Hello Mary Lou: Rick Nelson, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Led Zeppelin

Hello there! This week we consider the song Hello Mary Lou. We will consider the original by roots rocker Rick Nelson, and covers of that song by the country-rock group New Riders of the Purple Sage, plus heavy-metal giants Led Zeppelin.

Rick Nelson and Hello Mary Lou:

“Ozzie and Harriet Nelson Family 1952,” ABC TV Network. David Nelson back center and Rick Nelson at right.

Unlike virtually every other early rocker, who worked his way up in the music business starting with small clubs, county fairs and seedy venues, Rick Nelson began at the top. His father Ozzie Nelson was a successful bandleader who started a family comedy show on radio in the 40s that featured his wife Harriet and sons David and Ricky. The show was a big success and in the 50s transferred to television, where it became one of the longer-running shows in TV history.

As a result, the goofy younger brother Ricky was already a household name when he developed an interest in rock and roll in the mid-50s. With his stunning good looks and pleasing voice, Ricky’s singing success seemed like a sure thing. After Ricky’s cover of Fats Domino’s I’m Walkin’ made it into the Billboard Top 10 in 1957, Ozzie began featuring Ricky singing on his TV show, where he quickly became a teen idol. You can readily see why from the publicity photo below, circa 1960.

As Richie Unterberger says,
So far the script was adhering to the Pat Boone teen idol prototype — a whitewash of an R&B hit stealing the thunder from the pop audience, sung by a young, good-looking fella with barely any musical experience to speak of.

The parallels to Pat Boone seemed unmistakable; however in reality the two were markedly different. Unlike the goody-two-shoes Pat, Ricky was much more the teenage rebel. He joined a greaser car club called The Rooks, got into scrapes with the cops, and worked hard to pattern his vocals on idols like Carl Perkins. And as soon as he reached 21, he changed his name from ‘Ricky’ to Rick.

Rick also showed considerable gumption in dealing with his control-freak father Ozzie. Initially the young Rick Nelson was backed by his father’s jazz band, whose musicians openly expressed their contempt for rock music. As a result Rick was determined to form his own band, and he used his inside knowledge of the music business to enlist legitimate rock musicians. His first choice, guitarist James Burton, was a stroke of genius. Burton, who was 18 at the time he joined up with Nelson, turned out to be one of the greatest rock guitarists ever – he is known as the “Master of the Telecaster,” after his favorite Fender Telecaster guitar.

It is probably not too much of a stretch to call the “Rick Nelson sound” on his records the “James Burton sound.” Burton worked with Rick Nelson’s band first as rhythm guitarist and next as lead guitar, but he also was in tremendous demand as a session guitarist, in large part through his exposure on the TV live music program Shindig. In addition to his great solo on Hello Mary Lou, Burton also crafted the influential guitar solo on Dale Hawkins’ Suzie Q, and from 1969 to 1977 he was the leader of Elvis Presley’s band.

Between 1957 and 1963, Rick Nelson had a string of great pop hits. They tended to fall into two general categories: relatively hard-charging rockabilly songs such as Be-Bop Baby and It’s Late; and soft ballads such as Poor Little Fool and Travelin’ Man. Thousands of Rick Nelson fan clubs were formed worldwide, and of course he gained tremendous TV exposure singing on the Ozzie and Harriet Show. During this period Nelson trailed only Elvis and Pat Boone in the number of top-40 records he produced.

Critical acclaim was harder to come by for Rick. His voice was relatively soft and his range was limited, so he didn’t get nearly the same respect as artists such as Little Richard or Marvin Gaye. However, I really loved his music, and his combination of rockabilly and pop introduced rock music to millions of listeners. Rick Nelson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

The song Hello Mary Lou is a great rockabilly tune. The premise could not be simpler: a fellow meets a girl named Mary Lou and it is love at first sight.

I saw your lips, I heard your voice
Believe me I just had no choice
Wild horses couldn’t make me stay away
I thought about a moonlit night
My arms about you good and tight
That’s all I had to see for me to say:

[CHORUS] “Hello Mary Lou, goodbye heart
Sweet Mary Lou I’m so in love with you
I knew Mary Lou we’d never part
So hello Mary Lou, goodbye heart”

The song is a bubbly, bouncy, catchy ditty buoyed by a terrific performance from Nelson’s band. There is liberal use of cowbell, and the guitar and piano carry the song along rapidly. However, the centerpiece of Hello Mary Lou is James Burton’s inspired guitar solo. It was extremely influential – it set the tone for future country-rock classics and was widely imitated by later musicians.

So here is Rick Nelson ‘singing’ Hello Mary Lou. He is in fact just lip-synching the recording of the song; however, there is a nice video of James Burton playing the guitar solo (he’s on the right in the video) starting right at the 1-minute mark.

Like so many other early American rock musicians, Rick Nelson’s career did not survive the British Invasion. He then turned to country-rock and had one more hit, Garden Party in 1972 with his Stone Canyon Band. The song describes a disappointing experience when fans booed his new songs while he was performing at Madison Square Garden.

