I should start my comments about Ricky Nelson by saying: he hated to be called “Ricky” as an adult, and would say, “Call me Rick.” He’s one of those artists that because he grew up on his parent’s TV Show in front of America, probably didn’t get taken as seriously an artist as he was. His parents, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson had been Big Band stars in the late 40’s and early 50’s, Ozzie led the band and Harriet was the, “Girl Singer,” as they were referred to in those days. The depiction of family life on their show bore little resemblance to the real lives of the viewers, or their own, but it was like a Saturday Evening Post cover; a portrayal of the family that people wanted to believe.
In 1957 Elvis Presley was setting the musical world on fire, and Ricky was one of his greatest fans, although, he was originally influenced by Rockabilly’s Carl Perkins. At some point he told his dad he wanted to sing rock and roll. Ozzie, who was a tough, controlling guy, wasn’t happy, but eventually used his connections in Hollywood to get Ricky a One Record contract with Verve Records, where Ricky covered the Fats Domino hit, “I’m Walking.” That’s when Ozzie made the key move, taping the boy playing the drums and lip-syncing the song, and then adding the clip as a feature at the end of the TV Show. Teenage girls across the country came unglued, Elvis was cute, but Ricky was was dreamy and their age. His star exploded literally over night, from what might be considered the first music video broadcast on TV.
Ozzie, who knew the TV Show wouldn’t last forever became a Dad/Manager, and took advantage of the Jazz Label, Verve’s, one record deal, and shopped Ricky to Imperial Records for serious money. The first Imperial release, “Poor Little Fool,” was a “Cotton-Picking Smash,” as my friend, Major Bill, used to say, and Ricky was on his way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Imperial teamed him up with great Producers like Snuff Garrett, and the Hollywood Session Player’s Group, “The Wrecking Crew,” who did the tracks on songs like, “Poor Little Fool,” the first #1 single on the new Billboard Hot 100 chart. Between 1957 and 1962 Rick Nelson (he changed his name in 1962), had 30 singles on the Top 40 charts, many selling a million copies or more, his recording career was incredibly successful, and his live appearances filled with the same sort of screaming girls that would later greet the Monkees and Beatles.
But his private life was not as successful; his marriage to Kris Harmon resulted in a very messy divorce after 14 years, with the wife getting custody of their four children and a very healthy financial settlement. She was a jealous person, and Rick, like Elvis and Jerry Lee and the other idols of the time, liked the girls and they liked him. I won’t go into Rick’s rumored other problems that continued until his death in an airplane crash in December, 1985, in a 40 year old DC-3 last owned by Jerry Lee Lewis. The Killer would say, "It coulda been me."
Rick Nelson was 45 years old, and had lived with fame and fortune from his introduction on TV in the early 50’s. His last hit, “Garden Party,” was about a concert at Madison Square Garden, where the audience kept asking him to sing his old hits, rather than his new songs. It told the story of a Teen Idol not able to rise above his early fame and fortune. Another life in rock & roll cut too short.
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