Nelson twins remember father Ricky
While the Norsk Hostfest in Minot during the first five days of October will feature many acts, one act will stand out thanks to the memories of many.
Twins Matthew and Gunnar Nelson, sons of the late Ricky Nelson, will be playing their father’s last set-list before dying in a plane crash on the last night of 1985 en route to a New Years Eve show. The live songs will be intermixed with stories, family video, and contributed video stories from people like Paul McCartney and John Fogarty, who either worked alongside their father or were inspired by him.
“First off, it’s not a tribute show, it’s a celebration,” said Gunnar Nelson, who spoke with The Minot Daily News Tuesday. “When I think of a tribute I think of a guy in an Elvis suit trying to be Elvis, but we’re not trying to be our dad.”
It was just supposed to be a one-off event in front of about 200 people to kick-off the sales of a Ricky Nelson greatest hits compilation about eight years ago. Instead, it’s lived on and has been “building and growing ever since.”
Maybe the reason for that growth and popularity is the fact that the Nelson family is the only one, according to the Guiness Book of World Records, to have three successive generations of No. 1 hitmakers.
“(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection” established the brothers as hitmakers with their 1990 release of the album, “After the Rain,” a mixture of hair metal hooks and sentiment.
“We kind of looked like those characters they have in the Matrix,” Nelson said of himself and his brother at that time, referencing the “Twins”-pale, white-haired antagonistic characters in 2003’s “The Matrix Reloaded.”
Shorter-haired now, though going for “the viking thing,” he and his brother still tour as Nelson, receiving a lot of phone calls recently now that “it’s apparently not as weird to be a creature from the ’80s anymore.”
Before them, their father, labeled the first “teen idol” by LIFE magazine and often credited with the invention of the country-rock sound, placed a couple No. 1 hits with “Poor Little Fool” in 1958 and “Travelin’ Man” in 1961, but entered the Billboard Hot 100 charts more than 50 times between 1957 and 1973.
But, before all that, Ricky was featured in his mother and father’s show, “Ozzie and Harriet,” as a child and young man.
“A lot of people who attend this show didn’t grow up with the Ozzie and Harriet show,” Gunnar said. “(The show) shows the history of rock ‘n’ roll … and my dad was at the forefront of all that stuff.”
Gunnar was supposed to speak with The Minot Daily News a week prior but had to cancel due to the death of his great uncle, Don Nelson, on Sept. 10, who was a writer in the Ozzie and Harriet show and at least 26 other shows and films. But even he was a musician.
“It was really kind of the end of an era when he passed,” Gunnar said. “He was kind of a renaissance guy. He wrote scripts with Ozzie and was an accomplished jazz musician. He was a really hep cathe didn’t just listen to jazz, he played it.”
Creation and fame runs on both sides of the family, although the more obvious is the Nelson side.
“Nelsons on one side and Harmons on the other,” Gunnar said.
His uncle, Mark Harmon, has been seen on the No. 1 television show, “NCIS,” for the last decade. And his maternal-grandmother was a contract player with Paramount Pictures in the golden era of cinema, often cast in horror films because she was “the loudest screamer.”
In fact, the Nelson Twins will be inducted into the Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame at Hostfest on Oct. 2 based on their impressive lineage.
“Basically it was Americanized when people came through Ellis Island and, originally, I believe it came through as Neilson,” Gunnar said of the Swedish origins of their surname with a historic base in “a beautiful lakeside town that hasn’t changed hands for centuries.”
In what Gunnar describes as a “high-energy rock concert meets an A&E biography episode,” that history gets to hit Minot with the complete last set-list performed by the sons and a rhythm section made of the sons of Bobby Vee, himself an accomplished hit-maker in the early days of rock. Tommy Vee will be playing bass and Jeff Vee will be playing drums.
The two number ones will be played, as well as such hits as “Hello Mary Lou,” “I’m Walkin’,” “I Gotta Feeling,” “Teenage Idol,” and “Garden Party.” That last one is personal to the twins, as it is for anyone who wants to be themselves outside of expectation.
“Basically he was letting everyone know that after being put into a box his entire life that this was truly his breakout song,” Gunnar said of the song written after his father showed up in contemporary dress to play a show in New York City’s Madison Square Garden despite the demands the industry had put on him to remain in his late-1950s box of look and sound.
Although Ricky had to be away on tour during much of his life, there is one story that Gunnar said he doesn’t get to tell but that really stands out to him in showing what made his father who he was.
Gunnar and Matthew had just gotten home from one of their shows at about 2 a.m. and were unloading their gear when their father came down to greet them and help them.
“I want you to know that I don’t just love you as my sons,” Ricky said to Gunnar and Matthew in the kitchen that night, “but also as peers because you’re doing great work.”