“I can’t get over when I hear a disc jockey say, ‘Here’s Rick Nelson on the comeback trail.’ What comeback? I’ve been here all along.”
-Rick Nelson, 1970
By the late-1960s, the rock-and-roll era of the fifties and early sixties had become a thing of the past & Rick Nelson was looking to change his image & make a fresh start. He wanted to write more songs. He’d always been a fan of Bob Dylan, whose country-flavored Nashville Skyline had just been released. Rick listened to the album “for days,” he said. “Suddenly, I knew where I wanted to go.”
Rick had become inspired by the current insurgence of country-rock bands and was ready to start a group of his own. “I wanted to grow,” he said, to create and to perform on my own without big studio arrangements and for that I needed my own group again.” In search of players, he became a regular at the Troubadour. One group that caught his eye was Poco, then known as Pogo, with their combination of pedal steel and high harmonies. He was particularly impressed with their bassist, who had a distinctive high voice.
Randy with Poco at the Troubadour, November 1968:
Photo ©Cindy Dakin
“I Was Ready To Give Up”
Randy Meisner was one of the five founding members of the groundbreaking country-rock group, Poco, along with Richie Furay, Jim Messina, Rusty Young and George Grantham. In the Spring of 1969, he quit the band after the recording of their first album, Pickin’ Up The Pieces, when Furay refused to let him sit in on the mixing session: “I called the studio and wanted to listen to the mixes and Richie answered. ‘We don’t want anybody here.'” “At that point,” Randy said, “I felt like I wasn’t a member, just a sideman.”
After leaving Poco, Randy wasn’t quite sure what his next move was going to be. He even considered moving back home to Nebraska.
Randy: “Having left Poco, I was ready to give up.”
The Stone Canyon Band
Miles Thomas, former roadie for Poco, recognized Rick at the Troubadour one night hidden inside a huge fur parka and chain-smoking menthol cigarettes:
“I was really crocked. I sat down next to him and said, ‘What’s it like being Ricky Nelson?’ a great opening line that got me a very strange look. When Randy’s name came up, Rick said: ‘Boy, I’d like to have a guy like that in my band.’ I can do that for you,” Thomas replied.
It wasn’t long before Randy got a call from Rick’s producer, John Boylan.
Randy: “When Rick heard I was leaving Poco, John Boylan, his producer, asked if I wanted to put a band together with Rick.”
He asked his former bandmates with The Poor, guitarist, Allan Kemp, and drummer, Pat Shanahan, to join Rick’s band.
Rick Nelson: “They were originally called The Poor. Randy had quit a group called Poco and wasn’t doing anything. He wanted to join me and he came up with all the other guys except the steel player.”
Randy: “We had all the ingredients for a country rock band, tending more toward the rock and roll side.”
Rick christened the group The Stone Canyon Band.
Pat Shanahan: “We didn’t have a name for the band and Rick had a horse farm out in Stone Canyon someplace in Malibu. So he just said, ‘Why don’t we call it the Stone Canyon Band?'”
Rick Nelson & The Stone Canyon Band
L-R: Randy Meisner, Pat Shanahan, Rick Nelson, and Allen Kemp
The Troubadour, West Hollywood, CA, April 1-6, 1969
“We Kicked Ass And Took Names”
Prior to the formation of the Stone Canyon Band, Rick spent several weeks in 1968 playing clubs across the country. Some of them were at loud, “greaseball clubs” as he called them, such as The Latin Quarter in New York City. “It just wasn’t right,” Rick said. “I didn’t feel comfortable at all. And then I played a place called The Cellar Door in Washington and it’s very much like the Troubadour. It was like opening up the window. It was performing for people who came there specifically to see you, not just to see the club. The sound’s better. Everything’s better. That gave us the idea for the Troubadour, so we called.”
