Sam Nelson grew up surrounded by music. Grandfather Ozzie Nelson conducted an orchestra that charted frequently during the Big Band swing era to resounding success with grandmother Harriet serving as the orchestra’s featured vocalist.
Of course, Sam’s father was Rick Nelson, who successfully carried the rock ‘n’ roll torch after Elvis Presley was inducted into the Army. Rick had twin boys, Gunnar and Matthew, who later formed the pop rock band Nelson.
Without a doubt, those were serious musical shoes to fill. But music became Sam’s life. The songwriter accurately described his musical dilemma at the time, admitting, “As an artist, it’s hard enough figuring out who you are yourself. It’s that much more difficult when you’re constantly bombarded by these preconceived notions of who you should be.”
So Sam put his musical ambitions on the back burner for awhile, achieving a degree in psychology with a minor in film. Nevertheless, when friends encouraged Sam to pursue his lifelong dream, H Is Orange was born.
After experiencing many highs and lows as a struggling hard rock band in L.A., the group decided to prioritize and focus their energy on other pursuits. Enter Sam Nelson, Capitol Records A&R representative and present estate manager for Ozzie and Harriet.
Three decades after the tragic death of his dad, Sam has spoke exclusively with modenook.com about all things Nelson. In case you missed Part Two [“He’s Part of Something Incredible…”], simply visit the link.
The informal chat resumes high gear with the story of H Is Orange, their untimely connection to Sept. 11, 2001, the first song Sam composed and its readily apparent parallel to his dad’s fear of flying, whether his sister Tracy Nelson is musically inclined, and the authentic friendship shared between Rick and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
The Sam Nelson Interview (Part Five)
Are you a musician first and foremost?
How do I say this? Music is my life. I grew up with entertainment all around me, all the time. Music was obviously an enormous part of my life. I grew up with my brothers, Matthew and Gunnar, who were doing something great but completely different than the direction I had ever thought myself to go in.
I always kinda played on the back burner musically for a long time until I got to college. I know this might sound silly, but the opportunities musically that I wanted to take weren’t available until I got away from my family.
Then I started focusing on my own thing, completely independent of everybody else. My brothers were very successful as the band Nelson [(“Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection,” “After The Rain,” and “More Than Ever” were huge hits in 1990. The former went to No. 1].
So people thought, Maybe you should start emulating your brothers. Pop was a legend, so maybe you should start doing that kind of stuff. As an artist, it’s hard enough figuring out who you are yourself. It’s that much more difficult when you’re constantly bombarded by these preconceived notions of who you should be.
As I got older, I found my own voice. It definitely parlayed with school. When you ask if I’m a musician first, I would say I’m an artist first, in the sense that I love ideas and creativity. I express them in every aspect of my life, every way that I possibly can. Music is a huge proponent of that.
Tell us about your rock band, H Is Orange. You guys actually have an unfortunate connection to Sept. 11, 2001.
If you go to iTunes, YouTube, or Amazon, you can find my material with my alternative hard rock band, H Is Orange [Marcel Blanco – bass, Guy Staniar – original drummer, Rich Abagon – drums, David Iscove – guitar, and Troy Brittain – guitar].
I first played in a band with Guy back in high school. We formed a band immediately after I graduated from college. We finished our first three-song demo in about a month. Two months later, we started getting calls from every major label in town.
From there, things got very rocky very quickly for H Is Orange. We did the dog and pony show, ran the ride. But as soon as the luck came…it went.
If you can believe it, this is how long ago it was – we arrived in New York City on September 10, 2001, to showcase for a bunch of different labels. The next day, the whole world changed. That kind of threw a wrench in the momentum of things.
We spent a long time trying to regain that momentum. But you can’t chase that. The second you start running after your own momentum, you’re done. There is nothing worse than trying to recapture an energy long gone.
We realized that pretty early on and started to prioritize. So, I moved on to the other, in my opinion, more interesting side of things, business. I actually went directly from H Is Orange straight to Capitol Records.
However, we never stopped recording and playing occasional gigs. In August 2009 we released our third album, Thrill of Escape. It’s a fantastic record. “Nothing All the Time,” a song from that album, was licensed for the popular video game, Guitar Hero.
It’s been nearly two years since our last gig. It was a CD release party for Thrill of Escape, although the album had been out for a year. We had just licensed the song for Guitar Hero, too, so it was kind of an all-around celebration.
Everybody was clamoring for us to go onstage and play again. It was more or less one last hurrah for our band. The guys are married, have kids, and some have moved out of California, so other priorities have taken over.
We don’t have any plans to get back together just yet for shows, although we might for a special studio session dealing with licensing purposes [i.e. commercials, video games, etc.]. That’s our bread and butter. Oddly enough, we have an incredible fan base. They’re very, very consistent and loyal.
Today my business hat is on over my artist hat, which I love. I’ve taken the reins on the Ozzie and Harriet entity, and it’s a very daunting process. As it gains more momentum and structure, I’ll devote more time to my music. But I’ll always be a singer/songwriter.
During the last two years, I’ve been working on my solo material again. It’s more acoustic, singer/songwriter based, kinda in line with The Stone Canyon Band.
I have about 45 songs that I’m looking forward to releasing pretty much in tandem with the Ozzie and Harriet material towards the end of this summer. Hopefully I’ll have some listeners.
Do you recall the first song you composed?
Yes, it was called “Too Scared To Fly.” It appeared on Telepathetic, my first record ever, released in late 2000. It’s available for download under H Is Orange’s discography, but the band doesn’t appear.
It’s just me, kind of a subtle but powerful folk/rocktronica sound. I can play all instruments for the most part. I wish I was a little more proficient on keyboards. It’s a pretty rare record. Look for the bullfighter on the album cover.
That song is definitely autobiographical, but it’s also metaphorical. It is really about fear – fear is a powerful force, and you have to be able to break through it. The song was cathartic when I wrote it, as I was going through a bad breakup and an emotional, tumultuous relationship. It was breaking through that whole process of fear, losing, longing, and loss.
Flying has always been the biggest fear I’ve had as I was growing up for obvious reasons. Of course, I fly all the time now. There’s no question I’m not the biggest fan of flying. Fortunately, as I’ve gotten older I don’t fear flying nearly as much.
What is your official role in your dad’s estate, the Rick Nelson Company?
Technically, I’m a principal (one of four) of the Rick Nelson Company and estate manager for Ozzie and Harriet. At this point, my brother Gunnar is technically “managing” our dad’s estate if there’s such a title for that.
He’s at the helm of Pop’s stuff, and I’m more at the helm with The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet for now. I’m doing what I can to get it to a place with some push and momentum, and we’ll go from there.
One of the biggest problems we’ve faced over the years is people getting involved that shouldn’t be. Towards the end of Pop’s life, there were a lot of people that weren’t great who all had their fingers in the pie.
That was also true with the past few decades concerning Ozzie and Harriet – it became very muddy. So it’s fantastic that we can re-harness our family’s legacy. More importantly, it’s amazing that there’s still a desire and passion for all things Nelson, especially since the show has been off the air for 45 years.
Tracy isn’t really actively involved in the estate. She and I are very similar creatively speaking. For the most part, she participates when there’s a specific project to get up and running.
For example, we’re currently speaking with The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., about doing a display for Ozzie and Harriet. The institute is interested in doing an induction, too, which is incredible. I guarantee you Tracy will be involved with organizing that endeavor.
Is Tracy musically inclined?
It’s funny – she says she isn’t, but she really, really is. She’s got a fantastic voice. She has great pitch, she’s always in tune, but she needs a little more confidence to get out there and sing.
But don’t let anybody fool you, she can definitely sing. She was “Rizzo” during a two-month run of Grease on Broadway beginning in November 1996.
Some people might be surprised to learn the Rick Nelson Company once had a business relationship with Elvis Presley Enterprises (EPE).
Yeah, that’s a tricky thing. It’s been at least 15 years since we had the relationship with them [several catalogs were sent out to Elvis fans featuring a few pages of Rick’s merchandise].
EPE are great people down there, but their priority is obviously Elvis. Some of his fans are Rick fans, but they’re all definitively Elvis fans. It’s just a little hairy, because we don’t want to step on toes. Everybody gets very, very possessive, even with my dad’s stuff. Imagine that with Elvis. They think things should be a certain way.
It’s difficult when you have another asset that you have to treat the same way. People resent that, and there could be a backlash. It’s basically business – doing business smart or not smart. Regardless, we had a really good time with EPE.
The irony is that Elvis was a friend of my dad. I wish that could have been parlayed or communicated a little better with regards to campaigns we were involved with. Unfortunately, it didn’t go in that direction, which is fine.
I hope we can make Rick Nelson a third as relevant as Elvis has become since his death in 1977. I think a lot of that has to do with the bigger picture, which is the Ozzie and Harriet component that continues to resonate. Through that comes the Rick Nelson component. From there, he extends out like he did in life – as a musician, as his own man, and as an artist.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! “Rick Nelson Lived the Hero’s Journey and Left His Own Mark” is the fascinating finale of the Sam Nelson interview. The “Pop Songs” artist recalls some of his dad’s finest musical moments on Ozzie and Harriet, uncle David Nelson’s role in keeping the family together, some of his favorite Rick Nelson music, whether there is such a thing as a perfect day, and his dad’s legacy.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…Elvis Presley and Johnny Carson were two kings in their respective fields who admired each other’s work immensely. However, Elvis swore off watchingThe Tonight Show on the evening of his 40th birthday after Carson supposedly uttered a “fat and forty” joke in his nightly monologue. Subsequent retellings of the episode by members of Elvis’ Memphis Mafia have painted Carson in a negative light. But did the King of Late Night actually say those words 40 years ago? A viewing of the original televised clip and accompanying Tonight Show transcript presents stone cold evidence that will lay the claim to rest. Investigate “What Johnny Carson Really Said About Elvis…” for the complete lowdown.
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Exclusive Interview: The Master of Telecaster, James Burton, is a charter member of legendary ’60s L.A. studio wizards the Wrecking Crew. Burton has supported a who’s who list of preeminent movers and shakers in a nearly 60-year career – notably Elvis Presley, John Denver, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Merle Haggard, and recently Brad Paisley. Burton joined Rick in late 1957 for the driving “Stood Up” b/w “Waitin’ in School” rockabilly single, soon rooming with the Nelson family and ultimately forging an 11-year friendship with the handsome singer. To read a revealing in-depth feature with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer commemorating his fascinating journey with Nelson [“Six String Brothers: James Burton Champions the Timeless Allure of Rick Nelson”], simply click on the highlighted link.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Jimmie Haskell won his first of three Grammys for arranging chanteuse Bobbie Gentry’s mysterious “Ode to Billie Joe” in 1967. But before Haskell received widespread recognition in the recording industry, he earned his musical chops in a decade-long partnership with Rick that yielded a ton of essential hits. In “Just Go in the Studio and Make Hit Records…” Haskell examines his role in the “Lonesome Town” balladeer’s career, revealing what instrument he played on the iconic “Hello Mary Lou”, the day Rick nearly got in big trouble with his father for smoking in the studio, the singer’s surprise cowboy expertise on the set of Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin, Glen Campbell’s largely unrecognized guitar and vocal contributions to Rick’s music, a premonitory conversation about the unsafe 40-year-old Douglas DC-3 airplane that the singer refused to sell, and where he was when he received the news of Rick’s cruel date with destiny on New Year’s Eve 1985.
Exclusive Interview No. 3: Philip Bashe wrote one of the first books on Rick’s meteoric trajectory in 1992. In his 40-year journalism career, Bashe can still recall the moment when he first heard the singer on early ’70s AM radio. Instantly rooting for Rick’s moral victory after being booed at Madison Square Garden and refusing to compromise, the author began a decade-long quest to uncover the man behind the myth. In the splendid 11,000 word conversation entitled “Saluting the Artistic Integrity of Rick Nelson 30 Years After His Shocking Death”, Bashe refutes the misnomer that Ozzie didn’t understand rock ‘n’ roll, explains why Rick is often lumped in with teen idols, the singer’s acting aspirations, contextualizes the vastly neglected work of the Stone Canyon Band, and reveals why legends including Bob Dylan and John Fogerty still idolize the gifted artist.
- Exclusive Interview No. 4: One aspect of Rick’s legacy that is rarely explored or given proper credit is his songwriting. And if it is, his only claim to fame is the autobiographical “Garden Party.” While never a prolific wordsmith, the artist reached his critical zenith during the early ’70s, ultimately penning approximately 44 compositions that were released on various records through 1981’s “Playing to Win.” In an extensive series of conversations [“A Voice Possessing Effortlessness and Tossed-Off Coolness—Rick Nelson Remembered”], Sheree Homer, author of the engrossing “Rick Nelson: Rock ‘N’ Roll Pioneer”, unearths the debut song composed by the singer about an unfortunate break-up with his girlfriend, and why it took nearly eight years before he gained enough confidence to release a second composition. The sublime country rock tune “You Just Can’t Quit”, the ethereal ode to making one’s own destiny, “Easy To Be Free”, and Nelson’s highly underrated debut studio album, “Rick Sings Nelson”, are reviewed track-by-track and placed in proper historical context, too.
Further Reading: David Nelson had to come to terms with living in the shadow of his younger teen idol sibling. According to an interview for Philip Bashe’s Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man, the one question always posed to David was whether he experienced any jealousy over his brother’s success. While he denied the accusation, the actor did recount one revealing anecdote that might have encouraged a certain degree of resentment. While the Nelsons were singing “Happy Birthday to You” on David’s 21st birthday in 1957, Imperial Records mogul Lew Chudd burst in unannounced to award Rick with a gold record for “Be-Bop Baby.” David chuckled as he told Bashe, “At least Chudd could have waited until I blew out the candles.” To learn more about David’s respectable life and career, including anecdotes from nephew Sam Nelson, head on over to “David Nelson Enters the Limelight.”
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