Ricky Nelson Wasn’t Partying at the Garden Party

Ricky Nelson 1940-1985

Ricky Nelson was riding high in the world of rock and roll, when the Beatles and the other British music invaders hit our shores. He adopted a scruffier look and when he sang at a rock and roll reunion, in Madison Square Garden on October 15, 1971 he found out singing songs from his new album was a huge mistake.

Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Bobby Rydell also appeared on the show.

Nelson’s set started off fine, when he sang Hello Mary Lou and She Belongs To Me, but the crowd turned on him when he sang Country Honk, which was a country version of the Rolling Stones hit Honky Tonk Women.

One of my Army friends from the Bronx was there that night and said it was a really bad situation. There are some that think the crowd was reacting to what police were doing, but Nelson took it personally and didn’t return to the stage for finale at the end.

Nelson definitely wasn’t partying that night, since his fans apparently didn’t want to hear him sing new songs. I am sure Bo Diddley sang his namesake song Bo Diddley and that Bobby Rydell and Chuck Berry sang some of their signature hits. Diddley later recorded another song with his name Hey Bo Diddley. I can’t think of any other songs having the name of the singer in the title.

Ricky Nelson singing Garden Party:


That night did lead Nelson to write and record his last No.1 hit Garden Party in 1972. That song became the fourth No. 1 song for Nelson, as it was preceded by Poor Little Fool in 1998, Travelin’ Man in 1961 and For You in 1963.

Ricky and seven other passengers died in a tragic plane crash on New Year’s Eve in DeKalb, Texas. It was the third problem,involving the plane since Nelson leased the 1944 Douglas DC-3. A gas heater on the plane wasn’t functioning properly, but instead of turning it off one of co-pilots kept turning it back on, when requested to by the pilot.

Ironically, the two pilots survived the crash and found no response from the passenger compartment. This is a paragraph from Wikipedia pertaining to the malfunctioning heater:

When questioned by the NTSB, Pilots Brad Rank and Ken Ferguson had different accounts of key events. According to co-pilot Ferguson, the cabin heater was acting up after the plane took off. Ferguson continued that Rank kept going back to the back of the plane to see if he could get the heater to function correctly and that Rank told Ferguson several times to turn the heater back on. “One of the times, I refused to turn it on,” said Ferguson. He continued, “I was getting more nervous. I didn’t think we should be messing with that heater en-route.” After the plane crashed, Ferguson and Rank climbed out the windows, suffering from extensive burns. They shouted to the passenger cabin, but there was no response. Ferguson and Rank backed away from the plane, fearing explosion. Ferguson stated that Rank told him, “Don’t tell anyone about the heater, don’t tell anyone about the heater.”[106]

Rumors that cocaine was being free-based aboard the flight were refuted by the National Transportation Safety Board.

However, trace amounts of cocaine, marijuana and Darvon were found in the blood of Nelson after his death.

His death prematurely ended his 36 year career in show business, which started with his appearance in Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in 1949 which was on old-time radio.

The words of Garden Party have a lot of significance: Yoko bringing her walrus, has something to do with John Lennon who attended the reunion show.

Mr. Hughes wearing Dylan’s shoes refers to the late George Harrison.

The reference to Johnny B. Goode alludes to Chuck Berry, who was in the reunion show that night.

Ricky Nelson would be 73 if he was still alive today.

– Words and Music by Rick Nelson

I went to a garden party to reminisce with my old friends
A chance to share old memories and play our songs again
When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name
No one recognized me, I didn’t look the same

But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well.
You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself

People came from miles around, everyone was there
Yoko brought her walrus, there was magic in the air
‘n’ over in the corner, much to my surprise
Mr. Hughes hid in Dylan’s shoes wearing his disguise


lott-in-dah-dah-dah, lot-in-dah-dah-dah

Played them all the old songs, thought that’s why they came
No one heard the music, we didn’t look the same
I said hello to “Mary Lou”, she belongs to me
When I sang a song about a honky-tonk, it was time to leave


lot-dah-dah-dah (lot-dah-dah-dah)

Someone opened up a closet door and out stepped Johnny B. Goode
Playing guitar like a-ringin’ a bell and lookin’ like he should
If you gotta play at garden parties, I wish you a lotta luck
But if memories were all I sang, I rather drive a truck


lot-dah-dah-dah (lot-dah-dah-dah)

‘n’ it’s all right now, learned my lesson well
You see, ya can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself

Author: Andrew Godfrey

Retired from newspaper work after 38 years. Had served in the Army in Hawaii and Vietnam in the 60's. Am now retired and living in Sulphur, Louisiana.

4 thoughts on “Ricky Nelson Wasn’t Partying at the Garden Party”

  1. Such a great song and I love the story behind it. They also booed him offstage because of his long hair. They wanted the old Ricky Nelson. Another reference in the song is that John Lennon and Yoko Ono were there.

  2. That is true…he did have long hair at the time. It would be like Percy Sledge appearing at a reunion show and not singing When A Man Loves A Woman, but instead singing some lame song from his new album.

  3. Great song and overlooked great artist. The chorus was pretty daring for Rick Nelson at the time but it hit the mark. This song has always been one of my favorite of his along with Lonesome Town. Great post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: