December 31, 1985 – Ricky Nelson was born Eric Hilliard Nelson on May 8th 1940 in Teaneck, New Jersey. His parents were Ozzie and Harriet, which makes it necessary to look back to the creative roots of the Nelson family for Ricky’s talent and fame that came from more than 50 Hot 100 hits, being second only to Elvis Presley as the most popular rock and roll artist of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Nelson family was the first family in history that produced a REALITY TV show, half a century before the Ozbourne’s and Kardashian’s.
Ricky’s dad, Ozzie Nelson, was a pretty good singer, a very funny man, and a well-known band leader when he first spotted beautiful Harriet Hilliard and hired her as a vocalist for his busy orchestra in the early 1930’s. Harriet was the daughter of the show business parents and had been a professional actress, dancer, and singer since childhood. Ozzie and Harriet began a signature act that included comedic boy-girl banter in between the dance numbers. They married in 1935 and continued as a professional team after a successful transition to radio, launching their own radio show: “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.” By 1940 two younger Nelsons had made a foursome- older brother David and his baby brother Ricky. A musical bent had been evident early, and so was the tendency toward solitary pursuits. Even as a tow-headed little boy of 3 or 4, Ricky could often be found lying under the family’s huge Wurlitzer radio, small bare feet sticking out, listening quietly to classical music. Eventually the boys joined “the act,” begging to play themselves on their parents radio show. Despite Ozzie and Harriet’s initial doubts, the move paid off and the show’s audience peaked to almost 20 million listeners. After 3 years the Nelson family changed format again, testing their visual appeal in a motion picture comedy called “Here comes the Nelsons” in 1947. It’s success led to an offer for a weekly television show, and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” became the first and longest running family situation comedy and part of the American lexicon.
Even though Ricky was a small and insecure child who suffered from severe asthma, he later became the show’s most popular character. His trademark line “I don’t mess around, boy” became a national catch phrase. More and more the show’s plots, written by Ozzie, revolved around Rick’s real life adventures. Story lines would incorporate Rick’s natural athleticism, for example, and Ozzie would have the cameras brought to the tennis courts. Rick ranked fifth in California among tennis player’s 15 years old and younger competed nationally, and at one time had ambitions to go professional. When his parents gave him a car for his sixteenth birthday, it too made its appearance in an episode.
By 1956 a new type of music was taking America by storm – Rock n’ Roll and Elvis Presley was on every teenager’s mind, including Rick Nelson’s. When an admiring Rick dressed up as Elvis on a Halloween show, the episode garnered huge ratings. At sixteen years old, dark haired, blue eyed and handsome, Rick was another heartthrob in the making. One night on a date with a girl who swooned over an Elvis Presley song playing on the radio, Rick retorted that he too was cutting a record (which he had no plans to do) and was met with derisive laughter. He determined to make it happen, secured a recording studio, and did his own cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin.” Ozzie telecast Rick performing the song to his already massive audience and a career in music was launched. “I’m Walkin” flew out of the stores and sold one million copies in a week, completely unheard of at that time. The song went to #2 on the Billboard Chart, and its flip side, “A Teenagers Romance” hit #2 as well.
Through the novel power of television, Rick Nelson became one of the first artists that audiences saw and heard simultaneously. He would perform a song at the end of every show, sometime having nothing to do with the plot. Rock n’ Roll was considered salacious and scandalous in the mainstream 50’s, and weekly the “nice Nelson boy” smuggled it into living rooms and made it acceptable to parents. Consequently American teenagers had far greater access to Rock n’ Roll than they ever would have had, arguably Rick Nelson’s most important contribution to music.
The Nelson family was unprepared for the commotion Rick’s success would cause. The Hollywood post office allotted an entire room to handle the fan mail that poured in from around the world. The family had to erect an electric fence around their home to discourage girls from climbing in the windows, and Rick received his diploma from Hollywood High School through the mail, the principle fearing his presence at graduation would cause a riot. Life magazine ran a cover story on Rick, and coined an original phrase to describe what he had become: a “Teenage Idol.”
Music and respect for music was part of the fabric of the Nelson household. From the beginning, Rick understood the importance of having an excellent band to back him up. Both on record and on stage he invariably associated with brilliant musicians who worked in a variety of different musical genres, from blues to rockabilly. For seven years his backup band included James Kirkland, Joe Osborn, and guitar legend James Burton, who later played lead for Elvis Presley and became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Rick’s records consciously avoided the overly slick production trends that characterized much of the music of the era. He played the music that he loved to listen to. Whether it was written for him by rockabilly greats Johnny and Dorsey Burnett or R&B veteran Baker Night, the music was always excellent. Rick also did covers of obscure rockers, his tastes often clashing with his father’s. The more “rocking” cuts were often the flip side of the softer, croonier tunes favored by Ozzie, who suggested that the ballads better represented Rick’s “respectable” image on the television show. This rocker/ballad coupling would be repeated many times in Rick’s career. Between his first hit in 1957 and 1961 he had 36 Hot One hundred titles, several of them double-sided hits. At the age of 21 Rick had already 9 gold records for the Imperial label, and his single hit that year, “Travelin’ Man,” sold over 2 million copies and went to #1. Its flip side “Hello, Mary Lou” proved to be his biggest hit ever, reaching #1 in 32 countries and selling in excess of 7 million copies world wide. For the television show, Ozzie overlaid Rick’s performance of “Travelin’ Man” with some footage specially shot on location, making it the first conceptual rock video in history.
