Ricky Nelson

Eric Hilliard "Ricky" Nelson, later known as Rick Nelson (May 8, 1940 ??? December 31, 1985), was an American singer, musician and actor. He placed 53 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1957 and 1973, including 19 top-ten hits. Nelson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

Early years

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, 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 Walking", seeking to impress a date who was an Elvis Presley fan. In the Ozzie and Harriet episode, "Ricky the Drummer", Nelson got the chance to perform the song. The song went on to reached #4 on the charts while the flip-side, "A Teenager's Romance," went to #2. Soon, most episodes of the Ozzie & Harriet television show ended with a musical performance by "Ricky". Ozzie Nelson even had the idea to edit footage together to create some of the first music videos. This creative editing can be seen in videos Ozzie produced for "Travelin' Man." Ozzie was able to get Elvis Presley's backup singers to sing on Rick's albums, and Rick had an impressive guitar player named James Burton.

During the sitcom's run 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 his son from appearing on other TV shows that could have enhanced his public profile, American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show in particular. Nelson finally did appear on the Sullivan show in 1967, but his career by that time was in limbo. He 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 spoofed 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), Nelson officially changed his recording name from "Ricky Nelson" to "Rick Nelson". However, not too long before his untimely death, Nelson 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.

Garden Party

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.

The single was released before the album, due to the fact that Nelson hadn't completed the entire Garden Party album yet. He wanted to record an album featuring original material, and therefore put the album on hold until it was finished. Nelson was with MCA at the time, and his comeback was short lived. "Garden Party" reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and was certified as a gold single. The second single release from the album was, "Palace Guard" which reached number 65 in the charts.

Nelson's band soon resigned, and MCA wanted Nelson to have a producer on his next album. His band moved to Aspen and changed their name to, "Canyon." Nelson soon put together a new Stone Canyon band, and began to tour behind the Garden Party album. Nelson still played the nightclubs and bars, but soon graduated to higher paying venues due to the success of, "Garden Party." In 1974 MCA was at odds as to what to do with the former teen idol. Albums like, Windfall failed to have an impact. Nelson became another attraction at theme parks like, Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland. He also started appearing in odd roles on TV shows.

Nelson tried to score another hit, but wasn't having any luck with songs like, "Rock and Roll Lady." With seven years to go on his contract, MCA dropped him from the label.

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".

Marriage, family, and troubles

Nelson married Kristin Harmon in April 1963, in what Life magazine 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), and a fourth child, Sam (born August 29, 1974). His daughter, Tracy, is an actress and a cancer survivor. She may be best known for her role in the television series Father Dowling Mysteries. Nelson's twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew, also became teen idols, performing as the band Nelson and charting several hits in the 1990s. Sam Nelson founded and performed with the group H Is Orange in the early 2000s .

After "Garden Party", 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.

Despite these findings, rumors persisted that the fire was due to the band freebasing cocaine.


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.

In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Ricky Nelson's passing, PBS aired a one hour documentary entitled Ricky Nelson Sings featuring interviews with his children, as well as James Burton and Kris Kristofferson. The only time Kristofferson played with Nelson was in Elroy, Wisconsin at a "Party in the Park" show on July 3, 1985. That performance has since been released on DVD.

The American rock n roll band The Cramps dedicated their 1986 album A Date With Elvis to the memory of Ricky Nelson, as written on the album's back cover before the credits.

The song "Ricky" (originally titled "Ricky Nelson"), track 4 on John Frusciante's 2004 album Shadows Collide with People, is a tribute to Nelson, and is sung in a similar style.

Bob Dylan, in his 2004 memoir, "Chronicles, Vol. 1", wrote about Nelson's influence on his music. Also in 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Nelson #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.

In Stephen King's short-story collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Nelson appears in "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" as an evil version of himself, who torments an unsuspecting couple trapped in a town inhabited by late rock 'n' roll legends. Nelson was portrayed by William McNamara in the 2006 television mini-series adaptation, Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King.

Nelson's estate is run as The Rick Nelson Company, LLC, and owns ancillary rights to the classic Ozzie and Harriet television series. As of 2007, after years of public domain video releases on VHS and DVD, an official edition of the show has been released via Shout! Factory.


(Highest chart success on the Billboard charts.)

Ricky (1957) (1)
Ricky Nelson (1958) (7)
Ricky Sings Again (1959) (14)
Songs by Ricky (1959) (22)
More Songs by Ricky (1960) (18)
Rick Is 21 (1961) (8)
Album Seven by Rick (1962) (27)
Best Sellers By Rick Nelson (1963) (112)
It's Up to You (1963) (128)
For Your Sweet Love (1963) (20)
Rick Nelson Sings "For You" (1964) (14)
A Long Vacation (1963)
The Very Thought of You (1964)
Best Always (1965)
Spotlight on Rick (1965)
Bright Lights & Country Music (1966)
Love and Kisses (1966)
Country Fever (1967)
I Need You (1968)
Perspective (1968)
Another Side of Rick (1969)
In Concert at the Troubadour, 1969 (1970)
Rick Nelson in Concert (1970) (54)
Rick Sings Nelson (1970) (196)
Rudy the Fifth (1971)
Garden Party (1972) (32)
Windfall (1974) (190)
Intakes (1977)
Playing to Win (1981) (153)
Four You (1981)
All My Best (1985)

Singles discography

Nationally charted hits shown in bold.

