… he was 45 when he died on December 31, 1985.
(Video of Rick Nelson singing at end of post.)
Eric Hilliard Nelson was born in Teaneck, New Jersey. He was the second son of big band leader Ozzie Nelson, and big band vocalist Harriet Hilliard Nelson.
He placed fifty-three songs on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1957 and 1973, including nineteen top-ten hits, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on January 21, 1987.
Nelson knew and loved music, and was a skilled performer even before he became a teen idol, largely because of his parents' musical background. Nelson worked with many musicians of repute, including James Burton, Joe Osborn, Allen "Puddler" Harris, Joe Maphis, The Jordanaires, Scotty Moore and Johnny and Dorsey Burnette.
Nelson began his entertainment career in 1949 playing himself in the radio sitcom series, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and, in 1952, appeared in his first feature film, Here Come the Nelsons. In 1957, he recorded his first single, debuted as a singer on the television version of the sitcom, and recorded a number one album, Ricky.
In 1959, received a Golden Globe Most Promising Male Newcomer nomination after starring in the western film, Rio Bravo. A few films followed, and, when the television series was cancelled in 1966, Nelson made occasional appearances as a guest star on various television programs.
Nelson played clarinet and drums in his early teens, and learned basic guitar chords while imitating his favorite Sun Records rockabilly artists in the bathroom at home or in the showers at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. His biggest influence was Carl Perkins and once said he tried to emulate the sound and the tone of the guitar break in Perkins's March 1956 Top Ten hit, "Blue Suede Shoes.”
With his father's help, Nelson secured a one-record deal with Verve Records, an important jazz label looking for a young and popular personality who could sing or be taught to sing. On March 26, 1957, Nelson recorded the Fats Domino standard "I'm Walkin'" and "A Teenager's Romance" (both released in late April 1957 as his first single), and "You're My One and Only Love.”
Before the single was released, Nelson made his television rock and roll debut on April 10, 1957 lip-synching "I'm Walkin'" in the Ozzie and Harriet episode, "Ricky, the Drummer.” "I'm Walkin'" reached number four on Billboard's Best Sellers in Stores chart, and its flip side, "A Teenager's Romance,” hit number two.
In the summer of 1957, Ozzie Nelson pulled his son from Verve after disputes about royalties, and signed him to a lucrative five-year deal with Imperial Records that gave him approval over song selection, sleeve artwork, and other production details. Ricky's first Imperial single, "Be-Bop Baby,” generated 750,000 advance orders, sold over one million copies, and reached number three on the charts.
Nelson's first album, Ricky, was released in October 1957 and hit number one before the end of the year. Following these successes, Nelson was given a more prominent role on the Ozzie and Harriet show and ended every two or three episodes with a musical number. During the sitcom's run, Ozzie Nelson 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 decided to form his own band with members closer to his age. Eighteen-year-old electric guitarist James Burton was the first signed and lived in the Nelson home for two years. Bassist James Kirkland, drummer Richie Frost, and pianist Gene Garf completed the band. Their first recording together was "Believe What You Say.” Rick selected material from demo acetates submitted by songwriters. Ozzie Nelson forbade suggestive lyrics or titles, and his late-night arrival at recording sessions forced band members to hurriedly hide their beers and cigarettes. The Jordanaires, Presley's back up vocalists worked for Nelson but at Presley's behest were not permitted credit on Nelson's albums.
In 1958, Nelson recorded seventeen-year-old Sharon Sheeley's "Poor Little Fool" for his second album Ricky Nelson released in June. On August 4, 1958, "Poor Little Fool" became the number one single on Billboard's newly instituted Hot 100 singles chart, and sold over two million copies.
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. Many of Nelson's early records were double hits with both the A and B sides hitting the Billboard charts.
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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, because, in his mind, he was playing new songs instead of just his old hits. When he performed the Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman" he was booed off the stage. He watched the rest of the performance on a TV monitor backstage, and quietly left the Madison Garden, without taking a final bow for the finale.
In May 1985, he decided he needed a private plane and purchased a luxurious, fourteen-seat, 1944 DC-3. Following shows in Orlando, Florida and Guntersville, Alabama, Nelson and band members boarded the vintage DC-3 and took off for a New Year's Eve extravaganza in Dallas, Texas. The plane crashed northeast of Dallas on December 31, 1985. Seven were killed including Nelson and his fiance, Helen Blair.