Born Eric Hilliard Nelson, 8 May 1940, Teaneck, New Jersey
I remember the time, now almost 50 years ago, when Ricky Nelson was snubbed by rock n roll purists, especially in the United Kingdom. People like Breathless Dan Coffey saw him as a poppy teenage idol, not much better than Frankie Avalon or Pat Boone. Nowadays, Nelson's status as a bona fide rock n roller is undisputed and many consider his work for Imperial as some of the best rock n roll ever recorded. But he was equally at home singing ballads.
Ricky was born into a show business family, the second of two sons. His father Ozzie was a popular bandleader in the 1930s and his mother Harriet was the band's female singer. Ozzie Nelson drafted a script for a radio programme featuring the Nelson family as themselves and "The Adventures Of Ozzie and Harriet" debuted on the CBS Radio Network on October 8, 1944. Initially, Ricky and his brother David (1936-2011) were played by professional actors, but in April 1949 the brothers began appearing as themselves. The weekly show made the transition to national television (ABC) in October 1952 and would run until September 3, 1966. So the American public literally saw Ricky Nelson grow up on television.
When rock n roll exploded, Ricky's favourites were Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Early in 1957 he asked his father if he could sing a song on one of the upcoming TV episodes. Ozzie reckoned that if just 7% percent of the viewing audience of 15 million people liked Ricky's song enough to buy it, it would sell over a million copies. On March 26, 1957, Ricky recorded three songs for the Verve label, the then-current Fats Domino hit "I'm Walkin'", "A Teenager's Romance" and "You're My One And Only Love", under the supervision of Barney Kessel. Before the single was released, Ricky lip-synched "I'm Walkin'" on the show of April 10 and not much later, the record was # 4 on the Billboard charts. The softer flip "A Teenager's Romance" did even better, peaking at # 2.
Ozzie would soon pull his son from Verve after disputes about royalties and signed Ricky to a lucrative five-year deal with Imperial. On his first sessions for the label, Ricky was still backed by veteran session players like Joe Maphis (who plays the classic guitar solos on "Stood Up" and "Waitin' In School") and drummer Earl Palmer, but by the end of 1957 he had formed his own band (largely recruited from the band of fellow Imperial artist Bob Luman), who would back him both in the studio and on the road for the next few years : James Burton on lead guitar, James Kirkland on bass (replaced in 1960 by Joe Osborn), Gene Garf on piano (later replaced by Ray Johnson) and Richie Frost on drums. The first two Imperial singles, "Be Bop Baby" and "Stood Up", were both Top 3 hits. The next one, "Believe What You Say" (a # 4 hit) was the first Ricky Nelson single to feature a guitar solo by James Burton and what a solo it was. By this time Ricky wasd confident enough to play rhythm guitar on his own recordings. "Believe What You Say" was written by Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, who would write many songs for Ricky, together or individually. An even more prolific supplier of song material was Baker Knight, who first entered the picture in mid-1958, penning both sides of the single "Lonesome Town"/"I Got A Feeling", a two-sided Top 10 hit.
In 1959 Ricky had a major movie role in the western classic "Rio Bravo" (directed by Howard Hawks), alongside John Wayne and Dean Martin. Ricky's first LP, "Ricky", had been released in November 1957 and shot straight to the # 1 position for two weeks, making him the youngest recording artist in history to score a # 1 album. (The record was broken in 1963 by Little Stevie Wonder.) Two of Ricky's singles made the # 1 spot : "Poor Little Fool" (the first number one on Billboard's then newly-created Hot 100) in 1958 and "Travelin' Man" in 1961. Three weeks before "Travelin' Man" hit the top spot, Ricky had officially changed his name to Rick Nelson, on the occasion of his 21st birthday.
When Nelson's Imperial contract expired on December 31, 1962, his chart statistics were exceptional. EVERY release he had up to that point made the charts : 2 Verve singles, 16 Imperial singles and 8 Imperial albums. Fifteen of the eighteen singles were double sided hits. In eight cases both sides made the Top 20 and in five cases the Top 10.
In 1963 Rick signed a 20-year recording contract with Decca Records. His immediate supporting cast in the studio hadn't changed that much. His band (Burton / Osborn / Johnson / Frost) was still intact and his musical arranger was still Jimmie Haskell. During his first year with Decca Rick still enjoyed a fair amount of success, with two major hits : "Fools Rush In" (# 12) and "For You" (# 6). Imperial continued to release Nelson singles (former album tracks) and these usually charted as well. Then Rick's career was blown out of the water by the new sounds from England. He stopped touring and his TV series was dropped after 435 episodes. A change of direction was needed. He switched to country, which resulted in two of his most satisfying albums (artistically at least), "Bright Lights & Country Music" (1966) and "Country Fever" (1967). According to the Nashville media, Rick had 'musically matured' and country seemed the way to go. For reasons best known to Nelson himself, he disbanded his country group and entered the 'experimental' period of his career. He spent two years in the musical wilderness before he returned to country and particularly country rock at the end of 1969. Rick formed a new band, the Stone Canyon Band and his albums began to chart again (for the first time since 1964). In 1972 he returned to the singles Top 10 with the self-composed number "Garden Party" (# 6), which recounted his frustration with his identity as a onetime teen idol/oldies artist. A subsequent "Garden Party" LP peaked at # 32 and a second single from the album, "Palace Guard", was his last charting 45 (# 65, 1973).
Rick didn't serve out the full twenty years of his Decca/MCA contract. In 1977 he moved to Epic and in 1980 to Capitol. In the 1980s he switched from the country rock sound he helped to forge to a rawer rockabilly sound, complete with stand-up bass. His live shows were comprised primarily of his hits of the 1950s and 1960s.
Rick Nelson's career came to a sudden and tragic end on New Year's Eve 1985. He and his bandmates were en route to a show date in Dallas when their DC-3 airplane experienced heater problems and went down in flames just outside DeKalb, Texas. Nelson, his fiancée and his entire band perished in the crash. In 1987 Rick was deservedly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside his heroes.
More info : for instance :
Official website : http://www.ricknelson.com/
Biography : Sheree Homer, Rick Nelson : Rock 'n' Roll Pioneer. Jefferson, NC : McFarland, 2012. 196 pages. Recommended. (There are two other biographies, by Joel Selvin and Philip Bashe, but these are out of print.)
Discography / sessionography :
Acknowledgements : Todd Everett, Colin Escott, Steve Kolanjian, Chris Skinker, Wikipedia.
Dik, October 2013
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