The experts said Rock and Roll was a “Novelty” and would soon fade away. The evangelists said those who performed it and their followers were going straight to hell…and then along came Elvis. Those who weren’t around to witness it can’t imagine the impact on music and our lives at the time.
When RCA Records purchased his contract from Sam Phillip’s Sun Records his career exploded and so did Rock and Roll. His first release in 1956, “Heartbreak Hotel” skyrocketed to #1. His follow up, a remake of “Hound Dog”, the 1953 R&B hit by Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, also hit #1. In all he would have seven #1 hits in his first eight months. Elvis is still the best selling individual artist in the history of music. His music influenced an entire generation, set styles and gave voice to teen culture.
Those of us mere mortals could only watch helplessly as our girlfriends looked at us but fantasized about Elvis. In self defense, I picked up my brother Dick’s beautiful Martin concert ukulele and started learning Elvis songs. I certainly wasn’t Elvis but it did impress my girlfriend and it did get us more party invites. Rock was here to stay but Elvis didn’t exactly please those mainstream skeptics. His sexy delivery, swiveling hips and “bad boy” looks only reinforced the “evil” side of the music. For me it felt like a death blow to this white kid who loved R&B but sounded like a bad Frank Sinatra trying to sing Chuck Berry or Little Richard. Now Elvis was changing the sound of white artists…none of us could compete with that…and then along came Ricky Nelson.
Rick was a guest in my home, on my TV set, from October 1952 until September 1966. “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”, featuring brothers Dave and Ricky was the epitome of the all American family. Rick and I were the same age and we “grew up” together. Those of us who watched every week felt like they were indeed the family next store and if you just rang their doorbell they would surely invite you in. I didn’t find out until much later that Rick had the same girlfriend problem I did with Elvis. He told her that he was going into a studio himself to record. The rest as they say is history.
In 1957 Rick sang the Fats Domino standard, “I’m Walking”on the show. The record followed and “Walking” hit the Billboard Charts at #4, the B side “A Teenager’s Romance” went to #2. Ozzie Nelson was smart enough to use TV for the first time to promote records and is even credited for the first music video for “Travelin’ Man”. Rick became the #3 selling artist in the early days of Rock. More importantly, after Dick Clark’s death in 2012, the Los Angeles Times printed an article that credited that first performance on the show with paving the way for ABC to go ahead with Clark’s “American Bandstand”. Both Rick and Dick put a wholesome face on Rock and Roll and paved the way for the music to become mainstream.
For me, my career path was resurrected. If Ricky Nelson… the guy next store… could make it, maybe I could too. Ironically, when I did make it to L.A. to seek fame and fortune, I met the Nelsons. I even shared offices and worked with Dave and Rick for a couple of years. The family was as advertised. A truly talented and gracious family. The only regret I have is that I don’t think I ever told Rick how much his performance of “I’m Walkin’’ truly inspired me to follow my dream.