Skip to comments.Remembering Rick Nelson
Posted on 12/31/2005 11:02:58 AM PST by lunarbicep
Rick Nelson's eyes spar-kled as he signed an album cover for an adoring fan in the basement of PJ's Alley in Guntersville. It was almost showtime as he capped off a leisurely weekend in North Alabama - the last weekend of 1985.
Two shows on Saturday night had thrilled a packed house, so his Stone Canyon Band stayed over for a final fling on Monday. They would be flying to Dallas the next morning to welcome in the New Year entertaining at the Park Suite Hotel. It was a date they would never make.
Pat Upton was owner of PJ's Alley, and he had been a guitar player and backup singer for Nelson's band in the early 1980s. The current group finished a show in Orlando a few days before and needed a stopover before the Dallas performance. Upton was thrilled to be their host.
A newer superstar, Jeff Cook of the band Alabama, was showing Nelson photos of his house in Fort Payne as members of Stone Canyon relaxed before the show. The opening act, a local songwriter named Janet McLaughlin, finished her set and came to PJ's basement to meet the headliner.
Nelson's youthful drummer Rick Intveld was joking with guitarist Bobby Neal and pianist Andy Chapin. Bassist Patrick Woodward wore dark glasses and stayed more to himself. And always near Nelson's side, but shirking attention, was his blond fiance, Helen Blair.
"I had always been a fan, but the first show he did in Guntersville that weekend was the first time I'd met him," said Cook from Destin, Fla., where he will perform tonight at the Emerald Coast Conference Center. "He was supposed to come over to my house and stay, but he called Sunday morning and told me he wanted to stay close - he'd been on the road a good bit."
Cook posed for a photo with Nelson's guitar before the final show began. The next day, he was having dinner when he heard that Nelson's DC-3 had crashed in rural Texas.
"We had a bus driver that came in and caught me on New Year's Eve in Shoney's in Fort Payne," Cook said. "He said he was so glad to see me, because he was afraid I was with them."
Nelson's plane had previously been used by rocker Jerry Lee Lewis. Cook recalls that a few years earlier he had turned down a chance to travel on the aircraft as Lewis' bass player.
That bulky DC-3 stood out in the darkness of Guntersville's airstrip along U.S. 431 on the road to Huntsville as McLaughlin played her last song and headed downstairs at the downtown Guntersville nightclub.
"So often when you're the opening act for someone, there's some level of isolation, but it wasn't that way at all," she recalled this week from her home in Nashville. "It was a very upbeat vibe - just a fun, festive, exciting kind of night - and I remember how gracious he was to me."
She remembered chatting with Woodward, who played upright bass in the band. Upton had called her at the last minute to perform when the Monday night concert was scheduled.
In fact, the entire weekend was a spontaneous affair. Nelson's band had been in Florida with three days to kill.
"They were in Orlando, and to sit on the road costs a lot of money," said Upton. "They were going to have to fly to Los Angeles and then go back to Dallas."
Nelson's manager Greg McDonald had worked with Upton earlier, so he called and set up the shows. Nelson would play for the admission charge, and he and Upton would be able to reminisce.
Does the club owner feel guilty or in any way responsible for the star's death?
"No, not really," said Upton. "The only thing is that I don't like its infamy. It's like the dark side of a bright thing. It's like a painting."
Closed with Buddy Holly
Nelson closed the Monday night show with a rendition of "Not Fade Away," a song written by Buddy Holly, who died in a 1959 plane crash on his way to a show in Iowa. Nelson, his fiance and the band members stayed a third night at the Holiday Inn on Lake Guntersville, which has created a sort of shrine to the star with Rick Nelson memorabilia.
The next morning, Upton called some of his musicians to help drive Nelson and his crew to the airport. Damon Johnson was a 19-year-old guitarist who had landed a job partly because his mother and Upton had grown up together in the DeKalb County town of Geraldine. He knew very little about Nelson before that last weekend of 1985.
"I was just in awe - it was like Elvis was there," he recalled this week. "They were super cool, very laid back, no pretense, no ego whatsoever."
Johnson understands that backstage calm after several years of touring with the band Brother Cane and now as part of Alice Cooper's entourage. With his own three-piece band called The Welfare, he will play this New Year's Eve in Guntersville at a club called Cheers just up the street from the Holiday Inn.
That's the same hotel where he picked up the instruments and luggage for Nelson's entourage on Dec. 31, 1985. At the airport, the group was delayed while the pilots worked to start the DC-3.
The flight plan listed its departure time from Guntersville as 12:40 p.m., but the plane probably was an hour or more later taking off. About 5:15 p.m., the pilot radioed Dallas-Fort Worth flight controllers that the cockpit was filling with smoke from a fire in the rear of the plane. He was unable to find a landing strip and set the DC-3 down in a field at DeKalb, Texas.
Pilot Brad Rank and co-pilot Kenneth Ferguson escaped the burning plane through a window. All nine people in the passenger section perished. A faulty gas heater in the rear of the plane was identified as the cause of the fire.
