By Jeremy Roberts | 2010 for Examiner.com
This interview was published on the 25th anniversary of Rick Nelson’s death: December 31, 2010. Interview was originally published here, including slideshows and videos.
Before we dive in, should it be “Ricky” or “Rick?”
Oh, tricky Ricky, he always went by Rick, although during the early run of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, he was “Ricky” [Author's Note: Imperial Records created much publicity with the Rick is 21 LP, timed to arrive on store shelves during Rick's 21st birthday on May 8th, 1961]. Regardless, being called “Rick” was his choice.
How did Rick Nelson enter your life in summer 1957?
I was working with a guy named Bob Luman, who was on Imperial Records, the same record label as Rick. Bob’s group was called The Shadows, with James Kirkland on bass. We were in Hollywood, California, rehearsing a song called “Red Hot,” a Billy Lee Riley song.
Lew Chudd, the owner of Imperial Records, let us use his office, and Jimmie Haskell was also present. Haskell was a musical arranger who also worked for Imperial Records and Ozzie on the television show doing recordings and such.
Anyway, Rick came in on business and said, “I hear music in the next room. Who is that?” Chudd and Haskell replied, “That’s Bob Luman & The Shadows from Louisiana,” so Rick then inquired, “Would you mind if I go in and say hello and listen to ‘em a little bit?” They said, “Nah, go on in.” So Rick came in and listened to us play for about three hours, and we just had a great time.
We had a home out in the valley in Tarzana, out in Canoga Park, so the next day James Kirkland jumped up and ran outside to get the newspaper. When he came back inside, he noticed a telegram hanging on the door, so he grabbed it and brought it in.
It was from Rick Nelson, who had invited me over to the General Service Studios. Rick recommended we bring our instruments, so James and I immediately went over and met his mother and dad, along with everybody involved with the show.
Later, we were in one of those little bungalows, setting up and playing, when Ozzie, Harriet, David, Wally (portrayed by actor Skip Young), and all the gang came over. We met them and we played a little bit for them, and Ozzie loved it.
He said, “Do you boys wanna do something on the TV show, maybe do a couple of songs?” Everybody said, “Yeah, sure, why not?” This was actually before I joined Rick as his lead guitar player. We did a few shows and had a great time. Rick turned out to be a great guy to be around and play music with.
Ozzie wanted to film a lot more songs and show-related stuff, but we got homesick and wanted to return to Louisiana and be home for the Christmas holidays. Ozzie offered us a lot more money to stay over and do the shows, but we said, “No, we wanna go home.” So that’s what we did.
I was home maybe two weeks, and I got a phone call from Ozzie. He invited me to come back and be Rick’s lead guitar player, which I thought was pretty cool. Ozzie said, “If you accept it, I’ll send you a telegram, just sign the telegram and send it back to me.”
Rick got on the phone and we talked for an hour or two. He wanted me to come out the next day (laughing), I said, “Wait a minute! I’ve gotta make arrangements and get all my stuff together here.” I was only eighteen years old and I’m leaving home, you know.
I lived with Rick for the first year or two we worked together, and the Nelson family invited me into their home up in Camino Palmero in Hollywood.
Did Bob Luman take the news of your impending exit very well?
Bob was happy for us, he was happy for me, that Rick was interested in hiring me to be his guitar player. He wasn’t really thrilled about it, but Bob was happy for us. He said, “Boys, that’s a great thing, I wish I could offer you more.”
But Bob was a great guy to work with and a great talent. We were young and things were going fast, with a lot of things happening. Bob gave us his blessing and said, “Boys, I’m gonna miss you.”
Tell us a little about Rick’s personality.
Rick was a wonderful, great guy, quiet, and sorta on the shy side. But he was the type of guy that once you got to know him, you understood more about his personality. If you met him for the first time, your impression would be, ‘Boy, this guy is really quiet and shy’.
There were just certain things you couldn’t talk about, he was easy to blush, a lot of times when I’ve done interviews, people would ask, “How come Rick closes his eyes when he sings?”
Well, I think a lot of it is in feeling, because he had a great feel for the type of songs he sang and what he enjoyed singing, as well as a soft, smooth voice. Rick could sing a lot of different styles of music.
We did a lot of old ballad stuff, like “Fools Rush In,” which we hopped up a little bit, instead of one carburetor, we had three carburetors on it [Author's Note: Burton later suggested Elvis record it in May 1971 in Nashville, which he promptly did after running through 25 takes of it].
