No startling revelations today, no mysteries unraveled, just a forgotten teen idol who was an unrecognized pioneer, and a lot of links. Ricky Nelson pioneered country rock before anyone else was doing it, and it was his rebellion. We know: child actors have a habit of growing up screwy. There must be a list somewhere… Here’s a story of how it turned out well. Until the end, that is.
Eric Hilliard Nelson’s father was a mid-level bandleader and his mother was the singer in the band. Ozzie Nelson was born and raised in New Jersey and that’s where all four Nelsons lived. There was Ozzie, Harriet, David, born in 1937, and Eric, born in 1941, and known as Ricky. Ozzie, Harriet and David moved to Hollywood to star in a TV series starring Red Skelton while Ricky, shy and introspective, stayed behind with Grandma. When Skelton was drafted in 1944, his producer created a radio sitcom for Ozzie and Harriet. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet debuted on Sunday, October 8, 1944, to favorable reviews, and Ozzie became head writer for the show and based the episodes on the love/hate exploits of his sons. The Nelson boys were first played on the radio by professional child actors until twelve-year-old Dave and eight-year-old Ricky joined the show on February 20, 1949, in an episode called “Invitation to Dinner.” (If you click on that, you’ll see that episode re-created for the TV series.)
The radio show was a success, but television was new and calling, so in early 1952 Ozzie got them into a film called Here Come the Nelsons. The film was a hit, and on October 3, 1952, it was rewritten and became the pilot for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which made its television debut and remained in first run until September, 1966, becoming one of the longest-running sitcoms in television history.
In 1956, rock ‘n’ roll had broken out and infected America’s youth. As the son of a bandleader and a singer, music was Ricky’s heritage and he wanted in. He sang well, and he played the clarinet and drums, but it wasn’t Big Band music that was rock ‘n’ rolling through America, so Ricky picked up a guitar and learned a few chords. Singing in the bathroom at home or the showers at the Los Angeles Tennis Club for the echo, he imitated Carl Perkins and tried to emulate the guitar break in Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes. From there, it didn’t take long. And remember that Carl Perkins thing.
His girlfriend was a big Elvis fan, so he told her he was going to make a record, too. The problem of not having a recording contract was solved by Ozzie, who took him to Verve, a jazz label that was looking for a handsome kid who could be taught to sing. This was going on at labels everywhere as they scrambled to cash in on the rock thing, and that was why someone saw a handsome kid on a door stoop in Philadelphia and trained him to sing. Okay, so at best Fabian Forte warbled, and that last name had to go, but he had the looks, which was what the labels and producers wanted, and they were right: Fabian sold millions of records. In March, 1957, Ricky also had the looks, Verve wanted him, he signed a one-record deal and later that month he recorded Fats Domino’s hit, “I’m Walkin’” and “A Teenager’s Romance,” and they were released three weeks later, in mid-April.
Just before the single was released, he made his television rock ‘n’ roll debut on April 10, 1957 singing and playing the drums, then taking the mic for "I'm Walkin'" in the Ozzie and Harriet episode "Ricky the Drummer." I like that the dance scene in that episode shows the transition from Big Band to Rock, and yeah, that’s how kids dressed back then. At the end of the scene he grabs a girl and does the Lindy, which was the descendant of the Lindy Hop, the dance from the 20’s and 30’s, and yeah, that’s how we danced. Soon after that episode, he made an unpaid appearance with the Four Preps at a high school lunch hour assembly in Los Angeles and was greeted by hordes of screaming teens who’d just seen the television episode. They’d seen that impossibly handsome face with the soft voice, those long lashes and sleepy eyes. Oh yeah, they’d seen him.
"I'm Walkin'" reached #4 on Billboard's Best Sellers in Stores chart, and its flip side, "A Teenager's Romance", hit #2. When the television series went on summer break in 1957, Ricky made his first road trip, playing four state and county fairs with the Four Preps, who’d also had their own hits. By the end of that tour, he was more seasoned and more confident as a performer, and he was itching to go out again. Screaming girls, y’know…
Ozzie Nelson was a college grad and wanted his sons to have something to fall back on when the TV show went away, but by thirteen, Ricky was making over $100,000 a year, by sixteen he had a personal fortune of $500,000, and by eighteen, he was already in the 93% income-tax bracket and saw no reason to attend any more schools. That used to be a lot of money. Ricky's wealth was carefully managed by his parents, who channeled his earnings into trust funds. His parents permitted him a $50 allowance at the age of eighteen, but Ricky was often strapped for cash and one night had to collect and redeem empty pop bottles to get himself and his girlfriend into a movie theater.
