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. 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.
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 the western film, 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.
In 1996, Ricky Nelson was ranked #49 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time.
Ricky Nelson was born the second son of big band leader Ozzie Nelson who was of Swedish descent
and his wife, big band vocalist Harriet Hilliard Nelson (née Peggy Louise Snyder), on May 8,
1940 at 1:25 p.m. at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, New Jersey. Harriett remained in Englewood,
New Jersey with her newborn and her older son David while Ozzie toured the nation with the
Nelson Orchestra. The Nelsons bought a two-story Colonial in Tenafly, New Jersey, and six months
after the purchase, moved with son David to Hollywood, California where Ozzie and Harriet were
slated to appear in the 1941-42 season of Red Skelton's The Raleigh Cigarette Hour; Ricky
remained in Tenafly in the care of his paternal grandmother. In November 1941, the Nelsons
bought what would become their permanent home: a green and white, two-story, Cape Cod Colonial
at 1822 Camino Palmero in Los Angeles. Ricky joined his parents and brother in Los Angeles in
Ricky was a small and insecure child who suffered from severe asthma. At night, his sleep was
eased with a vaporizer emitting tincture of evergreen. He was described by Red Skelton's
producer John Guedel as "an odd little kid," likable, shy, introspective, mysterious, and
inscrutable. When Skelton was drafted in 1944, Guedel crafted the radio sitcom, The Adventures
of Ozzie and Harriet, for Ricky's parents. The show debuted on Sunday, October 8, 1944 to
favorable reviews. Ozzie eventually became head writer for the show and based episodes on the
fraternal exploits and enmity of his sons. The Nelson boys were first played in the radio series
by professional child actors until twelve-year-old Dave and eight-year-old Ricky joined the show
on February 20, 1949 in the episode, "Invitation to Dinner."
In 1952, the Nelsons tested the waters for a television series with the theatrically released
film, Here Come the Nelsons. The film was a hit and Ozzie was convinced the family could make
the transition from radio's airwaves to television's small screen. On October 3, 1952, The
Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet made its television debut and was broadcast in first run until
September 3, 1966 to become one of the longest running sitcoms in television history.
Nelson attended Gardner Street Public School, Bancroft Junior High, and Hollywood High School
between 1954 and 1958 from which he graduated with a B average. He played football at Hollywood
High and represented the school in interscholastic tennis matches. Twenty-five years later,
Nelson told the Los Angeles Weekly he hated school because it "smelled of pencils" and he was
forced to rise early in the morning to attend.
At Hollywood High, Nelson was blackballed by the Elksters, a fraternity of a dozen conservative
sports-loving teens who thought him too wild. Many of the Elksters were family friends and spent
weekends at the Nelson home playing basketball or relaxing around the pool. In retaliation, he
joined the Rooks, a greaser car club of sideburned high school teens clad in leather jackets and
motorcycle boots. He tattooed his hands, wrist, and shoulder with India ink and a sewing needle,
slicked his hair with oil, and accompanied the Rooks on nocturnal forays along Hollywood
Boulevard randomly harassing and beating up passersby. Nelson was jailed twice in connection
with incidents perpetrated by the Rooks, and escaped punishment after sucker-punching a police
officer only through the intervention of his father. Nelson's parents were alarmed. Their son's
juvenile delinquency did little to enhance the All-American image of Ozzie and Harriet and they
quickly put an end to Ricky's involvement with the Rooks by banishing one of the most
influential of the club's members from Ricky's life and their home.
Ozzie Nelson was a Rutgers alumnus and keen on college education, but eighteen-year-old Ricky
was already in the 93-percent income-tax bracket and saw no reason to attend. At thirteen, Ricky
was making over $100,000 per annum and, at sixteen he had a personal fortune of $500,000.
Nelson's wealth was astutely managed by parents who channeled his earnings into trust funds.
Although his parents permitted him a $50 allowance at the age of eighteen, Rick was often
strapped for cash, and, one evening, collected and redeemed empty pop bottles to gain entrance
to a movie theater for himself and a date. Accustomed to affluence, Nelson had a cavalier
attitude about money and never managed his finances very well.
Nelson played clarinet and drums in his tweens and early teens, learned the rudimentary guitar
chords, and vocally imitated his favorite Sun Records rockabilly artists in the bathroom at home
or in the showers at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. He was strongly influenced by the music of
Carl Perkins and once said he tried to emulate the sound and the tone of the guitar break in
Perkins' March 1956 Top Ten hit, "Blue Suede Shoes".
At sixteen, he wanted to impress a friend who was an Elvis Presley fan, and, although he had no
record contract at the time, told her that he, too, was going to make a record.] With his
father's help, he secured a one-record deal with Verve Records, an important jazz label looking
for a young and popular personality who could sing or be taught to sing. On March 26, 1957, he
recorded the Fats Domino standard "I'm Walkin'" and "A Teenager's Romance" (released in late
April 1957 as his first single), and "You're My One and Only Love".
Before the single was released, he made his television rock and roll debut on April 10, 1957
lip-synching "I'm Walkin'" in the Ozzie and Harriet episode, "Ricky, the Drummer". About the
same time, he made an unpaid public appearance as a singer at a Hamilton High School lunch hour
assembly in Los Angeles with the Four Preps and was greeted by hordes of screaming teens who had
seen the television episode.
"I'm Walkin'" reached #4 on Billboard's Best Sellers in Stores chart, and its flip side, "A
Teenager's Romance", hit #2. When the television series went on summer break in 1957, Nelson
made his first road trip and played four state and county fairs in Ohio and Wisconsin with the
Four Preps who opened and closed for him.
First album, band, and number one single
In early summer 1957, Ozzie Nelson pulled his son from Verve after disputes about royalties, and
signed him to a lucrative five-year deal with Imperial Records that gave him approval over song
selection, sleeve artwork, and other production details. Ricky's first Imperial single, "Be-Bop
Baby", generated 750,000 advance orders, sold over one million copies, and reached number three
on the charts. Nelson's first album, Ricky, was released in October 1957 and hit number one
before the end of the year. Following these successes, Nelson was given a more prominent role on
the Ozzie and Harriet show and ended every two or three episodes with a musical number.
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
“Anyone who knocks rock 'n' roll either doesn't understand it, or is prejudiced against it, or
is just plain square.”
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.
“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!”
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.
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
In addition to his recording career, Nelson appeared in movies, including the Howard Hawks
western classic Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin (1959), plusThe Wackiest Ship In the
Army (1960) and Love and Kisses (1965).
On May 8, 1961 (his 21st birthday), he officially modified his recording name from "Ricky
Nelson" to "Rick Nelson". (However, not too long before his untimely death, he realized a dream
of his. He met his idol, Carl Perkins, who, while musing that they were the last of the
"rockabilly breed", addressed him as "Ricky".) 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 slide guitarist Ric Mix.
In 1972, Nelson reached the Top 40 one last time with "Garden Party", a song he wrote in disgust
after a Madison Square Garden audience booed him, because, in his mind, he was playing new songs
instead of just his old hits. When he performed the Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman" he was booed off
the stage. He watched the rest of the performance on a TV monitor backstage and quietly left the
Madison Garden without taking a final bow for the finale. He wanted to record an album featuring
original material, but the single was released before the album because Nelson had not completed
the entire Garden Party album yet. "Garden Party" reached number 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and
number 1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and was certified as a gold single. The
second single release from the album was "Palace Guard", which reached number 65 in the
Nelson was with MCA at the time, and his comeback was short-lived. Nelson's band soon resigned,
and MCA wanted Nelson to have a producer on his next album. His band moved to Aspen and changed
their name to "Canyon". Nelson soon put together a new Stone Canyon Band and began to tour for
the Garden Party album. Nelson still played nightclubs and bars, but soon advanced to higher-
paying venues because of the success of Garden Party. In 1974 MCA was at odds as to what to do
with the former teen idol. Albums like Windfall failed to have an impact. Nelson became an
attraction at theme parks like Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland. He also started appearing in
minor roles on television shows.
Nelson tried to score another hit, but did not have any luck with songs like "Rock and Roll
Lady". With seven years to go on his contract, MCA dropped him from the label.
Nelson studied karate, earning a brown belt before going on to learn Jeet Kune Do under Dan
Inosanto. Inosanto described Nelson as a "good martial artist for those times".
Nelson dreaded flying but refused to travel by bus. In May 1985, he decided he needed a private
plane and leased a luxurious, fourteen-seat, 1944 DC-3 for private use that once belonged to the
DuPont family and later to Jerry Lee Lewis. The plane's history was plagued with annoying
mechanical issues. In one incident, the band was forced to push the plane off the runway after
an engine blew, and in another incident in September, a malfunctioning magneto prevented Nelson
from participating in the first Farm Aid concert in Champaign, Illinois.
On 26 December 1985, Nelson and the band left for a three-stop tour of the Southern United
States. Following shows in Orlando, Florida and Guntersville, Alabama, Nelson and band members
boarded the DC-3 in Guntersville and took off for a New Year's Eve extravaganza in Dallas,
Texas. The plane force-landed northeast of Dallas in De Kalb, Texas less than 2 miles from a
landing strip at approximately 5:14 p.m. CST on 31 December 1985, impacting trees on rollout.
Seven were killed: Nelson and his fiancée, Helen Blair; bass guitarist Patrick Woodward; drummer
Rick Intveld; keyboardist Andy Chapin; guitarist Bobby Neal; and road manager/soundman Donald
Clark Russell. Pilots Ken Ferguson and Brad Rank escaped via cockpit windows though Ferguson was
Nelson's remains were lost in transit from Texas to California, delaying the funeral for several
days. On 6 January 1986, 250 mourners entered the Church of the Hills for funeral services while
700 fans gathered outside. Attendees included 'Colonel' Tom Parker, Connie Stevens, Angie
Dickinson, and dozens of actors, writers, and musicians. Nelson was privately buried days later
in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. Kris Nelson threatened
to sue the Nelson clan for her former husband's life insurance money and tried to wrest control
of his estate from David Nelson, its administrator. Her bid was rejected by a Los Angeles
Superior Court Judge. Nelson bequeathed his entire estate to his children and did not provide
for Eric Crewe, Helen Blair, or Kris Nelson. Only days after the funeral, rumors and newspaper
reports suggested cocaine freebasing was one of several possible causes for the plane crash.
Those allegations were refuted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The reports vary as to whether or not the plane was on fire before it crashed. According to
witnesses, the plane appeared to be on fire before it force-landed. Jim Burnett, then-Chairman
of the NTSB, however, said that even though the plane was infested with smoke, the plane landed
and came to a stop before it was swallowed by flames. The NTSB conducted a year-long
investigation and finally stated that, while the definitive cause was still unknown, the crash
was probably due to a gas-fueled heater that reportedly had caused in-flight problems.
When questioned by the NTSB, Pilots Brad Rank and Ken Ferguson had diversely different accounts
of key events. According to co-pilot Ferguson, the cabin heater was acting up after the plane
took off. Ferguson continued that Rank kept going back to the back of the plane to see if he
could get the heater to function correctly and that Rank told Ferguson several times to turn the
heater back on. "One of the times, I refused to turn it on," said Ferguson. He continued, "I was
getting more nervous. I didn't think we should be messing with that heater en-route." After the
plane crashed, Ferguson and Rank climbed out the windows, suffering from extensive burns. They
shouted to the passenger cabin, but there was no response. Ferguson and Rank backed away from
the plane, fearing explosion. Ferguson stated that Rank told him, "Don't tell anyone about the
heater, don't tell anyone about the heater."
Pilot Rank, however, told a different story: Rank said that he was checking on the passengers
when he noticed smoke in the middle of the cabin, where Rick Nelson and Helen Blair were
sitting. Even though he never mentioned a problematic heater, Rank stated that he went to the
rear of the plane to check the heater, saw no smoke, and found the heater was cool to the touch.
After activating an automatic fire extinguisher and opening the cabin's fresh air inlets, Rank
said that he returned to the cockpit where Ferguson was already asking traffic controllers for
directions to the nearest airfield.
Rank was criticized by the NTSB for not following the in-flight fire checklist; opening the
fresh air vents instead of leaving them closed, not instructing the passengers to use
supplemental oxygen, and not attempting to fight the fire with the hand-held fire extinguisher
that was in the cockpit. The board said that while these steps might not have prevented the
crash, "they would have enhanced the potential for survival of the passengers." The words of the
NTSB seem to echo that of firefighter, Lewis Glover, who was one of the first on the scene.
Glover stated,"All the bodies are there at the front of the plane. Apparently, they were trying
to escape the fire."
An examination indicated that a fire had originated in the right side of the aft cabin area at
or near the floor line. Some reports said the passengers were killed when the aircraft struck
obstacles during the forced landing. The ignition and fuel sources of the fire could not be
determined. According to another report, the pilot indicated that the crew tried to turn on the
gasoline cabin heater repeatedly shortly before the fire occurred, but that it failed to
respond. After the fire, the access panel to the heater compartment was found unlatched. The
theory is supported by records that showed that DC-3s in general, and this aircraft in
particular, had a history of problems with the cabin heaters.
Photograph was Hand Oil Tinted by artist, Margaret A. Rogers.