A Lesson from Grocery Store Music

Grocery store music is always there but – at least for me – seldom heard. It’s pretty much a stream of cast-off one-hit wonders and the most you notice about them is the occasional “wow, the Night Chicago Died was once a thing . . . ”

Usually. Not the case the other morning while I was strolling through the dairy section. I picked up this lyric:

But it’s all right now,

I learned my lesson well.

You see, ya can’t please everyone,

So ya got to please yourself

I liked it; it rang a bell. I seemed to remember it as a standard on an oldies station until oldies got younger.

I listened to the rest of the song, finished shopping, went home with the refrain still playing in my head. It must have been a big hit because it sure was a powerful ear worm.

It was. I Googled the lyrics: Rick Nelson, 1972, Garden Party, enormous hit single back when there were hit singles.

Curiosity satisfied, that would have been it and they’d be no blog post today except for the rest of the Google search results. Intriguing titles from Rolling Stone, Variety, the New York Times, and others sucked me into a tab opening marathon.

There was a story behind the song. And another story behind Rick Nelson. It all came together like this:

Ricky Nelson was the son of the iconic Ozzie & Harriet Nelson. By the time he was eight years old his parents had the most popular radio show in the country, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. Ricky  joined the show in 1949 when he was eight years old.

The show went to television in 1952, was a hit, and became the longest running live-action comedy show in television history. Ricky grew up on television long before the Kardashians.

Ricky was musically gifted; he played several instruments and had a good voice. Ozzie – who controlled every aspect of the show – homed in on Ricky’s talent and many episodes ended with Ricky and his band playing their hits . . . and they had a ton of them. Between 1957 and 1962 Ricky Nelson had 30 Top-40 hits. Only Elvis and Pat Boone (no, really) had more.

Ricky  was an original teen idol. Every aspect of his life and music success was controlled by Ozzie and Harriet. Ozzie, who got his start as a musician, negotiated Ricky’s recording contracts. Ozzie had approval over song selection, sleeve artwork, covers, and production values.

When Ricky Nelson was 13, he was making $100,000 a year. His money was controlled by his parents. He received none of it while growing up. At age eighteen he was granted a $50 allowance. He was so strapped for cash he once collected soda bottles to redeem to take a date to the movies.

Speaking of dates, Ozzie and Harriet controlled Ricky’s dating as well. Some of his ‘real life’ girlfriends were on the show – for a few episodes. Ozzie and Harriet cancelled them. They pushed for Ricky to marry Kris Harmon – the daughter of Hollywood Royalty. Father, Tom Harmon, a former Heisman Trophy winner/pilot-war hero/sports announcer; mother, Elsie Lillian actress in a few dozen movies (and from Hartford). Ricky called it a ‘shotgun wedding.’

Kris, of course, became a big part of the show, as did their children. The show was cancelled in 1966. Ricky changed his name to Rick, appeared in a few movies and TV shows, and tried to continue his music career – his real love.

He changed his sound, wrote his own songs, and toured. He was on the road a lot, aside his love of performing music it seems he was also getting away from a marriage that was, unsurprisingly, steadily declining. Money was a huge issue, Kris was a prolific spender, Rick’s money was tied up in the many trusts Ozzie and Harriet had set up years earlier.

About the song. Rick was invited to play at an ‘oldies’ concert at Madison Square Garden in 1971. When he went on he covered the Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Woman, then played some of his new songs. He was booed off the stage. The crowd wanted Ricky Nelson, not Rick Nelson.

He was persuaded to go back on and play some of his hits, when he reluctantly did so he was cheered.

He wrote Garden Party immediately after the show. It includes this line: if memories were all I sang; I’d rather drive a truck.

Not long after Garden Party became a hit, Rick and Kris began a very public divorce. It was in the news nonstop. It took five years to become finalized. Ozzie Nelson died as the divorce began, but Harriet was very much against it. Ricky went on nevertheless, he found found the love of his life, Helen Blair, and stayed with her despite the fact his family ‘strongly disapproved’ of her.

They never married but were always together, on the road and off, until they perished along with Rick’s band in a plane crash on the way to a show on New Year’s Eve 1985. Harriet refused to let Helen be buried next to her son.

It occurred to me that Garden Party was about a lot more than that one concert. It looks like Rick spent his life up to the moment he filed for divorce trying to ‘please everyone’ – especially his parents. It took a lot for him to ‘please himself’ by divorcing not just Kris, but parents’ ideal of the perfect Hollywood marriage.

Rick was 35 years old when he started his divorce – in his case it was a divorce from his wife and controlling parents. He had ‘learned his lesson well’.

At some point in each of our lives we eventually come around to Rick Nelson’s point – Ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself. It just takes a catalyst to get there. Rick Nelson’s was a concert, for most of us it’s something a lot less dramatic. The thing to do, though, is to realize it when you see it and, like Rick, act.

 

Written by Meghan Freed