This is one of the more difficult Bear Family sets to take on simply because it is such an intimidating package. Never mind that Nelson is an American myth, having eked his way into that terrain by dying in a plane crash while still in his forties, and despite being managed by Colonel Tom Parker, he still looked fantastic despite the unsubstantiated rumors of drugs, alcoholism, and twisted sex that poured forth from the tabloids after his passing.
But that Ricky (or Rick as he was known then) Nelson doesn't even appear inside this box set. The material documented here begins near the end of the rockabilly era in 1957 and ends before the Beatles came stateside. The 180 tracks contained on this set represent five years in the recording life of Ricky Nelson, who before he even began his recording career was a television star with his real-life family, the Nelsons, parented by Ozzie and Harriet. In fact, Ricky Nelson starred in a number of motion pictures during the era when these recordings were made -- most notably Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin and The Wackiest Ship in the Army -- and remained on the TV program until 1966, four years after these sessions leave off in 1962. Ricky Nelson was indeed America's most popular and respectable teen idol.
For starters there's the hardbound book that's 180 pages long with rare photographs galore, including some risqué shots of a "party" at Nelson's house; some shots with Eddie Cochrane's widow, Sharon Sheeley; shots from the TV show; wedding day photos; record covers from seven different countries; all of the original singles and LP sleeves; press clippings; and magazine and fan club shots, as well as stills from the movies and even a full four-color reproduction of the Ricky Nelson comic book. A large chunk of the book is dedicated to an exhaustive essay by Todd Everett that fills in not only biographical details, but cultural ones as well, and quotes many of the major figures in Nelson's life at the time at length, including, but not exclusively, Gene Pitney, Johnny Rivers, Johnny Cash, and Larry and most notably Lorrie Collins of the Collins Kids, whom Nelson was romantically linked to early in his career. In addition to Everett's essay there are copious production notes on remasters and mono and stereo mixes as well as how most of the recordings were constructed in the studio. This adds up to an insanely beautiful package and we've yet to comment on the music.
Of the 180 tracks included here, part of disc five and all of disc six have previously unreleased alternate takes, unheard masters, and unreleased tracks -- impressive by even Bear Family standards. Disc one begins with Nelson's first Verve single, his cover of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'" (that featured Domino's drummer, Earl Palmer, on the session all the way from New Orleans), backed with "My One and Only Love," a syrupy teen anthem that rocketed to the top of the charts. The rest, in a sense, was history, though it didn't run out all over the margins of press and radio like a river. After leaving Verve Nelson went to Imperial, and it is from here and Challenge that the rest of the recordings on this set come -- in complete chronological order, which means track duplication in sequence. For whatever reason, since there are usually only two or three takes, it's not as irritating as it is, say, on the complete Verve Bird sessions when there are sometimes 13 versions of the same tune all in a row.
All of the hits are here, such as "Hello Mary Lou," "Travelin' Man," and the stuff you'd expect to find on the Imperial masters LPs and CD, but those tracks only tell a small part of an amazing musical odyssey. This set proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Nelson was not gifted with a golden voice, but it was a good one, and he interpreted material well. One such cover is his 1962 version of the Gershwins' "Summertime." This is a version that rivals Janis Joplin's for its raw, steamy emotion and one that equates with the Clash's version of "Brand New Cadillac" in its rock & roll firepower. (And James Burton's guitar playing on this track is not even to be believed -- only heard and whistled at.) The material Nelson got -- whether it was from Domino, Lieber & Stoller, Carl Perkins, Don Gibson, Jerry Fuller, J.D. Loudermilk, Scotty Wiseman, Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, Johnny Cash, Baker Knight, and dozens of others -- was mostly top shelf. Nelson and producer Jimmy Haskell's choice of standards by Sammy Cahn, the Gershwins, Hank Williams, and many more were not idle or random selections. Everything was picked first for musical value and then with the notion of selling it.
But there's so much more: the gospel EP of Glory Train plus three Nelson recorded after Elvis' "Pace in the Valley" -- his truly moving version of "The Stars Fell on Alabama," his wicked early "Be Bop Baby," and a throat-clenching rendition of "Have I Told You Lately (That I Love You)" -- and the list goes on and on, including one of the spookiest covers of "Gloomy Sunday" ever. Of the unreleased material, it's fascinating to hear Nelson's awesome band with guitarist James Burton (where do you think Gram, Emmylou Harris, and Merle Haggard first heard him?), bassist James Kirkland (and later Joe Osborn), and drummer Richie Frost, who put together the backing tracks before adding a vocal. Or to hear jazz musicians like pianist Jimmy Rowles and bassist Leroy Vinnegar, or country guitar ace Joe Maphis, or the fabulous vocal groups the Jordanaires and the Four Preps sit in. These folks all appear on final issued masters as well, but the process involved is an intimate experience collectors and hardcore fans will be delighted to hear.
Listening to this set through is exhausting, draining, and obsessively thought-provoking. It asks questions that cannot yet be articulated let alone answered as to not only how this kid did it -- and Elvis being in the army for a couple of those years cannot be the simple explanation -- but why he did this, put himself through this much sweat and blood and agony in five years with another whole life or two to live. But ultimately, The American Dream is one of the most remarkable rock & roll experiences this writer has ever had. So massive is the contribution enclosed in this 12-by-12-inch box, that it will without doubt be poured over and analyzed by fans, historians, musicologists, and trivia nuts for decades to come. Well done Bear Family.