Although Rick Nelson had a serious fear of flying, he had leased a Douglas DC-3 that had a rather checkered history of malfunctions. On Dec. 31, 1985 Nelson, long-time girlfriend Helen Blair and his band flew from Alabama to a New Year’s eve party in Dallas. The plane crash-landed in DeKalb, Texas. The two pilots managed to escape the burning wreckage, but all seven passengers were killed, including Nelson.

Initially, there were rumors that the plane had caught fire because some of the passengers were free-basing cocaine on the flight. This rumor was based on the fact that Rick Nelson had been having serious addiction issues, particularly with cocaine. However, it is now believed that the most probable cause of the crash was a faulty cabin heater, and that the plane may have been on fire even before it crashed.

New Riders of the Purple Sage and Hello Mary Lou:

The New Riders of the Purple Sage were a psychedelic country-rock band who came out of the Bay Area in the mid-60s. Their name was taken from the title of a Zane Grey novel. They were closely associated with the Grateful Dead, so much so that several Dead members including guitarist Jerry Garcia, bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Mickey Hart played at one time or another with NRPS. In fact, in the beginning the two groups would occasionally hold joint concerts where

an acoustic Grateful Dead set that often included Dawson and Nelson as adjutant members would then segue into New Riders and electric Dead sets, obviating the need to retain external opening acts.

The photo above shows the New Riders of the Purple Sage circa 1970. L to R: Spencer Dryden, John Dawson, David Nelson, Skip Battin, Buddy Cage.

The group was inspired by traditional bluegrass music, the “Bakersfield sound” of country music from Buck Owens and his collaborators, and by the emerging folk-rock genre. Guitarist John “Marmaduke” Dawson introduced his bandmates to new-age gurus Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, so naturally the musicians tuned in and turned on.

The New Riders of the Purple Sage changed members so frequently that you could only keep track of them with a scorecard. However, one of the most memorable lineups was an ensemble around 1969 that included Dawson and David Nelson on guitar, Jerry Garcia on pedal steel guitar, Phil Lesh on bass and Mickey Hart on drums. Garcia, Lesh and Hart dropped out of the New Riders when the Grateful Dead’s touring schedule became too demanding, and they were replaced in 1971 by Buddy Cage on pedal steel, Dave Torbert on bass and Spencer Dryden on drums. This is the lineup on the group’s 1972 cover of Hello Mary Lou that we will see shortly.

The New Riders released their first album in 1971, and it was moderately successful. At that time their commercial success was equal to or possibly greater than that of the Grateful Dead. Alas, the fortunes of New Riders of the Purple Sage spiraled downhill from there. Subsequent albums and singles generally went nowhere, with the exception of a 1973 album that included a cover of the song Panama Red, which became a minor hit and the group’s ‘signature song.’

I really like the New Riders, but the country-rock scene, which overlapped with folk-rock and psychedelic-rock, was extremely crowded during this period. The landscape was littered with groups such as The Grateful Dead; The Eagles; Buffalo Springfield; Crosby, Stills and Nash; the Flying Burrito Brothers; Poco; and Country Joe and the Fish, to name just a few. One result of this congestion was that a few groups would make it big while everyone else was relegated to eking out a living, hoping for the smash hit that would change their fortunes. In the meantime the groups would re-shuffle their lineups, with musicians moving from one ensemble to another.

Hello Mary Lou is a perfect song for a country-rock group. As we mentioned earlier, James Burton’s terrific rockabilly guitar solo on Rick Nelson’s song was tremendously influential, so anyone who seriously considered himself a country-rocker had probably committed Burton’s solo to heart. In their cover the New Riders came up with two psychedelic-country solos. The first is an electric guitar solo from David Nelson, while the second is a terrific pedal-steel lick from Buddy Cage, who had previously worked with Canadian folk singers Ian and Sylvia in their electric band Great Speckled Bird.

So here is a live performance from 1972 of New Riders of the Purple Sage doing their version of Hello Mary Lou. Dave Torbert is the lead singer on this enjoyable funky cover. Although the entire song is a showcase for Buddy Cage’s virtuosity on pedal steel guitar, look for his solo at about 1:45 into the song – a great shout-out to James Burton’s guitar solo.

Sadly, most of the 1971 lineup from New Riders of the Purple Sage have now passed away. Only David Nelson and Buddy Cage still survive from that particular group.

Led Zeppelin and Hello Mary Lou:

In 1968 Jimmy Page’s band The Yardbirds was winding down, and Page envisioned assembling a rock supergroup. After contacting various British rock musicians, he settled on a quartet with himself on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass, John Bonham on drums and vocalist Robert Plant.

Led Zeppelin circa 1969: L to R: John Bonham, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones

The group initially called themselves the New Yardbirds, but a dispute over the name arose with members of the original Yardbirds. Rumor has it that their name Led Zeppelin was inspired by a comment from Who bassist John Entwistle. When told that Page was forming a band that would play heavy-metal covers of traditional blues songs, Entwistle is said to have responded, “Oh, that should take off like a lead balloon.” In any case, Led Zeppelin released their first album in January, 1969, and rapidly became a musical juggernaut.

