Ricky Nelson - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


           California's 1950’s rockabilly scene produced only two accredited teen idols, the short-lived star Eddie Cochran and of, course, Hollywood's own golden boy, Ricky Nelson. With his built-in dreamboat appeal and a low-key, at times almost whispered, vocal style, Nelson’s high-velocity rise to rockabilly fame surprised just about everyone in the business, including Nelson himself. And while Nelson’s recording career was marked by a series of on-again, off-again bursts, he left behind a stack of titles prized for both their incendiary music and his own individualistic vocal stylings. Nelson’s combination of wide-eyed ingenuous youth, simmering teen frustration and his innate grasp of the form’s requisite elements was so natural, he couldn’t fail. Perhaps the strangest part of the whole saga is that Nelson, at least from the outset, did not really even want to sing at all--it was achieved, not as rebel impulse, but at the crafty hand of  Ricky’s father, the television star and former big band era operator, Ozzie Nelson. Ricky Nelson quickly came to represent the pop culture model of American youth, a fact underscored Dean Martin’s Ocean’s Eleven gag: “I used to be Ricky Nelson. Now I’m Perry Como.”


            Born Eric Hilliard Nelson on May 8th 1940 in Teaneck, New Jersey, his entire life was ineluctably bound to show business; by the time he was four, “Ricky” was already a fictional character, voiced by an actor on his parents radio program The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. By 1949, the boy was playing himself, along with older brother David, in a weird radio first--an entire family leading scripted, fictional lives. Naturally, the popular concept soon carried over to the silver screen as 1953’s Here Come the Nelsons, and next, on television. The ABC network sitcom, with the entire she-bang overseen by producer, director, writer and story editor Ozzie, a man who spun this Cult of Self into pure gold. Ozzie was a Rutgers graduate with a degree from the New Jersey Law School, but had enjoyed such success with his college dance band that he never bothered with the bar at all. Specializing in the honeyed Guy Lombardo-Eddy Duchin school of pop--all of it put over with solid, if unadventurous musicality--Ozzie Nelson enjoyed a long run on bandstands coast to coast, showcasing the light, often comical duets ("sweet simperings" Metronome magazine called them) that he performed with singer Harriet Hilliard, whom he married in 1935. 


            Nelson grew up with the weird double life his parents sitcom demanded, but by all accounts suffered little from the relentless national cathode ray exposure. Success as a singing star however was a different matter, and although it originated with the teenager himself--cutting an acetate recording of Fats Domino hit "I'm Walking" to impress a crush--Ozzie amplified the amateur conceit into a full-blown recording date, replete with the top session talent of the day (it‘s almost surprising that Ozzie decided not to play all of the instruments himself, too, but he did handle the contract with Imperial Records, A&R‘d and produced the album).


            It was a seemingly inauspicious occasion, but Nelson’s awkward, almost stilted, performance gave him an advantage amongst his built-in audience of peers, who viewed Nelson as if he were just another kid on the block. After he was featured singing it on the TV show, the disc blew out of music shop doors at gale force. Perhaps the key angle to Nelson's ultimate success as an artist, albeit a manufactured one, is that he was more genuine fan than hungry aspirant, and his clearly apparent love and respect for the new sound transcended both his own limitations and the highly unusual nature of his entry into music.


            Nelson grew up fast, balling 'til the early bright, hanging out with touring stars (Elvis was thrilled to meet him), smoking weed with the rough-edged young Hollywood Hep Set (well-heeled delinquents like actor Nick Adams), and also kindled a romance with the tender hillbilly thriller Lorrie Collins (big sister of the rockabilly-prone juvenile novelty act the Collins Kids).  He also assembled a first-rate studio ensemble--by out and out hijacking visiting Texas rockabilly Bob Luman's band--a combo anchored by the outstanding guitarist James Burton, who went on to cut numerous classics with Merle Haggard and later served as Elvis Presley's mainstay axe-man. Burton's solid, decidedly Southern playing lent much needed sizzle and authenticity to Ricky's detached approach to rockabilly cool. He sold a song in much the same manner as jazz trumpeter-vocalist Chet Baker, a deceptively reticent delivery that, with it's mild-toned standoffish-ness offered another tremendous advantage--parents did not disapprove of Ricky like they did of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.


            While his first album was a relatively soppy affair, the newly developed formula allowed him to cook up one of the most solid long players of the era, his second album Ricky Nelson (1958 Imperial), a set that cemented him as a force transcendent of his Ozzie-ersatz birthing. But with his 1958 stand out "Lonesome Town," Nelson reached not only the Top Ten but also a higher, and definitely more shadowy, plateau. Where the groaning preponderance of rockabilly ballads were sappy soda shop laments, on “Lonesome Town” Ricky spoke in an incalculably forlorn voice that oozed singular artistic distinction.


            The kid had smarts and clearly realized that it would be foolish to limit his opportunities by clinging to the big beat, and in 1958 expanded his acting resume by appearing in Howard Hawks western classic, Rio Bravo. While working with John Wayne and Dean Martin, Nelson held his own, and the two superstars were affable enough (except for one on-set prank that involved a wheelbarrow full of horse manure) and Nelson received encouraging reviews after the picture was released. And he kept the hits coming: between 1957-1962, Nelson scored an impressive twenty six Billboard pop hits, two of which, “Poor Little Fool” and ‘Travelin’ Man” went to number one. But the overwhelming impact of the British Invasion did not bode well for a guy from New Jersey who liked to sing country and rockabilly, and after he switched labels and cut Bright Lights and Country Music (1966 Decca) and Country Fever (1967 Decca), it seemed like no one even noticed.


            Nelson, however,  had a hardcore cult of adoring fans, both at home and in Europe, and he had music in his blood. With his newly formed Stone Canyon Band, he set out to revive his musical career, and in 1972, turned the tables on everyone with the brilliant country-rock hit "Garden Party," a deceptively mild yet defiant act of self-definition worthy of a respect beyond even that which his avid cult had so long and closely nurtured. It was as if, when you paid too close attention, Nelson came across as inconsequential, a light weight; but when you looked away, he’d came back with a “Lonesome Town,” or a “Garden Party” that would knock you to your knees. Nelson’s appeal was far-reaching, and at the height of the punk rock revolution, the Cramps’ version of  “Lonesome Town” renewed, in a odd, underground sort of way, Nelson‘s neglected artistic cachet.


            When, in the mid-1980s, he looked back and took a resolutely pure rockabilly act on the road, it seemed he had finally attained within himself the substance and drive that had drawn him to the music decades earlier. A West Coast tour with Fats Domino, who hadn’t appeared in the Golden state for decades (a statute of limitations situation reportedly), brought a great deal of attention from the press and a renewed interest in Nelson’s music. But the fact that his devout fandom made buying Jerry Lee Lewis' very used private DC 3 aircraft seem a crazy cool notion was an entirely avoidable concession to rockabilly’s near-cursed, fatalistic tendency. It was also, of course, a very bad mistake in judgment that guaranteed him a spot alongside needlessly lost colleagues Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and Eddie Cochran. On Dec 30, 1985, flying to a show in Dallas, fire broke out inside the plane’s heating system and it went down, killing everyone on board. While initial rumors that Nelson had started the fire while freebasing cocaine spread coast to coast, subsequent investigations revealed there was no truth to the claim. It was a final ugly blemish on a beloved yet frequently misunderstood artist, and appreciation for his achievements steadily increased, beginning with his posthumous induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1986 and continued by a ceaseless tide of re-issued CDs.

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