Nelson twins keep the family tradition
All these years later, Matthew Nelson still remembers the night that the muse struck.
“My family took a trip to Hawaii when I was almost 4 years old,” he said. “I remember sitting in a booth at the hotel ballroom, just before the show was about to start. I was looking around, saying ‘Where’s Pop?’ I was afraid he was going to miss it.
“Then I looked through the darkness, and bathed in light in the middle of the stage, there was my dad. He was the show.”
At that moment, the youngster realized that his father, Ricky Nelson, was famous.
“In later years, as I watched him play, I would think ‘Wow, this is a cool gig. I’d like to do this some day.’ “
It didn’t take long. Twins Matthew and Gunnar Nelson — two of the four children of the late Rick Nelson and actress Kirstin Harmon, were singing and writing their own music by the age of 10. They recorded their first record at age 11, and were playing nightclubs at 12; Matthew on guitar, Gunnar on drums.
Contrary to popular belief, this delighted their father, who never pushed his boys toward a show business career, but never inhibited them either.
“Dad loved it,” Gunnar said of his early musical efforts. “We found out later that he would tell all his friends about us, and would stand outside the club listening to us play, so that we wouldn’t know he was there.”
The fact that Matthew gravitated toward the guitar and Gunnar toward the drums provided a kind of rock ‘n’ roll kismet.
“It was kind of by accident, but we were a natural rhythm section,” Matthew said. “And bands could always use a rhythm section. When we were a little older, we played every high school dance, every local party.”
Meanwhile, their mother (whom Rick Nelson married in 1963), who was trying to raise four children in the Los Angeles area in the midst of the 1970s “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” era, was not exactly pleased.
“She was praying to God, ‘anything but rock ‘n’ rollers,’ Matthew said. “My parents were having trouble with their relationship at the time, and she equated every problem they had with rock ‘n’ roll. It took her a long time; she’s just now coming to our shows.”
The twins worked diligently, determined to prove that they were more than just “Ricky Nelson’s kids.” In 1990, they formed the glam metal band Nelson, and signed with Geffen records, making an immediate splash. One of their first singles, “(I Can’t Live) Without Your Love and Affection” went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts in September 1990. The brothers have been playing and touring ever since.
Their current tour, “Ricky Nelson Remembered,” makes a stop at Harrah’s South Shore Room on Saturday, Sept. 15, where they will play a collection of their father’s hits – and a few of their own – with the Stone Canyon Band.
“To me, it’s been one of my most fascinating gigs,” Matt said. “To be able to sing these songs, and to look at my left and see Jeff Baxter from Steely Dan, it’s special.”
Gunnar and Matthew co-founded the Stone Canyon Records label in 1995.
“It’s funny, because we never used to play (dad’s) tunes at all,” Gunnar said. “But we got involved with a project at Capitol Records, a boxed set of dad’s songs titled “Legacy,” where we did a lot of research on dad’s music. So we decided to work a couple of his songs into our act.”
The audience response was so strong that the brothers decided to start the tribute tour.
“We are so blessed,” Gunnar said. “We get people from 8 to 80 coming to our shows, and we get to carve a line through that with our music. Dad’s songs are like a little time machine where I get to go back and remember where I was and what I was feeling the first time I heard them.”
The brother’s chart-topping hit in 1990 was special in more ways than one. It brought distinction in the Guiness Book of World Records, as the Nelsons became the first family to have No. 1 hits with members of three successive generations.
“One of my favorite stories about my father was one I just learned last week,” Gunnar said. “We had just finished a show, and a man pulled Matt aside and told him the story about his daughter, who was mentally handicapped. She was a big fan of dad’s, and wanted to come to the show that night but couldn’t make it.
“So dad got this guy’s address, and later that night there’s this knock on the door, and dad is there. He just showed up at this guy’s house in the middle of suburbia, and stayed and visited with the family for four hours. And he never told anyone about it. When I heard that, it was the most connected to him that I’ve ever felt.”
The Nelsons have just released a new CD, “Like Father, Like Son,” which is a revamped version of the CD they’ve been selling on tour this past year.