It just seems like our music really went together well and I think we were a good team. We worked closely, and we made some really nice music in our time span. I think Rick’s music is still very popular, and it’s just as good today as the day we recorded it.
What was your first official session with Rick?
Before I joined Rick, Howard Roberts, Joe Maphis, and Barney Kessel were the lead guitarists. The first session I did with Rick was for the “Stood Up” / “Waitin’ in School” single. The drummer was Earl Palmer, a big guy who passed away in September 2008. [Author's Note: This iconic drummer was later inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame].
Is it true Elvis’ original band, namely guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black, auditioned for Rick just before he met you?
Rick told me that story after I went to work with him. [Author's Note: During the first week of September 1957, Scotty and Bill resigned from Elvis over Colonel Parker's interference in financial matters].
When Rick was looking to put a band together, Scotty and Bill were looking for a job, and they had contacted Rick and Ozzie. So they met and went in the studio for a short time. I believe drummer D.J. Fontana (Elvis hired him after Scotty & Bill) and The Jordanaires were also present.
Evidently, it wasn’t what Rick was looking for, or Rick didn’t want to upset Elvis by hiring them. They’re all excellent musicians, but Rick must have wanted something a bit different, it’s difficult to know for sure. It all worked out in the end.
Were Rick and Elvis similar in any aspects?
Well, they were different; at one time Elvis was always number one, and Rick got up to number two. I think that’s pretty damn good. Anytime somebody can run neck and neck with Elvis, that’s pretty damn close. They were also good friends; they played football, baseball, and softball together. I didn’t actually meet Elvis until 1969, when I put the TCB Band together for him.
Rick and I went out and played shows, sold out 30,000 and 40,000-seaters. We played Steel Pier at Atlantic City five years in a row to incredible audiences, we would play six or seven shows a day, we would come on and do twenty minutes, then Les Brown’s orchestra would play twenty minutes, Bobby Rydell, Jimmy Clanton, Dion & The Belmonts, groups like that coming in every twenty minutes.
We went through 300,000 people a day doing shows, it was just incredible. We were traveling doing sold-out tours just like Elvis, and the screaming kids would yell, “Run over me, Ricky! Please, please, I love you, I love you!” You know how some of the die-hard fans can be, they’d just as soon have Rick or Elvis run over ‘em in a car, they don’t care.
Did any of those die-hard fans think you were Rick?
I remember one time in San Diego we went up and played this ballpark and these fans were crazy, man. We had this truck bed at the pitcher’s base where the stage was set up, and the fans were a little-ways away. I guess they stood about everything they could, they were dying to get over that fence and come and attack us.
Going back a bit, we had these little trailers at the back of the stage where we could hang out, get dressed, and keep our instrument cases. We were onstage, and boy, here they come. Our management hollered, “Get off the stage, get off the stage, go get in the limousine!”
I unplugged my guitar, and I had to run to my trailer and throw my guitar in its case. I came out of my dressing room, and I got caught in the middle of those screaming fans. They were tearing my jacket off, my shirt, they just wanted to rip my head off, they didn’t know what they were doing, and it was downright scary.
I was trying to make it to the limousine; well, the security guys came back to get me, they grabbed me and my guitar and threw me in the car to get away from the fans. They were trying to tear the car up, turn it over, but we managed to get out alive.
If you think about being in a position like that, not realizing how dangerous and scary it is, you hear stories where people go to these shows with 60,000-seaters, and people out there go nuts. They have riots, folks are stomped, trampled, or even killed. We went through all that with Rick, and a little more of it with Elvis.
Rick also toured internationally, something Elvis never accomplished other than a few dates in Canada…
We played in Australia in 1959; we were also present in Hawaii that year during the ceremony establishing Hawaii as the 50th state. Rick and I stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Village Hotel, the famous hotel there, and Ozzie and Harriet and everybody came over to join us. We also played London, and the crowds were just as wild over there. They loved Rick, and it was great.
We did a full-on show, normally about an hour; sometimes if there was more than one artist on the show, it would be split up a bit.
What are some of your favorite Rick Nelson recordings?
Probably my two favorite Rick Nelson songs are “Travelin’ Man” and “Hello Mary Lou.” If you can believe it, those two songs were the “A” and “B” side of the same single, respectively.
An obscure one is “The Nearness of You,” a really cool standard on the Rick Nelson Sings “For You” album in December 1963. “Lonesome Town,” that’s one I love, which I played acoustic guitar on. “That’s All,” a fine ballad from June ’59, remember that one?