John Boylan: “I called Doug Weston and said; ‘I want you to put Rick Nelson in the Troubadour.’ He said; ‘Well; it’s chancy; but I’ll do it.’ ”
The band rehearsed at a house shared by Allen and Pat in Sherman Oaks:
Pat Shanahan: “It was an eight-by-ten room, completely insulated with blankets and rugs so that we didn’t disturb the neighbors.”
They soon moved to an office in Burbank owned by Rick’s father, Ozzie Nelson. Plus a studio on Ventura that would later be used by the Eagles.
Rick had never used a pedal steel player before his Troubadour debut, so he acquired “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow, who was a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers at that time, to play on opening night. But he had to back out at the last minute because he was stuck in Las Vegas due to fog.
Allen Kemp: “I never heard of fog in Las Vegas; but that was his excuse. I had to play lead guitar for the first night. Scared the hell out of me. I hadn’t rehearsed any of that stuff. I was doing finger-picking stuff; and I had my guitar with medium-gauge strings on it. I didn’t have time to change them or anything. I had to just take stabs at it.”
Famous session musician, Buddy Emmons, filled in on pedal steel for the rest of the engagement.
Below, Randy describes Rick’s mindset before the opening. “He was really nervous about it..I think we eventually got him loosened up pretty good.” (via VH1 Behind The Music: Rick Nelson, 2001):
The show was a success. “We went into the Troubadour and kicked ass and took names,” recalled John Boylan.
As for Rick: “I never was so happy as I was at the Troubadour.”
Recording Sessions, April-June, 1969
Following the Troubadour debut, Rick and the Stone Canyon Band spent the next few months not only rehearsing for a Fall tour, but also recording at Rick’s own studio, as well as United Studios in Los Angeles. Rick recorded covers of Tim Hardin’s “Lady Came From Baltimore,” Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” and Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me.” He also recorded some of his own compositions, such as “Who Cares About Tomorrow” and “Promises.”
Listen to the demo for the beautiful “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” recorded May 7th, 1969 at United Studios. Randy takes a nice bass solo around the 1:39 mark.
Rick Nelson: Lead vocal, guitar
Randy Meisner: Bass, backing vocals
Allen Kemp: Lead Guitar, backing vocals
Pat Shanahan: Drums
Buddy Emmons: Pedal steel
Rick recorded this song a year earlier, with different personnel, for his 1968 album Perspective.
“She Belongs To Me”
This track from the United Studios sessions was released as a single in August 1969 to coincide with the Fall tour. Both Rick and Randy were fans of Bob Dylan. In fact, Randy said in 2006 that Dylan was “one of my favorite artists of all time.” The single of “She Belongs To Me” was backed with a studio version of “Promises.”
Listen to both tracks below. Randy high harmony is clear on both, not to mention his hot bass line on “Promises.”
Rick Nelson: Lead vocal, guitar
Randy Meisner: Bass, backing vocals
Allen Kemp: Lead Guitar, backing vocals
Pat Shanahan: Drums
Buddy Emmons: Pedal steel
“She Belongs To Me” – Studio version (recorded May 10th, 1969, United Studios, LA)
“Promises” – Studio version (recorded June 4th, 1969, United Studios, LA)
Fall 1969 Tour
Rick’s four-piece band set out on a tour of the East Coast in August starting off with a weeklong run at The Bitter End in New York City. The shows in Bryn Mawr, PA in September were cancelled when Rick came down with laryngitis. They were later rescheduled.
Click the image to enlarge or for more info
Watch the band perform Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’,” at The Bitter End below. This was the first song Rick ever sang on The Adventures Of Ozzie & Harriet back in 1957.
Prior to the show at JD’s in Phoenix in October, the Arizona Republic noted that Rick was “sharing the spotlight” with a “longhaired bass player”:
Randy and Rick, unknown venue:
Troubadour, West Hollywood, October 28-November 2, 1969
For his return to the Troubadour, Rick once again wanted a steel player. This time he chose Tom Brumley, formerly with Buck Owens and the Buckaroos. Brumley’s original commitment was only for this engagement.
