TV star Ricky Nelson was the first American teen idol
Eric Hilliard “Ricky” Nelson was born on May 8, 1940, in Teaneck, New Jersey. He was the second son of Ozzie Nelson, the leader of a big band, and Harriet Hilliard Nelson, the band’s singer. Ricky was the wise-cracking younger sibling in the long-running television series “Ozzie and Harriet,” which ran on radio and TV from 1944-1966. Along with older brother David, the family was a huge hit on television. But little could anyone imagine in the early days what fate had in store for Ricky.
As the story goes, Ricky was dating a girl who was an Elvis Presley fan, when Ricky remarked to her that he, too, could sing. The girl laughed at him, and so to impress her, Nelson found a drug store recording booth and recorded a song he had written, “I’m Walkin’.”
“My dad was kind of shy, because he knew that anything he said or did around the house might end up as an episode on the show,” said Ricky Nelson’s son, Matthew. “Singing was his way of expressing himself without anyone knowing about it. He would sit in the closet in his room and sing his songs, and after he recorded “I’m Walkin’ ” he would only listen to it in there.
“But then my grandfather happened to hear him playing it one day, and asked him ‘Who is that?’ My dad said ‘Well, it’s me, Pop.’ My grandfather thought it would make a great episode, and so he had dad sing it at the end of one of the shows.”
That was in 1957, and suddenly Ricky Nelson was on his way to becoming the first real American teen idol.
“Ozzie was smart enough to cut a deal with Verve Records after that, and the song sold a million copies in a week,” Matthew said. “It was a phenomenon. What some people don’t realize, though, is that my dad was so serious about his music. There were no such things as producers or agents then, young singers had to produce themselves. And he knew what he was doing.”
From 1957 to 1962, Nelson had 30 top-40 hits, more than any other artist at the time except Elvis. Many of Nelson’s early records were double hits, with both the A side and the B side hitting the billboard charts.
While Nelson preferred “Rockabilly” and uptempo rock songs like “Hello Mary Lou.” “It’s Late,” “Stood Up,” and “Be-Bop Baby,” his smooth, calm voice made him a natural to sing ballads. He had major success with “Travelin’ Man,” “Poor Little Fool,” “Young World,” “Lonesome Town,” and “Teenage Idol,” which clearly could have been about Ricky himself at the time. The 1964 hit “For You” would be his last top 40 song until 1970, when he recorded Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs To Me” with the Stone Canyon Band. In 1972, he would hit the top 40 one last time with “Garden Party,” a song he wrote in disgust after a Madison Square Garden audience booed him when he tried playing new songs instead of his old hits from the 1950s and ’60s.
Rick Nelson also had his demons. By the late 1970s, he had gone through divorce, he wasn’t making records, and his live appearances were infrequent. According to many sources he began using drugs, primarily marijuana.
But in 1985, he joined a nostalgia rock tour of England, and the resulting success revived interest in his music. He had just begun an American revival tour when he died in a plane crash in De Kalb, Texas on New Year’s Eve, 1985. He was on his way to a concert in Dallas. The last song he sang on stage was Buddy Holly’s “Rave On.”
“One of the songs I remember most is “Easy To Be Free,” Matthew said. “It was a mid-chart success, and most people don’t know it. It’s very Dylanesque – Bob Dylan and dad were good friends – and when I play it, I can see what it does to an audience. For a long time it was something I just kept for myself, and never played in public. I sang it at his memorial service, and it’s something that makes me miss him a lot less.
“It’s been 20 years; I can’t believe that it’s been so long since he’s been gone,” Matthew said. “I was 18 when he passed away, and dad was my best friend. We bonded through music, and every time I play I feel that we’re closer still.”