Eric Hilliard Nelson (1940-1985), known as "Rick"or "Ricky," was a popular singer, actor, and song-writer in the late 1950s and early 1960s. With 40 records reaching the charts from 1957 to 1963, Nelson became the nation's first teenage idol created by regular appearances on television.
Music and acting were an important part of the family into which Nelson was born on May 8, 1940. His paternal grandfather was an amateur singer and dancer and his paternal grandmother played rag-time piano. On the other side of the family, both his maternal grandparents were itinerant actors. Nelson's parents were also involved in the entertainment industry. His father, Oswald or "Ozzie" Nelson, was a well-known bandleader and his mother, Harriet (Hilliard) Nelson was an actress and singer. Although his mother temporarily gave up her career to care for Nelson and his older brother David, both Ozzie and Harriet could not deny their desire to perform. Consequently, after living briefly in Teaneck, New Jersey, the Nelsons moved to California to pursue their careers in entertainment. Initially the young Nelson remained in New Jersey and was cared for by his grandmother, Ethel Nelson. He joined his family in California in 1942.
Arriving in Hollywood, Ozzie and Harriet secured a contract with NBC to appear on Red Skelton's The Raleigh Cigarette Show. Proving themselves a popular act, NBC offered them their own radio show in 1944 after Skelton was drafted into military service, which brought The Raleigh Cigarette Show to an end. From its inception, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was based on the wholesome, good-natured humor that developed out of life with the Nelsons. At first child actors played the parts of David and Ricky, but by 1949, the brothers took their places in front of the microphones and became a part of the family radio show. Nelson, a handsome boy with blonde hair and blue eyes, was not as extroverted as his brother David, but played the part of the kid brother well, and the family radio show grew in popularity.
In the early 1950s television came on the scene as the new media outlet for entertainment. Ozzie tested the waters with the feature-length comedy film Here Come the Nelsons, in which Ricky is kidnapped by bumbling robbers. With the success of the film, Ozzie decided to move The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet to television, airing the first show on October 3, 1952. Continuing to revolve around the idealistic all-American family, the scripts focused on the domestic difficulties of being a family. Problems were always sufficiently resolved within one episode. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet joined Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver as the first popular comedies of the new television age.
Nelson attended Brancroft Junior High. He played tennis, took drum lessons, played the piano, and joined the school band as a clarinet player. Although he received some of his high school education at Hollywood High School, he spent the majority of his teenage years under the tutelage of studio tutor Randolph Van Scoyk. Billed on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as "the irrepressible Ricky," off-camera the young Nelson loved girls, cars, sports, and, most of all, rock and roll. By the time he was 15 years old, he was attending the Saturday night performances of the television show Town Hall Party, featuring Tex Ritter, Merle Travis, and Joe Maphis. He also came under the influence of Elvis Presley, along with such rockabilly musicians as Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison. When he was 17, he acquired a Martin D-35 guitar and began rehearsing with a band.
Nelson, handsome with a snide grin that appeared often in photos, was destined to become one of the first teenage idols created by television. He launched his musical career in 1957 when his father included a two-minute musical segment at the end of an episode that featured Nelson as an amateur performer at a high school dance. He introduced the television audience to his musical talents with his rendition of Fats Domino's classic hit "I'm Walkin'." The segment, which was installed as a regular feature of the show, became so popular that Nelson began looking to a full-time music career. Nelson's weekly performance met the approval of parents who had watched Nelson grow up in their living rooms into a clean-cut, respectful young man and the ideal American teenager. Younger viewers were drawn to Nelson's gritty sound and good looks.
With ready access to the television audience, Nelson became an incredible musical success. His first release, "I'm Walkin"' with "A Teenage Romance" on the B-side, sold in excess of 1 million copies in the first day of its release. For a period of several years, with his father watching over his career and negotiating contracts for his son, it seemed everything Nelson touched turned to gold. Over the course of the next six years, he put over 40 songs on the charts, including seven consecutive top-ten hits within a two-year span. The release of "Travelin' Man" with "Hello, Mary Lou" on the flip side rose to number one on the charts and sold over 5 million copies. Other hits released between 1957 and 1963 include "Poor Little Fool," "Lonesome Town," "Stood Up," "Waitin' in School," "It's Late," "Everlovin'," "It's Up to You," "I Got a Feeling," "Never Be Anyone Else but You," and "Teenage Idol." Due to his mass appeal created by television, Nelson was instantly able to draw large audiences to his concerts when he began the tour circuit in his teens. His first show was at the Ohio State Fair before 20,000 fans. By 1963 Nelson had sold over 35 million records.
Along with his musical career and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Nelson also appeared in several movies. In 1953 he was featured in The Story of Three Loves along with Ethel Barrymore and Leslie Caron. In 1959, he appeared in the classic John Wayne western Rio Bravo, playing the part of a young ranch hand who attempts to find his boss's murderer. The following year he landed a part in the comedy The Wackiest Ship in the Army, starring Jack Lemon.
