Ricky Nelson first became known as a cute kid on his parent’s radio and television show “The Adventures Of Ozzie & Harriet”. The TV version of the show started in 1952 when Ricky was 12.
Ricky Nelson became a popular Rock & Roll singer in 1957, when he was 17. My family watched the show, and saw Ricky Nelson performing his hits…which started with his cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walking” (#4). It was somewhat unfortunate that this was his first million-seller, because white artists had been covering songs by black artists, and the black versions were not getting enough airplay. That trend was deplored by music critics. Of course Fats Domino had just as big a hit with “I’m Walking” (#4). Many years later Ricky and Fats even toured together. After that one hit, Ricky Nelson built his career on original songs, mostly provided by professional songwriters.
Back when I was a grade school kid, one of my classmates, Keith Goins, was a guitar player, and we used to sing Ricky Nelson songs. I remember watching what could be considered the first music videos. They would be played at the end of episodes of “Ozzie & Harriet” when Ricky would sing his songs. The videos were production pieces, not just performances.
Ricky Nelson’s other Top-10 Hits (nearly all million-selling) included: “Be-Bop Baby” (#3), “Stood Up” (#2), “Believe What You Say” (#4), “Poor Little Fool” (#1), “Lonesome Town” (#7), “Never Be Anyone Else But You” (#6), “It’s Late” (#9), “Travelin’ Man” (#1), “Hello Mary Lou” (#9), “Young World” (#5), “Teenage Idol” (#5), “It’s Up To You” (#6), and “For You” (#6). Those are just some of the 33 Top-40 hits he had from May of 1957 to January of 1964.
Then, Ricky Nelson stopped having hits.
What happened in January of 1964 that could have had such a big impact on his career? The Beatles happened.
Almost that quickly, teen idols were replaced by British bands and singers. It wasn’t that teen idol types didn’t still release music, it just didn’t chart well anymore. Even Elvis Presley only had one Top-10 hit from the beginning of 1964 to mid 1969.
What eventually got Rick Nelson back on the charts was forming The Stone Canyon Band in 1969. Rick Nelson’s songs often had a country sound to them, especially “Hello Mary Lou” in 1961, which some people consider early Country Rock. Rick Nelson & The Stone Canyon Band, focused on that Country Rock sound, even adding steel guitar. They were on the Top 40 chart in January of 1970 with the Bob Dylan song “She Belongs To Me”, and had a well-reviewed album, In Concert At The Troubadour. The band included Randy Meisner, who went on to become one of the founding members of Eagles.
Rick Nelson and his band played a Rock ‘N’ Roll Revival concert in Madison Square Garden in 1971, and it didn’t go particularly well. When they played a newer song, a cover of “Honky Tonk Women” (then a fairly new song by The Rolling Stones), there was booing in the audience. Nelson left the stage, but was convinced to finish the set. He stuck to the oldies the audience wanted. Some audience members said the booing was actually about a police action in the audience, but still, it angered Rick Nelson and he wrote “Garden Party”.
The song went to #6 on the Pop chart, #1 on the Adult Contemporary chart, and sold over 1-million copies in 1972. Garden Party tells the story of his experience at Madison Square Garden. He thought the booing was for not looking like he did back in the early ’60’s, and for not just playing his old hits. The song also has a lot of clever descriptions of artists who attended or performed at the concert.
Unfortunately, that was the last chart success for Rick Nelson. Then after a messy divorce in 1982, he was forced to tour, because he needed money. “I get no rest when I’m feelin’ weary, I gotta pack my bags and go. I gotta be somewhere tomorrow, to smile and do my show.”…lyrics from “Teenage Idol”.
It was in 1985 that he released the collection, Ricky Nelson: All My Best. You can see he embraced the “y” he couldn’t get rid of.
He also launched a comeback tour in 1985. He didn’t like buses, so he bought a 1944 Douglas DC-3 airplane that was once owned by Jerry Lee Lewis. The DC-3 was old and unreliable. On December 31st, 1985, the plane crash-landed northeast of Dallas, Texas. Nelson and all six members of his band and crew died in the crash. Rick Nelson was just 45 years old. There was a false and hurtful rumor that the musicians had been freebasing cocaine, but the official investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board said a faulty heater caused the smoke and fire that led to the crash.
One somewhat eerie note…the last song Rick Nelson performed on stage was “Rave On” by Buddy Holly, who also died in a plane crash.
Ricky Nelson wasn’t just a kid who was made into a teen idol. Sure he had the good looks of a movie star, and did some film work, but foremost he was a musician. He played guitar, wrote some of his own songs, and he had a great baritone voice with excellent range. Ricky Nelson brought along other young musicians, such as guitarist James Burton who gained his own fame through the years. Nelson was also one of the earliest movers in Country Rock in the 1960’s, before it blossomed in the 1970’s.
Ricky Nelson helped make early Rock & Roll popular, and then contributed to its evolution.