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) at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck. Harriett remained in Englewood 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 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 1942. 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.
When Red 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.”
And, the rest is music and Hollywood history.
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