The handsome teenager with the deep blue eyes and quiet, modest manner was also a personal appearance sensation, shattering attendance records in America and abroad. He broke Sinatra’s attendance record at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City when 43,000 fans showed up, just managing to make the stage door by flying over the crowd in a helicopter. Nelson’s fame brought him numerous film offers, but unlike many other teen idols, he eschewed the typical teen fare for critically acclaimed parts in Howard’s Hawks’ classic “Rio bravo” (1959), which co-starred John Wayne and Dean Martin, and “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” (1960) with Jack Lemmon.
A change of musical climate was around the corner. By 1962, America was well in the grip of “The British Invasion.” A new generation of teenage record fans and buyers were filling the airways and charts with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Homegrown rockers like Eddie Cochran, the Everly Brothers, and Ricky Nelson were suddenly considered passe. Despite a new lucrative 20-year contract with Decca Records, Rick struggled on the charts. Personally, things were changing for him as well. In 1962 Rick became engaged to Kristin Harmon, the beautiful 17 year old daughter of football great Tom Harmon. Rick had first met Kris in the gym of Hollywood High when she asked for his autograph which he signed “To Christin”- much to her chagrin. Kris’ mother, actress Eylse Knox, was socially acquainted with Harriet Nelson, and said to her prophetically “if the two quiet ones ever get together, there might be an explosion.” Many strategically arranged meetings later, Rick and Kris’ wedding in April 1963 was called “The Wedding of the Year” by Life magazine. The couple eventually settled into married life in Los Angeles with a new baby daughter, Tracy, born October 25 of the same year. Both wife and daughter joined Rick on the family television show. Then in 1965, after 14 years and 435 episodes, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” finally came to an end.
Professionally, Rick was searching, at risk of getting stuck on the doldrums. He tried many different creative projects during this period. He co-starred with his wife Kris in a fluffy family movie called “Love and Kisses,” broke attendance records touring the Orient, made his stage debut in a musical comedy, and continued putting out admittedly uninspired cuts for Decca.
Rick’s recording career was soon to undergo a change for the better, on every level. He’d always loved country music; songs like “No Vacancy” and ” Night Train to Memphis” were among the first songs he learned to play. He decided to cut a country album outside of Nashville, to prove it could be done, and done well. To this end James Burton, Glen Cambell, the Jordinaries and other excellent players were assembles, and the result was “Bright Lights and Country Music.” The experience became a professional turning point for Rick, gaining him immediate acceptance in a totally new arena. Rick began recording, freshly inspired, pioneering a style that would soon become known as country rock, the California country sound.
In 1967 twin sons Gunnar and Matthew were born. Rick was hanging out at the L.A. country-rock bastion the Troubadour, and taking his inspiration from friend Bob Dylan, who encouraged him to express himself honestly through his music. Rick began to put together “The Stone Canyon Band,” which at various times would include ex-Poco bassist and future Eagle Randy Meisner, Richie Hayward of Little Feat, John Beland of the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Bakersville legend Tom Brumley on steel guitar. A double live album recorded with the new band at the Troubadour in 1969 “Rick Nelson in Concert,” put to rest the charge that he was just a lucky teen idol with a pretty face and garnered unanimous rave reviews. Rick Nelson had left “Ricky” behind for good. His next, and personally greatest, success rose out of a seeming failure.
In October of 1971, Nelson was reluctantly persuaded to play a Rock n’ Roll revival show at Madison Square Garden, on the same bill as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Bobby Rydell, among others. By this time Rick’s hair had grown shoulder length, he wore bell-bottoms and a purple velvet shirt, and he sang his new material. The audience had come expecting their entertainment to be frozen in time, a 50s malt shop, and Rick wasn’t playing along. Halfway through his set, the crowd began to stomp and boo. There were reports that police were in the back moving people out, and in the political spirit of the early 70’s the crowd was actually booing the police activity. Regardless, Rick thought the booing was meant for him, and deeply shaken, he left the stage. The experience inspired him to put his thoughts down on paper: “I went to a Garden Party, to reminisce with my old friends, a chance to share some memories, and play our songs again. When I got to the Garden Party, they all knew my name, but no one heard the music- I didn’t look the same. But it’s all right now. I learned my lesson well. You see you can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.” “Garden Party” became Rick’s first million-seller in over a decade, hitting at #6 and going gold in 1972. On the cover of the album is a different image of Rick. He stands in starkly formal black and white, defiantly holding out his Les Paul guitar, confidence in his eyes. Rick Nelson was sure of this new direction, and proud of his message. He would from then on consider “you can’t please everyone, so you gotta please yourself” his personal anthem.
Rick continued to produce new material, including a son, Sam, in 1974. But due to his professional comeback, his marriage to Kris was stressed by constant touring, and it began to fall apart. Partly because he so loved to perform and partly due to his expensive and protracted divorce, Nelson found himself on the road an average of 250 night a year through the late 70’s and early 80’s. When he sang ” If memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck,” he meant it, even turning down a long term 1 million dollar offer (arranged by Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker) to play Las Vegas at a point when he was deeply in debt. In September 1984, he was invited to join in the finale of a Sun Records reunion album that featured Nelson’s early idols Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
There, alone in the studio, Carl Perkins quietly turned and said: “Well, Ricky, it looks like the two of us are the only real rockabilly cats left.” The resulting album “Interviews from the class of 55 Recording Sessions” won a Grammy in 1986 for Best Spoken Word Recording. It was Rick’s only Grammy, and vastly ironic to those who knew him well the quiet man who would rather sing than talk. In the mid 80’s, Rick had bought the old Errol Fylnn estate in the Hollywood Hills, a house much coveted by his father Ozzie many years earlier. He lived there with his new girlfriend Helen Blair and his college bound daughter Tracy. He adored his youngest son Sam, who was at the time being raised across town by Kris’ parents. Twin sons Gunnar and Matthew, young rockers playing L.A. night clubs, lived with their mother Kris and often begged professional advice from Rick, who was proud of their musicality. He would tell them simply to “just believe in what you’re doing, and keep doing it.”
By 1985, Rick had assembled a new, vibrant, young band, including Memphis’ Bobby Neal on lead guitar and L.A. rockabilly hotshots Pat Woodward and Ricky Intveld. Nelson had signed a new deal with Curb/MCA., and the group toured extensively, attacking their material with energy and excitement. Travel was constant and particularly stressful for Rick. For all of his life, Rick had maintained an avid fear of flying, sometimes referring to premonitions and a conviction that he could see himself “as an old man.” He insisted on 2 rules of air travel: he would always fly commercially and never in anything with a propeller. He broke both of his own rules when he decided to purchase a vintage DC-3 that had been previously owned by Jerry Lee Lewis, surprising and confusing those who knew him well. The plane was dubbed “the flying bus,” because of its sluggishness and tendency to malfunction on the runway. A continuing irritation to the passengers was the temperamental gas heater on board, which would sometimes be adjusted mid-flight by the pilot when the cabin got too cold for the exhausted band.
On December 31, 1985, en route from Alabama to a New Year’s Eve show in Dallas, Nelson’s DC-3 crash-landed in a field near DeKalb, Texas. The burning plane trapped its passengers inside, killing all aboard, except the pilot and co-pilot, who escaped through the cockpit window. Early press reports erroneously suggested that drug usage aboard the plane might have played a role in the fire that killed Rick, his band, and Helen Blair. In fact, both the F.A.A. and the 1987 National Transportation and Safety Board report determined conclusively that the fire had begun in a malfunctioning gas heater.
Eric Hilliard (Rick) Nelson was buried in Los Angeles’ Forest Lawn Cemetery. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. His friend Bob Dylan paid tribute to him while on tour, with a moment of silence and a version of “Lonesome Town” at each concert.
Rick Nelson was a household name and an American teen idol before he ever cut a record. In nearly every regard he would seem the antithesis of the early rockers who made the music he first loved and recorded, rockabilly, and far removed form the late 60’s environment that nurtured country rock, of which he was the vanguard. Artists as diverse as Paul McCartney and John Forgarty, and even some of his own heroes, including Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, admired and respected him. A seasoned professional by the age of 6, Rick Nelson carved out a place for himself on radio, television, film and the music charts. In fact his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame represents achievements in music, television, and radio. He sold in excess of 50 million albums worldwide. He had 18 top 10 singles and over Billboard charted records. He is ranked the 4th singles seller of all time.
Rick Nelson the man remains something of an enigma, even to those who knew him best. He was a very private person, sometimes solitary. He was quiet, gentle and modest. He could startle with his wicked sense of humor and constant practical joking, exemplified by one of the family’s favorite stories. Apparently newlywed Kris ceremoniously served Rick her first brave attempt at pork chops. The phone rang in the other room, and Kris went to get it. When she returned, Rick was gone- and the pork chops were nailed to the wall. He loved to laugh. He believed there was power in subtlety. But most of all he believed in being true to oneself. He lived honestly, gracefully, and with innate integrity.
In the early 1970’s, Rick wrote a song called “Gypsy Pilot.” This is the final verse:
“When they claim my body, they won’t have much to say. Except that he lived a good life, he lived every day. And you know he saw the sunshine, and you know he felt the rain. He loved everybody, And he hopes you do the same.”
Now 15 years into the 21st century we can say with certainty that Hello Mary Lou was the ultimate theme song of a generation and hit n0. 1 on Hit parades across the globe.
Ricky Nelson was inducted into 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.
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