SPRINGFIELD — There’s this assumption that Ricky Nelson had a singing career only because his dad had a TV show and showcased the kid.
Then there’s the assumption that Matthew and Gunnar Nelson only had a singing career because they’re the kids of Ricky Nelson.
“We’ve always been guilty until proven innocent,” Matthew Nelson explained recently. “Just like our dad was.”
In both cases, they racked up enough hits to shut most people up.
The elder Nelson became an influential and iconic member of rock ‘n’ roll’s landing party, firing off 19 Top 40 hits between 1957 and 1959.
Known simply as Nelson, the duo of Matthew and Gunnar was good for a handful of hits in the waning days of hair-metal in the early ’90s.
“Thank God we’re not in that one-hit wonder category,” Matthew Nelson said.
The identical Nelson twins will be coming to the Summer Arts Festival on July 1 — even though their flowing, albino-like locks are no more — to pay tribute to their legendary dad with “Ricky Nelson Remembered,” a night of the old man’s hits.
If you’re hoping to hear “Love and Affection,” the duo’s No. 1 hair-metal tune from 1990, you might be in luck.
They might even perform “After the Rain,” a Top 10 hit off the same album.
But, really, this night is all about dad, a guy inducted into the rock hall the same year as Bill Haley, Bo Diddley and Carl Perkins.
“Even if you have no idea who our dad was,” Matthew Nelson said, “by the end of the show, you’ll absolutely not only know who he was as a musician but as a person.”
But to avoid any further career similarities, the Nelsons will have to put their trust in a higher power — and a good airplane mechanic.
“We play every show like it could be our last,” Nelson said. “My dad was 45 when he passed away.”
They’re now 43.
The brothers were 18 when their dad’s DC-3 caught fire while on tour and crashed in Texas, killing him and six others on Dec. 31, 1985.
Proving just how small of a world it is, lifelong New Carlisle resident Wayne Hobbs flew on that exact same DC-3 hundreds of times in the early ’70s when he played pedal steel guitar with the plane’s previous owner, the great Jerry Lee Lewis.
“It was a bumpy ride then,” Hobbs remembered.
They had their own freaky moments in that prop-driven workhorse, like the snowy night in 1971 when Lewis and his band were flying back to Memphis from a show in New York.
“Someone had given Jerry some big ol’ monstrous cake. Almost like a wedding cake,” Hobbs said. “Jerry didn’t want anybody to eat it. He wanted to get it back to Memphis.
“All of a sudden, everybody went out of their seats. Jerry had an intercom and he was just cussing and carrying on. I remember the response that came back from the cockpit. ‘Nothing’s wrong. We almost hit a mountain.’ The cake went all over the place.”
While Hobbs never met Ricky Nelson on his many travels with various country music greats, his outlook on air travel changed after the deadly 1985 crash.
“When I saw it in the news, I knew it was that same plane,” Hobbs said. “That’s why, to this day, I don’t like to fly.”
It was yet another rock ‘n’ roll tragedy in a long list of ’em.
“I would give up anything I had for just five more minutes of physical time with my dad,” Matthew Nelson said. “Just to hug him.”
Their show is as close as they can get — and an important reminder for everybody else.
“That’s what our whole show is about,” Nelson said. “Not taking people for granted.”
It could’ve been awfully easy to take Ricky Nelson the rock ‘n’ roller for granted.
“He was devastating to look at,” Matthew Nelson said. “I saw women just completely lose it.”
The thing is, though, he had the talent to match the teen-idol good looks.
Ricky Nelson, by the way, was the first to be dubbed a “teenage idol,” when Life magazine called him that.
“He didn’t have to be as good as he was,” Matthew Nelson said. “In America, there was always a sense that his success was a made-for-TV thing.”
But because he and his family were the stars of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” — a forum that allowed teenage, ducktailed Ricky to sing his rock ‘n’ roll — he turned on millions of kids to the devil’s music.
“He was the sleeper cell,” Matthew Nelson joked. “He had this amazing technological medium that was new. The first time he sang on ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ was one of those moments right up there with Elvis or the Beatles on Sullivan. It was a defining moment in music history.”
It was April 10, 1957, when 16-year-old Ricky Nelson took center stage on the family’s sitcom and belted out Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’.”
Released as Nelson’s first single with “A Teenager’s Romance,” both sides were big hits that year.
Nelson kept ’em coming through the early ’60s with the likes of “Poor Little Fool,” “Travelin’ Man” and “Hello Mary Lou.”
He eventually dropped “Ricky” in favor of “Rick,” and reinvented himself as a country-rock pioneer, scoring a big hit in 1972 with “Garden Party.”
But even though “Ozzie and Harriet” ran from 1952 to 1966, it’s no secret that Rick Nelson struggled during Beatlemania.
“When the Beatles broke, if you weren’t British, you were done,” Matthew Nelson said.
Funny enough, Matthew and Gunnar can relate, too.
“Nirvana broke on our label,” Matthew Nelson recalled. “We experienced exactly what our dad did, but it was worse than that.”
As a matter of fact, Matthew Nelson remembers seeing the owner of that record label one day in the company parking lot.
“He looked at me and said, ‘What, you’re still here?’ ” Nelson said. “If you weren’t from Seattle, you were done.”
So once again, we’re left to assume — the Nelson brothers now have to go around singing their dad’s old songs to make a living, right?
“It’s a show we love to do,” Matthew Nelson said, “not that we have to do.”
Contact this reporter at email@example.com.
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