This is actually a hallmark moment for our discussion and one we almost began at, though not because of the artist who had our next number one, Ricky Nelson.
It was at this time that the Top 100 ceased to exist and was replaced by the countdown that exists today, The Billboard Hot 100, which for all intents and purposes is the most important singles chart in music history. There are not too many musical metrics from 1958 that are still relevant today, but not only is this one of them, it remains just as recognizable.
Still, I just couldn’t bring myself to start this anthology at this point as though there were a few songs that went number one from the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance until this point that have no place in the Rock and Roll canon, there were enough that did, and what is three more years? Still, if I would have started here, and with all due respect the Four Aces who kicked off this journey, Ricky Nelson would have been a much bigger name, and more iconic in the rock journey to have begun with.
Now if anyone was paying attention to Rock and Roll history in 1958, and likely not very many people at the time were, you wouldn’t have pegged Ricky Nelson as someone who was going to carve a sizable place in any of the new pop culture mediums. Like I said, television was firmly established and though there was still a sizable amount of the American population who thought that Rock music would go away, there were a lot of reasons to think that Nelson would not be included into this musical revolution.
Nelson literally grew up in the spotlight. He was the son of 1930’s bandleader, Ozzie Nelson, whose wife; Harriett was a singer in the band. While they were good enough to get record deals, they were not exactly innovative and didn’t make any music that is remembered today. Still, they knew how to be successful, and long before we had the Osmonds and the Jacksons, we had the Nelsons.
Ozzie and Harriett had become regulars on the Red Skelton Radio Show, and what happens when you are successful guests? You get your own show of course, and in 1944 they had their own radio show, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett”, which showed their family’s exploits, the family of course being Ozzie, Harriett and their two children, David and of course Ricky. Professional actors played the kids until 1949, when the Nelson progeny would get the chance to play themselves on the radio.
Scripted radio programs naturally gave way to scripted television programs, and the Nelson clan followed suit, though before they debuted with ABC they appeared with Rock Hudson in a feature film, “Here Comes the Nelsons”, which acted as a pilot for the show. The Nelsons were perfect for 1950’s television, as they were squeaky clean and were accessible, as the actual goings on of the family would be woven into the storylines. Essentially, they were genuine, because they played off what they knew.
However, as we would see with many of the successful television programs that would come out, there would be a breakout star emerging from “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett”.
Breakout characters obviously can extend the life of a show, raise its profile and generate some serious revenue for the network, but when the character gets too popular the focus naturally shifts to that person, and sometimes to the critical detriment of the show.
Just for kicks, here are my five favorite breakout characters, and yes I realize this is another random tangent.
J.J. Evans (Jimmie Walker) from Good Times. With a catch phrase of “Dyn-o-mite”, Walker became a huge star, and the Norman Lear sit-com set about the trials and tribulations in the Chicago inner city and barely making it from paycheck to paycheck. John Amos and Esther Rolle who were played the parents on the show had so much issue with the show’s change in direction that they both left. At the time, watching the show in reruns, my entire focus was on J.J., and yes I was one of millions who hollered in delight when he crowed “Dyn-o-mite”, even when it had no relevance to the plot. Binge watching it on Netflix last year, it was evident that the core value of the show was compromised, but there I was still waiting for a catch phrase, and I am wagering that I am in the vast majority who thinks of that elongated and incorrectly spelled word first when recalling that sit-com. Unfortunately, when thinking of Walker himself, that is all that (and everybody else too) remember too, and the last time I remember seeing him on TV was on a bad Canadian game show…nearly thirty years ago.
Steve Urkel (Jaleel White) from Family Matters. This has to be one of the more bizarre breakout characters as everyone could agree that he was the reason to watch the show but was also in agreement that he was undeniably annoying…yet people watched (including myself) and every episode was one unrealistic adventure of Urkel after another. For a show called “Family Matters”, it might as well have been the “Steve Urkel Show”. As for the rest of the show, I remember (and am amazed that I have just used Arsenio Hall twice in this project this early) Arsenio Hall asking guest Kellie Shanygne Williams, who played Laura Winslow, the object of Urkel’s affection’s answer when asked about the hijacking of the show by White’s character. Paraphrasing it was “Thank God” as the checks kept coming and the show stayed on the air, a refreshing and honest answer in land that exists on being fake.