Label + Cat. No.
Chart positions
US Hot 100
A Teenager's Romance
Verve 10047
I'm Walkin'
Verve 10047
You're My One and Only Love
Honey Rock
Verve 10070
Have I Told You Lately that I Love You
Imperial 5463
Be Bop Baby
Imperial 5463
Stood Up
Imperial 5483
Waitin' in School
Imperial 5483
My Bucket's Got a Hole in It
Imperial 5503
Believe What You Say
Imperial 5503
Poor Little Fool
Don't Leave Me This Way
Imperial 5528
London 8732 (UK only release)
Lonesome Town
Imperial 5545
I Got A Feeling
Imperial 5545
It's Late
Imperial 5565
Never Be Anyone Else But You
Imperial 5565
Just a Little Too Much
Imperial 5595
Sweeter Than You
Imperial 5595
I Wanna Be Loved
Imperial 5614
Mighty Good
Imperial 5614
Young Emotions
Imperial 5663
Right by My Side
Imperial 5663
I'm Not Afraid
Imperial 5685
Yes Sir, That's My Baby
Imperial 5685
You Are the Only One
Imperial 5707
Milk Cow Blues
Imperial 5707
Travelin' Man
Imperial 5741
Hello Mary Lou
Imperial 5741
A Wonder Like You
Imperial 5770
Imperial 5770
Young World
Imperial 5805
Imperial 5805
Teen Age Idol
Imperial 5864
I've Got My Eyes on You (And I Like What I See)
Imperial 5864
It's Up to You
Imperial 5901
I Need You
Imperial 5901
I'm In Love Again
Imperial 5910
That's All
Imperial 5910
You Don't Love Me Anymore (And I Can Tell)
Decca 31475
I Got a Woman
Decca 31475
If You Can't Rock Me
Imperial 5935
Old Enough to Love
Imperial 5935
A Long Vacation
Mad Mad World
Imperial 5958
Gypsy Woman
Decca 31495
String Along
Decca 31495
There's Not A Minute
Time After Time
Imperial 5985
Fools Rush In
Decca 31533
Down Home
Decca 31533
Today's Teardrops
Thank You Darlin'
Imperial 66004
For You
That's All She Wrote
Decca 31574
One Minute to One
Imperial 66017
The Very Thought of You
I Wonder (If Your Love Will Belong to Me)
Decca 31612
Lucky Star
Everybody But Me
Imperial 66039
There's Nothing I Can Say
Decca 31656
Lonely Corner
A Happy Guy
Don't Breathe a Word
Decca 31703
Mean Old World
When the Chips Are Down
Decca 31756
Come Out Dancing
Yesterday's Love
Decca 31800
Say You Love Me
Love and Kisses
Decca 31845
Fire Breathin' Dragon
Your Kind of Lovin'
Decca 31900
You Just Can't Quit
Louisiana Man
Decca 31956
Things You Gave Me
Decca 32026
They Don't Give Medals (To Yesterday's Heroes)
Take a Broken Heart
Decca 32055
Take a City Bride
I'm Called Lonely
Decca 32120
Suzanne on a Sunday Morning
Decca 32176
Dream Weaver
Baby Close Its Eyes
Decca 32222
Don't Blame It on Your Wife
Promenade in Green
Decca 32284
Don't Make Promises
Barefoot Boy
Decca 32298
She Belongs to Me
Decca 32558
Easy to Be Free
Come On In
Decca 32635
I Shall Be Released
If You Gotta Go, Go Now
Decca 32676
Look at Mary
We've Got Such a Long Way to Go
Decca 32711
How Long
Down Along the Bayou Country
Decca 32739
Decca 32779
Thank You Lord
Sing Me a Song
Decca 32860
Gypsy Pilot
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Decca 32906
Garden Party
So Long Mama
Decca 32980
Palace Guard
A Flower Opens Gently By
MCA 40001
Evil Woman Child
MCA 40130
MCA 40187
One Night Stand
MCA 40214
Try (Try to Fall in Love)
Louisiana Belle
MCA 40392
Rock and Roll Lady
Fade Away
(MCA 40458)
You Can't Dance
It's Another Day
Epic 50458
Gimme a Little Sign
Something You Can't Buy
Epic 50501
Dream Lover
That Ain't the Way Love's Supposed to Be
Epic 50674
It Hasn't Happened Yet
Call It What You Want
(Capitol 4974)
Believe What You Say
The Loser Babe Is You
(Capitol 4988)
Give 'em My Number
No Fair Falling in Love
(Capitol 5178)
You Know What I Mean
Don't Leave Me This Way
(MCA 52781)
Dream Lover (re-issue)
Rave On
Epic 06066
Hello Mary Lou (UK only re-issue)
Liberty EMCT 2


Philip Bashe: Teenage Idol, Travelin' Man: The Complete Biography of Rick Nelson. New York: Hyperion 1992. ISBN 1-56282-969-6

See also

Best selling music artists

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Original Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ricky Nelson