Below: At the November 1st show, Rick was joined onstage by Don Everly of The Everly Brothers.
L-R: Randy Meisner, Pat Shanahan, Rick Nelson, Don Everly, Allen Kemp, Tom Brumley
Listen to “Bye, Bye Love” performed by Don Everly, Rick, and The Stone Canyon Band (with Rick’s intro). You can really hear Randy on the chorus at about 1:50:
Rick Nelson In Concert
Live recordings from four of the shows at the Troubadour were used for the live album, Rick Nelson In Concert, released in January 1970 to critical acclaim. It was Rick’s first album to chart in six years.
Easy To Be Free film
Rick’s brother, David, who focused on filmmaking after The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet ended, produced and directed a documentary of the Fall 1969 tour called Easy To Be Free, which aired on CBS in 1973. David jokingly said that he made the film “so Ozzie and Harriet would know what Rick actually does for a living.” Most of the live performance footage uses audio from the Rick Nelson In Concert album, including the sequences filmed at The Bitter End in New York and JD’s in Phoenix where Rick did not have a pedal steel player, but one can be heard in the music.
Below is a clip from the film. The footage opens with the band rehearsing to an empty house at the Troubadour, then shows them traveling to the airport in Los Angeles in a VW bus, landing in New York, then driving through the city, with Rick behind the wheel, to their first show at The Bitter End. Accompanying the montage is Rick and The Stone Canyon Band singing Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.”
The only full version of the film available online is very poor quality, but it is worth watching. The live footage is priceless, although some artistic license was taken by showing long sequences of families playing in a park during a song instead of footage of the band performing. Watch it in full here. (Note: The first 52 minutes is the documentary. Footage from a 1985 concert is tacked on at the end.)
The Mike Douglas Show
Aired December 25th, 1969
The band performed two songs, “Believe What You Say,” plus their single “She Belongs To Me.” The show was filmed prior to Tom Brumley officially joining the band.
Watch “Believe What You Say” below. Notice Randy’s smile when the audience applauds at the beginning.
Fall/Winter 1969-1970 Tour
Following a three-week break, the band returned to the road in late November 1969. They were now a five-piece with Brumley joining the fold and remaining with Rick for the next ten years.
Rick: “This is the best group of musicians I’ve had.”
This leg of the tour included a one-night-stand at the Troubadour on January 10th, 1970. On February 21st, the band shared with bill with the Flying Burrito Brothers, featuring Randy’s future Eagles bandmate, Bernie Leadon.
The December 19th, 1969 show in Salt Lake City overlaps with a recording session for Waylon Jennings’ Singer Of Sad Songs on which Randy, Allen, and Pat were session musicians. It’s possible the show from the 19th was cancelled or RCA’s session information is incorrect.
Click the image to enlarge
|November 21-22, 1969||Ludlow Garage||Cincinnati, Ohio|
|November 25-30, 1969||The Main Point||Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania||Rescheduled dates from September.|
|December 19-20, 1969||Old Mill||Salt Lake City, Utah|
|December 27, 1969||Houston Music Theater||Houston, Texas|
|January 18, 1970||Troubadour||West Hollywood, California|
|January 31, 1970||Armory Auditorium||Salem, Oregon||Show was cancelled because Rick Nelson became ill.|
|February 6-9, 1970||Dance City U.S.A.||Fort Worth, Texas|
|February 13, 1970||The Aces Club||City Of Industry, California|
|February 21, 1970||Valley Music Theater||Woodland Hills, California||The Flying Burrito Brothers, with future Eagle, Bernie Leadon, were also on the bill.|
The Stone Canyon Band at the Houston Music Hall, December 27, 1969:
On March 7th, the band appeared on the TV program, Get It Together, which was hosted by Cass Elliot and Sam Riddle. They performed “She Belongs To Me” and “Easy To Be Free.”
