The Album First Came Out on October 4, 1971
Rising to prominence in the 1950s as a teen idol on his parents’ long-running sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, on which he portrayed himself, actor and musician Rick “Ricky” Nelson began his career as a popular recording artist in 1957 at the age of 17. Consisting entirely of covers, Nelson’s chart-topping debut album Ricky introduced the world to the rockabilly and country pop fixations upon which he would expand throughout the remainder of his 28-year musical career, gradually evolving toward and settling upon a firmer country rock sound with the release of Rudy the Fifth 14 years later.
Released on October 4, 1971, Rudy the Fifth was the 31-year-old Nelson’s second studio outing with The Stone Canyon Band. The group included former Poco member and future Eagles co-founder Randy Meisner, as well as former Buckaroo Tom Brumley, whose respective presences on Rudy the Fifth played an integral role in Nelson’s undeniable influence on the fabled California sound.
Indeed, much of the album follows in step with those of Nelson’s Los Angeles peers, blending a downhome country twang with sunny West Coast pop sensibilities and folky countercultural sympathies, while retaining Nelson’s earnest “boy-next-door” charm. The resultant album stands as, perhaps, Nelson’s finest achievement as a serious recording artist, successfully shedding his former celebrity pop star skin in favor of shaggy hair hanging to his shoulders and an arsenal of infectious, laid-back ’70s pop melodies.
Nelson originals “Sing Me a Song” and “Life” hold their own against the future hits of his companions, lending bushels of introspection to their mellow sways, though only the latter succeeded in charting among the Billboard Hot 100. Elsewhere, his covers of The Rolling Stones’ “Honkey Tonk Woman,” Shirley & Lee’s “Feel So Good (Feel So Fine),” and Nelson’s own “Gypsy Pilot” rock hard with enough late-night saloon electricity to prove that he meant business. As demonstrated on nearly every album, however, Nelson tended to function at his best as a heartfelt balladeer. The faux-gospel “Thank You Lord” and aching Jimmy Webb-esque “Last Time Around” are prime examples of said ability. Signifying further relevance on Nelson’s part, the album’s two irresistible Bob Dylan covers, namely the invigorating country rock interpretation of “Just Like a Woman,” reflect Rudy the Fifth’s extraordinary scope.
Despite the album’s positive critical reception and mature sound, Nelson—who had legally changed his recording name from “Ricky” to “Rick” at 21 and departed the set of Ozzie and Harriet five years later—found the shadow of his squeaky clean, pretty boy image still lingering long across the open plain of his creative vision. He frequently felt dismissed by more skeptical listeners, reference Nelson’s meeting with his idol Carl Perkins in the 1980s, during which the country music icon referred to him as “Ricky” upon declaring the two of them the “last of the rockabilly breed,” a slip of the tongue taken personally by the famously tender Nelson.
It is possible that the successes of his “teen idol” recordings ultimately prevented Nelson from breaking through as a bona fide country rocker on par with those of his Laurel Canyon associates. Many audiences seemed far more eager to hear earlier hits such as “Hello Mary Lou” and “Be Bop Baby,” an ongoing conflict he would address on the following year’s comeback hit “Garden Party.”
In the end, though, Rudy the Fifth remains a compelling, if not unrecognized, staple of the fabled Laurel Canyon music scene, serving as the strongest recording Nelson would release prior to perishing in a plane accident the following decade at age 45. Its cuts are honest, accessible, and emotive, while even the album’s two slightly out of place instrumentals “Song for Kristin” and “Song for Kristin (Additional Strings)” both carry a peculiar nuance somehow necessary to the atmosphere.
Fifty years on, Rudy the Fifth is a key inclusion in Nelson’s later discography and a prime example of California rock at its peak, his vision remaining entirely worthy of the listener’s consideration.