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We don’t have much longer to tarry here in the music studio. We’re nearly at the end of our little tour. But I see someone else unexpected is coming through the doors just now. An old friend from LONG ago! Come and meet him!

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Eric Hilliard Nelson (May 8, 1940 – December 31, 1985) was an American rock and roll star, musician, and singer-songwriter. From age eight he starred alongside his family in the radio and television series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. In 1957 he began a long and successful career as a popular recording artist. As one of the top “teen idols” of the 1950’s his fame led to a motion picture role co-starring alongside John Wayne and Dean Martin in Howard Hawks’s western feature film Rio Bravo (1959). He placed 53 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1957 and 1973 including “Poor Little Fool” in 1958, which holds the distinction of being the first #1 song on Billboard magazine’s then-newly created Hot 100 chart. He recorded 19 additional Top 10 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. In 1952, he 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 released the #1 album titled Ricky. In 1958, Nelson released his first #1 single, “Poor Little Fool”, and in 1959 received a Golden Globe nomination for “Most Promising Male Newcomer” 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.

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. 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 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’s March 1956 Top Ten hit “Blue Suede Shoes.”

At age sixteen, he wanted to impress his girlfriend of two years, Diana Osborn(e), 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”, 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, singing and playing the drums to “I’m Walkin'” in the Ozzie and Harriet episode “Ricky, the Drummer”. About the same time, he made an unpaid public appearance, singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” with the Four Preps at a Hamilton High School lunch-hour assembly in Los Angeles 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.

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 #3 on the charts. Nelson’s first album, Ricky, was released in October 1957 and hit #1 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 and country 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. (Boy! 1957 was a BIG year for him!)

In 1958, Nelson recorded 17-year-old Sharon Sheeley’s “Poor Little Fool” for his second album, Ricky Nelson, released in June 1958. 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. 

Nelson stated:

Anyone who knocks rock ‘n’ roll either doesn’t understand it, or is prejudiced against it, or is just plain square. – NME – November 1958

During 1958 and 1959, Nelson placed twelve hits on the charts in comparison with Presley’s eleven.  In the summer of 1958, Nelson conducted his first full-scale tour, averaging $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! – NME – May 1960

While Nelson preferred rockabilly and uptempo rock songs, 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 “Teen Age Idol” (#5), which clearly could have been about Nelson himself.

On May 8, 1961 (his 21st birthday), he officially modified his recording name from “Ricky Nelson” to “Rick Nelson”. His childhood nickname proved hard to shake, especially among the generation who had watched him grow up on “Ozzie and Harriet”. Even in the 1980’s, when Nelson realized his dream of meeting Carl Perkins, Perkins noted that he and “Ricky” were the last of the “rockabilly breed.”

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 Beatlemania and The British Invasion.

In the mid-1960’s, 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 such as 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 Randy Meisner, who in 1971 became a founding member of the Eagles, and former Buckaroo steel guitarist Tom Brumley

At Christmas 1961, Nelson began dating Sharon Kristin “Kris” Harmon (born June 25, 1945), the daughter of football player Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox (née Elsie Kornbrath) and the older sister of Kelly and Mark Harmon. The Nelsons and the Harmons had long been friends, and a union between their children held great appeal. Rick and Kris had much in common: quiet dispositions, Hollywood upbringings, and high-powered, domineering fathers.

They married on April 20, 1963. Kris was pregnant, and Rick later described the union as a “shotgun wedding”. Nelson, a nonpracticing Protestant, received instruction in Catholicism at the insistence of the bride’s parents and signed a pledge to have any children of the union raised in the Catholic faith. Kris Nelson joined the television show as a regular cast member in 1963. They had four children: actress Tracy Kristine Nelson, twin sons Gunnar Eric Nelson and Matthew Gray Nelson who formed the band Nelson, and Sam Hilliard Nelson.

By 1975, following the birth of their last child, the marriage had deteriorated and a very public, controversial divorce involving both families was covered in the press for several years. In October 1977, Kris filed for divorce and asked for alimony, custody of their four children, and a portion of community property. The couple temporarily resolved their differences, but Kris retained her attorney to pursue a permanent break. Kris wanted Rick to give up music, spend more time at home, and focus on acting, but the family enjoyed a recklessly expensive lifestyle, and Kris’s extravagant spending left Rick no choice but to tour relentlessly. The impasse over Rick’s career created unpleasantness at home. Kris became an alcoholic and left the children in the care of household help. After years of legal proceedings, they were divorced in December 1982. The divorce was financially devastating for Nelson, with attorneys and accountants taking over $1 million. Years of legal wrangling followed.

On December 26, 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 took off from Guntersville for a New Year’s Eve extravaganza in Dallas, Texas. The plane crash-landed northeast of Dallas in De Kalb, Texas, in a cow pasture less than two miles from a landing strip, at approximately 5:14 pm. CST on December 31, 1985, hitting trees on its way down. Seven of the nine occupants were killed.

Nelson’s remains were misdirected in transit from Texas to California, delaying the funeral for several days. On January 6, 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. 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 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).

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(Aside: An interesting peek into Hollywood couples…) 

Actor Mark Harmon dropped his bid Tuesday to gain custody of his 12-year-old nephew Sam, ending a bitter fight with the youngster’s mother, Harmon’s sister Kristin, the ex-wife of the late rock star Rick Nelson.

The estranged brother and sister, children of University of Michigan football all-American Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox, appeared to have begun their reconciliation as they emerged from a courtroom in the Los Angeles County Courthouse with their arms around one another.

Kristin Nelson, who completed a drug rehabilitation program in June, flashed a victory sign to waiting reporters.

“Sam’s coming home,” she said, beaming.

She added that she and her son would enter family counseling together and that “everyone will be working very hard on everybody being happy again.”

The agreement by which Sam will return to his mother ended a dispute between Nelson on one side and Harmon and his actress wife, Pam Dawber, on the other. Under the agreement, Harmon will have visitation rights with the boy.

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“Teen Age Idol”  was written by Jack Lewis. The song reached #2 on the adult contemporary chart, #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #39 in the UK in 1962. The single’s B-side, “I’ve Got My Eyes on You (And I Like What I See)”, reached #105 on the Billboard chart. The song is ranked #77 on Billboard magazine’s Top 100 songs of 1962 and could easily have been written about Ricky himself.

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And one more for the road (pun intended)! (He sure seemed sad a lot to me…)

“Travelin’ Man” was written by Jerry Fuller with Sam Cooke in mind, but Cooke’s manager was unimpressed and did not keep the demo, which eventually wound up being passed along to Nelson. His version reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Its b-side, “Hello Mary Lou”, reached No. 9 on the same chart. Nelson is accompanied on the recording by the vocal quartet, The Jordanaires.

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Picture Sources:
Ricky Nelson — Not in Hall of Fame
The Nelson Family — Reuters India
Ricky and Kris — Lady fabuloux
Mark Harmon and Kris — Pinterest