When his girlfriend’s 13-year-old daughter began to fawn over Justin Bieber, Gunnar Nelson tried to put the situation in perspective for her.
"I say, ‘That’s great, that’s wonderful,’ " he said. "But I want you to take that and magnify it by about 20 times and you get an idea of what it was like to be an Elvis Presley, a Ricky Nelson, one of those guys that were so iconic that they could literally not go anyplace without starting a riot wherever they went."
Gunnar, one of the 46-year-old twin sons of Ricky Nelson, said his late father was "arguably the most televised rock star in history," thanks to weekly appearances on "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet," a TV sitcom of which 425 episodes aired from 1952 to ’66. The family show was led by Gunnar’s grandparents, but it allowed his father to emerge as an acting and singing star.
"With Ricky, this was the first guy who could utilize the power of television to market music," Gunnar recalled in a phone interview from his home in Nashville. "Back in the day when Americans tuned to a TV show, no joke, the entire country tuned into that TV show."
It’s thanks to that video that Gunnar and Matthew Nelson bring the legacy of their father to "Ricky Nelson Remembered," which will be performed Friday night at the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center in Bettendorf.
Nelson bristles at the term "tribute show," saying it leads to bad images of Elvis-esque jumpsuits. "Remembered," he said, is a cross between a concert and the former A&E "Biography" series.
"Obviously we’re playing his music, but we’re telling the stories behind his songs and what was going on in his life at the time, and using video while we’re doing it," Gunnar said. "We would be remiss not to use that wealth of video to actually show his life and his times and tell his story that way."
The brothers, who enjoyed their own fame in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the pop-rock act Nelson, were convinced to do two concerts of their father’s music 10 years ago in conjunction with a release of his greatest hits, including "Poor Little Fool," "Travelin’ Man," "Hello Mary Lou" and "Garden Party."
But it was a package tour eight years ago during which Nelson was on the road with Styx and Peter Frampton that convinced them they should sing more of their father’s music. The brothers were cornered by the rock veterans, offering to help with the harmony on "Garden Party" if they would just go out and sing the song.
"There are a lot of people my age who love that music," Frampton told the brothers.
"Peter grew up in England and they didn’t even have the TV show," Gunnar added.
The concert is a re-creation of the set list their father used in his show for years prior to his death in a New Year’s Eve 1985 plane crash.
"We were supposed to be on the plane on that trip. Our dad called us right before we were supposed to come down to Alabama and meet him and fly with him to the New Year’s show in Dallas," Gunnar said.
"I don’t know if it was because the plane had had a little bit of engine trouble a few days earlier or just a premonition, but he called us up literally as our bags were packed and we were on our way to the airport and said, ‘I changed my mind. I want you guys to fly down to Dallas and meet me there for New Year’s (Day).’"
Matthew heard about the fatal crash on the radio while on a date with his girlfriend. Gunnar also found out through the media.
"I walked into my friend’s house for a party and (the news) was on TV. They were ready to turn off the TV, but it was all too late," he said.
More than 28 years later, Gunnar said he’s still irate over what he called the media’s irresponsible methods following the crash, including accusations that drug use by his father caused it.
"All of that was proven to be patently false and completely made up. But in the age of ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ that stuff was Page One for weeks," while the facts were buried, he said. Ricky Nelson’s fatal crash came months after the death of Rock Hudson, the first celebrity with AIDS.
"The press was on this thing when they were tearing down all of their icons and getting a lot of glee in it," Gunnar said. "There was this whole rumor of what caused the crash, speculation on drug freebasing and all that stuff."
Ricky Nelson, later known as Rick, turned his TV acting skills to movies with the film "Rio Bravo," and Gunnar said his father could have stayed safe playing those roles rather than going out on the road.
"The idea of minivans or, back then, more like station wagons, and Motel 6’s and fast food just so he could play his rock ‘n’ roll was a little more appealing to him," Gunnar said.
He and his brother are working on an album of their own music, contemporary country-rock that’s reminiscent of their father’s Stone Canyon Band era.
The twins outlived their father’s age last year, and Gunnar said it caused him to reflect.
"I had this realization that, ‘Man, that was young,’ " he said. "And I realized I had a lot of living to do. But it also kind of turned up the wick where I kind of went, ‘Wow, every day from this point on is a gift.’ I need to get moving and make my mark and my legacy not only in music but in life itself.’ "