I have mentioned before in these pages that the first major era of rock & roll music took place between the years 1954 and 1963. It has also been put forth that there were three “kinds” of rock & roll being recorded at this time; pop rock, R&B rock and country rock. Each of these categories had a premiere practitioner or two. You’d be hard pressed to find a more significant country rock artist from this time than Ricky Nelson. In fact, as we shall see, Nelson remains one of the most successful artists of this golden era.
It is a well-known fact in the land of all things vintage that Eric Hilliard Nelson was born the son of entertainers Ozzie and Harriet Nelson in 1940 in Teaneck, New Jersey. It is also common knowledge that the Nelson family – add Rick’s older brother, David – starred in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet on television from 1952 to 1966. The sitcom is indeed legendary as one of the first successful and sustained sitcoms on TV and its 14-year run makes “it the longest-running live-action sitcom in United States television history by number of episodes aired” – an astounding 435 episodes. If I’m honest, Ozzie and Harriet, while a charming time capsule, has not aged as well as other shows of the era like Leave It to Beaver or I Love Lucy and it also seems to be languishing in the public domain. The show is notable also, of course, for introducing Ricky Nelson the singer to audiences at home. Ozzie ran the show much like Desi Arnaz did Lucy and Nelson realized the talent his son had and began to fashion episodes to showcase Ricky’s singing. The first time Ricky was featured was April 10, 1957 when he sang Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin'”. Shortly after, Ricky was signed to Imperial Records, Domino’s label.
Truth be told, much of Ricky’s early success was aided greatly by the workings of his high-powered father. Ozzie secured a five-year contract with Imperial that gave Ricky (and Ozzie) approval over song selection and even sleeve artwork, control basically unheard of at the time for a kid who had just turned 17 and who had only one hit record. But make no mistake Ricky had a great sound, one that he fashioned on the rockabilly of his hero, Carl Perkins. Nelson’s brand of rockabilly was quite clean when compared to the more feral sounds of Gene Vincent or Eddie Cochran and while Ricky may not have been as proficient on the guitar as those two, he was certainly a better singer. As for the guitar work on Ricky’s records, he had the smarts to hire 18-year-old James Burton to cover those duties thus starting the career of one of the most successful and respected guitarists in rock & roll. Burton would go on to play in Elvis Presley’s band throughout the 1970’s.
Ricky began a successful career as a singer while still appearing on television. Ricky was the first teen idol to use television to promote his music and, as he grew older, his work on the show had more to do with performing his singles; Ricky began to look slightly out of place playing Ozzie and Harriet’s kid. Ricky’s amazing chart run began with the previously mentioned “I’m Walkin'” and in that same year of 1957, Ricky also placed “A Teenager’s Romance” and “Be Bop Baby” in the Top Ten. Ricky continued his assault on the charts in 1958 and the timing for him was perfect. By ’58, Elvis Presley’s unrivaled dominance of the pop charts began to allow for more participation from others and by the end of the year he would be in the Army, thus leaving much more room on the charts. Many adults and those in the press were pleased to support a clean-cut kid like Ricky who’s appearance suggested animal sexuality somewhat less than did Presley’s. Indeed, the years 1958-59 were dominated by smoother sounding pop stars rather than the more savage R&B-based rockers of earlier years.
Through 1958, Ricky Nelson released seven singles and all of them reached the Top 20. These included the #1 “Poor Little Fool” and the Top Tens “Stood Up” and “Lonesome Town”. In 1959, every one of Ricky’s 6 singles hit the Top 40 and he had the most success with “It’s Late” and “Never Be Anyone Else But You”, two different songs that show that Ricky could excel at his favoured uptempo tunes but also with ballads. Also in 1959, Ricky made a notable appearance in the excellent Howard Hawks western Rio Bravo that starred John Wayne, Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson. Nelson does well in the film and displays an easy-going demeanor. A highlight of the film comes when two great singers, Nelson and Martin, combine to sing the charming “My Pony, My Rifle and Me”. However, Ricky – who started as an actor – did not pursue acting after this and made only a few dramatic TV and movie appearances.
