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Eric Hilliard "Ricky" Nelson, later known as Rick Nelson (May 8, 1940 – December 31, 1985), was an Americanmarker singer, musician and actor. He placed 53 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1957 and 1973, including 19 top-ten hits. Nelson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Famemarker in 1987.

Early years

Born in Teaneck, New Jerseymarker, he was the younger son of Ozzie Nelson, the leader of a big band, and Harriet Hilliard Nelson, the band's singer. Along with brother David, the family starred in the long-running radio and television series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet from 1944 to 1954 on the radio, and 1952 to 1966 on television. However, David and Ricky Nelson did not join the cast until 1949; for the first five years of the radio show, the sons were played by professional actors.


Nelson, who was the first teen idol to utilize television to promote hit records, began a rock and roll music career in 1957. He recorded his debut single, the Fats Domino song "I'm Walking", seeking to impress a date who was an Elvis Presley fan. In the Ozzie and Harriet episode, "Ricky the Drummer", Nelson got the chance to perform the song. The song went on to reach number 4 on the charts while the flip-side, "A Teenager's Romance," went to number 2. Soon, most episodes of the Ozzie & Harriet television show ended with a musical performance by "Ricky". Ozzie Nelson even had the idea to edit footage together to create some of the first music videos. This creative editing can be seen in videos Ozzie produced for "Travelin' Man." Ozzie was able to get Elvis Presley's backup singers to sing on Rick's albums, and Rick had an impressive guitar player named James Burton.

During the sitcom's run Ozzie Nelson, either to keep his son's fans tuned in or as an affirmation of his reputed behind-the-scenes persona as a controlling personality, 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 finally did appear on the Sullivan show in 1967, but his career by that time was in limbo. He also appeared on other television shows (usually in acting roles). In 1973, he had an acting role in an episode of The Streets of San Francisco, in which he played the part of a hippy flute-playing leader of a harem of young prostitutes. In 1979, he guest-hosted on Saturday Night Live, in which he spoofed his television sitcom image by appearing in a Twilight Zone send-up, in which, always trying to go "home", he finds himself among the characters from other 1950s/early 1960s-era sitcoms, Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy, and I Love Lucy.

Nelson knew and loved music, and was a skilled performer even before he became a teen idol, largely because of his parents' musical background. In addition to guitar, he played drums and the clarinet. (He showcased his drum skills in the same episode in which he made his singing debut.) Nelson worked with many musicians of repute, including James Burton, Joe Osborn, and Allen "Puddler" Harris, all natives of Louisianamarker, and Joe Maphis, The Jordanaires, Scotty Moore and Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. While Presley may have served as the catalyst for Nelson's musical career, his real inspiration was Carl Perkins.

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 (38). Many of Nelson's early records were double hits with both the A and B sides hitting the Billboard charts. When Billboard introduced the Hot 100 chart on August 4, 1958, Nelson's single "Poor Little Fool" became the first song ever in the number 1 position on that chart.

While Nelson preferred rockabilly and uptempo rock songs like "Believe What You Say" (Hot 100 number 4), "I Got A Feeling" (Hot 100 number 10), "My Bucket's Got A Hole In It" (Hot 100 number 12), "Hello Mary Lou" (Hot 100 number 9), "It's Late" (Hot 100 number 9), "Stood Up" (Hot 100 number 2), "Waitin' In School" (Hot 100 number 18), "Be-Bop Baby" (Hot 100 number 3), and "Just A Little Too Much" (Hot 100 number 9), his smooth, calm voice made him a natural to sing ballads. He had major success with "Travelin' Man" (Hot 100 number 1), "A Teenager's Romance" (Hot 100 number 2), "Poor Little Fool" (Hot 100 number 1), "Young World" (Hot 100 number 5), "Lonesome Town" (Hot 100 number 7), "Never Be Anyone Else But You" (Hot 100 number 6), "Sweeter Than You" (Hot 100 number 9), "It's Up To You" (Hot 100 number 6), and "Teenage Idol" (Hot 100 number 5), which clearly could have been about Nelson himself.

In addition to his recording career, Nelson appeared in movies, including the Howard Hawks western classic Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin (1959), plus The Wackiest Ship In the Army (1960) and Love and Kisses (1965).

On May 8, 1961 (his 21st birthday), Nelson officially changed his recording name from "Ricky Nelson" to "Rick Nelson". However, not too long before his untimely death, Nelson realized a dream of his. He met his idol, Carl Perkins, who, while musing that they were the last of the "rockabilly breed", addressed Nelson as "Ricky". In 1963, Nelson signed a 20-year contract with Decca Records. After some early successes with the label, most notably 1964's "For You", a number-9 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, Nelson's chart career came to a dramatic halt in the wake of The British Invasion.

In the mid-1960s, Nelson began to move towards country music, becoming a pioneer in the country-rock genre. He was one of the early influences of the so-called "California Sound" (which would include singers like Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt and bands like The Eagles). Yet Nelson himself did not reach the Top 40 again until 1970, when he recorded Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me" with the Stone Canyon Band.

Garden Party

In 1972, Nelson reached the Top 40 one last time with "Garden Party", a song he wrote in disgust after a Madison Square Gardenmarker audience booed him when he tried playing new songs instead of just his old hits. He wanted to record an album featuring original material, but the single was released before the album because Nelson had not completed the entire Garden Party album yet. "Garden Party" reached number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and was certified as a gold single. The second single release from the album was "Palace Guard", which reached number 65 in the charts.

Nelson was with MCA at the time, and his comeback was shortlived. Nelson's band soon resigned, and MCA wanted Nelson to have a producer on his next album. His band moved to Aspen and changed their name to "Canyon". Nelson soon put together a new Stone Canyon band, and began to tour for the Garden Party album. Nelson still played nightclubs and bars, but soon advanced to higher-paying venues because of the success of "Garden Party". In 1974 MCA was at odds as to what to do with the former teen idol. Albums like Windfall failed to have an impact. Nelson became an attraction at theme parks like Knott's Berry Farmmarker and Disneylandmarker. He also started appearing in minor roles on television shows.

Nelson tried to score another hit, but was not having any luck with songs like "Rock and Roll Lady". With seven years to go on his contract, MCA dropped him from the label.

Nelson studied Karate earning a brown belt, before going on to learn Jeet Kune Do under Dan Inosanto. Inosanto described Nelson as a "good martial artist for those times".

Marriage, family, and troubles

Nelson married Kristin Harmon in April 1963, in what Life magazine referred to as "The Wedding of the Year". Harmon is the daughter of Football All-American University of Michiganmarker football legend and Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox, and is the older sister of movie and television star Mark Harmon, perhaps known best for the hit series NCIS.

The couple had one daughter, Tracy (born October 25, 1963), twin sons Gunnar and Matthew (born September 20, 1967), and a fourth child, Sam (born August 29, 1974). His daughter, Tracy, is an actress and a cancer survivor. She may be best known for her role in the television series Father Dowling Mysteries. Nelson's twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew, also became teen idols, performing as the band Nelson and charting several hits in the 1990s. Sam Nelson founded and performed with the group H Is Orange in the early 2000s .

After "Garden Party", Nelson never regained his career's momentum. By the late 1970s, his life was in shambles and he was heavily in debt. After a highly tumultuous marriage (the antithesis of what the public had seen on Ozzie and Harriet and in Love and Kisses), Kristin filed for divorce and took their four children. He still recorded periodically, but commercial success eluded him. Nelson's primary source of income was non-stop touring, ranging from intimate clubs and bars to the county and state fairs where he attracted large crowds that remembered him from his days as a teen idol.


In 1985, Nelson joined a nostalgia rock tour of Englandmarker. It was a major success, and it revived some interest in his work. He tried to duplicate that effect in the United Statesmarker, and he began a tour of the South. Nelson and his band boarded a plane after a show at a small club in Guntersville, Alabamamarker headed to the KLUV-FM New Year's Eve Sock-Hop concert in Dallas, Texasmarker. The plane crashed northeast of Dallas in De Kalb, Texasmarker killing Nelson; his fiancée, Helen Blair; bassist Patrick Woodward, drummer Rick Intveld and three others. Nelson was buried in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemeterymarker in Los Angeles, Californiamarker.

The NTSB investigation stated that the crash was probably due to mechanical problems. The pilots attempted to land in a field after smoke filled the cabin. An examination indicated that a fire had originated in the righthand side of the aft cabin area at or near the floor line. The passengers were killed when the aircraft struck obstacles during the forced landing; the pilots were able to escape through the cockpit windows and survived. The ignition and fuel sources of the fire could not be determined, although many believe that the most likely cause was a defective cabin heater. The pilot indicated that the crew tried to turn on the gasoline cabin heater repeatedly shortly before the fire occurred, but that it failed to respond. After the fire, the access panel to the heater compartment was found unlatched. The theory is supported by records that showed that DC-3s in general, and this aircraft in particular, had had a previous history of problems with the cabin heaters.

Despite these findings, rumors persisted that the fire was due to the band freebasing cocaine.


Nelson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Famemarker in 1987, and also to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Famemarker at 1515 Vine Street.

In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Ricky Nelson's passing, PBS aired a one-hour documentary entitled Ricky Nelson Sings featuring interviews with his children, as well as James Burton and Kris Kristofferson. The only time Kristofferson played with Nelson was in Elroy, Wisconsin at a "Party in the Park" show on July 3, 1985. That performance has since been released on DVD.

The American rock n roll band The Cramps dedicated their 1986 album A Date With Elvis to the memory of Ricky Nelson, as written on the album's back cover before the credits.

The song "Ricky" (originally titled "Ricky Nelson"), track 4 on John Frusciante's 2004 album Shadows Collide with People, is a tribute to Nelson, and is sung in a similar style.

Bob Dylan, in his 2004 memoir, "Chronicles, Vol. 1", wrote about Nelson's influence on his music. Also in 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Nelson number 91 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

On December 27, 2005, EMI Music released an album titled Ricky Nelson's Greatest Hits, with 25 songs. It peaked at number 56 on the Billboard 200 album chart.

In Stephen King's short-story collection Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Nelson appears in "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band" as an evil version of himself, who torments an unsuspecting couple trapped in a town inhabited by late rock 'n' roll legends. Nelson was portrayed by William McNamara in the 2006 television mini-series adaptation, Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King.

Nelson's estate is run as The Rick Nelson Company, LLC, and owns ancillary rights to the classic Ozzie and Harriet television series. As of 2007, after years of public-domain video releases on VHS and DVD, an official edition of the show has been released through Shout! Factory.


(Highest chart success on the Billboard charts.)
  • Ricky (1957) (1)
  • Ricky Nelson (1958) (7)
  • Ricky Sings Again (1959) (14)
  • Songs by Ricky (1959) (22)
  • More Songs by Ricky (1960) (18)
  • Rick Is 21 (1961) (8)
  • Album Seven by Rick (1962) (27)
  • Best Sellers By Rick Nelson (1963) (112)
  • It's Up to You (1963) (128)
  • For Your Sweet Love (1963) (20)
  • Rick Nelson Sings "For You" (1964) (14)
  • A Long Vacation (1963)
  • The Very Thought of You (1964)
  • Best Always (1965)
  • Spotlight on Rick (1965)
  • Bright Lights & Country Music (1966)
  • Love and Kisses (1966)
  • Country Fever (1967)
  • I Need You (1968)
  • Perspective (1968)
  • Another Side of Rick (1969)
  • In Concert at the Troubadour, 1969 (1970)
  • Rick Nelson in Concert (1970) (54)
  • Rick Sings Nelson (1970) (196)
  • Rudy the Fifth (1971)
  • Garden Party (1972) (32)
  • Windfall (1974) (190)
  • Intakes (1977)
  • Playing to Win (1981) (153)
  • Four You (1981)
  • All My Best (1985)

Singles discography

Nationally charted hits shown in bold.