Johnson was the last to see Nelson, his fiance and the Stone Canyon Band alive. One of the passengers, possibly sound man Clark Russell, had left a briefcase in the office at the Guntersville airport. As the DC-3 taxied down the short runway, Johnson rushed toward the plane.
"They saw me and they waved and they opened the door," he said. "They lowered the ladder, and I ran up in there to them."
He remembered that they told him to come with them to Dallas, that "it would be hopping." Johnson had a New Year's Eve show to do with Upton that night.
"I turned around and had this visual of all of them as they were about to take off," he said. "It's the most surreal thing I've ever experienced."
Rick Nelson might be called the first video music star. He first performed on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" doing the Fats Domino hit "I'm Walking" in April 1957. Within a week, the record reportedly sold a million copies.
The hits: "A Teenager's Romance," "Be-Bop Baby," "Stood Up," "Waitin' In School," "Believe What You Say," "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It," "Poor Little Fool," "Lonesome Town," "Never Be Anyone Else But You," "It's Late," "Travelin' Man," "Hello, Mary Lou," "Teen Age Idol," "It's Up To You" and "Garden Party."
The misses: A nasty five-year divorce battle that began in 1977. He had married 17-year-old Kristin Harmon, daughter of football great Tom Harmon, in 1963. She eventually won custody of their three children, twins Matthew and Gunnar, and daughter, Tracy. It was a low point in his life.
The recovery: Nelson's music took a slide in the mid-1960s with the British pop invasion and he was just beginning a revival in the early 1980s. He also had met a fan named Helen Blair, who became a constant companion. The two were engaged to be married.
The end: Rumors spread over the fire that doomed the New Year's Eve 1985 Guntersville-Dallas flight. Some people alleged that drugs might have been involved. The final National Transportation Safety Board report blamed a faulty heater in the passenger compartment for the fire.
The crash on Dec. 31, 1985, of Rick Nelson's Douglas DC-3, registered as N711Y, killed nine and injured the two pilots.
Rick Nelson, 45, singer
Helen Blair, 29, Nelson's fiancee
Andy Chapin, 30, pianist
Rick Intveld, 22, drummer
Bobby Neal, 38, guitarist
Clark Russell, 35, sound man
Patrick Woodward, 35, bassist
Brad Rank, 34, pilot
Kenneth Ferguson, 40, co-pilot
No, it doesn't seem that long ago. I will be pilloried for this, but landed on CNN the other night while channel surfing and Larry King had Nelson's children on for the full hour reminiscing and showing old film clips. It was a real walk down memory lane. Rick Nelson was a class act.
He really gave meaning to the phrase "teenage heart throb".
Did Mark Harmon end up raising Sam, or did Kris prevail? I never really heard the outcome of that mess.
I always liked his music and "Garden Party" has to be the number one revenge song of all time. That was great.
I live about 20 miles from Gunterville. Almost went to that concert and wish I had. When the news reports started coming in about the crash it was so sad. He spoke so much truth in "Garden Party". RIP
I don't usually keep up with who Kings' having on, but I wish I had caught that show. maybe with Larry's many reruns, I'll get a second chance
I had always heard it was some kind of a drug accident, I am glad to finally know that it was not. R.I.P.
Trivia: my older brother is also named Rick Nelson, but when my brother played drums on a couple albums by Chip Taylor
(Some of Us and Last Chance, WB records) he had to be billed
as Erik "Rick" Nelson to avoid confusion with Ozzie and
Harriet's son. Chip Taylor, born James Voight, is the brother of actor Jon Voight and is famed from writing "Wild Thing" and "Angel of the Morning".
Ironically enough, while my brother had to be billed as "Erik" Nelson, the more famous Rick Nelson actually had "Eric" for a first name...
"Eric Hilliard "Ricky" Nelson, alternately Rick Nelson (May 8, 1940 December 31, 1985), was one of the first American teen idols."
Loved his Rockabilly. Favorite oldie was "Poor Little Fool', but one of his best was a song he wrote called "Easy to be Free" ["Rick Nelson:Live at the Troubadour"]. Saw the Stone Canyon Band many times. R.I.P
We must be from the same generation, because I also grew up with the Nelson's and AB. I don't know who raised the children, but they seemed to totally avoid the topic of their mother on the King show. This article says Kris gained custody so maybe they did grow up with her. I remember she was a very attractive woman. They did mention on KIng that she had remarried, but didn't elaborate on it. Maybe it's a sore subject with them.
Seeing the Nelsons on LKL was a total accident. I was flipping through the channels the other night and stumbled across it -- mostly because I could tell Hannity & Colmes was going to be the usual overtalk and shouting match and wasn't in the mood for it, lol.
Appropriate song title for Ricky's life.
Tracy and her brothers pretty much raised themselves with Rick on the road a lot and their mother "not always available to them." Turned out pretty good, actually... I think the kids were all really close to their grandparents and Aunts and Uncles growing up.
Yes, mostly singing their dads music since he died.
The family had a very hard time because of that rumor -- it was what came out first and when the heater was found to be the cause it was buried on page 30, section D....
Do you know the story behind Garden Party?? They were discussing it on LKL.
Doesn't the song tell the story?
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