Eric Hilliard Nelson was born May 8, 1940, in Teaneck New Jersey. He died in DeKalb, Texas, on New Year's Eve, 1985. To do justice to the story in between, it's necessary to look a little further back, to the creative roots of the man later known as Rick Nelson.
Dave, Rick & Harriet
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.
Music Index: 1. Travelin Man
2. Bye Bye Love 3. It's Late
4. Dream Lover
5. Honky Tonk Woman
6. It's Up to You 7. You Tear Me Up 8. I'm In Love Again 9. Never Be Anyone Else But You
10. Believe What You Say 11. Garden Party 12. Today's Teardrops 13. Down Home 14. Thank You Darling
15. Hello Mary-Lou
16. Poor Little Fool
17. Thank You Lord
plus 3 - Intervews
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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
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 reach number 4 on the charts while the flip-side, "A Teenager's Romance," went to number 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 television 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 television shows (usually in acting roles). In 1973, he had an acting role in an episode of The Streets of San Francisco, in which 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, in which he spoofed his television sitcom image by appearing in a Twilight Zone send-up, in which, always trying to go "home", he finds himself among the characters from other 1950s/early 1960s-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 because of his parents' musical background. In addition to guitar, he played drums and the clarinet. (He showcased his drum skills in the same episode in which 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 Presley may have served as the catalyst for Nelson'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 number 1 position on that chart.
While Nelson preferred rockabilly and uptempo rock songs like "Believe What You Say" (Hot 100 number 4), "I Got A Feeling" (Hot 100 number 10), "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It" (Hot 100 number 12), "Hello Mary Lou" (Hot 100 number 9), "It's Late" (Hot 100 number 9), "Stood Up" (Hot 100 number 2), "Waitin' In School" (Hot 100 number 18), "Be-Bop Baby" (Hot 100 number 3), and "Just A Little Too Much" (Hot 100 number 9), his smooth, calm voice made him a natural to sing ballads. He had major success with "Travelin' Man" (Hot 100 number 1), "A Teenager's Romance" (Hot 100 number 2), "Poor Little Fool" (Hot 100 number 1), "Young World" (Hot 100 number 5), "Lonesome Town" (Hot 100 number 7), "Never Be Anyone Else But You" (Hot 100 number 6), "Sweeter Than You" (Hot 100 number 9), "It's Up To You" (Hot 100 number 6), and "Teenage Idol" (Hot 100 number 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 number-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. He wanted to record an album featuring original material, but the single was released before the album because Nelson had not completed the entire Garden Party album yet. "Garden Party" reached number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 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 was with MCA at the time, and his comeback was shortlived. 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 for the Garden Party album. Nelson still played nightclubs and bars, but soon advanced to higher-paying venues because of 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 an attraction at theme parks like Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland. He also started appearing in minor roles on television shows.
Nelson tried to score another hit, but was not 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. Nelson'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; his fiancée, Helen Blair; bassist Patrick Woodward, drummer Rick Intveld and three 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 had originated in the righthand 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 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 number 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 number 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 through 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)
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)
Playing to Win (1981) (153)
Four You (1981)
All My Best (1985)
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Twisted Tales: Fifties Pop Idol Rick Nelson Follows in Buddy Holly's Footsteps
New Year's Day, 1986: When a Los Angeles radio station began to play the song 'Garden Party,' 18-year-old Matthew Nelson smiled. It was his father's old comeback song, a Top Ten hit in 1972 for the onetime teen idol Ricky Nelson.
When the song ended, Matthew Nelson stopped smiling and began to scream. Rick Nelson, the DJ explained, had just died in a plane crash the night before.
Child star Ricky Nelson was a real American idol, playing himself on his parents' classic 1950s TV series, 'The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet' and using his show-business connections to launch a career in rock 'n' roll. Beginning with his cover of Fats Domino's 'I'm Walkin',' Nelson was a fixture on the pop charts from 1957 through 1963, scoring No. 1 hits with 'Poor Little Fool' and 'Travelin' Man.'