With a rigorous television show schedule and constant touring, how did you find time to record?
We simply had to make time and block time out for when we knew we weren’t doing any live shows or in-between filming, we’d go into the studio. Sometimes it was tough, but we did it. We recorded mostly at night, sometimes in the afternoon. Most singers like to record at night; I guess it sets them up in the right mood.
Did Rick ever tell you what to play?
Oh no, Rick and I pretty much worked the songs up, and we would put our ideas together. I would tell Rick what I liked and vice versa. We had a good music arranger in Jimmie Haskell, who worked very closely with us.
We would tell him what we wanted, and that was cool. I remember Jimmie wrote my solo down for “Hello Mary Lou.” He said this is what it looks like on paper, and I said, “Oh wow, looks like a bunch of blackbirds on a fence.”
Was Ozzie a major guiding force while you were recording?
Not really, Ozzie would come in and be interested in the song selection. Ozzie occasionally would pick an old standard like “The Nearness of You” or some ballad. Sometimes he suggested to Rick how to sing it, but we would usually end up doing it the way Rick wanted to do it.
Rick appreciated his dad’s opinion and ideas, but Rick thought that to do the type of music he really wanted to do, he didn’t want to get too close to his dad’s big band sound. Matter of fact, when we recorded the solo for “Fools Rush In,” Ozzie came to me, and he said, “Boy, that solo you played was so good, man, that reminded me of a solo my saxophone player would play in my old orchestra.”
I don’t think I made a remark, maybe I was thinking it would be cool to say, “Gee, that sax player had pretty good taste.” But Ozzie was a brilliant music man and a great producer.
Why did original bassist James Kirkland leave the band circa October 1959?
James Kirkland wanted to do more country and rockabilly-type stuff, so he had a job offer to him in Nashville from Jim Reeves, another legend I probably played behind while I was on the Louisiana Hayride. I was only fourteen years old then. Anyway, James took the offer and moved to Nashville and worked with Jim Reeves until Reeves’ death in 1964 from a plane crash.
Rick and I were having lunch one day, and we both had the same idea at the same time. We looked at each other and said, “Wow, man, we’ve only got two weeks, and we gotta get a bass player. We’re going on tour in Australia and all over Europe.”
I told him I had a friend in Shreveport, Joe Osborn, and I would give him a call. I called Joe and I talked to him a little bit, and I later told Rick that Joe was interested. Rick then talked to him, and before you knew it, we had a new bass player, and we were ready to go.
Was there ever a permanent piano player?
We didn’t use piano players on the road; we wanted to keep the sound down to a basic combo. For doing sessions, you could use a variety of guys well-versed in their respective field. We had different piano players that we would hire for records.
Gene Garff, a great jazz pianist, was on the earlier rockabilly sides. One of the last guys that played with us was Ray Johnson, Plas Johnson’s elder brother (Plas was an African American who played great saxophone). Ray played piano with us on a lot of stuff, including “Travelin’ Man.”
Rick’s hit singles started drying up by mid 1964 as the British Invasion exploded (“The Very Thought of You” was his last Top 40 hit until Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me” in 1969), and you were asked to perform on Shindig. Can you talk about that era a bit?
I worked with Rick exclusively through late summer 1964, until I devoted more of my time to the music variety series Shindig [Author's Note: the first prime-time rock music show featuring live performances] on ABC.
I still did the occasional tour, including a highly successful one of the Far East (Japan, The Philippines, Taiwan) in April 1966 with Glen Campbell on bass, who also played rhythm acoustic guitar and provided occasional background vocals in the studio with Rick beginning in 1961.
[Author's Note: Bassist Joe Osborn would break out in hives the minute the plane left the states. Burton also kept doing recording sessions with Nelson through April 1968, with their final album being the unsuccessful psychedelic LP, Perspective. The Stone Canyon Band was formed the following year, marking the birth of a creative renaissance for Nelson].
Johnny Cash called me to play slide dobro with him on the very first pilot show for Shindig. Jack Good, the producer of Shindig, was a big fan of mine, and said, “Oh man, I love all those solos on the Rick Nelson records, and I want you to be on the show every week.” I said, “Gee, Jack, what do we do?” He said, “We’ll form this group, and you’ll be called The Shindogs.” I said, “Oh, okay.”
Delaney Bramlett sang and played bass, Joey Cooper played rhythm guitar and sang, Glen D. Hardin on piano, Chuck Blackwell on drums (he came out from Oklahoma with Leon Russell), and myself on lead guitar, so that was The Shindogs, and we did 90 percent of the recording for the show with all the artists that came.
