David Nelson's memories of his late brother include this one: Early in his musical career, Rick Nelson comes on stage, picks up his guitar and jokes, "This may be the first time you've ever seen me in color."
His audience would have understood, of course. For 14 years, Nelson appeared with his parents, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, and his brother David on black-an-white television.
In the mid-'50s, he made his debut as a singer on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," prompting a flurry of letters from viewers surprised that that "nice Nelson family" was allowing rock 'n roll to get a foothold in their all-American household. If Ricky's songs weren't introduced as part of the episode, they'd be added in an unconnected segment at the end of each week's story. Later, both David and Ozzie Nelson admitted that teen-age Ricky was probably partly responsible for having helped "smuggle rock 'n roll into American livingrooms."
Rick's songs are part of his brother David's recollections airing Monday at 8 in a special, "Rick Nelson: A Brother Remembers," over The Disney Channel. Nonsubscribers to the pay-cable service can get a peek at this and other Disney offerings during this free-sample week.
The trip down memory lane, from David Nelson's Casablanca Productions, is a pleasant hour shaped by a brother who apparently was not particularly jealous of his heart-throb sibling. The special begins with Ozzie's days a a bandleader and Harriet's as his soloist, laying the groundwork for Rick's career and perhaps the futures of Rick's twin sons. ("Nepotism still reigns in the Nelson family," joked David Nelson recently, talking about the special.
Ignoring some very real problems that developed in Rick's adult life, "A Brother Remembers" comes off as an affectionate tribute and an entertaining hour.
"The memories that I had of him are part and parcel of the show," said David Nelson. "Basically it took us about four or five months to get a handle on all the things Rick had done. I don't really go into Rick's acting -- it's mainly musical . . . I tried to pinpoint things that I had done with him. There are a lot of interviews that Rick did that had never been seen."
The special includes not only interviews but clips from the Nelson' show; a promo for "Rio Bravo," the film 19-year-old Rick made with Dean Martin, John Wayne, Walter Brennan and Angie Dickinson ("He really had a good time doing that"); tape from his concerts, both on stage and back stage, and home movies, showing the Nelson boys as babies, Rick with his children as toddlers, and family friend Walt Disney. "We found a few things in garages," David Nelson laughed.
"An awful lot of things got left out," he admitted. "It's basically an hour of entertainment . . . I really wanted to say something about my brother, and used the hour to trace the music in his life. It was like a documentary -- we assembled about 27 hours. I think it's good, but I was so close to it I honestly can't tell."
Is there a message in the memories? Nelson said no. "I've always felt that if you want to deliver a message, call Western Union."
David Nelson, 51, once the youngest member of the Directors Guild of America and now president of Casablanca, serves as host for the retrospective, "for lack of finding anyone else," he said. Harriet Nelson, 73, contributes her own observations.
The Nelson boys grew up in front of the nation on their parents' show, first on radio, then on television. Ozzie Nelson, who had been a star quarterback and boxer at Rutgers University (as well as the nation's youngest Eagle Scout, at 13), was a successful band leader. In 1932 he hired a pretty actress and singer named Harriet Hilliard as vocalist for the band. She, under contract to RKO, said the job meant a drop in salary but decided that Ozzie Nelson had a bright future.
Three years later the two were married, and in 1936 Harriet starred as Ginger Rogers' sister in "follow the Fleet," with Fred Astaire and Randolph Scott. The same year, David was born. Ozzie Nelson's career as a producer may have started when he did d humorous home movie of bald-baby David, then about six month old, getting a sudden growth of hair. In 1940, Eric Hilliard Nelson was born, and four years later "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" premiered on radio with two actors playing the Nelson boys.
When David was 12 and Rick 8, they took over their own radio roles, and in 1952, they made a movie, "Here Come the Nelsons," a pilot for the TV series. That October, the family began a 14-year run on ABC, and eventually totaled 22 years between TV and radio.
The show may have been "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," but the clean-cut, crew-cut boys became the stars. David Nelson describes Ricky as "the wisecracking kid brother who grew up on television. He had the joke lines; I was the straight man." One of the lines was Ricky's frequent catch-phrase: "I don't mess around, boy."
Like June Cleaver in the "Leave It to Beaver" series, which ran from 1957 to 1963 and also featured a family with two sons, Harriet Nelson portrayed the ideal housewife, outfitted in high heels, dress and pearls. One outtake shows Harriet peeling potatoes in the kitchen while Ricky wanders about, looking inside the cookie jar where he had hidden his next lines. With Harriet ad-libbing ("Get out of that cookie jar!") and the camera still rolling, the cast and crew appear with a cake for his surprise 14th birthday party.
Endowed with their father's athletic ability, David and Rick were encouraged to participate in sports. Rick reached the semifinals of the national indoor junior tennis tournament when he was 16. One episode of "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" was devoted to the circus to feature the boys as trapeze artists.
Later, David Nelson appeared in a movie called "The Big Circus," in which he played the same role -- catcher on a trapeze team. H often worked as an aerialist in his own act and on such television specials as "Circus of the Stars". He also endures chronic back problems suffered practice for the act, although you won't see that in the special. "It stemmed from a trapeze accident in Oklahoma City," he said. "We were just screwing around in the summertime."