Beginning to feel his power after that first tour, he told his father he was unhappy playing with the old session men at Verve who were openly contemptuous about rock ‘n’ roll, so Ozzie got him signed him to a lucrative five-year deal with Imperial Records, which gave him approval over song selection, sleeve artwork, and other production details. He exercised his power immediately and formed his own band, which later incarnations included the soon-to-be-legendary guitarist James Burton, and also included the soon-to-be-a-founding-member of The Eagles, Randy Meisner. Later his band was called the Stone Canyon Band, and if you ask me, they were the first of the country-rock bands like Poco, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Clover, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and of course The Eagles. By then, Ricky was Rick and he’d been on the road, ahead of his time. But that came later.
Ricky's first Imperial single, "Be-Bop Baby,” generated 750,000 advance orders, sold over one million copies, and reached #3 on the charts. His first album, Ricky, was released in October, 1957 and hit #1 before the end of the year. Following these successes, Ricky was given a more prominent role on The Ozzie and Harriet Show and ended every two or three episodes with a musical number. But Ricky always insisted on sounding like Ricky, not those teenage crooners the labels were selling, and he chose his own material. At Imperial, he sold over 60 million records, including 22 gold records. Ricky recorded “Poor Little Fool” for his second album, Ricky Nelson, released in June 1958. On August 4, 1958, "Poor Little Fool" became the #1 single on Billboard's newly instituted Hot 100 singles chart and sold over two million copies.
But rock ‘n’ roll was still new; crooners and oldsters scoffed, and parents were afraid. Nelson said: “Anyone who knocks rock 'n' roll either doesn't understand it, or is prejudiced against it, or is just plain square.”
Now, it’s possible that you’re reading this and you’re thinking: well, all this history is interesting, I guess, but what’s the point? The point is that Ricky—and later Rick— was always a country music fan and steadfastly steered his path outside of commercial schlock-rock and trod the thin, diaphanous surface between rock and country. Listen to his first, “Be-Bop Baby” or “Poor Little Fool” or almost any of his many hits, and you can hear the country influence from back in the day when he went into the bathroom and tried to sound like Carl Perkins.
On May 8, 1961 (his 21st birthday), he officially changed his recording name from "Ricky" to "Rick," but no one forgot the teen idol, and once the Beatles landed, the hits dried up. As they will. His childhood nickname proved hard to shake, especially among the generation who’d grown up with him on "Ozzie and Harriet."
But Ricky-now-Rick was a performer who loved the music he played, and he played where he could through six barren years. In 1971, soon after recording Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me” with the Stone Canyon Band, he got himself booked onto an oldies show at Madison Square Garden, and you might have heard something about what happened. The other players that night included Chuck Berry, Bobby Rydell and Bo Diddley. No longer the cute teen idol from the TV show, he was now a handsome man, his hair was down to his shoulders and he wore velvet bell bottoms, an unexpected fashion choice. John Lennon and Yoko were in the house, and maybe George Harrison,too. Yeah, he played the old stuff, starting with “Hello, Mary Lou,” then he went into the new stuff, starting with “Honky Tonk Women,” which was when the booing started. Some people thought the booing was directed at the police, who were trying to move people along, but Rick took it personally and left the stage.
Nelson watched the rest of the performance on a TV monitor backstage until the promoter convinced him to return to the stage and play his "oldies". It was what they came for. He complied and the audience responded with applause, but he left that gig a shaken man and wrote “Garden Party,” in which he bitched at the shallowness of the audience. He wanted to record an album featuring original material, but the single was released before the album because Nelson had not completed the entire album yet. "Garden Party" reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and was certified as a gold single.
It was a huge hit, and became his last charting song, and I wonder how many people caught the reference in the last line of the song. Someone else thinks it was a reference to Elvis, who used to drive a truck, but I think it was a shout-out to “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.” Guy was telling us how hip he was. And he was. But if it’s just me, then maybe I’m hipper than Rick. Am I? Are you?
Nelson was with MCA at the time, and his comeback was short-lived. When his next release took a dive, Nelson's band resigned and MCA wanted him to have a producer on his next album. He moved to Aspen and put together a new band, calling them Canyon, and began to tour for the Garden Party album. Nelson had been playing nightclubs and bars, but he’d advanced to higher-paying venues because of the success of Garden Party, but that didn’t last. By 1974, MCA was at odds as to what to do with the former teen idol as subsequent albums failed to have an impact. Nelson became an attraction at theme parks like Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland. He also started appearing in minor roles on television shows, but that didn’t help MCA.
