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Ricky Nelson: TV’s Teen Dream Knew How to Rock

Musicians and friends remember the soft-spoken rockabilly star

Ricky Nelson

Ricky Nelson plays acoustic guitar as he luxuriates on the laps of 4 female fans in circa 1958 in Los Angeles, California.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Rick Nelson spent much of his adult life trying to shake free of his alter ego. As Ricky Nelson, the handsome golden boy of TV’s most famous family on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, he was the ultimate rock & roll dream date of the late Fifties and early Sixties. Yet this shy, very private young man, who at the height of his career had 9000 fan clubs and who eventually sold 35 million records, had a major impact on rock music, one that transcended the wholesome tenor of his image.

Teenagers across America saw him bopping the blues on television nearly every week at the end of Ozzie & Harriet, lip-syncing his latest hit record, like “Be-Bop Baby” or “Hello Mary Lou.” Sure, his rockabilly was just as clean-cut and well mannered as he was, and on the show he usually performed under the bemused and watchful eyes of his parents, TV’s good-natured paragons of Eisenhower-era morality. But at a time when Ed Sullivan would show Elvis Presley only from the waist up, young Ricky Nelson — his soft, sexy altar-boy features topped by a stylish but conservative pompadour — was regularly broadcasting the rock & roll gospel into living rooms across America, spiking the G-rated clam of the Nelson home with a little Fender twang.

“He was Hollywood, but the records he made were totally legitimate rockabilly, as good as any of the best stuff from Sun Records,” said John Fogerty, a fan and, later, a friend of Nelson’s. “Creedence did ‘Hello Mary Lou.’ We didn’t do it very well [it was on the band’s final album, Mardi Gras], but we did it.”

“I always loved Ricky Nelson,” declared singer/songwriter Marshall Crenshaw, “but he never got the recognition due him. You can’t underestimate the power of his popularity. He and his band were on TV every week, waving their Fender guitars in your face. That alone influenced a lot of people.” When guitarist James Burton, a member of Nelson’s TV and recording band for almost nine years, joined Elvis Presley’s group in 1969, Presley told him he never missed an episode of Ozzie & Harriet. “Elvis told me he used to watch that TV show just to see us play our segment at the end,” Burton said.

Rick Nelson was born into show business. He went through childhood and puberty and even got married in front of television cameras. Born Eric Hilliard Nelson on May 8th, 1940, in Teaneck, New Jersey, he was the second son of dance-band leader Ozzie Nelson and his vocalist wife, the former Harriet Hilliard. In the Forties, Ozzie and Harriet turned their family’s real-life adventures into a popular radio comedy, although Rick and his brother, David, who was four years older, were portrayed by other child actors until 1949. When Ozzie & Harriet bowed on the ABC television network in 1952, Ricky was the darling gnome next door, wolfing down chocolate malts and diligently minding his p’s and q’s. Four years later, when he first appeared on the show fronting a band to impress a high-school sweetheart who had a crush on Elvis Presley, Nelson was paying more attention to R&R and devouring Sun Records hits by Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis.

“I used to go and buy every Sun record that I could get my hands on back in the Fifties ’cause they were such a really good sound,” Nelson told an interviewer in 1973. “I was a really big fan of Carl Perkins. I wanted to sound like him as much as I could.”

His first record, an adequate 1957 reading of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’,” provided an early demonstration of the power of television to sell rock & roll. After Nelson performed the song on Ozzie & Harriet, “I’m Walkin”‘ sold a million copies. Ozzie was acting as his son’s business adviser and executive producer back then, and according to Jimmie Haskell, who was Rick’s arranger and A&R man when he signed with Imperial Records in late 1957, “Ozzie’s main thing in those days was ‘Give me too much drums and too much bass, because the top and bottom disappear when we replay the tracks on television.’ He knew he was going to play those records on television.”

The combination of Ozzie’s promotional acumen and Rick’s photogenic charm ensured that Rick’s singles regularly shot up to the top of the charts. In his first year of recording, Nelson racked up half a dozen hits, including “A Teenager’s Romance,” “Stood Up,” “Be-Bop Baby” and a faithful cover of Billy Lee Riley’s rollicking Sun single “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.”

