Eric Hilliard Nelson (May 8, 1940 – December 31, 1985), better known as Ricky Nelson or Rick Nelson, was an American singer-songwriter, instrumentalist, and actor, starring alongside his family in the long-running television series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-1966), as well as co-starring alongside John Wayne and Dean Martin in Howard Hawks' Western feature film Rio Bravo (1959). He placed 53 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1957 and 1973 including "Poor Little Fool", which holds the distinction of being the first #1 song on Billboard magazine's then newly created Hot 100 chart. He recorded nineteen additional top-ten hits, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on January 21, 1987. In 1996, he was ranked #49 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time.
Nelson began his entertainment career in 1949 playing himself in the radio sitcom series, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and, in 1952, appeared in his first feature film, Here Come the Nelsons. In 1957, he recorded his first single, debuted as a singer on the television version of the sitcom, and recorded a number one album, Ricky. In 1958, Nelson recorded his first number one single, "Poor Little Fool", and, in 1959, received a Golden Globe "Most Promising Male Newcomer" nomination after starring in Rio Bravo. A few films followed, and, when the television series was cancelled in 1966, Nelson made occasional appearances as a guest star on various television programs.
Nelson and Sharon Kristin Harmon were married on April 20, 1963, and divorced in December 1982. They had four children: Tracy Kristine, twin sons Gunnar Eric and Matthew Gray, and Sam Hilliard. On February 14, 1981, a son (Eric Crewe) was born to Nelson and Georgeann Crewe. A blood test in 1985 confirmed Nelson was the child's father. Nelson was engaged to Helen Blair at the time of his death in an airplane crash on December 31, 1985.
Nelson grew increasingly dissatisfied performing with older jazz session musicians who were openly contemptuous of rock and roll. After his Ohio and Minnesota tours in the summer of 1957, he decided to form his own band with members closer to his age. Eighteen-year-old electric guitarist James Burton was the first signed and lived in the Nelson home for two years. Bassist James Kirkland, drummer Richie Frost, and pianist Gene Garf completed the band. Their first recording together was "Believe What You Say". Rick selected material from demo acetates submitted by songwriters. Ozzie Nelson forbade suggestive lyrics or titles, and his late-night arrival at recording sessions forced band members to hurriedly hide their beers and cigarettes. The Jordanaires, Elvis Presley's back-up vocalists, worked for Nelson but at Presley's behest were not permitted credit on Nelson's albums.
In 1958, Nelson recorded seventeen-year-old Sharon Sheeley's "Poor Little Fool" for his second album Ricky Nelson released in June. Radio airplay brought the tune notice and Imperial suggested releasing a single; but Nelson opposed the idea, believing a single would diminish EP sales. When a single was released nonetheless, he exercised his contractual right to approve any artwork and vetoed a picture sleeve. On August 4, 1958, "Poor Little Fool" became the number one single on Billboard's newly instituted Hot 100 singles chart, and sold over two million copies. Nelson so loathed the song he refused to perform it on Ozzie and Harriet. Sheeley claimed he ruined her song by slowing the tempo. More generally, Nelson stated
During 1958 and 1959, Nelson placed twelve hits on the charts in comparison with Presley's eleven (it should be remembered that the latter was then serving in Germany with the U.S. Army). During the sitcom's run, Ozzie Nelson, either to keep his son's fans tuned in or as an affirmation of his reputed behind-the-scenes persona as a controlling personality, kept his son from appearing on other television shows that could have enhanced his public profile, American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show in particular. In the summer of 1958, Nelson conducted his first full-scale tour, and averaged $5,000 nightly. By 1960, the Ricky Nelson International Fan Club had 9,000 chapters around the world.Anyone who knocks rock 'n' roll either doesn't understand it, or is prejudiced against it, or is just plain square. – NME - November 1958
Nelson was the first teen idol to utilize television to promote hit records. Ozzie Nelson even had the idea to edit footage together to create some of the first music videos. This creative editing can be seen in videos Ozzie produced for "Travelin' Man." Nelson finally did appear on the Sullivan show in 1967, but his career by that time was in limbo. He also appeared on other television shows (usually in acting roles). In 1973, he had an acting role in an episode of The Streets of San Francisco, in which he played the part of a hippie flute-playing leader of a harem of young prostitutes. In 1979, he guest-hosted on Saturday Night Live, in which he spoofed his television sitcom image by appearing in a Twilight Zone send-up, in which, always trying to go "home", he finds himself among the characters from other 1950s/early 1960s-era sitcoms, Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, Make Room for Daddy, and I Love Lucy.Perhaps the most embarrassing moment in my career was when six girls tried to fling themselves under my car, and shouted to me to run over them. That sort of thing can be very frightening! – NME - May 1960
Nelson knew and loved music, and was a skilled performer even before he became a teen idol, largely because of his parents' musical background. Nelson worked with many musicians of repute, including James Burton, Joe Osborn, and Allen "Puddler" Harris, all natives of Louisiana, and Joe Maphis, The Jordanaires, Scotty Moore and Johnny and Dorsey Burnette.
From 1957 to 1962, Nelson had 30 Top-40 hits, more than any other artist except Presley (who had 53) and Pat Boone (38). Many of Nelson's early records were double hits with both the A and B sides hitting the Billboard charts.
While Nelson preferred rockabilly and uptempo rock songs like "Believe What You Say" (Hot 100 #4), "I Got a Feeling" (#10), "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" (#12), "Hello Mary Lou" (#9), "It's Late" (#9), "Stood Up" (#2), "Waitin' in School" (#18), "Be-Bop Baby" (#3), and "Just a Little Too Much" (#9), his smooth, calm voice made him a natural to sing ballads. He had major success with "Travelin' Man" (#1), "A Teenager's Romance" (#2), "Poor Little Fool" (#1), "Young World" (#5), "Lonesome Town" (#7), "Never Be Anyone Else But You" (#6), "Sweeter Than You" (#9), "It's Up to You" (#6), and "Teenage Idol" (#5), which clearly could have been about Nelson himself.
In 1963, Nelson signed a 20-year contract with Decca Records. After some early successes with the label, most notably 1964's "For You" (#6), Nelson's chart career came to a dramatic halt in the wake of The British Invasion.
In the mid-1960s, Nelson began to move towards country music, becoming a pioneer in the country-rock genre. He was one of the early influences of the so-called "California Sound" (which would include singers like Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt and bands like the Eagles). Yet Nelson himself did not reach the Top 40 again until 1970, when he recorded Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me" with the Stone Canyon Band, featuring steel guitarist Tom Brumley, and Randy Meisner before the Eagles formed.