Except for Elvis Presley, no artist was as commercially successful during the late 1950s and early 1960s pre-British Invasion era than Ricky Nelson. He was a wholesome and safe alternative to the likes of Elvis, Fats Domino, and Little Richard, but a lot more hip than Pat Boone and The Kingston Trio.
One of the original teen idols, Nelson had the advantage of starring in the television series, The Adventures of Ozzie And Harriet. As he got a bit older he would close many of their episodes with a performance of his newest single. This constant exposure to a weekly television fan base resulted in his singles and albums selling in the tens of millions.
His early career was built around a combination of rockabilly songs mixed in with ballads. Many of his singles became double hits, where both sides of the record would chart; usually one side would be uptempo rock ‘n’ roll and the other side something slower. During the early ’60s he moved toward a more polished pop sound.
Nelson’s material has been released many times over the ensuing years. Unless you want to explore his legacy through a box set or the reissue of his original albums, though, the best representation of his sound is the 2005 release, Greatest Hits. Its 25 tracks cover most of his hits from 1957 through 1963, except for one song. My only complaint is that they are not in chronological order, which is always appreciated with a compilation album like this.
The best of the rockabilly sides include covers of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin,’” “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” and “Be Bop Baby.” This side of his career is often ignored today but these tracks, among others, remain an important part in the development of rock ‘n’ roll as it exposed this type of material to a middle American audience.
Ballads such as “Poor Little Fool,” “Lonesome Town,” “Never Be Anyone Else But You,” and “Young Emotions” represent some of the best of the era.
“Travelin’ Man” and “Hello Mary Lou,” released in 1961, continued the trend of combining rockabilly and ballads on one single but here more of a pop sheen was added to the mix. Both sides became huge hits, with “Travelin’ Man” reaching number one on the Billboard Singles Chart and “Hello Mary Lou” checking in at number nine. They remain two of Nelson’s better and most recognizable performances.
“Fools Rush In” is the only track from 1963 and marked his transition to a pop sound. It would also mark the beginning of a downturn in his popularity as The Beatles were about to change music, likening his style and sound more as a link to the past.
I would have liked to have had 1962’s “Teenage Idol” and 1972’s “Garden Party” presented back to back as they represent the two sides of his artistry and make for nice bookends when considering his overall career.
Ricky Nelson died in a plane crash at the age of 45. He is a member of both the Rock and Roll and Rockabilly Halls of Fame. When the best of his music is culled down to 25 tracks, it becomes an essential listening experience to anyone even mildly interested in the music of the late ’50s and early ’60s.
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