Led Zeppelin were an incredibly successful combo. They combined tremendous virtuosity with an exceptional musical range. Although they were known as the quintessential heavy-metal band, they also produced some exceptional acoustic music, and some of their songs showed the influence of Celtic folk music.

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, rock gods; Chicago Stadium, Jan. 1975.

Led Zeppelin became one of the most successful groups in rock history for good reason. First off, everyone in the band was a superstar on his instrument, and each member contributed to the creative arrangements of their songs. Jimmy Page, who wrote most of the group’s songs, is a superb guitarist with extraordinary range. He was able to blast your eardrums with heavy-metal power chords, but also produced lovely and creative acoustic riffs. Robert Plant’s vocals ranged from beautiful high, clear notes to ear-splitting shrieks, just perfect for combining traditional blues with hard rock. And John Bonham combined tremendous power and speed on the drums with a unique ability to anticipate the beat in a song. Each of these artists is frequently rated at or near the top all-time performers on his instrument.

In the same way that every pop group following the Beatles had to consider their accomplishments and the music that they produced, all rock groups now have to deal with the musical legacy of Led Zeppelin. The group could fill gigantic arenas with screaming fans. They sold incredible numbers of albums, even in cases when neither their names nor photos appeared on the album cover. Their albums were carefully crafted projects, and Zeppelin intended them to be experienced as a complete entity. Their song Stairway to Heaven is frequently ranked #1 on lists of the greatest rock songs of all time.

Led Zeppelin’s take on Hello Mary Lou is from their triple live album How the West Was Won. You might wonder – can Led Zeppelin’s heavy-metal musicians produce an enjoyable facsimile of a rockabilly tune? Of course the answer is – hell, yes! Remember that before Jimmy Page formed Led Zeppelin, he had been in tremendous demand as a session guitarist; as a result, he had mastered virtually every variety of rock guitar; furthermore, James Burton was one of his idols as a youth. In addition, in recent years Robert Plant has won awards for his duets with roots folksinger Allison Krause. So not surprisingly, Zeppelin nails their version of this country-rock classic.

Page’s guitar work here is a mashup of country music and heavy metal, while Plant’s vocals are impressive as well. And John Bonham goes, well, “Bonzo” on the drums, especially at the end, and the group appears to be thoroughly enjoying their excursion into the rockabilly genre. Here we go!

In addition to their great commercial success, Zeppelin also tops the charts in tales of excess and debauchery among rock groups. One could write a book on the band’s purported destruction of property or sexual excesses. The great movie spoof Spinal Tap chronicles the escapades of a fictional hard-rock band, but many believe that the movie is a thinly veiled satire of activities attributed to Led Zeppelin.

Among the band’s excesses was alcohol and drug usage. In the late 70s, Jimmy Page’s heroin use apparently became sufficiently incapacitating that John Paul Jones took over many of the band’s composing and producing duties. Tragically, in October 1980 John Bonham died from alcohol-related asphyxiation after reportedly consuming 40 shots of vodka. Following his death, the surviving members of the group decided to disband rather than continue on without Bonham.

Since Bonham’s death, the surviving members of the band have united from time to time for a concert or tour. More recently, Page and Plant embarked on an Unledded tour without Jones in 1994. This caused sufficient friction amongst the three that when Led Zeppelin were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, Jones remarked to his former bandmates “Thank you, my friends, for finally remembering my phone number.” Touche!

Source Material:
Wikipedia, Hello Mary Lou
Wikipedia, Ricky Nelson
Wikipedia, New Riders of the Purple Sage
Wikipedia, Led Zeppelin
Wikipedia, James Burton
Wikipedia, Robert Plant
Wikipedia, Jimmy Page

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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2 Responses to Hello Mary Lou: Rick Nelson, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Led Zeppelin

  1. I just LOVE that you’ve given us so much more than a simple cover story — I never heard all the backstory on Ricky Nelson (super huge teen crush) as well as the NRPS scoop, plus the Led Zeppelin dish …. It’s kind of insane to think of all the huge talents we lost to drug addiction and alcohol abuse, but perhaps even more amazing is the rise from the ashes. My friend just went to a Plant & Page concert and was RAVING about how great it was! (but i feel sorry for Jones, for sure!)

    Like

    • Betty — yes, I was really surprised at how important a song “Hello, Mary Lou” was. I had always thought of it as sort of “bubble gum” pop music, but apparently James Burton’s guitar solo was really influential, plus Burton personally defined Ricky Nelson’s “rockabilly sound.” At some time maybe I should write something about drug & alcohol addiction in music. This is not at all unique to rock as it affected jazz, blues & pop music. Addiction is so common and so detrimental to music, particularly musical groups where collaboration & communication are so important. But it may be that the issue is just too big for me to handle.

      Like

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