About a decade ago, Matthew and Gunnar Nelson decided that they wanted to do something to honor the musical legacy of their father, Rick Nelson and they came up with the Ricky Nelson Remembered show. But as Gunnar Nelson shares during a recent phone conversation, there was a lot to pick from when the brothers began to work on putting together a set list. Rick had placed 53 singles in the Billboard Hot 100 throughout his career, selling over 280 million singles and 60 million albums (all of which helped to earn him a slot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 1987 class of inductees), and that made choosing which songs to put in the show a hefty task.
“Well, of course when we put this together, the hardest thing for us to do was cull through this incredible catalog of music our dad did and pare it down to something that could fit into 90 minutes,” Nelson recalls. “Right after our dad passed, we actually found a copy of a set list that he was using on that last tour. So what we did was we made a decision to actually do his last set in that order. Because we figured, if it’s good enough for our dad, obviously, that’s the way he wanted it, then we might as well do that. So that’s what we do.”
Calling his father the “first guy to smuggle rock and roll into mainstream American living rooms,” Gunnar says he was also someone who had a good handle on how to satisfy the fans within that tight window of time, according to Gunnar. “He did it smart — he started with all of those songs that people wanted to hear,” he explains. “I mean, with a Rick Nelson concert, you’ve gotta hear ‘Hello Mary Lou,’ you’ve gotta hear ‘Travelin’ Man,’ you’ve gotta hear ‘Garden Party,’ you’ve gotta hear ‘Lonesome Town.’ There are some standards that you just have to hear that really define the era and define him as an artist too.”
When it comes to favorites from their dad’s catalog, as you might imagine, the twins are split on their thoughts. “I think Matthew and I each have different answers,” he says. “Matthew would probably tell you it would be ‘Garden Party,’ because our dad wrote it based on a true to life experience, and he basically turned what could have been a really tragic moment in anyone’s life, which is getting booed off the stage by 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden, for looking different than people remembered him from TV and playing new music,” he says. “You know, he wanted to grow and change and they wouldn’t let him and he took that event that was like, ‘I learned my lesson well/ you can’t please everyone/ so you’ve gotta please yourself.’”
“That’s really great. That’s a real triumph,” Nelson says. “For me, it’s really simple. I love ‘Lonesome Town.’ You know, I agree with Paul McCartney, it’s one of his favorite songs and it’s mine too — I love that song. Because at a time when recording techniques were a novel idea and technology was broadening what people could do in the studio and what they could layer onto a track — everybody was stacking more and more production into their records and our dad, on that one song, went the other way. It was a solo acoustic guitar and a solo vocal and it is freakin’ awesome to this day. It’s just so vulnerable and melancholy, and it just works. So to me, that’s my dad in his purest form.”
Rick Nelson passed away in a plane crash in 1985, but Matthew and Gunnar had plenty of chances to see their dad perform live in the years leading up to that. As Gunnar remembers, anytime their father was “within 300 miles of Los Angeles,” they’d go to see him play shows. “He was inspiring — he always had a killer show and a great band,” he says. “His band was unbelievable. Rick Nelson always had the best musicians, I do have to say. No matter what era of his career you’re referring to, he had incredible musicianship. James Burton on guitar. I mean, good Lord, where do you go when you’ve had James Burton as your lead guitar player?”
They also had the chance to see him at work in the studio — only once, but it was a choice experience. “It was really cool, because it was my 12th birthday,” Gunnar says. “Our dad as a surprise present, actually produced the very first recording Matthew and I ever did. He was the producer of that session and it was at Studio City Sound there in Studio City, California and his guitar player and his band backed us up. I played drums and Matt played bass and we recorded a song that Matthew had written and the Pointer Sisters sang backup. It was pretty cool.”
Yeah, the Pointer Sisters….but Gunnar and Matthew didn’t know they were the Pointer Sisters. “Our cousin Kathy Nelson was one of the biggest music supervisors in the business and at the time, she was working with the Pointers, one of the many bands that she worked with,” he explains. “She had also just discovered a really cool chick singer, Pat Benatar right around that time. I guess the Pointers heard about it and said, “Yeah, man — we’ll stop by the studio — sounds great!” The next thing you know, they’re all on the mic and they’re singing all of these great background parts. I didn’t know until two or three years later those nice ladies were the Pointer Sisters. I just thought they were really cool!”
The upcoming show at the Music Box Supper Club should be a lot of fun — Nelson describes the Ricky Nelson Remembered experience as a cross between a “high energy rock concert” and an A&E Biography episode. The twins themselves are still making music as well — it’s been 25 years since they scored their own radio hits under the Nelson band name with songs like “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection” and the title track to their 1990 album After The Rain. They’ll put a cap on the Nelson chapter of their legacy with a final album, appropriately called Peace Out and fans can look for that to be released later this year.
But the music won’t end there, Nelson promises — they’re just going to take things in a slightly different direction. “Matt and I are making music now and what we’ve got coming up, I want you to imagine a modern take on the Everlys making music nowadays,” he says. “It’s very cool, really brother-oriented song-centric stuff and the nucleus again is the two of us playing and singing together.”
Ricky Nelson Remembered, 8 p.m. Saturday, March 14, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $38 ADV, $42 DOS, musicboxcle.com.