I haven’t heard anything or any rumors on the whereabouts of Joey Cooper [Author's Note: Cooper co-wrote the poppy "I'm A Fool," available on the November '64 LP Spotlight on Rick, as well as the fuzz rocker "Love Is Where You Find It," released exactly one year later on Love and Kisses for Rick with Elvis' longtime friend, Red West].
I met Leon Russell, who will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman in a few months, when he first came out. He was working at Sun Valley Rancho with some friends of mine. We became real good friends and still are, and I would go out and visit with him or take him to work (he didn’t have a vehicle then).
We started doing studio work together; I played on his records, and we both played on a number of Rick’s mid-’60s recordings [Author's Note: Including "Mean Old World," a song that has received much critical praise in recent years but wasn't a big hit when released as a single in March 1965].
Leon also arranged and produced a lot of classic singles in the ’60s for many artists (Gary Lewis & The Playboys and The Byrds, to name a few) before he became a star in his own right.
Are you still in touch with Rick’s original band members?
Richie Frost moved to Portland, Oregon, and I haven’t seen him in awhile. It’s been a few years since I last talked with him on the phone. I don’t see James Kirkland too much, either; he lives in a little town outside of Dallas. James’ replacement, Joe Osborn, lives about fifteen minutes away from me in a little town. I see him every now and then; I’ve just been real busy lately.
What did you think of Rick’s decision to form The Stone Canyon Band circa April 1969?
I was just so happy that he was still doing his thing, out working and doing shows, and he seemed to be happy doing it. I only wished the best for him. Rick eventually became quite the songwriter.
If you think about it, Rick kinda groomed The Stone Canyon Band on remaking his hits, like “Hello Mary Lou,” “Travelin’ Man,” redoing those songs. Perhaps he spent too much time on that; I really feel that he should have went on to something completely different, but he was so into that sound that he and I created back in the ’50s and early ’60s.
It was quite hard for him to break away from that sound and that classic image, but “Garden Party” was one of the nicer things he did during that era. There’s a story behind that song: Some strange things happened when he went up to New York and played Madison Square Garden [Author's Note: October 15th, 1971, at a rock and roll revival show with a large roster of former hit-makers].
Of course, that was after I had left, and Tom Brumley, who unfortunately passed away in February 2009, took my place playing steel guitar. Rick was into a different type of music the crowd wasn’t ready for; they wanted to hear Rick’s original hits.
Evidently, he changed everything, and some of the audience booed him, as they weren’t quite sure how to accept him. Rick’s final million-seller, the self-penned “Garden Party,” describes that incident.
Rick was such a great artist, he could have done anything. The fans really loved him so much, and they would have bought anything he did. It would have been the same as Elvis; whatever suited Elvis, the fans bought it, and this should have happened in a similar manner with Rick.
Did you consider rejoining Rick’s band at any point?
When I actually left to do Shindig, which stayed on for a year, I got so busy, I was doing five, six sessions per day, seven days a week, working with every artist you can think of. I had to make a tough decision to go with Elvis when he called and asked me to put a band together and go to Vegas with him, because I didn’t want to lose all my clients.
It worked out, I didn’t actually lose anything, and I gained another wonderful person to work with doing live shows. Elvis was an incredible person to work with.
I also worked with Jerry Lee Lewis after Elvis’ death. We were at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve 1984. Rick opened the show, and we closed the show, and we would do another set of shows that same night. They weren’t very long, probably 45-minute shows.
That was exactly a year before Rick died in a plane crash in De Kalb, Texas, very close to my hometown in Shreveport. Rick and I spent two great weeks together, talking, visiting, just hanging out. We were always friends and very close.
Rick was working on an album during that final year, and he asked me to come and play on it. I told him, “Absolutely, I’d love to.” Unfortunately, it never happened. Jimmie Haskell, the arranger, also called and asked me if I would play on it, as Rick had asked him to contact me. But Rick himself asked me in Vegas to do it.
Did you get onstage with Rick during that engagement?
No, actually I didn’t, because Rick would do his show first and Jerry Lee’s band would never be backstage until maybe Rick’s closing number. Once in a while, I would go down early and hang out. You know, we could have done that, but we didn’t. I don’t know if Jerry Lee would have liked that, it would be like working with Elvis, you wouldn’t want to go onstage with somebody before Elvis’ show, it wouldn’t look good. That could have happened, though.