At 16, mainly to impress a girlfriend, Rick made his debut as a singer with a Fats Domino hit, "I'm Walkin'." The song, recorded on the Verve label, sold a million copies in one week. Nelson was catapulted into a rock 'n' roll career and signed a five-year contract with Imperial records. "When that sold a million records, I could not believe it," Rick Nelson recalls. He also remembers performing for 20,000 people, then returning home to face complaints that he hadn't picked his socks up off the bedroom floor.
But his musical career was on the rise for real. His first seven records sold a million copies each, and one -- "Hello, Mary Lou" back by "Travelin' Man" -- sold six million and spawned what may have been the first musical video, produced by Ozzie Nelson, which is included in the special. By 21, Rick Nelson had recorded nine gold singles and his face, once freckled and boyish, had become Elvis-sensual, with a full lower lip, a slight sneer and half-mast eyes. Life magazine featured him on the cover, calling him "Rick Nelson -- Teen Idol."
In 1963, Rick Nelson signed a 20-year recording contract with Decca Records and married Kristin Harmon, 18, daughter of 1940 Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon. As did David Nelson's first wife, June Blair, Kris appeared on the last two seasons of the show as herself.
The marriage produced four children: Tracy, now 24, an actress; twins Matthew and Gunnar, now 20 and fledgling rock 'n' roll artists with their own band, The Nelsons; and Sam, 13. Kris Harmon Nelson has said she and Rick became involved with drugs, and they were eventually divorced. Last July and August, Sam was the subject of a custody suit between his mother, 42, and her brother, actor Mark Harmon, 35, who claimed that the boy suffers under Kris' drug-influenced behavior -- a charge she denies. Sam Nelson remains with his mother; his uncle has visiting rights.
Tracy and the twins appear on the special, but side from the home movies, neither Kris nor Sam do.
"Musically, the '60s was a particularly tough time for Rick," observes his brother. The British music invasion of the 1960s overshadowed Rick Nelson's career, but he continued to record and to show up on television occasionally. In 1967 he hosted a six-week summer series for ABC called "Malibu U," overseeing "guest professors" who sang their hits to bikini-clad students. In the early '70s he made guest appearances with Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Glen Campbell, David Frost, Dinah Shore, Dick Clark, and series such as "McCloud," "Owen Marshall," "Petrocelli," "Tales of the Unexpected," "Solid Gold," "The Tomorrow Show," "High School USA," "Donahue" and "Saturday Night Live."
In 1969, Nelson formed the Stone Canyon Band, affected the style of Bob Dylan, whom he admired, and let his once-crewcut hair grow long. Later he tried what he called "country rock," appearing with Kenny Rogers in Canada to sing "Honky Tonk Woman" and Glen Campbell, who had worked with Rick's band as a guitarist, for a rendition of "Louisiana Man."
The retrospective includes clips from this period, as well as a candid recollection of the night in 1971 he was booed at a rock 'n' roll revival concert at Madison Square Garden. Appearing with such stars as Bobby Rydell and Bo Diddly, Nelson had offered them new songs; they wanted the old. "Being booed by 22,000 fans -- I thought, I got to get out of here. It was a frightening experience."
Back home, during one night, he wrote a new song, "Garden Party." "All of a sudden, it was there -- it just kept coming out," he remembers. What his fans noted was the line: "You can't please everyone so you've go to please yourself." Ironically, after years without a hit, Nelson's song became his greatest, going to the top of charts in six countries and selling 8 million copies.
Tracy Nelson, married last July to actor Billy Moses, speaks of the morning she looked in to the family's music room, on her way to school, and found her father finishing "Garden Party" after working on it all night. "Later, we used it as an example of a real artist: Sometimes, things just come through you. I believe that he was an artist . . . he was a poet, a real inspiration, creatively."
Although he never achieved the recognition and prestige that his popularity seemed to mandate, Rick Nelson sold 60 million records, including 24 golds, and ranked fourth on the list of best-selling single artists. In 1975, the year Ozzie Nelson died, he was given a star on Hollywood Boulevard, and this year he was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In the Monday special, clips of his concerts follow him around the country and on his 1985 world tour, performing and perspiring under hot stage lights, signing autographs afterward. David Nelson said that Rick so loved to perform that he would appear almost anywhere and sometimes spent 200 nights a year in concert. "He was on the road almost continually the last five years of his life . . . To the end, he was the rock 'n' roll traveling," observes his brother. Rick's voice-over explains: "I've never known what it means to be a grown-up. I don't see myself growing old."
On "The Nelsons," Rick will never grow old, of course. "We originally syndicated 200 'Ozzie and Harriet' shows in 1967," said David Nelson. "We have 435 newly released and another 135 in storage. It's been a nice family." The Disney Channel plans to air 100 episodes that have not been seen since they originally aired."
"Unfortunately, during the last three or four years, I didn't see him that often," Nelson said. "He was on the road almost 50 weeks a year." Rick Nelson, five members of his road company and his fiancee were on their way to a New Year's Eve, 1985, concert when they died in the crash of their twin-engine DC-3 in Texas.
David Nelson followed one path their father had set, directing and producing, and Rick followed the musical route. "My brother was a quiet, soft-spoken man who said what he wanted to say in the songs he wrote and sang," he tells the viewers. "We were not only brothers," he said last week, "he was my best friend."