The music of the late Ricky Nelson, a 1950s heartthrob for whom the phrase “teen idol” was coined, will be brought to life on April 26 at the . The tribute concert will be performed by his twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew, who themselves attained idol status in the early 1990s with their band, Nelson.
Known in their heyday for sporting waist-length blond hair, the brothers turn 45 this year and their signature tresses have long since been donated to Locks of Love.
The duo is engaging fans in a new and personal way as they tour the country celebrating the music of their father, who died in a 1985 plane crash. The elder Nelson entered American living rooms as a child on his parents’ classic TV show, “Ozzie and Harriet,” and shot to stardom as a teen when his musical talents became part of the program. His top hits included “Hello Mary Lou,” “Poor Little Fool,” “Travelin’ Man,” “I’m Walkin’” and “Garden Party.”
“It was Matthew’s idea,” said Gunnar Nelson. “He had to sell me on it a little bit because, before this, we had never performed any of our Dad’s music.”
The first Ricky Nelson tribute concert was staged at a U.S. Naval base in Japan. “We were playing for 18 to 20-year-old kids who had no idea who Ricky Nelson was, but they loved the music. They were dancing and having a great time,” Nelson said.
The brothers came out of that experience with a newfound appreciation for their father’s songs. “We said, ‘Man, this music is just great and it has to be heard.’”
“The hardest part was taking a guy who sold 230 million singles and paring his songs down to a 90-minute show," Gunnar Nelson said. "We started with the standards, the ones that everyone wants to hear. You have to play all the best-known songs.”
The twins intersperse the songs with personal anecdotes, while family photos and footage not normally seen by the public are projected on a large screen.
Asked whether their goal was to replicate their father’s sound or give it their own spin, Nelson said, “We do it with respect. No one will be offended because they don’t recognize the songs. But at the same time we don’t want to do an impression.”
The make-up of the audiences has surprised the brothers, who expected to see a combination of folks who came of age during the “Ozzie and Harriet” years and fans of their own band. Turns out, the people who show up for “Ricky Nelson Remembered” are “an amazing cross-section. Lots of the younger fans are coming with their kids. We’ve literally had the 8-80 audience,” Gunnar said.
The show is sometimes performed with a band, sometimes with the brothers alone onstage, which is how it will be presented in Morristown. Gunnar Nelson said he prefers the smaller show, which he finds more sincere. “It’s not a cut-down version of the regular show. It’s a different show,” which he said allows more time for family stories.
Gunnar Nelson said his favorite tune in the show is “Lonesome Town” (see video here), a melancholy ballad his father recorded in 1958. “He didn’t write that one (it was penned by Baker Knight), but I don’t think too many people could have pulled off the bare arrangement of that song.” His brother Matthew, Gunnar said, is partial to the 1972 hit, “Garden Party,” because it chronicled a real experience in Ricky Nelson’s life, when he was booed off the stage for playing new music instead of his oldie hits.
Because he had been a pretty face on a popular TV show, the twins feel their dad’s music was often “unfairly overlooked” by critics. As Gunnar Nelson tells it, “John Fogerty (lead singer of the 1970’s hit machine, Credence Clearwater Revival) once said that liking Ricky Nelson was like admitting that the prom queen had a brain.”
The sons will do their part to right that perception on April 26.
“” comes to the on Thursday, April 26, 2012 at 8 p.m. Tickets range in price from $37-$57.