Certainly in terms of consistent chart performance and media exposure, Nelson was serious competition for Elvis Presley, Number Two in a very crowded field of new white pop idols. But the limitations of his wholesome image and his native shyness prevented him from eclipsing Presley’s flagrant sensuality. Haskell described seeing one of Nelson’s first concert performances: “The audience screamed for five minutes when he first came out. He didn’t bow, he didn’t smile, he didn’t wave. He just stood there. I could tell he was frightened. He didn’t know what to do next. He wanted them to stop screaming so he could start singing, which he knew how to do.”

Blessed with a clear, expressive, if somewhat timid voice, Nelson was only eighteen when his 1958 single, “Poor Little Fool,” a Presley-flavored crooner written by Eddie Cochran’s girlfriend, topped the charts. But he was already more in control of his career than most teen idols, acting as de facto producer of his records with Haskell (there were no production credits on his early hits) and carefully selecting his own material, subject only to Ozzie’s veto. Haskell remembered once sitting with Rick in his dressing room on the Ozzie & Harriet set, listening to a demo acetate of a prospective song. “He listened to the song and said, ‘That’s good, that’s good.’ Then we got to the bridge, and on the first line of the lyric, he picked up the needle and turned it off. He said, ‘I’d never say something like that.’ What he looked for was what he felt personally was right for him.”

Nelson, who didn’t record his own songs back then, found what he was looking for in material by Gene Pitney, who cowrote “Hello Mary Lou,” and rockabilly brothers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, who between them contributed hits like the frisky “It’s Late” and “Believe What You Say.” “I never thought he’d pick that kind of material,” Pitney said of “Hello Mary Lou,” a Number One hit for Nelson in 1961 along with its flip side, “Travelin’ Man.” “I was in a car in Philadelphia with a promotion man, we were doing record hops, and it came on the air. It was one of those records that you knew immediately was a winner.”

Musicians on Nelson’s Fifties and Sixties hits included R&B drumming great Earl Palmer, Glen Campbell and a young Leon Russell. But for many budding young guitarists, like John Fogerty, Jeff Beck and Mark Knopfler, the main attraction on Nelson’s best records — particularly coltish rockabilly-style outings like “Stood Up,” “It’s Late” and “Hello Mary Lou” — was the articulate picking of Louisiana-born guitarist James Burton. Only seventeen when he joined Nelson’s band in 1958, he complemented Nelson’s earnest, straightforward singing with bright, stabbing fills and short, buoyant solos that combined prodigious technical accuracy with authentic hillbilly grit.

The two also lived like brothers during their near decade together — in the studio, on the road, even at the Nelsons’ house, where Burton roomed for a couple of years after he moved to California. The rosy, suburban-California image the Nelsons presented on TV — more milk and cookies than trouble and strife — was no act either, according to Burton. Rick Nelson was just as well groomed, polite and interested in good, clean fun off the set.

“He was so relaxed and so easygoing,” Burton recalled. “I’ve never seen Rick get upset or fly off the handle at anybody. If there was a problem, he’d sit down and talk very gentle about it.”

Burton and Nelson frequently rode motorcycles together with such Hollywood rock & roll pals as Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent. Yet Nelson remained otherwise immune to the usual rock vices like drugs and women because, Burton said, “we were so into our music thing. We used to work in Atlantic City, at Steel Pier, and do eight shows a day. Then we’d go back to our hotel rooms and sit and play our guitars, maybe try and write a song.

“Ricky loved chocolate malts and Cokes. For breakfast he’d have a hamburger, a chocolate malt and a Coke. And we’d sit there and talk about music.”

Like other teen idols of his era, Nelson made the transition to films. He starred in five movies during his popchart and TV heyday, including The Wackiest Ship in the Army, in 1960, and Howard Hawks’ classic 1959 western, Rio Bravo, in which he played a young gunfighter named Colorado alongside John Wayne and Dean Martin, with whom he sang “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” When the hit records dried up and Ozzie & Harriet finally faded from prime-time TV in 1966, Nelson said goodbye to Hollywood and began pursuing a latent interest in country music, recording a pair of mid-Sixties albums — Bright Lights and Country Music and Country Fever — that eventually led to the formation in 1969 of his Stone Canyon Band.