Ricky’s recording success continued into the new decade. While he didn’t exactly light it up in 1960, Nelson still had four Top 40 singles. 1961 got off to a great start when, in the spring of that year, Nelson released “Travelin’ Man”. The song was written by Jerry Fuller who gave it to Sam Cooke. When Cooke turned it down, Ricky recorded it and it became his second #1 song. Jerry Fuller would go on to write 22 more songs for Nelson, many of them hits. Ricky followed “Travelin’ Man” with another huge hit, “Hello Mary Lou”; these two songs, released only weeks apart, may be Ricky’s most notable hits. “Mary Lou” was co-written by Gene Pitney and features a guitar solo from James Burton in his chicken-pickin’ style that is textbook rockabilly and influenced many guitarists. 1962 saw Ricky reach the upper reaches of the charts with “Young World”, “Teenage Idol” and “It’s Up to You” but three other singles that year tanked and Ricky’s steady chart run began to wobble.
When Ricky turned 21 years old on May 8, 1961, he officially changed his recording name from “Ricky” to “Rick”. The change signaled a new maturity in his life and in his music. In 1963, Rick ended his association with Imperial Records and joined the Decca label. This change would account for the plethora of singles released under his name during the year; Imperial wanted to release what they had “in the can” in order to get the most mileage out of Ricky’s work there. While on Decca Rick released some less-successful sides before hitting with “Fools Rush In”, “For You” and “The Very Thought of You”. But Rick fell victim to the same forces that halted many other careers at this time, the British Invasion. With the major changes that took place in popular music in 1964 and after, Rick’s hit-making days were over.
I came across Rick Nelson when I profiled actress Elyse Knox in an article that has proved to be one of the most popular here at SoulRide. In 1961, Rick started dating Kristin Harmon, the daughter of football star Tom Harmon and Knox. Kris also had younger siblings, Mark Harmon and Kelly Harmon. Although it seems that Harriet Nelson disapproved of any and all of her son’s girlfriends up to this point, both Harriet and Ozzie were pleased by this coupling. The Nelsons and the Harmons had been friends for some time so the relationship was encouraged. Kris joined the cast of Ozzie and Harriet and the two were married in 1963 with children soon following. First-born Tracy Nelson became an actress known for her TV work on Square Pegs and many other shows. Twins Gunnar and Matthew formed the band Nelson (“[Can’t Live Without Your] Love and Affection”) and the youngest was poor Sam Nelson who didn’t go into show business and never gets mentioned.
By 1972, Rick Nelson was forgotten as a performer. By this point, he had become a pioneering figure in the country-rock genre and had made many records in this vein with his Stone Canyon Band. At one point during a Madison Square Garden oldies concert, Nelson was singing his new material (including the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women”) and the fans were booing. There is some conjecture that the crowd was actually reacting to some police action going on in the building but Nelson thought they were booing him and wanting to hear his old hits. This prompted him to write the song “Garden Party”.
“If you gotta play at garden parties I wish you a lotta luck. But if memories were all I sang I’d rather drive a truck. But it’s alright now. I’ve learned my lesson well. Y’see, y’can’t please everyone so y’got to please yourself”
“Garden Party” reached #6 in the US where it topped the Adult Contemporary chart. It was a #1 song in Canada as well and lead to the Garden Party album that reached #32. It is a rare achievement and it’s always interesting and notable when a person has a hit in two distinctly different eras. A year after “Garden Party”, Rick reached #65 with “Palace Guard” but then departed permanently the American charts. It needs to be said, though, that Rick Nelson scores serious points historically for taking a stand of sorts by writing and recording “Garden Party”. Too many artists were pigeonholed by their hits and were denied the chance to spread their wings in a different direction. While this did indeed happen to Rick as well, it is significant that he made a point of saying something about it.
