Nelson, Rick (Eric)

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Nelson, Rick (Eric)

Nelson, Rick (Eric), teen pop star who matured into being one of the founders of country-rock; b. Teaneck, N.J., May 8, 1940; d. near De Kalb, Tex., Dec. 31, 1985. Born into a show business family, Eric “Ricky” Nelson joined the cast of his parents’ The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet radio show in March 1949 at the age of eight. The show moved to television in October 1952, where it ran for a remarkable 14 years. Ricky studied clarinet, took up drums, and later learned to play the guitar. Signed to Verve Records in 1956—with just several months’ experience in singing—Ricky scored a smash pop and R&B hit with his first release, a version of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walking” (fronted by “A Teenager’s Romance”) after performing the song at the end of the television show on April 10, 1957.

Soon signing a five-year contract with Imperial Records, Ricky Nelson launched his career with the label in October of 1957 with the gently rocking smash pop and R&B hit “Be Bop Baby,” from his debut album, recorded with guitarist Joe Maphis. He next achieved a pop, R&B and country smash with “Stood Up,” backed by Johnny and Dorsey Burnette’s “Waitin’ in School.” By 1958 Nelson had formed his own touring and recording band with James Burton, one of the most dynamic guitar players of the time. He scored three-way crossover smash hits with the Burnette brothers’ “Belive What You Say/’ backed by Hank Williams’s “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” and “Poor Little Fool” (written by Eddie Cochran’s girlfriend Sharon Sheeley). Nelson costarred in the Howard Hawks-directed classic western movie Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin, and continued to have near-smash pop hits with “Lonesome Town”/“I Got a Feeling,” “Never Be Anyone Else but You” backed by Dorsey Burnette’s “It’s Late,” and Johnny Burnette’s “Just a Little Too Much” backed by “Sweeter Than You.” In 1960 he appeared in the comedy film The Wackiest Ship in the Army with Jack Lemmon and achieved major pop hits with “I Wanna Be Loved,” “Young Emotions,” “I’m Not Afraid” and “You Are the Only One.”

After the top hit “Travelin’ Man,” backed by the near-smash “Hello Mary Lou” (written by Gene Pitney), Ricky Nelson shortened his name to Rick on his 21st birthday. The hits continued into 1963 with “A Wonder Like You”/“Everlovin’,” “the smash Young World,” the autobiographical “Teen Age Idol,” and “It’s Up to You.” In 1963 he switched to Decca Records, where his hits included “String Along” and the standards “Fools Rush In,” “For You” and “The Very Thought of You.”

Overwhelmed by the myriad British acts that dominated rock music beginning in 1964, Rick Nelson began exploring country music with 1966’s Bright Lights and Country Music, managing a minor country hit with “Take a City Bride” in 1967. In 1969 he formed The Stone Canyon Band with pedal steel guitarist Tom Brumley and bassist Randy Meisner (later a founding member of The Eagles and Poco). The group recorded the In Concert album, which included “I Shall Be Released,” Bob Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” and Eric Andersen’s “Violets of Dawn,” and yielded a moderate pop hit with Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me.” After recording an entire album of his own songs, Rick Sings Nelson, he composed the smash 1972 hit “Garden Party,” which related his feelings after being booed for performing contemporary material at an oldies show in October 1971. Nelson and The Stone Canyon Band parted company in 1974.

Touring up to 200 days a year, Rick Nelson produced his Intakes album for Epic and conducted recording sessions in Memphis in 1979. He joined Capitol for 1981’s Playing to Win. In 1984 Nelson starred as a school principal in the television movie High School USA, with his mother Harriet appearing as his secretary. Around that time he returned to his rockabilly style, touring with James Burton, but on Dec. 31, 1985, he was killed along with six others, including guitarist Bobby Neal, when his plane crashed near De Kalb, Tex.

Several of Rick Nelson’s children pursued show business careers. His daughter, Tracy, became an actress and appeared in the television series Father Dowling’s Mysteries. His twin sons Gunnar and Matthew (b. Sept. 20, 1967) began performing in Los Angeles clubs in the mid 1980s and recorded their debut album as Nelson for DGC Records in 1990. The best-selling album After the Rain yielded four hits, including the top hit “(Can’t Live without Your) Love and Affection” and the smash hit title song.


Ricky (1957); Ricky Nelson (1958); Ricky Sings Again (1959); Songs by Ricky (1959); More Songs by Ricky (1960); Rick Is 21 (1961); Album 7 by Rick (1962); If’s Up to You (1963); A Long Vacation (1963); Rick Nelson Sings for You (1964); For Your Sweet Love (1963); The Very Thought of You (1964); Spotlight on Rick (1964); Best Always (1965); Love and Kisses (1965); Bright Lights and Country Music (1966); Country Fever (1967); Another Side of Rick (1967); Perspective (1968); In Concert (1970); Rick Sings Nelson (1970); Rudy the Fifth (1971); Garden Party (1972); Windfall (1974); Intakes (1977); Playing to Win (1981); Memphis Sessions (ree. late 1970s; rel.1985); Live, 1983–1985 (1989); All My Best (re-recordings of his hits; 1988).


J. Selvin, R. N.: Idol for a Generation (Chicago, 111., 1990); P. Bashe, Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: The Complete Biography ofR. N.(N.Y., 1992).

—Brock Helander