that next time you hear Ricky Nelson crooning the watered down version of “I’m Walkin’,” don’t dismiss it as 1950′s crap. Without Ricky Nelson rock and roll may have died a long time ago. Ricky Nelson may not be the brightest or most talented star in heaven’s rock jam, but who knows what would have happened to the state of rock and roll without him.