In the late 1950s and early 1960s there was Elvis Presley and then there was Ricky Nelson. Elvis was a musical and cultural phenomenon but Ricky Nelson would be a solid number two and sell millions of albums and chart thirty top forty singles during the years 1957-1962.
He rose to prominence as an actor on his parents' TV show, Ozzie and Harriet. As Ricky aged he was given a few minutes at the end of each show to sing a song. This would propel him to the status of teen idol; a term Life magazine coined to describe him in an article.
His career would come to an abrupt halt with the advent of the British invasion. Musical tastes in the United States were quickly changing and he would be regulated to the oldies bin. He would drop the Y from his name and continue to produce albums but with little success. The low point of his career came when he was booed off the stage at a Madison Square Garden oldies show for singing a few new songs.
Rick Nelson began his comeback in 1969 with the brilliant live album, In Concert At The Troubadour, 1969. Nelson had moved in a country/rock direction and surrounded himself with a first rate backing group, The Stone Canyon Band. Ricky Sings Nelson (1970) and Rudy The Fifth (1971) would follow and re-establish Nelson as a commercially successful and creative artist. his comeback would be complete with the release of Garden Party in 1972 which would reach number 32 on the national charts.
Garden Party was a brilliant foray into the country/rock idiom centered around the autobiographical title song. He would take his rejection at The Madison Square Garden concert and turn it into a personal song of redemption and peace. His smooth delivery would sell this song of him accepting his place in the musical world. “Garden Party” would become a huge single hit and reach number six on the national charts. The only non-country song was a rock ‘n’ roll cover of Chuck Berry’s “I’m Talking About You.” Nelson cut his musical teeth on songs such as this and does not disappoint here as he delivers a wonderful vocal.
Garden Party contained a large number of superior tracks. “So Long Mama” is a bouncy country tune with an almost boogie beat. “I Wanna Be With You,” written by former band member Randy Meisner, could have been an Eagles song. It finds Nelson in a group setting and features superb harmonies. “Are You Really Real” is a sparse ballad that is enhanced by a subtle use of flutes on the breaks. “A Flower Opens Gently” contains some of the most sophisticated lyrics that Rick Nelson would produce. It is a song with biting commentary. He pays tribute to our dead with the refrain; “goodbye, so long.”
Garden Party would find a mature Rick Nelson brimming with confidence. He would write six of the album’s ten songs and they would range from very good to excellent. The equally brilliant album, Windfall, would follow but after that Rick Nelson would figuratively play out the string until his death, December 31, 1985, in a plane crash. In many ways Garden Party stands as the last testament to an underrated artist.