European Tour, March-April 1970
In March, the band embarked on a tour of Army bases and nightclubs in Germany, Spain and the UK. 1
The tour was grueling with the band playing an average of two or three shows a day. Roadie Miles Thomas, Randy’s roommate on the tour, called it “a nightmare from the book of bad road dreams.” The majority of the dates were in Germany, with the band centrally located in a hotel in Frankfurt, where they languished in their rooms during the day and at night were driven to gigs at officers’ and enlisted men’s clubs as far as a hundred miles away.
Rick recalled the tour as a “terrible experience,” with Randy, in particular, buckling under the strain. “He couldn’t take the pressure…he’d quit before every show.” The strain was due not only to the grueling schedule, but also the reception they received from the GIs.
Rick: “[They] didn’t like our long hair. They’d shout ‘where’s your miniskirt?’ We played an officers’ club and the guy right up in front, alone at the first table, turned his back on us for the entire show. It was like serving a sentence.”
Below: Rick, Randy, and Pat Shanahan, Darmstadt (probably at The Rainbow Club,) March 24th, 1970
Rick was interviewed backstage in Darmstadt by the military newspaper, Stars & Stripes:
Both Randy and Miles Thomas gave notice on the flight home.
Rick: “The end result was Randy quitting music and going back to Nebraska. I had nothing to say because I didn’t blame him at all.”
Randy: “When we got back [from the tour], I quit because I didn’t feel I was getting a chance to express myself. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. Rick always consulted us and we all made suggestions, but even so I wasn’t happy with the music. I wasn’t making any money, and I had been away from my family a long time, so I told Rick I couldn’t handle this anymore.”
Randy was initially replaced by Phil “Fang” Volk, bassist for Paul Revere & The Raiders, then by Tim Cetera (brother of Peter), who appeared on Rick’s album Rick Sings Nelson. In the meantime, Randy returned to Scottsbluff and took a job as a “parts man” at the Frank Implement Co., a John Deere dealership, owned by the father of one of his friends. “I’d never worked a job in my life,” said Randy. “It was a real switch.”
He also became a father for the second time. On May 14th, 1970, Randy’s wife, Jennifer, gave birth to boy and girl twins. They did not know they were having twins until the day of the birth. The twins were named Heather and Eric, the latter named after Rick Nelson, whose real name was Eric. Randy and Jennifer also have an older son, Dana, who was born in November 1963.
“What Am I Doing Playing rock and roll in Scottsbluff, Nebraska?”
Back in Nebraska, Randy put together a new band called Goldrush, which included Steve Love & Dan Rossi, who were attending college at Hiram Scott in Scottsbluff.
Randy: “The band would play until three in the morning and I would have to get up and be at work at eight. I started getting into work later and later….One day I just thought, hell, what am I doing playing rock ‘n roll in Scottsbluff, Nebraska?”
Exactly when Randy returned to the Stone Canyon Band is the source of a lot of confusion in books and the internet. My research shows that he was back in Los Angeles by November 1970. There is evidence that Tim Cetera was still with the Stone Canyon Band through October. He is ID’d at a show at the Troubadour in September by LA Times critic Robert Hilburn. Cetera also appeared with Rick on an episode of The Andy Williams Show, which was taped in October and aired in November. We can also place Randy in L.A. during the first week of December based on a story by Steve Love. He recalled Randy taking him to meet Waylon Jennings backstage at the Troubadour shortly after his arrival in Los Angeles.1 Waylon played a week’s stand at the venue beginning December 1st, 1970.
Randy stated in an interview that he returned to Los Angeles because Rick wanted to do some dates in San Francisco. He may have been referring to a gig at Chuck’s Cellar in Los Altos on December 11th (see tour dates below).
Randy: “Allen Kemp called me told me that job was open again, so I went back to L.A. and joined Rick for another six months.”
“We needed that voice”
The decision to let Tim Cetera go from the Stone Canyon Band was not an easy one.
