Eric Hilliard "Ricky" Nelson, later known as Rick Nelson (May 8, 1940 – December 31, 1985), was an American singer, musician and actor. With more than 50 Hot 100 hits, Nelson was second only to Elvis Presley as the most popular
rock and roll artist of the late 1950s.
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 and Harriet from 1944 to 1954 on the radio, and 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, who was the first teen idol to utilize television to promote hit records, began a rock and roll music career in 1957. He recorded his debut single, the Fats Domino song "I'm Walkin'", seeking to impress
a date who was an Elvis Presley fan. After he performed it on TV, it was a hit, reaching #4 on the charts and selling over a million copies. Soon, each episode of the Ozzie & Harriet television show ended with a musical performance
by "Ricky". It was during the sitcom's run that Ozzie Nelson, either to keep his son's fans tuned in or as an affirmation of his reputed behind-the-scenes persona as a controlling personality, kept Ricky from
appearing on other TV shows that could have enhanced his public profile, American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show in particular.
ronically, Rick finally did appear on the Sullivan show in 1967, but his career by that time was in limbo. Rick also appeared on other TV shows (usually in acting roles). In 1973, he had an acting role in an episode of The Streets
of San Francisco, where he played the part of a hippy flute-playing leader of a harem of young prostitutes. In 1979, 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 send-up, where, always trying to go "home", he finds himself among the characters from other 1950s/early '60s-era sitcoms, Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy, and I Love Lucy.
Nelson knew and loved music, and was a skilled performer even before he became a teen idol, largely due to his parents' musical background. In addition to guitar, he played drums and the clarinet. (He showcased his drum skills
in the same episode where he made his singing debut.) Nelson worked with many musicians of repute, including James Burton, Joe Osborn, and Allen "Puddler" Harris, all natives of Louisiana, and Joe Maphis, The Jordanaires,
Scotty Moore and Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. While Elvis may have served as the catalyst for Rick's musical career, his real inspiration was Carl Perkins.
From 1957 to 1962, Nelson had thirty Top-40 hits, more than any other artist at the time except Presley (who had 53) and Pat Boone (38). Many of Nelson's early records were double hits with both the A and B sides 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 #1 position on that chart.
While Nelson preferred rockabilly and uptempo rock songs like "Believe What You Say" (Hot 100 #4), "I Got A Feeling" (Hot 100 #10), "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It" (Hot 100 #12), "Hello Mary
Lou" (Hot 100 #9), "It's Late" (Hot 100 #9), "Stood Up" (Hot 100 #2), "Waitin' In School" (Hot 100 #18), "Be-Bop Baby" (Hot 100 #3), and "Just A Little Too Much" (Hot
100 #9), his smooth, calm voice made him a natural to sing ballads. He had major success with "Travelin' Man" (Hot 100 #1), "A Teenage Romance" (Hot 100 #2), "Poor Little Fool" (Hot 100 #1), "Young
World" (Hot 100 #5), "Lonesome Town" (Hot 100 #7), "Never Be Anyone Else But You" (Hot 100 #6), "Sweeter Than You" (Hot 100 #9), "It's Up To You" (Hot 100 #6), and "Teenage Idol"
(Hot 100 #5), which clearly could have been about Nelson himself.
In addition to his recording career, Nelson appeared in movies, including the Howard Hawks western classic Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin (1959), plus The Wackiest Ship In the Army (1960) and Love and Kisses (1965).
On May 8, 1961 (his 21st birthday), the singer officially changed his recording name from "Ricky Nelson" to "Rick Nelson". However, not too long before his untimely death, Rick realized a dream of his. He met
his idol, Carl Perkins, who, while musing that they were the last of the "rockabilly breed", addressed Nelson as "Ricky".
In 1963, Nelson signed a 20-year contract with Decca Records. After some early successes with the label, most notably 1964's "For You", a #9 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, Nelson's chart career came to a dramatic
halt in the wake of The British Invasion.
In the mid-1960s, Nelson began to move towards country music, becoming a pioneer in the country-rock genre. He was one of the early influences of the so-called "California Sound" (which would include singers like Jackson
Browne and Linda Ronstadt and bands like The Eagles). Yet Nelson himself 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 just his old hits. However, it
has often been stated that the audience was in fact booing the police who were arresting unruly members of the audience while Nelson was performing. Since Nelson did not see the commotion in the audience, he incorrectly concluded
that the booing was directed toward him. "Garden Party" reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and was certified as a gold single. (Coincidentally, "Garden Party"
was a hit at the same time 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".)
Nelson studied Karate earning a brown belt, before going on to learn Jeet Kune Do under Dan Inosanto. Inosanto described Nelson as a "good martial artist for those times".Nelson married Kristin Harmon in April 1963, in
what Life referred to as "The Wedding of the Year". Harmon is the daughter of Football All-American University of Michigan football legend and Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox, and is the older sister
of movie and television star Mark Harmon, perhaps known best for the hit series NCIS.
The couple had one daughter, Tracy (born October 25, 1963), twin sons Gunnar and Matthew (born September 20, 1967) who would also go on to have music careers, and a fourth child, Sam Nelson (born August 29, 1974).
After "Garden Party", Rick Nelson never regained his career's momentum. By the late 1970s, his life was in shambles and he was heavily in debt. After a highly tumultuous marriage (the antithesis of what the public
had seen on Ozzie and Harriet and in Love and Kisses), Kristin filed for divorce and took their four children. He still recorded periodically, but commercial success eluded him. Rick's primary source of income was non-stop touring,
ranging from intimate clubs and bars to the county and state fairs where he attracted large crowds that remembered him from his days as a teen idol.
In 1985, Nelson joined a nostalgia rock tour of England. It was a major success, and it revived some interest in his work. He tried to duplicate that effect in the United States, and he began a tour of the South. Nelson and his band
boarded a plane after a show at a small club in Guntersville, Alabama headed to the KLUV-FM New Year's Eve Sock-Hop concert in Dallas, Texas. The plane crashed northeast of Dallas in De Kalb, Texas killing Nelson and six others.
Nelson was buried in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
The NTSB investigation stated that the crash was probably due to mechanical problems. The pilots attempted to land in a field after smoke filled the cabin. An examination indicated that a fire originated in the right hand side of
the aft cabin area at or near the floor line. The passengers were killed when the aircraft struck obstacles during the forced landing; the pilots were able to escape through the cockpit windows and survived. The ignition and fuel
sources of the fire 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 gasoline 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.
According to a popular rumor, the cause of the cabin fire was a mishap resulting from the freebasing of cocaine by a passenger or passengers.