Year A-Side B-Side Label + Cat. No. Chart positions
US Hot 100 US C&W UKmarker
1957 A Teenager's Romance Verve 10047 2
I'm Walkin' Verve 10047 4
You're My One and Only Love Honey Rock Verve 10070 14
Have I Told You Lately that I Love You Imperial 5463 29
Be-Bop Baby Imperial 5463 3
1958 Stood Up Imperial 5483 2 8 27
Waitin' in School Imperial 5483 18 12
My Bucket's Got a Hole in It Imperial 5503 12 10
Believe What You Say Imperial 5503 4 10
Poor Little Fool Don't Leave Me This Way Imperial 5528 1 3 4
Someday London 8732 (UK only) 9
Lonesome Town Imperial 5545 7
I Got A Feeling Imperial 5545 10 27
1959 It's Late Imperial 5565 9 3
Never Be Anyone Else But You Imperial 5565 6 14
Just a Little Too Much Imperial 5595 9 11
Sweeter Than You Imperial 5595 9 19
I Wanna Be Loved Imperial 5614 20 30
Mighty Good Imperial 5614 38
1960 Young Emotions Imperial 5663 12 48
Right by My Side Imperial 5663 59
I'm Not Afraid Imperial 5685 27
Yes Sir, That's My Baby Imperial 5685 34
You Are the Only One Imperial 5707 25
Milk Cow Blues Imperial 5707 79
1961 Travelin' Man Imperial 5741 1 2
Hello Mary Lou Imperial 5741 9 2
A Wonder Like You Imperial 5770 11
Everlovin' Imperial 5770 16 23
1962 Young World Imperial 5805 5 19
"Summertime" Imperial 5805 89
Teen Age Idol Imperial 5864 5 39
I've Got My Eyes on You (And I Like What I See) Imperial 5864 105
It's Up to You Imperial 5901 6 22
I Need You Imperial 5901 83
1963 I'm In Love Again Imperial 5910 67
That's All Imperial 5910 48
You Don't Love Me Anymore (And I Can Tell) Decca 31475 47
I Got a Woman Decca 31475 49
If You Can't Rock Me Imperial 5935 100
Old Enough to Love Imperial 5935 94
A Long Vacation Mad Mad World Imperial 5958 120
Gypsy Woman Decca 31495 62
String Along Decca 31495 25
There's Not A Minute Time After Time Imperial 5985 127
Fools Rush In Decca 31533 12 12
Down Home Decca 31533 126
Today's Teardrops Thank You Darlin' Imperial 66004 54
For You That's All She Wrote Decca 31574 9 14
1964 Congratulations One Minute to One Imperial 66017 63
The Very Thought of You I Wonder (If Your Love Will Belong to Me) Decca 31612 26
Lucky Star Everybody But Me Imperial 66039 127
There's Nothing I Can Say Decca 31656 47
Lonely Corner 1964 113
A Happy Guy Don't Breathe a Word Decca 31703 82
1965 Mean Old World When the Chips Are Down Decca 31756 96
Come Out Dancing Yesterday's Love Decca 31800 130
Say You Love Me Love and Kisses Decca 31845
1966 Fire Breathin' Dragon Your Kind of Lovin' Decca 31900
You Just Can't Quit Louisiana Man Decca 31956 108
Things You Gave Me Alone Decca 32026
1967 They Don't Give Medals (To Yesterday's Heroes) Take a Broken Heart Decca 32055
Take a City Bride I'm Called Lonely Decca 32120 58
1968 Suzanne on a Sunday Morning Moonshine Decca 32176
Dream Weaver Baby Close Its Eyes Decca 32222
1969 Don't Blame It on Your Wife Promenade in Green Decca 32284
Don't Make Promises Barefoot Boy Decca 32298
She Belongs to Me Promises Decca 32558 33
1970 Easy to Be Free Come On In Decca 32635 48
I Shall Be Released If You Gotta Go, Go Now Decca 32676 102
Look at Mary We've Got Such a Long Way to Go Decca 32711
1971 How Long Down Along the Bayou Country Decca 32739
Life California Decca 32779 109
1972 Thank You Lord Sing Me a Song Decca 32860
Gypsy Pilot Love Minus Zero/No Limit Decca 32906
Garden Party So Long Mama Decca 32980 6 44 41
1973 Palace Guard A Flower Opens Gently By MCA 40001 65
Lifestream Evil Woman Child MCA 40130
1974 Windfall Legacy MCA 40187
One Night Stand Lifestream MCA 40214 89
Try (Try to Fall in Love) Louisiana Belle MCA 40392
Rock and Roll Lady Fade Away (MCA 40458)
1977 You Can't Dance It's Another Day Epic 50458
1978 Gimme a Little Sign Something You Can't Buy Epic 50501
1979 Dream Lover That Ain't the Way Love's Supposed to Be Epic 50674 59
It Hasn't Happened Yet Call It What You Want (Capitol 4974)
Believe What You Say The Loser Babe Is You (Capitol 4988)
Give 'em My Number No Fair Falling in Love (Capitol 5178)
You Know What I Mean Don't Leave Me This Way (MCA 52781)
1986 Dream Lover (re-issue) Rave On Epic 06066 88
1991 Hello Mary Lou (UK only re-issue) Liberty EMCT 2 45


  • Philip Bashe: Teenage Idol, Travelin' Man: The Complete Biography of Rick Nelson. New York: Hyperion 1992. ISBN 1-56282-969-6


  1. Joel Whitburn, Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles, 1955-2006
  2. Kelly, Perry (2000). Dan Inosanto: The Man, The Teacher, The Artist, Paladin Press. p. 145 ISBN 1-58160-079-8.
  3. Band Profile: H Is Orange, Retrieved 2009-05-19
  4. "For his first recording, Nelson cut a double-sided smash: “A Teenager’s Romance” backed with Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’."

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