From 1957 to 1962, pop and rockabilly star Rick Nelson recorded a string of number 1 hits such as Be Bop Baby, Believe What You Say, Poor Little Fool, Lonesome Town, It’s Late, Stood Up, Hello Mary Lou, and Travelin’ Man.
Although these hits were produced before multitracking and digital recording, their sound quality is incredible—powerful and punchy, wide range, with extremely low hiss.
What a sound they got 50 years ago. By studying the recording techniques used back then, we may get some clues about improving our recordings today.
THE PEOPLE OF THE PROJECT
Let’s fill in some background. Rick recorded his first albums at Master Recorders on 535 Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood, California from 1957-1961.
Abe “Bunny” Robyn engineered, and arranger/A&R man Jimmie Haskell produced. Both of their contributions to the sound were huge.
Rick’s label at the time was Imperial Records started by Lew Chudd, who had been recording rockabilly and R&B. The label set up Robyn with his own studio as the only engineer. With Imperial, Robyn had done sessions for Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Leiber/Stoller.
One fateful day, Lew asked Jimmie Haskell to take Ricky Nelson into the studio and make some hit records.
Around that time Ricky was a teenage star in the Ozzie and Harriet TV show. A fan of country music, Rick said that he always tried to emulate the Sun Records sound of artists such as Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Rick had tremendous love for the music. As a singer he had impeccable pitch and timing, and a very wide vocal range.
The classic band who backed up Rick included famed guitarist James Burton, drummer Richie Frost and upright bassist James Kirkland (later replaced by Joe Osborn). Background singers were the Jordanaires, the wonderful Nashville-based gospel quartet who also backed up Elvis Presley. Studio piano players included Gene Garf, Ray Johnson and Leon Russell.
How were those magnificent recordings engineered? That powerful sound can be attributed to:
• All tube mics, mixer and recorders
• Analog tape
• Instruments mixed live to tape (no multitracking)
• Telefunken (Neumann) U 47M mics
• Short signal paths (mic to mixer to recorder)
• Simple mic techniques (one mic over the drums)
• Acoustic bass on many recordings
• First-rate engineering by Bunny Robyn