Rick Nelson – Complete Epic Recordings (review)

Rick Nelson – The Complete Epic Recordings (Real Gone Music)  review

We tend to try and keep our pop stars frozen in time.  Many of us still think of Springsteen in his leather jacket staring back at us from the Born to Run album cover – he’s moved on, but many of us haven’t.  That’s what happened to Rick Nelson too.  He began his career as the teenage singing star “Ricky” on his parents’ hit TV show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.  After his initial pop stardom faded, Nelson began mixing elements of country and rock together in the Stone Canyon Band, but was unable to find mass appeal for his new direction. Yet, just a few years later, bands like the Eagles would take this template to superstardom.  Nelson’s final big hit, “Garden Party,” was a plea to take his new direction (and his adulthood) seriously.  Unfortunately, we didn’t listen.  And, instead of building on the success of that last hit, he faded into obscurity.

The Complete Epic Recordings shows that Nelson was still making great music, even if we never heard it.

Of the three albums featured in this new, two-disc set, only one, Intakes, was released during his lifetime.  A second album, Back to Vienna, produced by Al Kooper, was never released, while the Memphis Sessions didn’t come out until after his passing, and when it did, it contained heinous overdubs.

Disc one of the collection opens with Intakes, which was released in 1977.  It’s an excellent blend of the country/rock hybrid that Nelson helped invent years earlier.  Of note is the driving “Five Minutes More,” and an excellent reading of Brenton Wood’s “Gimme Little Sign,”  while “Wings” sounds eerily like Crosby Stills and Nash.  “It’s Another Day,” which he penned himself, has a bittersweet tone of looking back on a failed relationship.

The second half of disc one makes up the unreleased Back to Vienna album, and it’s less impressive.  These songs have a much more slick, R&B feel, with lots of funky bass,  backup singers, and some goofy synth drums.  Unfortunately, this style doesn’t really suit Nelson – they end up sounding like Pablo Cruise outtakes…certainly not representative of a rock legend.  Take “Everyday I Have to Cry Some” – it opens with a twin-guitar lead that recalls Lynyrd Skynyrd (Kooper helmed several of their early albums), but then comes those synth drums and echoed backup singers, which spoil the track. More importantly, the songs themselves just aren’t that memorable.  It’s obvious here why Epic chose to leave this album unreleased.

The third album, and the reason to purchase this set, is The Memphis Sessions, a return to Nelson’s late Fifties’ roots.  The record opens with “That’s All Right Mama,” one of the earliest hits for Elvis Presley.  The track features an excellent rockabilly guitar solo, and sets the tone for the entire album.  He re-works Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” into a Sun studio rave-up, while unearthing a lost classic in John Fogerty’s “Almost Saturday Night.” Even better is his relaxed, acoustic rendition of Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover.”  He tackles a pair of Buddy Holly gems, giving a gentle reading to “True Love Ways,” while infusing some muscle into “Rave On.”  The entire album is a triumph; with Nelson in complete control, it would’ve made for an excellent comeback record.  However, this was recorded at the height of disco in 1978 – even if it had been released, we were too busy dancing our asses off and would’ve probably missed it.  Some of these tracks were released posthumously as Rockabilly Renaissance, but featured overdubs which took away from the spirit of the original tracks (for proof, they’ve included an alternate of “Rave On,” which features fake crowd noise, huh?).

The Complete Epic Recordings is further proof that Rick Nelson was still making great music in the latter years of his career.  If you enjoy these tracks, consider delving back into his late 60’s/early 70’s releases; there’s plenty of great music to be discovered from an under-appreciated artist.  –Tony Peters