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Music / Ricky Nelson

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"I used to play around with hearts that hastened at my call."

Eric Hilliard "Ricky" Nelson (May 8, 1940 – December 31, 1985) was an American musician and actor.

The son of bandleader Ozzie Nelson and his wife, singer Harriet Hilliard Nelson, Ricky joined the cast of his parents' radio Sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in 1949, at age 9, alongside his older brother David. All four Nelsons made the jump to television in 1952. Ricky, blessed with good looks and charisma, became the show's Breakout Character in the next few years. Skilled in playing several instruments, Ricky became interested in the burgeoning Rock & Roll movement, and he convinced Ozzie to let him start a solo career in music. He recorded a Cover Version of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'" for Verve Records, and Ozzie used an entire episode of the show ("Ricky the Drummer", which aired April 10, 1957) as a showcase for the song, climaxing with Ricky singing and playing drums on it. It became a big hit that caught the attention of Fats' label Imperial Records, who signed Ricky to a five-year deal.

His first #1 hit for the label came in 1958 with "Poor Little Fool" (written by Sharon Sheeley), which sold over two million copies (it was also the #1 song on the first-ever edition of Billboard's newly consolidated Hot 100 chart). From 1957 to 1962, he was one of the most prolific musicians in rock and roll with thirty songs in the US Top 40—at the time only behind Elvis Presley (53) and Pat Boone (38)—including his second #1, 1961's "Travelin' Man". Although he was often described as a Teen Idol, he also gained a following among other young music hopefuls. Paul McCartney and John Fogerty have cited Nelson as an early influence and have covered his songs.

On May 8, 1961, he changed his recording name to Rick Nelson, though the Ricky moniker has stuck, especially among those familiar with his singing and acting career (which included Rio Bravo and The Wackiest Ship In The Army). Then, just after signing a 20-year deal with Decca Records in 1963, the hits came to a halt, as the The British Invasion and the rise of the counterculture rendered his style passé. Rather than chase trends, Nelson formed the Stone Canyon Band and transitioned his music to country rock, where he was an early influence to the California Sound, and in turn the likes of Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles (Eagle Randy Meisner had been in the Stone Canyon Band). 1972's "Garden Party", about an incident at a Richard Nader Oldies concert at Madison Square Garden on October 15, 1971, where the audience booed him (possibly for his playing new songs rather than his oldies) was his final Top 40 hit and has more recently come to be regarded as his Signature Song.

Embarking on a comeback tour toward the end of 1985, Nelson and his band flew in Nelson's private aircraft (a propeller plane built in 1944) from Guntersville, Alabama (where they'd performed at a nightclub owned by one of his former band members) en route to a scheduled New Year's Eve show in Dallas, but the plane's heater caught on fire, causing it to crash near the tiny town of De Kalb, Texas (west of Texarkana), killing him, his fiancée Helen Blair and five others on board. A multitalented performing career and an untimely death were traits that he shared with his grandfather George Nelson (a Vaudeville performer who died at age 47) and father Ozzie (who died in 1975 at age 69). He was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in its second ever class in 1987, and was listed in Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Artists of All Time in 2004, at #91.

He was married to Kristin Harmon, daughter of Heisman Trophy winner and sportscaster Tom Harmon, from 1963 to 1982 (during which time Mark Harmon was his brother-in-law). All four of their children went into show business: actress Tracy Nelson, musicians Matthew and Gunnar Nelson (twins who formed the band Nelson, who had a #1 hit in 1990 with "(Can't Live Without Your) Love and Affection"), and actor/musician Sam Nelson.

I'm a tropin' man, and I've made a lot of tropes all over the world:

  • Accent Upon The Wrong Syllable: "Travelin' Man"—"My sweet fraulein down in BER-lin town." Ozzie Nelson actually noticed this and urged Rick to change it, but he didn't.note 
  • The Cover Changes the Meaning:
    • If you know about his turbulent marriage to Kristin Harmon, who was an artist specializing in oil paintings, it's pretty easy to guess that he sang his version of Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me" with her in mind.
      She's got everything she needs
      She's an artist, she don't look back
      She can take the dark out of the nighttime
      And paint the daytime black
    • Country Music singer Johnny Lee had a hit on the country chart in 1977 with "Country Party", which is simply "Garden Party" with the names of country stars in place of the lines about John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Bob Dylan.
  • Cover Version:
    • One of his first hits was a cover of Sharon Sheeley's "Poor Little Fool".
    • His first Top 40 hit in his country-rock phase was a 1969 version of Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me". He covered several more Dylan songs in the following years.
    • He did a version of The Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" on his 1971 album Rudy the Fifth and played it at the 1971 Madison Square Garden oldies show, and it was that song that apparently led the audience to start booing him, as mentioned in "Garden Party" ("When I sang a song about a honky tonk, it was time to leave").
  • A Girl in Every Port: "Travelin' Man" was about the eponymous man leaving behind lovers in his travel around the world.
    In every port I own the heart
    Of at least one lovely girl
  • Horrible History Metal: "Carl of the Jungle", the source of the Title Drop for his unreleased 1978 album Back to Vienna, is a Steely Dan-ish polished pop song about Carl Jung and his 1925 "psychological expedition" to Kenya and Uganda, which was a strong influence on his ideas about a "collective unconscious".
  • Live Album: Just one released in his lifetime, 1970's In Concert, which was also his first album with the Stone Canyon Band. It attracted enough of a following to get him back on the Billboard album chart (where it peaked at #54).
  • Minimalism: "Lonesome Town" is one of the most musically spare songs to ever become a Top 10 hit, featuring just Nelson singing and playing acoustic guitar, plus backing vocals by The Jordanaires. At a later session he tried a more conventional full band arrangement, but didn't like it and that take stayed unreleased for more than 40 years.
  • Miniscule Rocking: Quite a few of his songs in The '50s were under two minutes (which made it easy to slot performances of them into Ozzie and Harriet episodes).
  • Never Heard That One Before: By The '70s, he could count on an audience member shouting "Where's David?" during every concert, so he starting answering with quips about his brother along the lines of "I don't know; he never calls me." Amusingly subverted, though, when, unbeknownst to Rick, David actually showed up to one show and answered "Here I am!"
  • New Sound Album: Bright Lights and Country Music (1966) launched a two-album straight country phase. Another Side of Rick Nelson (1967) launched a two-album Psychedelic Pop phase. In Concert (1970) introduced the Stone Canyon Band, and its follow-up Rick Sings Nelson was the formal studio launch of his country rock sound.
  • Outgrowing the Childish Name: Upon turning 21 in 1961, he began to bill himself as Rick instead of Ricky, a change that stuck for the rest of his career (though he never billed himself under his birth name of Eric).
  • Rearrange the Song: He released a modernized version of his 1958 hit "Believe What You Say" in 1981.
  • Rock Star Song:
    • "Teen Age Idol" is an early example.
      I got no rest when I'm feelin' weary
      I gotta pack my bags and go
      I gotta be somewhere tomorrow
      To smile and do my show
    • "Garden Party" and "One Night Stand" are later first-person accounts of being a famous singer.
  • Rockabilly: His early career was basically divided between this and ballads. Several of his hits were written by Rockabilly great Dorsey Burnette.
  • Self-Backing Vocalist: He did overdubbed harmonies on several songs, most prominently "Hello Mary Lou".
  • Self-Plagiarism: "A Wonder Like You", the immediate follow-up to "Travelin' Man", was a very obvious case of the writer of "Travelin' Man", Jerry Fuller, trying to do a knockoff of his own song, right down to using "Alaska" and "Polynesian" in the lyrics. "Hello Mary Lou" writer Gene Pitney did the same thing with "Today's Teardrops".
  • Silly Love Songs: Much of his early output counts, like "Believe What You Say" and "Hello Mary Lou".
  • Singer-Songwriter: All of his early hits were either covers or written by outside songwriters, but Nelson made his writing debut with "Don't Leave Me This Way" (not the Thelma Houston/Communards dance classic), the B-Side of "Poor Little Fool". He became the primary songwriter in the Stone Canyon Band era; 1970's Rick Sings Nelson, as you might surmise from the title, was entirely self-composed, and his last big hit, "Garden Party", was not only self-written, but autobiographical as well.
  • Supergroup:
    • He was part of an early example of this, joining together in the first part of The '60s with future star Glen Campbell, Dave Burgess of The Champs ("Tequila") and Jerry Fuller (who wrote "Travelin' Man" and a few other Nelson hits) in anonymous bands called The Trophies and The Fleas, mostly doing tongue-in-cheek Doo Wop songs.
    • The first edition of the Stone Canyon Band included steel guitarist Tom Brumley, who'd been a longtime member of Buck Owens' Buckaroos, plus bassist Randy Meisner, who left to become an Eagle.
  • Teen Idol: During the days of Rock and Roll, Ricky was a breakout star in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and parlayed this into a music career alongside acting. With his dashing looks and charm he fit the profile well, but at the same time he fretted that the "idol" label prevented people from taking him seriously as a singer, especially since he largely controlled his own musical output, as opposed to carefully manufactured and managed singers like Frankie Avalon.
  • They Changed It, Now It Sucks!: invoked "Garden Party" is all about singing for an audience who has this attitude.
    Played them all the old songs
    Thought that's why they came
    No one heard the music
    We didn't look the same
  • Tuckerization: "Promenade in Green" from Another Side of Rick Nelson opens with the line "Tracy, come out and play", then later mentions his sons Gunnar and Matthew (Sam hadn't been born yet), plus his brother David's kids Danny and Jamie.