Pat Shanahan: “Tim Cetera was a real good player. When Randy decided to come back it was hard to let Tim go, but we needed that voice. He had that real high-end voice, so when you want a male singer who can do that, he’s who you want.”
Winter/Spring Tour 1970-1971
Click image to enlarge
Randy’s wife, Jennifer, son, Dana, and parents Herman and Emilie attended the three Nebraska shows in Norfolk, Lincoln, and Wayne. Randy and Jennifer’s nine-month-old twins stayed behind in Scottsbluff with her parents. His uncle and aunt, Norman and Lydia Ohlund (sister of Emilie), and their daughter Nan, joined them for the show at Wayne State College, which got a mention in the Estherville, IA newspaper where Norman and Lydia resided.
Below: Backstage at Wayne State College, February 14th, 1971: L-R: Rick, Pat, Allen, Randy, his son, Dana (age 7), and Tom Brumley. (Photos courtesy of Jennifer Meisner)
Below: Randy with his former wife, Jennifer (in glasses), their son Dana, and his cousin, Nan. (Photos courtesy of Jennifer Meisner).
Below: The band at Mister Kelly’s in Chicago, February 22nd, 1971. The band played the venue for two weeks. It was the last gig of the tour.
The Mike Douglas Show
Aired April 8, 1971
The band taped an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show in San Diego on April 1st, 1971. Other guests on the show that day were George Carlin and Linda Ronstadt.2 They played two songs, both written by Rick: “Easy To Be Free” and “Look At Mary.”3 Don’t miss Rick introducing the band between songs at 4:03.
A Life-Changing Meeting
In June 1971, Rick’s producer, John Boylan, asked Randy if he would like to fill in for Linda Ronstadt’s bass player, Mike Bowden, at a gig in Los Altos, CA. Linda was performing for four nights at a venue called Chuck’s Cellar. When Randy arrived for rehearsals, he met Linda’s other musicians: guitarist Glenn Frey and drummer Don Henley. Although he may not have realized it at the time, but this was a life-changing meeting. Read more about this show here.
Randy would perform with Linda at least two more times in the summer of 1971: at the Troubadour at the end of July and the Quiet Knight in Chicago in at the end of August. Two live recordings from the Troubadour appearance would appear on Linda’s self-titled album in 1972.4
Rehearsing at Rick’s home on Zorada Drive, 1971. Randy purchased this home from Rick, fully furnished, in the mid-1970s. (Photo: Jennifer Meisner)
Rudy The Fifth
By July 1971, the recording of Rudy The Fifth was underway in Los Angeles. This would be the second studio album for the Stone Canyon Band and the first with Randy. The album included Bob Dylan covers, such as “Just Like A Woman” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” as well as a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman.”5 But the album was mostly comprised of Rick’s own compositions, including the the prophetic “Gypsy Pilot,” which ends with the sound of a plane crash. Randy appeared on every track on Rudy The Fifth, except “Life,” which was recorded while Tim Cetera was still with the band.
Session info from Decca Records shows that the recording of the album took place in Los Angeles in July and August 1971 (during the same time-period Randy was filling in as bassist for Linda Ronstadt).
Rudy the Fifth was released in October 1971.
Pat Shanahan: “I love Randy and he’s probably one of the best people in the world, but he never knows what he’s going to do next.”
Following the recording of Rudy The Fifth, Randy once again quit the band. This time so he could join Don Henley and Glenn Frey and focus on the new band they were putting together. But he wasn’t going to leave Rick without a bass player:
Randy: Well, I didn’t want to let Rick down so I got a friend of mine Steve Love who was also in my band (Gold Rush). I told Rick that he was a great singer, he could sing the high parts and he is a great guitarist and he can play bass anytime he wants. Steve got that job so I didn’t let Rick down. Then I went on with Don and Glenn.”
Rick’s next album, Garden Party, released in November 1972, would be one of his most successful. Along with the hit title track, it also included a song written by Randy and Allen Kemp called “I Wanna Be With You.”
Years later, Randy looked back on what a “thrill” it was to play with Rick:
“I remember Rick doing ‘Hello Mary Lou’ and some of the standards, which were always fun to play. I mean, you grow up listening to the guy and to actually be playing with him was quite a thrill for me.”
Rick and six others died tragically in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1985 in De Kalb, Texas. The other victims were Rick’s fiancée, Helen Blair, sound technician, Clark Russell, and four members of the Stone Canyon Band: Andy Chapin, Rick Intveld, Bobby Neal and Patrick Woodward. Both pilots survived. The crash was due to a faulty heater on the plane.
Randy had spent some time with him only a few months before:
“At the time I wasn’t married and his girlfriend and my girlfriend were friends. We got to see Rick and we went out a couple of times and just hung out. All I can say is Rick was a great guy, he was extremely funny and a lot of people don’t know that about him….I loved that man.”
1 Most of the dates and venues for this tour are unknown. An announcement in the San Antonio Express (March 5, 1970) mentioned that the band would be touring “London, Madrid, and Germany.” Only the gig in Darmstadt is verified. There were a number of dates in Frankfurt, including appearances at The Teen Club and a couple of officers’ clubs, but the exact dates are unknown. One grainy photo exists of the band playing in Frankfurt, possibly at The Teen Club. A handful of dates in London and Birmingham were announced in Melody Maker on March 7th, 1970.
2Linda performed on this episode of The Mike Douglas Show with her first solo backing band, Swampwater. In 1970, Randy had been suggested as a replacement for Swampwater’s original bassist Eric White, but Randy was living in Nebraska at the time and was unavailable. White ended up being replaced by Thad Maxwell, who can be seen in Linda’s performance on show.
3“Look At Mary” was originally on Rick Sings Nelson with Randy’s replacement, Tim Cetera, on bass and backing vocals.
4 Randy appeared as a background vocalist on “Rescue Me” and “Birds” recorded live at the Troubadour in July 1971 and released on the self-titled Linda Ronstadt in 1972.
5 Randy also appeared on Waylon Jennings’ version of “Honky Tonk Woman” from his Singer Of Sad Songs album.
Interview with Rick Nelson by Jerry Hopkins, Rolling Stone, July 12, 1969
“Lyric Where It’s At–Rick Nelson,” Roger Kaye, Fort Worth Star Telegram, February 14, 1970
“Ex-GI Returns To Germany With Rick Nelson Show,” Stars & Stripes, March 26, 1970
“The Golden Oldies” by John Riley, Los Angeles Times, November 8, 1970
Ricky Nelson’s ‘Easy To Be Free,'” Daily News Post (Monrovia, CA), September 8, 1973
“The Eagles” by Barbara Charone, Hit Parader, January 1975
“Eagles Guitarist Still Nebraska Homebody,” Lincoln Star, August 30, 1975
“A ’50s Teen Angel, A ’60s Fade Out, A ’70s Rock Re-Entry,” Washington Star, October 14, 1977
“Randy Meisner Takes It To The Limit One More Time,” Ken Sharp, Discoveries magazine, September 2006
Canyon Of Dreams: The Magic & Music Of Laurel Canyon, Harvey Kubernik, 2009
The Decca Labels: A Discography, Michel Ruppli, 1996
Desperadoes: The Roots Of Country Rock, John Einarson, 2000
Rick Nelson: Rock ‘N Roll Pioneer by Sheree Homer, 2012
Ricky Nelson: Idol For A Generation by Joel Selvin, 1990
Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: The Complete Biography Of Rick Nelson by Philip Bashe, 1992
To The Limit: The Untold Story Of The Eagles by Marc Eliot, 1997
John Tobler interview with Randy Meisner, BBC Radio 1, April 1977
VH1 Behind The Music: Rick Nelson (Aired June 24, 2001)
Interview With John Beaudin, August 2001
Iain Young: Liner notes: Rick Nelson In Concert, 2CD Expanded Edition, Ace Records, 2011