By 1963, it was apparent that little Ricky was growing up. On April 20, 1963, he married childhood friend Kristin Harmon, daughter of Tom Harmon, a football player, and Elyse Knox, an actress. With The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet still running, the two were included in the script as newlyweds. When the show finally ended its 14-year run in 1966, Nelson was 26 years old. By this time, he preferred to be called Rick rather than Ricky, but he found his image as "the irrepressible Ricky" difficult to shed. By the mid-1960s, the Beatles had arrived on the music scene and revolutionized the world of rock and roll. Unfortunately for Nelson, his days as a teenage idol were quickly coming to a close. Like his music, Nelson's popularity as an actor also waned. He made one more movie in 1965, Love and Kisses, costarring with his wife. He tried musical theater, including appearing on stage in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He also worked in television, acting on such shows as Malibu U, Owen Marshall, and Counselor at Law.
Musically, Nelson continued to produce albums in hopes of regaining his audience. Turning to country, he released two albums, Country Fever and Bright Lights and Country Music, but neither of the releases did well in sales.
In the late 1960s, Nelson toured the Far East, where he tried his hand at a blend of country, rock, and blues. Upon his return, he formed a new group, the Stone Canyon Band, to develop this new style of music. After attaining some success in 1969 with a remake of Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me," the following year Nelson released the album Rick Nelson in Concert, a mix of some of his previously popular songs and some Dyan tunes. Despite excellent reviews, the release did not sell well.
The origin of Nelson's final popular success, his 1972 single "Garden Party," was a rock and roll revival at Madison Square Garden. According to Nelson, who related the story to Jas Obrecht in a 1981 interview in Guitar Player magazine, the show's promoter spent four years trying to convince Nelson to participate in the show. Having just formed the Stone Canyon Band, Nelson finally agreed to do the show in order to showcase his new album Rudy the Fifth. . He told Obrecht, "I just thought, 'Okay, I've never played Madison Square Garden,' and I started thinking of reasons why I should do it. I never quite convinced myself, really. I felt very out of place being there that night." Expecting to hear the old favorite songs from the peak of Nelson's career, some of the crowd began to boo as Nelson played his new county-rock fusion. Although some later suggested the booing was aimed at rowdy individuals in the crowd, Nelson considered the appearance a disaster. In response, he wrote the song "Garden Party," which dealt with his unfavorable reception. Ironically, the song became a popular success, selling over 1 million copies.
"Garden Party" proved to be Nelson's last commercial success. He continued to tour extensively for the remainder of his life, booking up to 200 shows a year. After several periods of separation followed by attempts at reconciliation during the late 1970s, Nelson's marriage to Harmon came to an end in December 1982, followed by two years of bitter divorce proceedings. The couple had four children, Tracy, twins Matthew and Gunnar, and Sam. Nelson began a relationship with model Helen Blair, and the two were engaged in 1984.
In the summer of 1985 Nelson recorded a Sun Records reunion album that featured many of the artists he had first admired in his youth, including Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash. During the summer and fall he toured extensively, playing the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles and then traveling to Australia and Great Britain. Before the end of the year, Nelson's sons, Matthew and Gunnar, who were struggling to deal with their mother's alcoholism, moved in with Nelson and Blair. The boys' time with their father proved to be short. On New Year's Eve Nelson, accompanied by Blair and the Stone Canyon Band, was completing a short after-Christmas tour. On route to a New Year's Eve show at a Dallas hotel, having completed a gig the day before in Guntersville, Alabama, Nelson's private plane crash landed in a field outside DeKalb, Texas. The plane smashed into some trees and, although the pilot and co-pilot managed to escape, Nelson, Blair, and all five members of the band were killed by the fire that consumed the aircraft.
After Nelson's memorial service, which was attended by more than one thousand people, rumors began to circulate regarding the cause of the fire aboard the 1944 DC-3. Authorities considered several sources, including Nelson and the band members free-basing cocaine. Although toxicology reports showed trace amounts of cocaine in Nelson and other members of the band, the National Transportation Board in May 1987 found the evidence insufficient and reported that a faulty cabin heater or an electrical short was the most probable cause.
Despite his failure to regain the fame of his early career, Nelson held a unique place in American pop culture that he never completely lost. He was awarded a Grammy posthumously in 1986 for his performance on the Sun Records reunion. The following year he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His twin sons, Matthew and Gunnar, inspired by their father, became musicians in their own right. According to Erik Meers and Ken Baker in People Weekly, "Asked by a fan at the Alameda Fair about his tattoo, Gunnar rolls up his right sleeve and reveals a halo-crowned adult angel floating above two tiny twin angles. 'He's like our guardian,' he says, 'looking over our shoulders."' All four of Nelson's children collaborated to produce a four-CD box set of their father's music. The set, entitled Legacy, was released at the end of 2000, coinciding with the fifteenth anniversary of Nelson's death.
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