across the timeline. . .
Hilliard Nelson was
born May 8, 1940, in Teaneck New Jersey. He died in DeKalb, Texas, on New
Year's Eve, 1985. To do justice to the story in between, it's necessary
to look a little further back, to the creative roots of the man later known
as Rick Nelson.
- - -
Nelson was a pretty good singer, a very funny man, and a well-known
band leader when he first spotted beautiful Harriet Hilliard and hired
her as a vocalist for his busy orchestra in the early 1930's. Harriet was
the daughter of the show business parents and had been a professional actress,
dancer, and singer since childhood. Ozzie and Harriet began a signature
act that included
comedic boy-girl banter in between the dance numbers. They married in 1935
and continued as a professional team after a successful transition to radio,
launching their own radio show: "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet."
By 1940 two younger Nelsons had made a foursome- older brother David and
his baby brother Ricky. A musical bent had been evident early, and so was
the tendency toward solitary pursuits. Even as a tow-headed little boy
of 3 or 4, Ricky could often be found lying under the family's huge Wurlitzer
radio, small bare feet sticking out, listening quietly to classical music.
Eventually the boys joined "the act," begging to play themselves on their
parents radio show. Despite Ozzie and Harriet's initial doubts, the move
paid off and the show's audience peaked to almost 20 million listeners.
After 3 years the Nelson family changed format again, testing their visual
appeal in a motion picture comedy called "Here comes the Nelsons" in 1947.
It's success led to an offer for a weekly television show, and "The Adventures
of Ozzie and Harriet" became the first and longest running family situation
comedy and part of the American lexicon.
his first appearance, wisecracking, "irrepressible" kid brother
Ricky was the show's most popular character. His trademark line "I don't
mess around, boy" became a national catch phrase. More and more the show's
plots, written by Ozzie, revolved around Rick's real life adventures. Story
lines would incorporate Rick's natural athleticism, for example, and Ozzie
would have the cameras brought to the tennis courts. Rick ranked fifth
in California among tennis player's 15 years old and younger competed nationally,
and at one time had ambitions to go professional. When his parents gave
him a car for his sixteenth birthday, it too made its appearance in an
1956 a new type of music was taking America by storm -
Rock n' Roll and Elvis Presley was on every teenager's mind, including
Rick Nelson's. When an admiring Rick dressed up as Elvis on a Halloween
show, the episode garnered huge ratings. At sixteen years old, dark
haired, blue eyed and handsome, Rick was another heartthrob in the
making. One night on a date with a girl who swooned over an Elvis
Presley song playing on the radio, Rick retorted that he too was cutting
a record (which he had no plans to do) and was met with derisive laughter.
He determined to make it happen, secured a recording studio, and did
his own cover of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin." Ozzie telecast Rick performing
the song to his already massive audience and a career in music was
launched. "I'm Walkin" flew out of the stores and sold one million
copies in a week, completely unheard of at that time. The song went
to #2 on the Billboard Chart, and its flip side, "A Teenagers Romance"
hit #2 as well.
the novel power of television, Rick
Nelson became one of the first artists that audiences saw and heard simultaneously.
He would perform a song at the end of every show, sometime having nothing
to do with the plot. Rock n' Roll was considered salacious and scandalous
in the mainstream 50's, and weekly the "nice Nelson boy" smuggled it into
living rooms and made it acceptable to parents. Consequently American teenagers
had far greater access to Rock n' Roll than they ever would have had, arguably
Rick Nelson's most important contribution to music.
family was unprepared for the commotion Rick's success would
cause. The Hollywood post office allotted an entire room to handle the
fan mail that poured in from around the world. The family had to erect
an electric fence around their home to discourage girls from climbing in
the windows, and Rick received his diploma from Hollywood High School through
the mail, the principle fearing his presence at graduation would cause
a riot. Life magazine ran a cover story on Rick, and coined an original
phrase to describe what he had become: a "Teenage Idol."
and respect for music was part of the fabric of the Nelson
household. From the beginning, Rick understood the importance of having
an excellent band to back him up. Both on record and on stage he invariably
associated with brilliant musicians who worked in a variety of different
musical genres, from blues to rockabilly. For seven years his backup
band included James Kirkland, Joe Osborn, and guitar legend James
Burton, who later played
lead for Elvis Presley and became a member of the Country Music Hall
of Fame. Rick's records consciously avoided the overly slick production
trends that characterized much of the music of the era. He played
the music that he loved to listen to. Whether it was written for him
by rockabilly greats Johnny and Dorsey Burnett or R&B veteran
Baker Night, the music was always excellent. Rick also did covers
of obscure rockers, his tastes often clashing with his father's. The
more "rocking" cuts were often the flip side of the softer, croonier
tunes favored by Ozzie, who suggested that the ballads better represented
Rick's "respectable" image on the television show. This rocker/ballad
coupling would be repeated many times in Rick's career. Between his
first hit in 1957 and 1961 he had 36 Hot One hundred titles, several
of them double-sided hits. At the age of 21 Rick had already 9 gold
records for the Imperial label, and his single hit that year, "Travelin'
Man," sold over 2 million copies and went to #1. Its flip side "Hello,
Mary Lou" proved to be his biggest hit ever, reaching #1 in 32 countries
and selling in excess of 7 million copies world wide. For the television
show, Ozzie overlaid Rick's performance of "Travelin' Man" with some
footage specially shot on location, making it the first conceptual
rock video in history.
handsome teenager with the deep blue eyes and quiet, modest
manner was also a personal appearance sensation, shattering attendance
records in America and abroad. He broke Sinatra's attendance record at
the Steel Pier in Atlantic City when 43,000 fans showed up, just managing
to make the stage door by flying over the crowd in a helicopter. Nelson's
fame brought him numerous film offers, but unlike many other teen idols,
he eschewed the typical teen fare for critically acclaimed parts in Howard's
Hawks' classic "Rio bravo" (1959), which co-starred John Wayne and Dean
Martin, and "The Wackiest Ship in the Army" (1960) with Jack Lemmon.
change of musical climate was around the corner. By 1962, America
was well in the grip of "The British Invasion." A new generation of teenage
record fans and buyers were filling the airways and charts with The Beatles
and The Rolling Stones. Homegrown rockers like Eddie Cochran, the Everly
Brothers, and Ricky Nelson were suddenly considered passe. Despite a new
lucrative 20-year contract with Decca Records, Rick struggled on the charts.
Personally, things were changing for him as well. In 1962 Rick became engaged
to Kristin Harmon, the beautiful 17 year old daughter of football great
Tom Harmon. Rick had first met Kris in the gym of Hollywood High when she
asked for his autograph which he signed "To Christin"- much to her chagrin.
Kris' mother, actress Eylse Knox, was socially acquainted with Harriet
Nelson, and said to her prophetically "if the two quiet ones ever get together,
there might be an explosion." Many strategically arranged meetings later,
Rick and Kris' wedding in April 1963 was called "The Wedding of the Year"
by Life magazine. The couple eventually settled into married life in Los
Angeles with a new baby daughter, Tracy, born October 25 of the same year.
Both wife and daughter joined Rick on the family television show. Then
in 1965, after 14 years and 435 episodes, "The Adventures of Ozzie and
Harriet" finally came to an end.
Rick was searching, at risk of getting stuck on the doldrums.
He tried many different creative projects during this period. He co-starred
with his wife Kris in a fluffy family movie called "Love and Kisses," broke
attendance records touring the Orient, made his stage debut in a musical
comedy, and continued putting out admittedly uninspired cuts for Decca.
recording career was soon to undergo
a change for the better, on every level. He'd always loved country music;
songs like "No Vacancy" and " Night Train to Memphis" were among the first
songs he learned to play. He decided to cut a country album outside of
Nashville, to prove it could be done, and done well. To this end James
Burton, Glen Cambell, the Jordinaries and other excellent players were
assembles, and the result was "Bright Lights and Country Music." The experience
became a professional turning point for Rick, gaining him immediate acceptance
in a totally new arena. Rick began recording, freshly inspired, pioneering
a style that would soon become known as country rock, the California country
1967 twin sons Gunnar and Matthew were born. Rick was hanging
out at the L.A. country-rock bastion the Troubadour, and taking his inspiration
from friend Bob Dylan, who encouraged him to express himself honestly through
his music. Rick began to put together "The Stone Canyon Band," which at
various times would include ex-Poco bassist and future Eagle Randy Meisner,
Richie Hayward of Little Feat, John Beland of the Flying Burrito Brothers,
and Bakersville legend Tom Brumley on steel guitar. A double live album
recorded with the new band at the Troubadour in 1969 "Rick Nelson in Concert,"
put to rest the charge that he was just a lucky teen idol with a pretty
face and garnered unanimous rave reviews. Rick Nelson had left "Ricky"
behind for good. His next, and personally greatest, success rose out of
a seeming failure.
October of 1971, Nelson was reluctantly persuaded to
play a Rock n' Roll revival show at Madison Square Garden, on the
same bill as Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Bobby Rydell, among others.
By this time Rick's hair had grown shoulder length, he wore bell-bottoms
and a purple velvet shirt, and he sang his new material. The audience
had come expecting their entertainment to be frozen in time, a 50s
malt shop, and Rick wasn't playing along. Halfway through his set,
the crowd began to stomp and boo. There were reports that police
were in the back moving people out, and in the political spirit
of the early 70's the crowd was actually booing the police activity.
Regardless, Rick thought the booing was meant for him, and deeply
shaken, he left the stage. The experience inspired him to put his
thoughts down on paper: "I went to a Garden Party, to reminisce
with my old friends, a chance to share some memories, and play our
songs again. When I got to the Garden Party, they all knew my name,
but no one heard the music- I didn't look the same. But it's all
right now. I learned my lesson well. You see you can't please everyone
so you gotta please yourself." "Garden Party" became Rick's first
million-seller in over a decade, hitting at #6 and going gold in
1972. On the cover of the album is a different image of Rick. He
stands in starkly formal black and white, defiantly holding out
his Les Paul guitar, confidence in his eyes. Rick Nelson was sure
of this new direction, and proud of his message. He would from then
on consider "you can't please everyone, so you gotta please yourself"
his personal anthem.
continued to produce new material, including
a son, Sam, in 1974. But due to his professional comeback, his marriage
to Kris was stressed by constant touring, and it began to fall apart. Partly
because he so loved to perform and partly due to his expensive and protracted
divorce, Nelson found himself on the road an average of 250 night a year
through the late 70's and early 80's. When he sang " If memories were all
I sang, I'd rather drive a truck," he meant it, even turning down a long
term 1 million dollar offer (arranged by Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel
Tom Parker) to play Las Vegas at a point when he was deeply in debt. In
September 1984, he was invited to join in the finale of a Sun Records reunion
album that featured Nelson's early idols Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl
Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
There, alone in the studio, Carl
Perkins quietly turned and said: "Well, Ricky, it looks like the two of
us are the only real rockabilly cats left." The resulting album "Interviews
from the class of 55 Recording Sessions" won a Grammy in 1986 for Best
Spoken Word Recording. It was Rick's only Grammy, and vastly ironic to
those who knew him well the quiet man who would rather sing than talk.
In the mid 80's, Rick had bought the old Errol Fylnn estate in the Hollywood
Hills, a house much coveted by his father Ozzie many years earlier. He
lived there with his new girlfriend Helen Blair and his college bound daughter
Tracy. He adored his youngest son Sam, who was at the time being raised
across town by Kris' parents. Twin sons Gunnar and Matthew, young rockers
playing L.A. night clubs, lived with their mother Kris and often begged
professional advice from Rick, who was proud of their musicality. He would
tell them simply to "just believe in what you're doing, and keep doing
1985, Rick had assembled a new, vibrant, young band, including
Memphis' Bobby Neal on lead guitar and L.A. rockabilly hotshots Pat Woodward
and Ricky Intveld. Nelson had signed a new deal with Curb/MCA., and the
group toured extensively, attacking their material with energy and excitement.
Travel was constant and particularly stressful for Rick. For all of his
life, Rick had maintained an avid fear of flying, sometimes referring to
premonitions and a conviction that he could see himself "as an old man."
He insisted on 2 rules of air travel: he would always fly commercially
and never in anything with a propeller. He broke both of his own rules
when he decided to purchase a vintage DC-3 that had been previously owned
by Jerry Lee Lewis, suprising and confusing those who knew him well. The
plane was dubbed "the flying bus," because of its sluggishness and tendency
to malfunction on the runway. A continuing irritation to the passengers
was the temperamental gas heater on board, which would sometimes be adjusted
mid-flight by the pilot when the cabin got too cold for the exhausted band.
December 31, 1985, en route from
Alabama to a New Year's Eve show in Dallas, Nelson's DC-3 crash-landed
in a field near DeKalb, Texas. The burning plane trapped its passengers
inside, killing all aboard, except the pilot and co-pilot, who escaped
through the cockpit window. Early press reports erroneously suggested that
drug usage aboard the plane might have played a role in the fire that killed
Rick, his band, and Helen Blair. In fact, both the F.A.A. and the 1987
National Transportation and Safety Board report determined conclusively
that the fire had begun in a malfunctioning gas heater.
(Rick) Nelson was buried in Los Angeles' Forest Lawn Cemetery.
He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country
Music Hall of Fame, and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. His friend Bob Dylan
paid tribute to him while on tour, with a moment of silence and a version
of "Lonesome Town" at each concert.
was a household name and an American teen idol before he ever
cut a record. In nearly every regard he would seem the antithesis of the
early rockers who made the music he first loved and recorded, rockabilly,
and far removed form the late 60's environment that nurtured country rock,
of which he was the vanguard. Artists as diverse as Paul McCartney and
John Forgarty, and even some of his own heroes, including Elvis Presley,
Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash, admired and respected him. A seasoned professional
by the age of 6, Rick Nelson carved out a place for himself on radio, television,
film and the music charts. In fact his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
represents achievements in music, television, and radio. He sold in excess
of 50 million albums worldwide. He had 18 top 10 singles and over Billboard
charted records. He is ranked the 4th singles seller of all time.
Nelson the man remains something of an enigma, even
to those who knew him best. He
was a very private person, sometimes solitary. He was quiet, gentle
and modest. He could startle with his wicked sense of humor and constant
practical joking, exemplified by one of the family's favorite stories.
Apparently newlywed Kris ceremoniously served Rick her first brave
attempt at pork chops. The phone rang in the other room, and Kris
went to get it. When she returned, Rick was gone- and the pork chops
were nailed to the wall. He loved to laugh. He believed there was
power in subtlety. But most of all he believed in being true to oneself.
He lived honestly, gracefully, and with innate integrity.
early 1970's, Rick wrote a song called "Gypsy Pilot." This is the final
claim my body, they won't have much to say. Except that he lived a good
life, he lived every day. And you know he saw the sunshine, and you know
he felt the rain. He loved everybody, And he hopes you do the same."