Eric Hilliard "Ricky" Nelson, later known as Rick Nelson (May 8, 1940 – December 31, 1985), was one of the first American teen idols. On television, Nelson acted out his real-life role as the son of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson in the 1950s, growing up in the nation’s living rooms. From TV stardom he went on to sign a record contract, with his good looks and gentle voice winning him a generation of fans. Along with Elvis Presley and Pat Boone, he was one of America’s earliest teen idols. With chart-topping songs like “Hello Mary Lou” (his signature song) and “Travelin’ Man,” Nelson had an amazing 33 Top 40 hits in a seven-year period.
When Nelson turned 21, he dropped the “y” from his name. As the maturing singer’s appeal with the teen audience diminished, he developed a more country-flavored sound and began touring internationally. Refusing to become a mere nostalgia act, Nelson underwent a creative renaissance at the outset of the 1970s, when he formed the Stone Canyon Band and had one of his biggest hits with “Garden Party.” Until his death in a 1985 plane crash while on tour in Texas, Nelson remained a hard-working musician who performed up to 200 dates a year.
Nelson was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and also to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Born in Teaneck, New Jersey, he was the younger son of Ozzie Nelson, the leader of a big band, and Harriet Hilliard Nelson, the band's singer. Along with brother David Nelson, the family starred in the long-running radio and television series, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet from 1944 to 1954 on the radio; 1952 to 1966 on television. However, David and Ricky Nelson did not join the cast until 1949; for the first five years of the radio show, the sons were played by professional actors.
Nelson began his rock and roll music career in 1957. He recorded his first single, the Fats Domino song "I'm Walkin'," in order to impress a date who was an Elvis Presley fan. Nelson's first song was a hit, reaching number four on the charts. Soon, each episode of the Ozzie & Harriet television show ended with a musical performance by Ricky.
During the sitcom's run Ozzie Nelson kept Ricky from appearing on other TV shows that arguably would have enhanced his public profile — American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show in particular. Rick finally did appear on the Sullivan show in 1967, but it was too late to give his career much of a boost. He also appeared on other TV shows, usually in acting roles. In 1977, he guest-hosted on Saturday Night Live where he proved to be a good sport in spoofing his TV sitcom image by appearing in a Twilight Zone skit. Trying to go "home," Nelson found himself among the characters from other 1950s/early 1960s-era sitcoms such as Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, and Make Room For Daddy.
Despite the promotional aspects of his career, it is clear that Nelson knew and loved music, and was a credible performer before he became a teen idol, largely due to his parents' musical background. Unlike many teen idols of the time, Nelson showed his personal taste in working with strong musicians, including guitarists James Burton and Joe Maphis and singers such as The Jordanaires, and Johnny and Dorsey Burnette.
From 1957 to 1962, Nelson had 30 Top 40 hits, more than any other artist at the time, except Elvis Presley (who had 53) and Pat Boone (who had 38). Many of Nelson's early records were double hits with both the A-side and the B-side hitting the Billboard charts. When Billboard introduced the Hot 100 chart on August 4, 1958, Nelson's single "Poor Little Fool" became the first song ever in the number one position on that chart.
While Nelson preferred rockabilly and uptempo rock songs like "Hello Mary Lou," "It's Late," "Stood Up," and "Be-Bop Baby," his smooth, calm voice made him a natural to sing ballads. He had major success with "Travelin' Man," "Poor Little Fool," "Young World," "Lonesome Town," and "Teenage Idol," the last of which clearly could have been about Nelson himself at the time.
In addition to his recording career, Nelson also appeared in movies, including Rio Bravo (1959) with John Wayne and Dean Martin, The Wackiest Ship In the Army (1960) with Jack Lemmon, and Love and Kisses (1965).
In 1961, Nelson began to be credited on his records as "Rick Nelson" instead of "Ricky Nelson." In April 1963, he married Kristin Harmon in what Life Magazine referred to as "The Wedding of the Year." Kristin Harmon is the daughter of Football All-American University of Michigan football legend and Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox. Her younger brother is movie and television actor Mark Harmon, known best for his role in the hit television series NCIS.
In 1963, Nelson signed a 20-year contract with Decca Records, but he had no further rock and roll hits after 1964's "For You." In the mid-1960s, he began to move towards country music. He did not reach the Top 40 again until 1970, when he recorded Bob Dylan's "She Belongs To Me" with the Stone Canyon Band.
In 1972, Nelson reached the Top 40 one last time with "Garden Party," a song he wrote in disgust after a Madison Square Garden audience booed him when he tried playing new songs instead of his old hits from the 1950s and 1960s. "Garden Party" reached number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, and was certified as a gold single. Coincidentally, "Garden Party" was a hit at the same time that Elvis Presley was having his last Top 10 single, "Burning Love," as was Chuck Berry with "My Ding-a-Ling." Berry is among the musicians alluded to in the lyrics of "Garden Party."
However, Nelson never regained his career's momentum. By the late 1970s, Nelson's life was in shambles. His wife had divorced him and taken their four children. He wasn't making records and when he played live, it was in small, relatively insignificant venues. He also began using drugs, especially marijuana.
Nelson received a boost in 1985 when he joined a nostalgia rock tour of England. The tour was a major success, and it revived some interest in Nelson.
Nelson tried to duplicate the nostalgia tour in the United States, and began a tour of the South. While on that tour, he died in a plane crash in De Kalb, Texas, in 1985, on his way to a New Year's Eve concert in Dallas. Nelson was interred in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles. The last song he sang on stage before his death was Buddy Holly's "Rave On."
Rumors that drug use among the passengers caused the crash frequently resurface, but the NTSB investigation stated that the crash was due to mechanical problems. An examination indicated that a fire originated in the right hand side of the aft cabin area at or near the floor line. The ignition and fuel sources could not be determined, although many believe that the most likely cause was a defective cabin heater. The pilot indicated that the crew tried to turn on the cabin heater repeatedly shortly before the fire occurred, but that it failed to respond. After the fire, the access panel to the heater compartment was found unlatched. The theory is supported by records that showed that DC-3s in general, and this aircraft in particular, had a previous history of problems with the cabin heaters.
Nelson was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and also to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1515 Vine Street.
His twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, also were teen performers, and his daughter, Tracy Nelson, is an actress and cancer survivor. She is best known for her role in the television series the Father Dowling Mysteries, which starred Tom Bosley. Nelson's youngest son, Sam Nelson, is an actor and singer.
In commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of Rick Nelson's passing, PBS aired a one hour documentary entitled "Ricky Nelson Sings," featuring interviews with his children, as well as sideman James Burton and singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson.
Bob Dylan, in his 2004 memoir, "Chronicles, Vol. 1," wrote about Nelson's influence on his music. Also in 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Nelson number 91 on their list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time."
On December 27, 2005, EMI Music released an album titled Ricky Nelson's Greatest Hits, with 25 songs. It peaked at #56 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
All links retrieved July 28, 2019.
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