Nelson tried to score another hit but did not have any luck with songs like "Rock and Roll Lady." With seven years to go on his contract, MCA dropped him from the label. But Rick Nelson was a performer, and he carried on touring and playing. From his first release onward, he considered himself a musician and a performer. He retained his chops, his passion for the music, and those amazing looks.
Although he hated flying, on December 31st, 1985, on his way to a New Years gig, Rick died with his band when his plane crashed into a wintry field northeast of Dallas, two miles from the runway. Immediately following his death, rumors abounded that the cause of the crash was Rick’s freebasing, but the NTSB investigated the rumor for a year and determined it was a burst fuel line that caused the fire.
Note: Here is a link to the complete NTSB report (PDF Link) - Editor
His music never had the high gloss of the other, managed teen heartthrobs like Bobby Vee, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and Bobby Rydell. Their output always had more production and less emotion. Ricky Nelson always followed his own path and I wonder if anyone remembers him anymore, and what about respect? He was a star when I was a kid and he was a star to me again when he came out with his country rock outfit. His natural voice was always that of a balladeer, but more than all the teen idols who followed a commercial path in order to outsell Elvis, in his heart, Ricky Nelson was… wait for it…Rockabilly! So I’m glad that when, in the early 80s, he finally met his idol, Carl Perkins, who told him that the two of them were “the last of the rockabilly breed.”
I wonder now what he would have done if he’d lived, and I remember him fondly, so I wanted to introduce him to you. Here’s Rick Nelson’s last concert, in December, 1985. The last song of Ricky’s set that night was Buddy Holly’s “Rave On,” and as he left the stage he told the audience, “Rave on for me!” Rave on, indeed, Ricky, rave on.
- During 1958 and 1959, Nelson placed twelve hits on the charts in comparison with Presley's eleven.
- By 1960, the Ricky Nelson International Fan Club had 9,000 chapters around the world.
- Nelson was the first teen idol to utilize television to promote hit records when Ozzie Nelson had the idea to edit footage together to create some of the first music videos.
- From 1957 to 1962, Nelson had thirty Top 40 hits, more than any other artist 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.
- The term “Teenage Idol” was coined about him by Life magazine.
- In 1960, Rick said the most embarrassing moment in his career was when “six girls tried to fling themselves under my car, and shouted to me to run over them. That sort of thing can be very frightening!”
- Nelson worked with many musicians of repute, including James Burton, Joe Maphis, The Jordanaires, Scotty Moore, and Johnny Burnette and Dorsey Burnette.
- Nelson's music was known for being very well recorded with a clear, punchy sound- in the rockabilly mold.
- In 1979, he guest-hosted on Saturday Night Live, spoofing his television sitcom image by appearing in a Twilight Zone sendup in which, always trying to go "home," he finds himself among the characters from other early sitcoms, Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy, and I Love Lucy.
- In 1985, Nelson began a "Comeback tour" with Fats Domino. He put the "y" back on his name and became "Ricky" again. He sang the songs for which he was famous and released a greatest hits album, Ricky Nelson: All My Best. His comeback was cut short when, while on the tour circuit, his plane crashed on New Year's Eve.
- Nelson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1515 Vine Street.
- Along with the recording's other participants, Nelson earned the 1987 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album for "Interviews from the Class of '55 Recording Sessions."
- In 1994, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.
- In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Nelson #91 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
- Bob Dylan wrote about Nelson's influence on him in his 2004 memoir, "Chronicles, Vol. 1."
- On December 27, 2005, EMI Music released an album entitled Ricky Nelson's Greatest Hits which peaked at #56 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
- Nelson's estate owns ancillary rights to the Ozzie and Harriet television series.
- In 2007, Nelson was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.
- The John Frusciante song "Ricky" was inspired by Ricky Nelson.
- Hall of Fame baseball player Rickey Henderson was named Rickey Nelson Henley after Ricky Nelson.
- For the 25th anniversary of Nelson's death, Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer, James Burton, Nelson's original guitarist for nearly ten years, spoke about his friendship and experiences with the singer in an extensive series of interviews.
- Click here to see the legendary James Burton playing with Rick Nelson’s twin sons.
- As a bonus—and just for fun—I’m throwing in Rick’s cousin Sandy Nelson, whose drum-driven singles I liked. Click here for “Teen Beat.” Who’s your pal?
Editor's Note: For some high resolution Rick Nelson music, check out the remastered version of Rick is 21, and the remastered version of More Songs by Ricky.
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.