When his record sales began to sag in 1959, Ricky Nelson turned away from the rockabilly sound of his early recordings to a more middle-of-the-road style on his fifth album, 1960s More Songs by Ricky. But that didn't help, and in early 1961, the artist returned to a modified rock sound, bringing in new writers like Jerry Fuller and Gene Pitney, and coming up with a streamlined pop/rock approach. The result was a comeback when the single "Travelin' Man"/"Hello Mary Lou" took off, the A-side hitting number one and the B-side the Top Ten, for the singer's eighth gold record. He had already recorded all of Rick Is 21 before that happened, though, and the album fulfills the promise of the single. There are a couple of the compromised covers of oldies that filled More Songs by Ricky -- "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" and "Stars Fell on Alabama" -- no doubt suggested by his father Ozzie, but the rest of the album is guitar rock arrangements of songs written by old hand Dorsey Burnette ("My One Desire") and new recruits Fuller, Pitney, Johnny Rivers, and Dave Burgess. Fuller is the real hero, contributing the excellent rocker "Break My Chain" (complete with a terrific James Burton guitar solo) in addition to "Travelin' Man," but the overall quality of the material is high, and Nelson's band plays it well. The singer himself sounds far more comfortable than he did on his last album, finally having acquired his own sound after years spent copying either Elvis Presley or his father's big band. As its title suggests, Rick Is 21 is Rick -- not Ricky -- Nelson's first mature statement as a recording artist. And 21 is a good age for a teen idol to be making his first comeback.
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann