Mr. Rick Nelson
Listen – Don’t Make Promises – MP3
I wasn’t sure if I was going to get something posted in the second half of the week (lots of real stuff to take care of) but a small window opened up in the schedule, so here I am.
Today’s selection is another one of those records that I happened up on during the old days of bootleg video trading, some 20 years ago). The long lost individual who had duped me a few cassettes worth of stuff had stuffed the end of the second tape with what first appeared to be filler, e.g. a clip of the Tijuana Brass with the Seven Dwarfs at Disneyland playing ‘America’ from West Side Story (I assure you this was NOT a hallucination).
It took me a while to make it all the way through to the end of the tape (after rewatching the 13th Floor Elevators countless times), but when I did I made a couple of nice discoveries.
One of these was a song that I had never heard before, being performed by someone I couldn’t immediately identify (as I’ve said before the quality of these tapes left a lot to be desired). After several viewings I figured out that the singer was Rick Nelson, and the song was a cover of Tim Hardin’s ‘Don’t Make Promises’.
Aside from the fact that I ought to have been ashamed of myself for not knowing that song (which quickly became a favorite), I had to get over the shock that Rick Nelson had recorded anything between ‘Hello Mary Lou’ and ‘Garden Party’.
I had no idea….
Despite the fact that he is often lumped in with bland pop stars of his day, Nelson was no slouch. Though he made some lightweight records, he was also capable of real rock’n’roll, and even the occasionally searing rockabilly track (if you don’t believe me, track down his version of ‘Milk Cow Blues’ which is positively DEADLY). At the height of his early career, it probably didn’t matter much that Nelson’s fame was largely the result of his TV stardom because “authenticity” in rock musicians had not yet fully formed as a concept. This is not to say that there weren’t more authentic rockers in his day (nor that Nelson had some authenticity of his own), but rather than almost nobody cared.
So, Nelson was a mega-star (I think the biggest selling artist in the history of Imperial Records) in both records and TV, but like so many of his era, things trailed off post-British Invasion.
By the mid-60’s, following the cancellation of ‘Ozzie and Harriet’, Nelson was adrift in a scene where for a rock musician, nothing mattered more than authenticity.
His interest in country music had grown, so much so that in 1966 he recorded the ‘Bright Lights and Country Music’ LP, which consisted entirely of country covers, and featured no less a master than Clarence White, as well as longtime Nelson sideman James Burton.
Through the second half of the 60’s Nelson drifted between country, bland pop and forays into more serious material. By 1969, when he recorded the ‘Another Side of Rick’ LP, he was just about to make a serious change in direction. Though that LP contained a fair amount of dross, it also included some very nice folk rock, as well as a curious step into the world of pop-psychedelia (‘Marshmallow Skies”) that I’ll have to post up some time in the future.
Nelson’s version of ‘Don’t Make Promises’ takes the tune from it’s somewhat more austere original version by Tim Hardin and recasts it in a slightly slicker pop style. Oddly enough Nelson, who had flirted extensively with country, strips the slight Nashville edge from Hardin’s arrangement.
No matter how he was presented (or presented himself) on ‘Another Side of Rick’, his next album would be a shot across the bow as it were. ‘Rick Nelson In Concert: The Troubador 1969’ would feature a long(er) haired Nelson on the cover, playing a decidedly long(er) haired music in the grooves. The album, which features bass and backing vocals by future Eagle Randy Meisner is – for anyone familiar only with Nelson’s 50’s hits – a revelation. It can stand proudly along side country rock albums from the same period by the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and – though it charted respectably – should have been the record that remade Nelson as a force in music. As it was, it would be three more years before his next substantial hit, ‘Garden Party’.
Unfortunately, the rest of his career – up to his tragic death in 1985 – never brought him the respect he deserved.
If you get a chance, comb the used book stores for Joel Selvin’s excellent biography of Nelson.