Return To His Rockabilly Roots: Will Rick’s Final Album See an Official Release?
I really don’t know the status on it, if they did finish it, or if they would consider releasing it. I could find out real easy, though, but you know, it’s possible that I could be called in to overdub my guitar parts after all these years. If they called me, I would be more than happy to do that.
Where were you when you received the news of Rick’s plane crash?
My wife, Louise, and I had a home in Las Vegas since I had worked with Elvis so long, and we had went to Vegas during that weekend in 1985 for New Year’s Eve. My son’s ex-wife called to tell us the news, but I didn’t take the call. I answered the phone and gave it to my wife; she took the call, and I heard her scream.
I ran back into the room, and I said “What happened?” Louise said, “Turn the TV on, Rick and his entire band just had a plane crash!” That’s how I found out about it. It was such an incredible shock, and we lost a wonderful, great entertainer and friend.
The whole band, including road manager Donald Clark Russell, guitarist Bobby Neal, bassist Patrick Woodward, drummer Ricky Intveld, and keyboardist Andy Chapin, they were all good friends of mine.
It was such a sad time for us, being there and thinking of the year before, what might have been, and what a great guy Rick was, just being that close to him. When you lose somebody that close, they’re like family to you.
The following Rick Nelson songs feature your impressive Fender Telecaster runs. Could you take a moment to share your memories of these songs?
Believe What You Say [#4 POP, #10 C&W: #6 R&B April 1958]
That was the very first song of Rick’s that I played the lead guitar solo on. The very first two songs I played on (Joe Maphis played lead while I was on electric rhythm guitar) were “Waitin’ In School” and “Stood Up” in November 1957. Rick loved that song and kept that in his setlist until he passed away.
Dorsey and Johnny Burnette wrote “Believe.” Dorsey was a good friend of mine. I played on records by both of them as well as their children, Billy (Dorsey’s son), and Rocky (Johnny’s boy).
Travelin’ Man [#1 POP April 1961]
That’s a Jerry Fuller song, a good friend of mine and excellent singer. I played on a lot of his stuff; he became a great producer. He produced records I played on like Johnny Mathis. It was the very first music video played on television, a remarkable accomplishment for a cool song.
Fire Breathin’ Dragon [A-side January 1966]
I do remember that. We played that during our first and only appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show with Rick in January 1966. We also performed the b-side, ‘Your Kind of Lovin.’ To quote his famous introduction, “And now, ladies and gentlemen” (chuckles), I really liked Ed, he was one-of-a-kind. Sullivan was very interesting, very business-oriented, a great, fun guy to talk with. I met him and shook hands with him, and he was very nice to me.
A cut and dry experience, you know, it was like you went in, turn the radio on, and that was it, we were there thirty minutes. It was cold and snowy in New York City that evening. I don’t think I’ve seen that performance in forty years. [Author's Note: I play the Sullivan performance via YouTube over the phone for Mr. Burton, who remarks, "That sounds good!"]
Do you still stay in touch with Rick’s family?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Rick’s two sons, Gunnar and Matthew, performed at the very first James Burton International Guitar Festival in 2005. We’re the best of friends, the whole family as well as Rick’s kids.
Does it register that 25 years have passed since Rick left us so soon at the early age of 45?
It doesn’t seem like it’s been 25 years at all. I think about him so often. When I go out and do shows, those songs, like “Hello Mary Lou” and “Travelin’ Man,” even “Mystery Train” and “I Got A Woman” (Elvis also had hit versions with the latter two), all those old tunes are top of the line.
Rick was a talented individual who had a wonderful, great career. All the music we did is just as good today as when we recorded it. Rick was on the verge of being a real gigantic superstar. I think he actually became that.
Above all, I miss him. I think he was one of the sweetest, finest guys I’ve ever worked with, and the whole family is unbelievably fantastic. He loved his kids, boy I tell you, his youngest child, Sam, is a great singer, too.
I did a thing with Sam, Matthew, and Gunnar for the 2005 documentary Ricky Nelson Sings, which was released to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Rick’s passing. We went in the studio and played live together on “It’s Late,” “Believe What You Say,” and “Garden Party,” and hey man, it was cool.
We also got together for an amazing evening on Larry King Live to remember Rick during that same anniversary.
What would you like to say to Rick’s many worldwide fans?
Tell all the Rick Nelson fans hello and God Bless each and every one of them. I truly miss Rick, and I hope to continue doing great work with his kids: Tracy, Gunnar, Matthew, and Sam.