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Gone Too Soon: Ricky Nelson, Teen Idol Of 'Ozzie & Harriet' Fame

Entertainment | October 24, 2018

Ricky Nelson in a publicity shot for 'Rio Bravo' (1959) and playing guitar at age 18. Sources: IMDB; Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

As audiences were watching him grow up on The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet, Ricky Nelson turned to music, and became a hugely successful teen idol. Ozzie and Harriet ran for 14 seasons, from 1952 to 1966, and in 1957 the 17-year-old Ricky began releasing albums and singles. Nelson would score 17 top-ten hits, including two number-ones. But sadly, Nelson died in a plane crash in 1985.

Ricky Nelson, Child Radio Star

The Nelson family starred in a radio show version of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” before taking their show to the small screen. Young Ricky Nelson had a job…portraying himself on the hit radio show that aired from 1944 to 1949. Ricky wasn’t included in the first several years of the radio show. 

A Sitcom Star

In 1952, young Ricky Nelson, then only 8 years old, joined his famous parents, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, and older brother, David, on the television version of their hit radio show. Ozzie Nelson agreed to a ten-year contract, meaning that Ricky and his older brother, David, would grow up before the eyes of America. 

A Student of Music

Before he hit his teenage years, Ricky Nelson had learned to play the drums and the clarinet. In his early teens, he picked up a few chords on the guitar. He enjoyed singing and emulating his favorite singers, like Carl Perkins but he did not sing for audiences. Only in the bathroom mirror. 

The Jealous Boyfriend

When he was 16 years old, Ricky Nelson had a long-time girlfriend, Diana Osborn. Osborn was a devoted Elvis Presley fan and gushed to Nelson about how wonderful The King of Rock 'n Roll was. Ricky Nelson was jealous. He told his girlfriend that he could make his own hit record if he wanted to. Osborn called his bluff, so Ricky enlisted the help of his father, Ozzie Nelson, to secure a one-record deal with Verve Records. The timing was perfect. Verve Records producers were looking for a young, attractive personality that they could mold into a singer. On March 26, 1957, Ricky Nelson recorded a cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’”, along with “A Teenager’s Romance” and “You’re My One and Only Love”. 

The Drummer

On April 10, 1957, Ricky Nelson played the drums and sang “I’m Walkin’” on an episode of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” that was appropriately titled, “Ricky, the Drummer”. In this episode, Nelson debuted his recording before it was even released to the public, hyping the release even more. When it was finally released, Ricky Nelson’s “I’m Walkin’” reached the number 4 spot on the Billboard Charts. “A Teenager’s Romance” hit the number 2 position. 

The Hitmaker

Ricky Nelson’s popularity grew, helped along by a larger role on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”. In 1958 and 1959, Nelson hit the charts a total of 12 times, compared to Elvis, who only hit 11 times. Nelson had become a true teen heartthrob and the first teen idol to use television as a marketing tool for his music. He racked up hit after hit…”Poor Little Fool”, “Hello Mary Lou”, “Travelin’ Man,” “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” and “Be-Bop Baby,” to name a few. 

The Teen Idol

As Ricky Nelson’s music topped the charts, his stardom skyrocketed. His international fan club ballooned to more than 9,000 members. He toured around the United States, performing to sell-out audiences of screaming teenage girls. The fandom reached a fevered pitch at times, and young girls mobbed Nelson, and the cars he rode in, everywhere he went. He once recounted a story about six teenage girls, who tried to throw themselves under his car, begging him to run them over. 

The Has-Been

Ricky Nelson guest-starring on an episode of 'The Streets Of San Francisco' in 1972. Source: IMDB

Although Ricky Nelson was the biggest teen heartthrob of the late 1950s and early 1960s, by the mid-sixties, the social environment in the United States had changed. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was canceled, in part because the wholesome fifties-style show represented values that were now out-of-date. Ricky Nelson’s brand of rock was also becoming antiquated. He scored one last hit song in 1972 with “Garden Party”. Although he stayed involved in the entertainment business, continuing to perform in TV movies or make guest appearances on RV shows, Ricky Nelson never regained the popularity he had as a teen heartthrob of the '50s and early '60s. 

That Fateful Day In 1985

Though Nelson wasn't burning up the pop charts anymore, he was still a working musician, playing shows for nostalgic fans into the '80s. Nelson was known to dislike traveling by plane, but in 1985 he bought a 14-seater to transport himself and his band. On December 31, 1985, he was flying from Guntersville, Alabama, to a scheduled New Year's Eve show in Dallas when his plane went down in De Kalb, Texas. There were nine people aboard, and only two survived -- the pilots, who escaped via the cockpit windows. Nelson, his female companion, his entire band, and his manager were all killed. Nelson was 45 years old.

Though his heyday as a recording artist had long passed, Nelson remained a respected figure in music, and many celebrities paid their respects at his funeral. He was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987.

Tags: Career-Defining Moments | Ricky Nelson | Teen Idols | The 1950s | The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet | TV In The 1950s

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.