Matthew Nelson best describes his dad’s legendary music and acting career as a series of comebacks.
When criticized – even booed off the stage – undaunted Ricky Nelson would return to play again.
“What I learned from him, more than anything, is to never give up, and he never did,” Matthew Nelson said of his famous father, America’s first “teen idol” of the 1950s who eventually blossomed to become a Rockabilly and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musician and singer-songwriter.
Globally recognized but not universally loved, Ricky Nelson played to his own beat, performing music that transcended genres, from rock to pop, folk to country.
Despite the critics, especially those who scrutinized the man late in his up-and-down career, Ricky Nelson persevered to become one of the most important rock artists and influential musicians of the last 50 years, producing more than 100 million lifetime record sales.
“He was one of the only guys who really reinvented himself and did something completely different,” Matthew Nelson said by phone from Nashville, Tenn. “A lot of people in America were writing him off as a made-for-TV pretty boy … only to (became) a vital and relevant artist. … He got a chance to find himself but had to do it very publicly because he was always so famous.”
Ricky Nelson’s life and music touched millions and greatly influenced his twin sons – multi-platinum recording artists Matthew and Gunnar Nelson – who relive the star’s music and memories in an interactive multi-media event, Ricky Nelson Remembered.
The two-hour celebration of the late artist’s career comes to the Kentlake Performing Arts Center for a 7 p.m. show Saturday, and at the Renton’s IKEA Performing Arts Center for a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday.
The show brings back Ricky Nelson’s many hit songs like “Hello Mary Lou,” “Poor Little Fool,” “Travelin’ Man,” “I’m Walkin’,” “I Gotta Feeling,” “Teenage Idol” and “Garden Party.”
The musical event – one of 100 tour stops the 45-year-old twins will make this year – is heartfelt, soulful and full of laughter, all in tribute to their beloved dad.
“He was the nicest guy you have ever met, that’s what impressed me most of all,” Matthew Nelson said. “I never saw him have a celebrity moment or throw a celebrity tantrum. … I never saw him act like he was better than anybody else. He always looked them in the eyes, shook their hand. He was always sweet.
“He always had a smile on his face,” Matthew Nelson added. “His charisma? It was almost worldly. He was really special that way.”
For many fans, Ricky Nelson was cool then – on TV, stage and screen – and he remains cool today.
“People still love him and they miss him, and that’s why they come to this show,” Matthew Nelson said.
Ricky Nelson is the only artist to have a No. 1 song, No. 1 movie and No. 1 TV show in the same week. Life Magazine coined the phrase “Teen Idol” after him. He is credited with pioneering the country rock sound.
But as the times changed, so did the music, and Ricky Nelson struggled to capture an audience.
That became evident when Ricky Nelson was booed off the stage at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, seemingly because he was playing his newer, country-tinged music instead of the 1950s-era rock that he had made him so successful earlier in his career.
In response, a disgusted Ricky Nelson came up with “Garden Party,” which became a 1972 hit, reaching No. 6 on the Billboard charts. Lyrically, Nelson shot back, realizing “you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.”
It was yet another unforeseen comeback for Ricky Nelson, whom the music industry considered washed up at the time.
“’Garden Party is relevant because it was him in particular,” Matthew Nelson said. “After a lifetime of being what everybody wanted him to be … when everybody kind of made a judgement on him, he got to a place to where he finally said, ‘OK, I’ve just been booed off the stage by 20,000 people because I don’t look like I did in the ‘50s, and I’m playing Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan songs and new stuff with long hair, and I think I need to say something about it.’”
Nelson’s comeback was short lived. He produced music and had minor roles on television shows, with moderate success.
He died in a plane crash on his way to perform a New Year’s Eve concert in 1985. He was 45.
His legacy includes 53 hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and 19 other top-10 hits.
Now his sons play on, continuing his music, his legacy.
“He was our best friend,” Matthew Nelson said. “I always felt that he’s still on the road (performing). He just hasn’t come back yet.”
Ricky Nelson Remembered
• When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7, Kentlake Performing Arts Center, Kentlake High School, 21401 SE 300th St., Kent; 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8, IKEA Performing Arts Center, 400 South 2nd St., Renton.
• Show: Matthew and Gunnar Nelson performs the “Teen idol’s” hit songs like “Hello Mary Lou,” “Poor Little Fool,” “Travelin’ Man,” “I’m Walkin’,” “I Gotta Feeling,” “Teenage Idol,” “Garden Party” and many more.
• Tickets: $10-$25. Purchase online at BrownPaperTickets.com or at 800-838-3006. For season and group rates, call the Great Western Community Concert Association at 253-630-5296.
• Information: RickyNelsonRemembered.com