This year marks the 30th anniversary of the tragic death of Ricky Nelson while flying to make a show in Dallas. His DC3 plane, which originally was owned by Jerry Lee Lewis caught fire and crashed. Initial reports said that the Nelson and party were free basing cocaine while traveling. After an investigation by the FTAA it was determined that the accident was if fact a malfunction with a gas heater and it put this allegation to rest. Plus he was “cremated” because of the fire’s fury before the L.A. coroners could complete a full toxicology report but stated that unmetabolized cocaine was traced. . However, Ricky Nelson did have a perplexing life life and drugs were a part of it.
News of the plane crash that killed Ricky Nelson
The Nelson Family Ricky Nelson’s Grave
Ricky had the life of a prince. If Elvis was the king of rock and roll then Eric(Ricky) Hilliard Nelson was his regal first born. Son of T.V. icons Ozzie and Harriet he became the nation’s early teen idol. At a young age Ozzie knew that his young son was a gifted singer. After each episode there would be a performance given by Ricky and his band performing which was seen by millions of American households. This was way before MTV was invented! The Ozzie and Harriet T.V. Show offered a atavistic glimpse of your typical American family. While the world was in the midst of the Cold War it shelled innocence and showed the power of television. It was the infant of today’s reality shows but their show was far more innocent. Ricky’s first performance on T.V. was a cover of Fats Domino’s, “I’m Walkin” which sold a million copies the week after the telecast. The song reached #2 on Billboard so fast that the “B” side, “A Teenagers Romance” charted simultaneously. Only The Beatles had this happen! Radio and tabloids garnered a gift that was acceptable and wholesome so his exposure was massive. The Nelson family had to erect an electric fence around their home to discourage teenagers from climbing over and when he graduated from Hollywood High School disparaged Nelson from showing up because of fear of a riot ensuing! In a very short time The U.S. Post Office in Hollywood had to build an additional wing just to accommodate all his fan mail. Because of how he was brought up, Ricky was different. Born handsome and very rich he had this “glazed” edge to him; at times acting indifferent during interviews. From his early days he was referred to as irrepressible and cautiously wisecracking. Most renowned for his verbal trademark, “I don’t mess around boy” became an expression that all teens were grappling. Life magazine had devoted an entire issue which coined the phrase, “Teenage Idol”.
Ricky Nelson’s Pictures from Life Magazine
The coupling of singles, which was Ozzie’s idea would be repeated throughout Nelson’s recording career. Between 1957 and 1961 he had 36 records on Billboards Top 100! At 21 Nelson had 9 gold records. The hit “Travilin’ Man” sold over 2 million records and peaked at #1. The performance on the Ozzie & Harriet show was the worlds first conceptual video. It’s reverse side “Hello Mary Lou” reached #1 in 32 countries and sold 7 million copies world wide. He had become a musical juggernaut!
While attending Hollywood High School he joined a less than desirable club known as The Rooks and with his hair greased back they would cruise to all the popular L.A. night spots. Sporting with a black leather jacket and a self made tattoo with india ink he got arrested twice; once for sucker punching a cop! Ozzie, with his Hollywood clout was able to have the charges dropped but forbade his “juvenile delinquent” son from having any more dealings with that greaser gang The Rooks.His father oversaw Ricky’s finances because his son was making huge amounts of money from T.V. and music. Even at a young age Nelson had cavalier taste for cars, clothes and women which in later years became a serious problem and always seemed to be living his life in a deficit! He was incorrigible! Forget about going to college! He was making over $100,000 a year and in spite of his overpowering dad’s constant meddling he was always broke! He would steal neighbors soda bottles for pocket change to go on a movie date. Rick Nelson even became a huge movie star after his debut in the western “Rio Bravo” which starred John Wayne and Dean Martin.
It wasn’t all a bed of roses for Ricky. Despite his success and affluence he couldn’t keep his shit together. From the late 50’s he had “knocked up” women and declined any responsibility. In 1963, in a “shotgun marriage” he wedded Kris the daughter of football great Tom Harmon because she was was pregnant. Rick and Kris had much in common: quiet dispositions, Hollywood upbringings, and high-powered, domineering fathers. Together they had four children and in keeping with the Nelson tradition all seemed fine on the outside!
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. According to the Hollywood tabloids Kris was contentious and jealous. Both spent enormous sums of money: Kris on parties, Rick on renting a private Lear jet for his disposal. Nelson had a tremendous sexual appetite and a casual attitude toward sex, once estimating he had had sex with thousands of women. 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. Performing over 200 concerts a year. 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. Ricky was going broke! During the Nelson divorce proceedings, he was accused by his wife’s attorney of using cocaine, Quaaludes, and other drugs, and of having “a severe drug problem” encouraged by his managers, his entourage, and his groupies. The attorney noted that Nelson’s “personal manager” secured drugs and women for Nelson. Frequently wild parties took place in his home whether he was there or not, and that his children, aware of his drug use, were in great physical danger from drugged persons entering and exiting the house at all hours. Following Nelson’s divorce his drug use grew so dire that friends urged him to seek treatment for substance abuse but he denied any culpability.
In spite of his personal problems his credibility within the music community grew. Now wanting to be referred to “Rick” and not Ricky his recording success ceased. He had befriended Glen Campbell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and even The Beatles. But in New York City Nelson played at an “oldies” concert at Madison Square Garden and like Dylan when he went “electric” came out rockin’ and opened by covering the Rolling Stones, “Honky Tonk Women”. The crowed was livid and they booed endlessly; they wanted to hear the early Ricky Nelson staples of the past. Disillusioned, Ricky stormed off the stage and it took John Lennon to pacify him enough to continue and perform his early hits. However, like lightening in a bottle, this torrid evening was the inspiration for Nelson’s greatest song.. “Garden Party” which had a most “Dylanesque” verse.. ” You can’t please everyone so you got to please yourself”. This cathartic song became a monster record… soaring up the record charts. “Garden Party” transcended cultures all over the world and even though Ricky died tragically in 1985, his memory proves that rock and roll has a soft shoulder. He was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by John Fogerty.
Phish performing “Garden Party” ironically live at Madison Square Garden