Ricky Nelson Biography

Eric Hilliard Nelson, 8 May 1940, Teaneck, New Jersey, USA, d. 31 December 1985, De Kalb, Texas, USA. Nelson came from a showbusiness family. His father, Ozzie Nelson, formed a popular dance band in the 1930s. The band featured singer Harriet Hilliard, who became Ozzie Nelson’s wife in 1935. The couple had their own US radio show, The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet, which transferred to television in 1952. Ricky and his brother David appeared in several episodes of the show. By 1957 Nelson had embarked on his own recording career, with the million-selling, double-sided ‘I’m Walking’/‘A Teenager’s Romance’. A third hit soon followed with ‘You’re My One And Only Love’. A switch from Verve Records to Imperial Records saw Nelson enjoy further success with the rockabilly ‘Be-Bop Baby’. In 1958 Nelson formed a full-time group for live work and recordings, which included James Burton (guitar), James Kirkland (later replaced by Joe Osborn) (bass), Gene Garf (piano) and Richie Frost (drums). Early that year Nelson enjoyed his first transatlantic hit with ‘Stood Up’ and, in August, registered the first Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper with Sharon Sheeley’s ‘Poor Little Fool’. His early broadcasting experience was put to useful effect when he starred in the Howard Hawks movie western Rio Bravo (1959), alongside John Wayne and Dean Martin. Nelson’s singles continued to chart regularly and it says much for the quality of his work that the b-sides were often as well known as the a-sides. Songs such as ‘Believe What You Say’, ‘Never Be Anyone Else But You’, ‘It’s Late’, ‘Sweeter Than You’, ‘Just A Little Too Much’ and ‘I Wanna Be Loved’ proved that Nelson was equally adept at singing ballads and up-tempo material. One of his greatest moments as a pop singer occurred in the spring of 1961 when he issued the million-selling ‘Travelin’ Man’, backed with the exuberant Gene Pitney composition, ‘Hello Mary Lou’. Shortly after the single topped the US charts, Nelson celebrated his 21st birthday in 1961 and announced that he was changing his performing name from Ricky to Rick. Several more pop hits followed, most notably ‘Young World’, ‘Teenage Idol’, ‘It’s Up To You’, ‘String Along’ (his first single for Decca Records), ‘Fools Rush In’ and ‘For You’.

With the emergence of the beat boom, Nelson’s clean-cut pop was less in demand. He struggled to find a direction that neither alienated his old fans nor saw him out on a limb. The move to Decca had seen him produce more albums, and the hits slowly dried up. By the time The Very Thought Of You and Spotlight On Rick were released America was in the grip of Beatlemania, things declined further in 1965 with the disappointing Best Always and Love And Kisses In 1966 he switched to country music. His early albums in this vein featured compositions from such artists as Merle Travis (‘Kentucky Means Paradise’), Willie Nelson (‘Funny How Time Slips Away’) and Hank Williams (‘You Win Again’), and it was clear that Nelson seemed to have found a comfortable niche for his voice. By 1967 though, he had ventured further off course and attempted more contemporary songs by writers such as Harry Nilsson (‘Without Her’), Paul Simon (‘For Emily, Whenever I Find Her’) and a clutch of classic Randy Newman songs, none of which were suited to his easy going voice. He ruined the sensitive ‘I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ and further bad judgements resulted in a dreadful attempt at John Sebastian’s ‘Daydream’. He did however manage some beautiful versions of Tim Hardin songs (‘Reason To Believe’ and ‘Don’t Make Promises’).

After this nadir, in 1969 Nelson formed a new outfit, the Stone Canyon Band, featuring former Poco member Randy Meisner (b. 8 March 1946, Scottsbluff, Nebraska, USA; bass), Allen Kemp (guitar), Tom Brumley (steel guitar) and Pat Shanahan (drums). A credible version of Bob Dylan’s ‘She Belongs To Me’ brought Nelson back into the US charts, and a series of strong, often underrated, albums followed. A performance at Madison Square Garden in late 1971 underlined Nelson’s difficulties at the time. Although he had recently issued the accomplished Rick Sings Nelson, on which he wrote every track, the audience were clearly more interested in hearing his early 60s hits. Nelson responded by composing the sarcastic ‘Garden Party’, which reaffirmed his determination to go his own way. The single, ironically, went on to sell a million and was his last hit record. After parting with the Stone Canyon Band in 1974, Nelson’s recorded output declined, but he continued to tour extensively. On 31 December 1985, a chartered plane carrying him to a concert date in Dallas caught fire and crashed near De Kalb, Texas. Nelson’s work deserves a place in rock history, as he was one of the few ‘good-looking kids’ from the early 60s who had a strong voice which, when coupled with some exemplary material, remains durable.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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