INTERVIEW: Gunnar Nelson on celebrating legacy of famous father

 "Ricky Nelson Remembered" will be performed March 17 at the State Theatre in Easton.  (Courtesy Photo)

"Ricky Nelson Remembered" will be performed March 17 at the State Theatre in Easton. (Courtesy Photo)

"Ricky Nelson Remembered" is more than just a retrospective of the singer and life on stage and on screen.

It is a family affair that goes beyond a traditional tribute show, says Nelson's son, Gunnar. Gunnar Nelson and his brother, Matthew, tonight bring their show to the State Theatre in Easton.

"We call this a celebration," Gunnar Nelson said during a recent phone interview. "The best way to describe it is an A&E Biography (episode) meets a high-energy rock 'n' roll show."

During "Ricky Nelson Remembered," the Nelsons perform their late father's biggest hits while sharing anecdotes about growing with the star of TV's The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The performance includes video clips and other treats for Ricky Nelson fans. "The most difficult part (of putting together the show) was choosing the songs," said Gunnar Nelson.

In addition to starring in Ozzie and Harriet, which ran from 1952 to 1966, Ricky Nelson appeared in the 1959 John Wayne-Dean Martin Western flick Rio Bravo. Between 1957 and 1973, the elder Nelson landed an astonishing 53 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, including what would become arguably his most popular tune, "Poor Little Fool."

The idea to honor their dad's musical legacy stemmed from what they figured would be a one-off performance 15 years ago for American troops stationed in Japan. "We'll do anything for the military. And we figured if we suck no one will know," Gunnar Nelson joked.

Up until to that point, Gunnar Nelson said, he and his brother had refrained from performing their famous father's music in public. The twin brothers wanted instead to leave their own mark in the industry, which they did, as the band Nelson, with their double-platinum-selling 1990 debut album After the Rain. (The album spawned the single "(Can't Live Without Your) Love" the title track.) "Playing his music made us feel connected to him ," Gunnar Nelson said. "That was really the a-ha moment."

Perception is reality

Gunnar Nelson said the person viewers tuned in to see on a weekly basis and the one they watched on stage was the same person the former and his siblings knew as dad. Ricky Nelson, during breaks from touring, would watch his sons perform as they began cutting their teeth on the club circuit in Southern California.

Growing up in a house where folk was the music of choice influenced their own band, Gunnar Nelson said. Emphasis on singing and understanding the importance of melody were key lessons learned from his father, he added.

"One thing we could always bond on was the music," he recalled. "(Ricky Nelson) was kind of like an enthusiastic kid who loved music. We didn't really feel that generation gap most people feel with their parents."

Gunnar Nelson said he has been working with the Grammy Museum to acknowledge his father's contributions to the music industry with a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award. (Despite being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, Ricky Nelson never won a Grammy.)

Once the Grammy situation is resolved, there are plans to bring Nelson back on the road with a new configuration that would be less focused on their late '80s sound, he said.

"Music has been a means to an end," he said.

"Ricky Nelson Remembered" will be performed 7:30 tonight at the State Theatre, 453 Northampton St., Easton. Tickets cost $40 and $35. Information: statetheatre.org