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.”