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Rick Nelson

Biography

Rick Nelson
Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images Images

When singer Rick Nelson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, ROLLING STONE publisher and Hall of Fame cofounder Jann Wenner noted "the critical myopia that dogged [Nelson's] career." Indeed, Rick, or Ricky, as he was known early on, launched his career from a position of privilege: Rick Nelson's family's popular weekly television series, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Nelson was wealthy, handsome, a household name, and an American teen idol long before Nelson ever cut a record. In nearly every regard, Rick Nelson would seem the antithesis of the early rockers who made the music he first loved and recorded, rockabilly, and far removed from the late-'60s environment that nurtured early country rock, of which Nelson was at the vanguard. And yet musicians as diverse as Eric Andersen and John Fogerty, and even some of his own heroes, including Carl Perkins and Scotty Moore, admired and respected Nelson.

Nelson's father was a famous bandleader and his mother a singer and actress who had been famous since the early '30s. In 1949, Rick and his older brother David began playing themselves on their parents' popular radio comedy series, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, which went to TV three years later. From his first appearance, the impish, wisecracking Rick became the program's most popular character. His trademark line, "I don't mess around, boy," became a national catchphrase with prepubescent viewers. Not surprisingly, when Ricky began singing on the show in 1957, he had a massive audience. According to Nelson, he had no musical ambitions until a girlfriend said she was in love with Elvis Presley. He retorted that he too was cutting a record —which in reality he had no plans to do —and then did.

His first hit was a cover of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'"; it went to #4 in 1959 and sold a million records after Nelson performed it on TV. The flip side, "A Teenager's Romance," hit #2. Between then and 1961, Nelson had more than two dozen pop hits, several of them double-sided, including the rockabilly "Be-Bop Baby" (#3, 1957), "Stood Up" (#2, 1958) b/w "Waitin' in School" (#18, 1958), "Believe What You Say" (#4, 1958) b/w "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" (#12, 1958), "Lonesome Town" (#7, 1958) b/w "I Got a Feeling" (#10, 1958), "It's Late" (#9, 1959) b/w "Never Be Anyone Else but You" (#6, 1959), "Just a Little Too Much" (#9, 1959). He also hit with ballads, such as "Poor Little Fool" (#1, 1958), Baker Knight's "Lonesome Town," "Sweeter Than You" (#9, 1959), and "Travelin' Man" (#1, 1961) and its B side, the Gene Pitney —penned "Hello Mary Lou" (#9, 1961). Some of Nelson's early hits, including "Waitin'," "Believe What You Say," and "It's Late," were penned by Dorsey and/or Johnny Burnette [see entries]. For seven years, Nelson's backup band featured James Burton, who later became Presley's lead guitarist.

In 1962, Nelson had three more Top 10 hits ("Young World," the autobiographical "Teenage Idol," and "It's Up to You"), and another in 1964, "For You." By then he had married Kris Harmon, another product of a show-business family, and become the father of the first of his four children, daughter Tracy. Twins Matthew and Gunnar [see entry on Nelson] and a third son, Sam, followed shortly. As of 1964, Nelson's hitmaking days were behind him, and after the family's show was canceled in 1966, he found himself at loose ends. Late that year he appeared, costarring with Joanie Summers (of "Johnny Get Angry" fame), in a little-seen, sophisticated rock satire entitled On the Flip Side. Nelson's fame also brought him numerous film offers, but unlike many other teen idols, from the beginning he eschewed the typical teen fare for more acclaimed parts such as his role in Howard Hawks' classic Rio Bravo (1959), which costarred John Wayne and Dean Martin, and The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960), with Jack Lemmon.

Nelson continued to record (he'd signed a 20-year contract in 1963) but, as he later admitted, without enthusiasm until he began recording in a style that would soon become known as country rock. On Bright Lights & Country Music and Country Fever, Nelson covered material by Doug Kershaw, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, and Bob Dylan, as well as contributed his own "Alone." Hanging out at the L.A. country-rock bastion the Troubadour, Nelson recruited ex-Poco bassist Randy Meisner and began forming the Stone Canyon Band, which at various times would also include Dennis Larden of Every Mother's Son; Richie Hayward, briefly on leave from Little Feat; Tom Brumley of Buck Owens' Buckaroos; Steve Love, later with Roger McGuinn and the New Riders of the Purple Sage; and Steve Duncan, later of the Desert Rose Band. With this group, he scored a minor commercial comeback with a cover of Dylan's "She Belongs to Me" (#33, 1969). A double live album recorded at the Troubadour in 1970, Rick Nelson in Concert, marked a crucial turning point for Nelson. With songs by Dylan, Tim Hardin, and Eric Andersen (who supplied the liner notes), it put to rest the charge that he was a talentless teen idol and garnered unanimous rave reviews.

His next success rose out of failure. In October 1971, when Nelson and his band appeared at a rock & roll revival at New York's Madison Square Garden, the audience booed his long-hair look and new material, particularly a version of the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women." Just a few months later, however, on a tour of England (his first, despite having had 19 Top 40 hits there), fans, including Elton John and Cliff Richard, turned out in droves and, more important to Nelson, fully accepted his new direction. Out of these experiences, he wrote his last million-seller (his first in over a decade) and his personal anthem, "Garden Party." It hit #6, went gold in 1972, and pushed the album of the same name to #32 (Nelson's best album-chart showing since 1964).

Followup albums didn't catch on, and by the mid-'70s, Nelson had lost his MCA contract. He released an album on Epic in 1977, then moved to Capitol for Playin' to Win. For a while, it was rumored that another fan, Paul McCartney, planned to produce Nelson, but nothing came of it. Partially because he so loved performing and partially due to an expensive and protracted divorce from his wife, Nelson found himself on the road an average of 250 nights a year through the late '70s and early '80s. When he sang in "Garden Party" "If memories are all I'd sing/I'd rather drive a truck," he meant it, even turning down a long-term million-dollar-plus offer (arranged by Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker) to play Las Vegas at a point when he was deeply in debt. In September 1984 he was invited, along with John Fogerty, the Judds, and Dave Edmunds, among others, to join in the finale of a Sun Records reunion album that featured Nelson's early idols Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. (The album documenting the event, Interviews From "The Class of '55" Recording Sessions, won a Grammy in 1986 for Best Spoken Word or Nonmusical Recording; it was Nelson's only Grammy.)

By 1985, Nelson had assembled a new, young band: bassist Pat Woodward, drummer Ricky Intveld, keyboardist Andy Chapin (who'd worked with Steppenwolf and the Association), and lead guitarist Bobby Neal, whom Nelson had met on an earlier recording date in Memphis. (The resulting Memphis Sessions, a collection of rockabilly covers, was released posthumously.) That August, a live documentary of Nelson was taped during a tour on which he opened for Fats Domino and was backed by the Jordanaires. He signed a new deal with Curb/MCA and, on December 26, completed recording Buddy Holly's "True Love Ways" for his upcoming album. He closed his last performance four days later with Holly's "Rave On."

On December 31, 1985, en route to a New Year's Eve show in Dallas, Texas, Nelson's DC-3 (which had previously been owned by Jerry Lee Lewis) caught on fire and crashed in a field near DeKalb, Texas. Early press reports erroneously suggested that drug use, namely freebasing cocaine, might have played a role in the crash that killed Rick, his band, and his fiancée, Helen Blair (the pilot and copilot survived). In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board's 1987 report determined that the fire began in a malfunctioning gas heater. Nelson was buried in L.A.'s Forest Lawn Cemetery.

In the years immediately following Rick Nelson's death, many other artists paid tribute to him: Bob Dylan included "Lonesome Town" in his 1986 concerts, and newer artists, including Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Dwight Yoakam, and Chris Isaak, have cited his influence. Sons Matthew and Gunnar, now known professionally as Nelson, regularly perform their father's hits, particularly "Garden Party" and "Lonesome Town," in concert. The enduring appeal of "America's favorite family" made A&E's Biography broadcast of Ozzie & Harriet: The Adventures of America's Favorite Family one of the series' highest-rated programs ever.

This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

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