'Garden Party' was Nelson's response to his appearance at an oldies revival concert at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1971, where he was booed for playing newer material. "You can't please everyone," he sang, "so you've got to please yourself." The song pleased enough pop fans to become Rick Nelson's last significant hit. Despite his brief return to the charts, the 1970s were a difficult time for Nelson. His 1963 wedding to Kristin Harmon, sister of the actor Mark Harmon and daughter of a former Heisman Trophy winner, had been called the "Wedding of the Year" by Life magazine. Now the couple were engaged in an ugly, protracted divorce. To pay his debts and legal fees, Nelson toured constantly. When he was home -- a sprawling ranch house on L.A.'s Mulholland Drive built by the swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, a sexual omnivore who'd outfitted the house with peepholes and two-way mirrors – he led a vampiric life, staying up all night and sleeping by day with the windows covered in newspaper.
In 1985, to ease his hectic travel schedule, Nelson bought a vintage DC-3 once owned by Jerry Lee Lewis. In September, he took part in an all-star Memphis recording session featuring several of his own idols, including Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. The next day was Farm Aid in Illinois; when Nelson offered to take anyone interested in going, Lewis declined. "No way he would get on that plane again," wrote Nelson's biographer, Joel Selvin.
On takeoff, the plane backfired, and the engine died. Marty Stuart, then Cash's guitar player, recalled Nelson joking about the old plane's unreliability as they left it behind for repairs. They talked about how a farmer had found Buddy Holly's glasses after the plane crash that killed him.
Three months later, Nelson played a small club show in Guntersville, Ala., closing with a cover of Holly's 'Rave On.' "Rave on for me!" he said as he left the stage. The next night he was scheduled to play a New Year's Eve Sock Hop in Dallas. By some accounts, he'd considered making the trip with his twin sons, Matthew and Gunnar, who would soon become famous in their own right as the flaxen-haired pop-metal duo Nelson. Instead, the singer was accompanied by his five band members and his fiancée, Helen Blair.
Four hours into the flight, the pilots radioed ahead to Fort Worth, saying there was a problem: smoke in the cockpit. The plane "was on fire when it came over me," reported one eyewitness. It crash-landed into a tree in DeKalb, Texas. The two pilots survived by crawling out the cockpit windows. All seven passengers were dead. Two weeks later, the Washington Post reported that investigators were targeting a freebasing mishap as a possible cause of the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board ultimately ruled that it found no such evidence, noting that DC-3s had a history of problems with their gasoline-powered cabin heaters. Still, trace amounts of cocaine were found in Nelson's body, and the freebasing rumor persists to this day.
A few months after Nelson's death, Epic Records reissued his version of 'Dream Lover' in tribute. The flip side was Buddy Holly's 'Rave On.'
December 30, 1985
Rick Nelson dies in plane crash
Rock musician Rick Nelson is killed in a plane crash. Nelson got his start by starring in his parents' TV series, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
Nelson was born in 1940 to famous parents: His father, Ozzie Nelson, was a bandleader, and his mother, Harriet, was a singer and actress. When Ricky was four years old, his parents launched their radio series, playing themselves, with actors playing their young sons. Five years later, Ricky and his older brother, David, suggested that they, like their parents, play themselves on the series. In 1952, the series moved to TV.
Nelson attended Hollywood High School and showed little interest in music until his girlfriend raved to him about Elvis. He boasted that he was about to cut a record himself. His father let him cut a demo with his orchestra; Nelson claimed he chose to cover Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'" because it relied heavily on the two guitar chords Nelson knew how to play.
When Nelson played the song on the TV series, he became an overnight sensation. His first album, released in November 1957, topped the Billboard charts, and Nelson became one of the best-selling male singers of the 1950s, with 53 Hot 100 hits, 17 in the Top 10. Nelson later changed his name from Ricky to Rick. He also appeared in several movies, including Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin in 1959 and The Wackiest Ship in the Army in 1960.
After Ozzie and Harriet went off the air in 1966, Nelson's music career fizzled until he discovered the emerging style of country rock. On two albums, he covered country material and scored a few hits in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although he would never be a superstar again, he continued touring aggressively, performing more than 200 nights a year. He put together a new band in 1985 and signed a new record deal, but on December 31, en route to a concert in Texas, he died in a plane crash at age 45. The last song he performed live was a cover of "Rave On" by Buddy Holly, who also died in a plane crash.
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