Who would’ve thought a teen heartthrob could rock out?
Although he was known as a teen idol, Ricky Nelson was not just another pretty face. He jumped from a career in TV into the music world, where he blew skeptical rock and rollers away with his own rock chops.
Ricky Nelson was an early teen idol who had a considerable amount of talent to complement his blue-eyed good looks.
On television, he and his older brother David acted out their real-life roles as the sons of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.
As a rock-and-rolling teenager on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Ricky Nelson practically grew up in the nation’s living rooms. For a period of years beginning in 1957, each episode would conclude with a song by Ricky Nelson and his band. Many teenagers tuned into the show because of him, and these performances—a harbinger of the kind of impact MTV would have decades later by bringing popular music to TV—helped keep Ozzie and Harriet on the air until 1966.
Nelson was a handsome Fifties teen idol who wore his hair in a fashionable flat-top with a ducktail. For his musical debut, he did an Elvis Presley impersonation on Ozzie and Harriet in order to impress a high-school sweetheart who had a crush on Presley. Thereafter, Nelson became a self-contained rock and roller in his own right. His principal influences were Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. On Presley’s side, the feeling was apparently mutual, as he told guitarist James Burton that he never missed an episode.
For his first recording, Nelson cut a double-sided smash: “A Teenager’s Romance” backed with Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’.” Both songs made the Top Five shortly after the single’s release in April 1957, instantly launching Nelson’s musical career. He was all of sixteen years old, and this was just the beginning. All totaled, Nelson would score three dozen hits, making him one of the most successfully prolific of all rock and rollers.
Even though his role on TV had been the launch pad, he more than made the grade as a rock and roller. As unlikely as it may seem, he turned out to be the real thing: a mellow-voiced singer/guitarist with an instinctive feel for the country-rooted side of rockabilly. Moreover, he had good taste in musicians, hiring guitarist extraordinaire James Burton as the mainstay of his band. With his arsenal of expert rockabilly licks, Burton brought serious credibility to Nelson’s musical endeavors.
His less frantic, more poppy brand of rockabilly went down easily with America’s suburban teenagers. After the success of his first two singles on Verve, Nelson quickly signed to the Imperial label, where his hit streak extended into the early Sixties. In 1958 Nelson reached Number One with “Poor Little Fool” (written by Sharon Sheeley, Eddie Cochran’s girlfriend at the time). His discerning taste in material also led him to “Hello Mary Lou”—his signature song, penned by Gene Pitney—and “Travelin’ Man,” both of which topped the charts. During a three-year period from 1957 through 1959, Nelson owned the pop charts, placing eighteen songs in the Top 40 for nearly two hundred combined weeks.
For his sixth album—Rick is 21, released in 1961—Nelson dropped the “y” from his name. As the maturing Nelson’s appeal with the teen audience waned, he foundered for direction in the mid-Sixties. However, he got back on track when he turned his attention to a more country-flavored sound toward decade’s end. A well-received performance at Los Angeles’ Troubadour nightclub, yielding the album Rick Nelson in Concert (1969), helped fuel his comeback. One of the first country-minded rockers—he had cut an album called Bright Lights and Country Music in 1966—Nelson experienced a creative flowering on such albums as Rick Sings Nelson (1970) and Garden Party (1972).
He formed the Stone Canyon Band, whose mellow, California-based country-rock sound anticipated the laid-back likes of the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. One of his band members, in fact, was bassist Randy Meisner, a founding member of Poco who would later find fame with the Eagles. During this era, Nelson had a minor hit with his easygoing remake of Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me.” All the while, he resisted the idea of becoming a nostalgia act, pointedly addressing the issue in “Garden Party.” Based on his experience appearing on a bill of oldies acts at Madison Square Garden, the song became one of the biggest hits of his career, reaching Number Six in October 1972. Somewhat ironically, early rockers Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley were also in the Top Ten at the same time.
Although Nelson stopped having hits in the Seventies, he remained a hard-working musician who performed up to two hundred dates a year. The decade wasn’t entirely kind to him, as personal problems (including a cocaine addiction) began to mount and his popularity waned. His life ended tragically in 1985 when his tour plane caught fire and crashed near a highway in DeKalb, Texas, killing him and six others.
Nelson’s four children with wife Kristin have kept the family name alive. Tracy Nelson became a successful actress, while twin sons Gunnar and Matthew enjoyed a spell of popularity in the early Nineties as the rock duo Nelson. The debut disc by youngest son Sam Nelson and his band H Is Orange appeared in 2000.
Inductee: Ricky Nelson (vocals, guitar; born May 8, 1940; died December 31, 1985)