By the mid-1970’s, Rick and Kris’ marriage was going south. The couple had become accustomed to an extravagant lifestyle and this took a financial toll as Rick had to be constantly touring to earn money. The pattern of break up and reconcile continued until 1980 when Kristin filed for divorce. The divorce proceedings prolonged the ugliness as Kris claimed Rick was hiding assets when in fact he was almost broke and each accused the other of drug abuse. Finally in 1982, Kris was granted custody of the children and the two were divorced.
In 1980, Rick had met Helen Blair, an exotic animal trainer, and she became the only woman Rick dated after his divorce. Poor Rick couldn’t catch a break, though, as his mother, brother and manager all lined up to disapprove of the relationship. Blair was with Nelson in late 1985 when Rick was scheduled to appear at a New Year’s Eve concert in Dallas. The stop in Texas was part of a tour that Rick was calling a “comeback”. Perhaps in submission, Rick had gone back to being “Ricky” and was even touring with Fats Domino, who’s “I’m Walkin'” had started it all. While Rick had always dreaded flying, he also refused to travel by bus so, as something of a compromise, he bought himself an airplane that had once belonged to Jerry Lee Lewis. Despite the fact that the plane had a long history of malfunctioning and poor operation, Nelson and his crew used it to fly to Dallas. What happened during the flight is somewhat disputed but a faulty cabin heater was said to have caught fire necessitating a crash landing. Severely burned, the two pilots escaped the wreck through the cockpit windows and they approached the cabin area calling out to the passengers. When they received no response and fearing an explosion they backed away. The first firefighters on the scene found the seven dead passengers at the front of the cabin, as if they were trying to escape the fire. Sadly, soon after, reports emerged suggesting that cocaine freebasing – which involves open flame – may have started the fire. This, however, was ruled out by the investigation into the crash conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Compounding this misery, Helen Blair’s parents wanted their daughter buried next to Rick but this was vetoed by Harriet Nelson. In fact, Blair was persona non grata and her name was not even mentioned at the funeral. The Blair family filed a wrongful death suit which was settled for a small sum. And Kristin’s woes continued. She received nothing from Rick’s estate – his children inherited what was left – and tried unsuccessfully to sue for Rick’s life insurance. Shortly after, when Kristin was in drug rehab, her brother, Mark Harmon and his wife, Pam Dawber, petitioned for custody of the children, claiming Kris was unfit to raise them. But when Kristin fired back by raising questions about Dawber’s supposed cocaine use, the two backed off. Years later, in 2018, Kristin died suddenly of a heart attack in Santa Fe. She was 72.
In the interest of perspective and reporting the facts, it should be noted that, after a period of success, Ricky Nelson’s life seems to have been filled with frustration and unhappiness. However, despite his Hollywood upbringing, he seems to have always been a pretty good guy, liked by many. But contentment was elusive as it is for so many in Ricky’s chosen field.
But as we look back through history, there is much to celebrate about the life and career of Ricky Nelson. I was a bit surprised to learn as I researched him just how successful he was in terms of chart performance. Between 1957 and 1964, Ricky scored two #1 songs, placing 17 in the Top Ten. 33 of his songs reached the Top 40 and he charted a total of 54 singles. Impressive. Also, between “Believe What You Say”, released in March of ’58 and “Sweeter Than You” from June of ’59, Ricky enjoyed a run of 8 consecutive singles that hit the Top 10. These numbers from these years are bettered only by Elvis Presley – who actually charted only 4 more singles than Rick during this time. Pat Boone during this time scored twice as many Number Ones but charted less singles and had less Top 40’s and Top Tens. And if you condense things to 1958-59, not even Elvis or Pat can touch Ricky. So, Ricky Nelson’s numbers hold up today. But more than this cold data, Ricky Nelson’s legacy for us is one filled with great songs performed by a pretty cool looking guy.