Although he was heavily influenced by Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album, Nelson was among the first California rockers to heartily embrace country music, well ahead of bands like the Eagles. In fact, the original version of the Stone Canyon Band included future Eagle Randy Meisner on bass and ex-Buck Owens pedal steel guitarist Tom Brumley, a coupling indicative of Nelson’s progressive country vision. On well-crafted but commercially unsuccessful early-Seventies LPs like Rick Nelson in Concert, Rick Sings Nelson and Rudy the Fifth, Nelson also showcased his own originals next to frequent Dylan covers (a live version of “She Belongs to Me” was a minor hit in 1969).

In 1972, Nelson rebounded into the Top Ten with the million-selling “Garden Party,” his deceptively stern response to an oldies-revival audience he’d played to at New York’s Madison Square Garden the previous year. According to legend, Nelson, who had refused to appear in Fifties-revival package shows up to that point, was viciously booed by the crowd for playing too much country-rock and not enough old “Ricky” hits. The promoter of the show, Richard Nader, claimed it didn’t happen quite the way Nelson remembered it in the song.

“He was trying to be contemporary. He had real long hair and a purple western shirt that just glowed. He looked great,” said Nader. Nelson actually “got a good response to his entire set,” which included several oldies as stipulated in Nader’s contract. The trouble started when Nelson went to the piano to pound out a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.”

“Coincidentally — I found this out later — in the top tier there were some rowdies,” said Nader. “The cops were moving them out, and the people were booing the cops at the end of that song. Rick thought the booing was for him.”

However mistaken, Nelson was so wounded by the experience that he refused to do another Nader oldies show for twelve years. “Garden Party” summarized with quiet fury Nelson’s impatience with the nostalgic demands of his old fans, exacted at the expense of his adult ambitions. “If you gotta play at garden parties/I wish you a lotta luck,” he sang with understated resolve over the band’s casual country gait, “But if memories were all I sang/I’d rather drive a truck.”

Ironically, in later years, Nelson gravitated back toward the tougher pop-abilly sound of his best Fifties hits. He asked John Fogerty to produce an album for him in 1976, but the project fell through. Nelson continued to record for major labels into the Eighties, covering rootsy pop songs by Fogerty, Graham Parker and John Hiatt, though without much success. Last year, he re-recorded many of his original hits with his rockabilly-style road band for a double album, All My Best, sold via TV. Nelson was also planning to cut tracks for a new album, possibly to be released on MCA/Curb, with Jimmie Haskell and James Burton. But his last recording session was in Memphis last September 20th with the Million Dollar Quartet of Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison. Nelson joined Dave Edmunds and John Fogerty for the Quartet’s big finale on Fogerty’s “Big Train (from Memphis).”

“Rick sang harmony with Dave Edmunds and Carl Perkins,” Fogerty said. “That sounded really cool.” It was also a special day for Nelson, who finally got to meet Perkins nearly thirty years after he first fell for Perkins’ 1956 hit “Boppin’ the Blues.” “He was a fan, he wasn’t a star,” Fogerty noted. “But he was real shy. I was jumping around, shaking hands, trying to meet people. You had to go up to him to talk to him.”

Nelson is survived by his mother, Harriet, 71, his brother, David, 49, as well as his four children — daughter Tracy, 22; twins Matthew and Gunnar, 18; and Sam, 11 — by ex-wife Kristin Harmon. (Ozzie died of cancer in 1975 at age 68.) Tracy recently starred with Nick Nolte in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, while the twins do the Los Angeles club circuit with an a cappella group called, quite appropriately, the Nelsons.

But Rick Nelson is also survived by the generations of rock fans who first got the boogie fever from his sanitized but sincere raveups at the end of every Ozzie & Harriet show. “Aside from Elvis and some of the early back stars, Ricky Nelson was huge,” said John Fogerty. “His sound was at the top of rockabilly. He made incredibly great records for about six or seven years. It was strange that he never got the critical acclaim that some people, less deserving, got.”

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