Ricky Nelson was an American musician, singer-songwriter, and an actor. He was a music sensation among the fans during the late1950s and 1960s. Ricky belonged to a family that was passionate about music and acting, and had featured alongside his family in the radio and television series ‘The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet’ at the age of just eight. It was Ricky’s song ‘Poor Little Fool’ which got the very first number one rank on the then-newly formed Hot 100 chart. Apart from this track, Ricky had nineteen other top 10 hits to his name. Between 1957 and 1973, Ricky witnessed a total of 53 songs of his being placed on the ‘Billboard Hot 100’. He became a ‘teen sensation’ as a singer and this fame led him to a role in Howard Hawks' western feature film ‘Rio Bravo’ alongside John Wayne and Dean Martin in 1959. On January 21, 1987, he was inducted into the ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’. He was also listed on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time, ranked at number 49.
Childhood & Early Life
Ricky Nelson (Eric Hilliard Nelson) was born in Teaneck, New Jersey on May 8, 1940. He came from a musical family; his mother Harriet Hilliard Nelson was a vocalist and his father Ozzie Nelson was a band leader, actor, director, and producer. He had an older brother, David Nelson, an actor by profession.
Ricky suffered from asthma in his childhood days and had to be eased at night in his sleep by a vaporizer emitting tincture of evergreen.
He did his schooling from Gardner Street Public School and Bancroft Junior High, and later went to Hollywood High School to complete his graduation. He used to play football in Hollywood High School and also represented his school in the interscholastic tennis tournament.
By the age of 18, Ricky was already in the 93 percent income-tax bracket and was earning over $500,000 per annum. His parents invested his earnings into trust funds and allowed him only $50 for personal expenses.
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Ricky Nelson played clarinet and drums in his teenage years and also learned the rudimentary guitar chords. He used to practice his vocals by imitating Sun Records rockabilly artists and was also deeply influenced by the music of Carl Perkins.
In a bid to impress his girlfriend, Ricky decided to make a record and with his father’s assistance, he secured a deal with Verve Record. In March 1957, he completed the recording of ‘I'm Walkin', ‘A Teenager's Romance’ and ‘You're My One and Only Love’.
The single ‘I'm Walkin' ranked at No. 4 on Billboard's Best Sellers in Stores chart whereas the second single ‘A Teenager's Romance’ reached the second spot.
In 1957, he signed a contract with Imperial Records and his first single ‘Be-Bop Baby’ generated 750,000 advance orders. It was sold over a million copies and reached No. 3 on charts followed by his first album ‘Ricky’ which was released in October and reached the No. 1 on charts.
Between 1958 and 1959, Ricky Nelson beat Elvis Presley and placed twelve hits on the charts compared to Presley’s eleven. But later Presley took charge of the race and became the only person besides Pat Boone to put more singles on the charts than Ricky. Between 1957 and 1962, Ricky had a whopping 30 singles in the Top-40 list!
His top Billboard singles included ‘Stood Up’ at No. 2, ‘Be-Bop Baby’ at No. 3, ‘Believe What You Say’ at No. 4, ‘Hello Mary Lou’ at No. 9, ‘It's Late’ at No. 9, ‘Just a Little Too Much’ at No. 9, ‘I Got a Feeling’ at No. 10, and ‘Waitin' in School’ at No.18.
Apart from music, he had a successful acting career as well. He was featured in films like ‘Rio Bravo’ in 1959, ‘The Wackiest Ship in the Army’ in 1960 alongside Jack Lemmon, ‘Love and Kisses’ in 1965 with Jack Kelly, ‘The Over-the-Hill Gang’ in 1969 with Walter Brennan and Pat O'Brien.
Ricky Nelson is best remembered for his solo debut album ‘Ricky’ which was released in November 1957. Primarily featuring pop-rock music, the album proved to be a major hit and peaked at the No.1 position on the US album charts. It has since been re-issued on iTunes.
Awards & Achievements
In 1987, Ricky Nelson was inducted into the ‘Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’ and ‘Rockabilly Hall of Fame’.
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He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1515 Vine Street, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to music.
Ricky won the 1987 Grammy Award for ‘Best Spoken Word Album’ for ‘Interviews from the Class of '55 Recording Sessions’.
In 2013, he was inducted into the ‘Scandinavian-American Hall of Fame’, acknowledging his contribution to the music industry.
Ricky Nelson had dated many girls in his teenage but his mother Harriet Nelson never approved of any of them. She desired a certain standard for her son’s personal life and wanted Nelson to prioritize his career at that early age.
In April 1963, Nelson married Kris Harmon, daughter of football legend Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox who were long-term friends of the Nelsons. Together they had four children, twin sons Gunnar Eric Nelson and Matthew Gray Nelson who are the founders of the band ‘Nelson’, actress Tracy Kristine Nelson, and Sam Hilliard Nelson.
The marriage was no fairytale, however, and started deteriorating after the birth of their last child. After a long and emotionally draining legal procedure, they ended the marriage with a divorce in December 1982.
He started dating Helen Blair after his divorce and she moved in with him two years after their first meeting. She died with him in the airplane fire and was denied burial next to him by Nelson’s mother.
Nelson didn’t like flying but was not keen on traveling by bus either. To satisfy his extravagant lifestyle he leased a luxurious, fourteen-seat, 1944 Douglas DC-3. The private jet had been previously owned by the DuPont family and later by Jerry Lee Lewis. Unfortunately, it had a history of several mechanical problems.
On December 26, 1985, Nelson left for a three-stop tour of the Southern United States with his band and Helen Blair. After performing in Florida and Alabama, the crew left for Texas on 31 December but the plane crash-landed northeast of Dallas in De Kalb, Texas, killing Nelson, Helen, and some of his band members. Nelson’s remains were buried in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles in a private funeral.
He is ranked at No. 91 by ‘Rolling Stone’ in their ‘List of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time’.
He was mentioned in Bob Dylan’s memoir; a tribute Bob paid to Nelson for his contribution to music.