I have to hand it White, who once the cash cow of Urkel ended, actually kept on working and was legitimately one of those real life Clark Kent’s because once he took the eyeglasses off really looked like someone else. More power to him, and though I don’t know for sure, I will bet my money that he kept his money.
Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox) from Family Ties. This was one of my favorite shows as a tween/early teen, and Alex Keaton was the reason why. I didn’t give a crap about his parents struggling being former hippies adjusting to the yuppie generation, and never really bought that Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter-Birney were a loving couple. Even Mallory’s dimwitted boyfriend, Nick was more interesting! Either way, Fox would parlay the role into a movie career, and though the show’s focus changed, but unlike Good Times, it enhanced the shows quality, as the kids (except for Tina Yothers) were far more interesting.
Randy Marsh from South Park. This doesn’t affect any actor as realistically it is the same two voice actors who run the show on the long running animated series, but though Eric Cartman was positioned as the most interesting character, it was the bungling efforts of Stan’s dad that intrigued me more. It still does!
“The Fonz” (Henry Winkler) from Happy Days. Oh boy. Yes, I told all of you that I was not done with Happy Days, and this hands down the ultimate example of a breakout character, and one I peripherally have a connection to.
Before I get to that, the “Fonz” character WAS the television character of the 1970’s and yes it was my favorite. While in the first season, Arthur Fonzarelli was a secondary character, by the third season he broke out so much that the network wanted to retool the show’s name to “Fonzie and the Happy Days” to which the very humble Henry Winkler objected to. Either way, the ultimate breakout character was the star, the focus and the “everything” of the sitcom. Right or wrong, Fonz was the straw that stirred the drink of the show and everything revolved around him, even if it took the program to cheesy places that don’t even remotely seem relevant today.
Either way, the Fonzarelli phenomenon took over, and while it was to the detriment of the of the show’s quality, it wasn’t to the ratings, which like it or not is the most important metric of them all. Back then, that was what I wanted too, and the six year old me wore my Fonzie t-shirt with pride.
As for my connection with the Fonz, those of you watched Happy Days remember that he never lost a fight, but he did in the movies, when he played an aspiring professional wrestler and while he would win the majority of his matches, he got his ass handed to him in his first match by a competitor named “Indian Joe” who was played by Chavo Guerrero Sr., whose autobiography I ghost wrote. I told him that since he beat up the man who was the coolest man in the 1970’s that made him the actual top dog of the decade.
Wait; did I just do a tangent within a tangent? Let’s move on.
Now Ricky Nelson was definitely the breakout star of the show, but as this was a show about the family, and since it really did utilize their actual “adventures”, when Ricky did pursue music it felt far more natural and not a ratings decision. Now make no mistake, Ricky did become the star, and as the son of musicians, he did take to the vocation naturally. Considering he already had the looks, and now throw in that he could sing too, this was not just a recipe for television success, but was the elixir to become one of the biggest teen idols of all time.
It has been written that Nelson’s singing ambitions came from trying to impress a girl, though whatever the reason, if Ricky was going to sing, it might as well be on camera and he would cover Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’”, in an episode and the single would be released and go to number four.
How could Nelson miss in terms of success? He was already a television darling and his music was prominently featured on one of the most watched programs of the day. Basically, there was nobody in the 1950’s who even came close to the built in marketing machine that Ricky Nelson had going for him.
Still, as we all know, successful songs aren’t necessarily good songs, and Nelson’s rendition of Fats’ classic paled from the original. I can’t help but think that if I was a teen or twenty something at this time, and musically aware I would have hated Nelson. The girls I would have chased would have been playing his music constantly, the songs (the early ones anyway) were whitewashed versions of the original, and despite his lineage there was no reason to think at the time that he had any talent at all, especially considering that up until he covered Domino the show never indicated that he played music at all. Surely, that was a perception that some people must have had then right? I have to wonder though if most of those people who originally scoffed at Ricky Nelson’s music career did a 180 as after a couple of years something should have became very clear; Ricky Nelson was pretty good.
I think what made Nelson really work so well is that he figured out early in his music career what worked for him. This is not to say that he was formulaic, rather he came up with a playbook that was unique at the time. Nelson was not blessed with the widest vocal range, and often when he sang it was in the vein of a lullaby, but he turned that into gold with slower tempo rockabilly songs and many have said that he was one of the true country rock pioneers, not a bad label for someone who was expected to be nothing more than a talentless teen idol.
The songwriter behind “Poor Little Fool” was Sharon Sheeley, who historically would be one of the few successful female songwriters on the 1950’s. She wrote the song at age fifteen and pitched it hard to Nelson at age seventeen, allegedly faking her car breaking down in front of his house so that she could pitch it. Wait, a woman using manipulation to get what she wants?
Sheeley would pen other hits, namely “Somethin’ Else” for her then fiancé, Eddie Cochrane and “Dum Dum” for Brenda Lee, but this would he her biggest hit and think about what you accomplished by the age of twenty, as not only would Sheeley already have a number one, but had hobnobbed and cavorted with Rock and Roll royalty at the digit below Black Jack. Incidentally, it was suggested that Sheeley hated Nelson’s rendition of the song as he slowed the tempo to fit his vocal stylings, and it was not in the straight up Rock and Roll style that she intended. That might be why she hooked up (using that term figuratively and literally) with Cochrane as he as more of a “rock and roll” performer.
Tragically for Sheeley, she was in the taxi in England that killed Eddie Cochrane in 1960 and injured Gene Vincent. She escaped with a broken pelvis, though she would remain part of the music scene in the 1960’s, marrying Los Angeles Disc Jockey, Jimmy O’Neill, and in 1964, the duo would create the music show, “Shindig!”, which would last until ’66. After that she would vanish from the industry, but as for Ricky Nelson, we have more of his to come…and sadly much later from his kids.
Other Notable Songs that charted but did not go to number one in this time period: August 4, 1958 – August 17, 1958
8/4/58: Splish Splash by Bobby Darin went to #3 but topped the R&B Chart and went to #4 on the Country & Western Chart.
8/4/58: When by The Kalin Twins went to #5 however went to #1 on the R&B Chart and to #13 on the Country & Western Chart.
8/4/58: Willie and the Hand Jive by Johnny Otis climbed to #9 and went to #3 on the R&B Chart.
8/4/58: Think it Over by Buddy Holly climbed to #27.
 David Nelson is basically the Cooper Manning of 1950’s music.
 Has anyone just done a book on breakout television characters? If not, I am calling “dibs”.
 Rather than “Dyn-o-mite” he kept saying “It’s a black thing.” I don’t think that caught on for him.
 One of the few memories I have of my first father in law was him screaming about how that “Fucking Urkel” ruins television. This was in between racist and homophobic rants. My second and current father in law doesn’t speak English. It actually is a major upgrade. So is the wife!
 Many years later, Meredith Baxter-Birney came out as a lesbian. I guess I was on to something.
 For a hot second, Scott Valentine was poised to be a breakout star…and then he made a movie, and then he settled into being Mallory’s boyfriend. That was still better than being Skippy.
 I remember that it was yellow, with his picture (with white t-shirt and leather jacket of course) giving thumbs up and it said “Ayyyyyyyyyy”, though I might be off on the amount of the letter y.
 Here is a great example from this decade, Justin Bieber’s “Baby”. Seriously, if you are a fan of that song, I really don’t know why you are reading this anthology.
 Women manipulate, where as men just out and out lie. Allegedly when former NBA superstar (and always head case) Dennis Rodman was caught in bed with another woman by his then girlfriend, Carmen Electra, Rodman apparently said that she must have fallen off the ceiling. Actually, didn’t Electra seem like the type of woman who would have actually looked up to see if there really was a hole up there?
 10 points if you remember Nelson, the wussies of Hair Metal.