Arguably the most televised pop star of his time, Ricky stole many hearts with his music. For years, he was the teen idol, but to his more sentimental fans, he was the man whose last-minute decision saved his sons' lives.
One of the most popular teen idols of the late '50s and early '60s, Ricky Nelson, was born Eric Hilliard Nelson in Teaneck, New Jersey, on May 8, 1940. His parents were the entertainment couple Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard Nelson.
His parents were the stars of the "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," which the older Nelson brothers — Ricky and David — joined when they were 8 and 12. The show ran for 16 consecutive years, a record in the history of TV sitcoms.
Left: Actor/Musician Ricky Nelson attends the Fifth Annual American Music Awards on January 16, 1978. Right: Ricky Nelson, his wife, Kristin Nelson and their children, Gunnar, Tracy, and Matthew and pose for a portrait in 1968 in Los Angeles, California.
Ricky attended Gardner Street Public School, then went to Bancroft Junior High before joining Hollywood High School. Despite his father's insistence that he gets a college education, Ricky hated school.
By the time he came of college-going age, Ricky was already making some good bucks, earning up to 100,000 dollars a year. Thus, he did not see the need to attend school.
At 17, Ricky recorded his first single, "I'm Walking," after making his TV debut, singing and playing the drums to the same song on the "Ricky, The Drummer" episode of the family show. The song became No. 4 on Billboard's Best Sellers.
A snapshot of Ricky Nelson posing with a guitar | Photo: Getty Images
Ricky was just getting started, and in the years that would follow, he released more hit music. His music included "Garden Party," "It's Late," "Fools Rush In," "For You," "Poor Little Fool," and "Travelin' Man," among many other hits.
Before recording them as singles, Ricky first introduced most of his songs to the audiences on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet."
MARRIAGE AND CHILDREN
The Christmas festive season of 1961 was a special time for Ricky. He had begun dating years back, but his mother greatly disapproved of all his love interests.
Ozzie Nelson, Harriet Nelson, David Nelson and Ricky Nelson circa 1952. | Source: Wikimedia Commons.
This time he was dating Kristin Harmon. The two had plenty in common — they both had domineering fathers, Hollywood upbringing, and quiet dispositions.
However, the bow that tied the little package together was that the Harmons and Nelsons were long-time friends. Their children dating had a great appeal, so the two youngsters got together, marrying in April 1963.
Together, they had four children, Sam Hilliard Nelson, twins Matthew Gray Nelson and Gunnar Eric Nelson, and their daughter, Actress Tracy Kristine Nelson.
Kristin Harmon and Ricky Nelson from "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." | Source: WIkimedia Commons
Over the next decade of making his music debut, Ricky reeled off a string of rock and roll-top 40 hits. He held a record that beat any other musician of his time, save for Pat Boone and Elvis Presley.
He remained musically relevant throughout the decade and even began earning credit for inspiring the likes of The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt's music journey.
He continued to tour frequently to promote his music and spread the genius of his voice to the world. On one of such tours, Ricky met his untimely death, leaving the world mourning for him and the legacy he had left behind.
Ricky Nelson and wife Kristin Harmon at Fifth Annual American Music Awards on January 16, 1978 | Photo: Getty Images
Ricky never liked flying, and he'd even attended psychotherapy sessions to get himself on airplanes. It seemed necessary as he wanted to reach out to more audiences, including those flying distances away from his hometown.
THE PREMONITION THAT SAVED HIS SONS' LIVES
It was the end of the year, and Ricky was supposed to fly to Dallas for the New Years' show, accompanied by his twin sons, Matthew and Gunnar. Gunnar said:
"We were supposed to be on the plane on that trip. Our dad called us right before we were supposed to come down to Alabama and meet him and fly with him to the New Year's show in Dallas."
Rick Nelson and wife Kristin Nelson pose for a portrait on January 01, 1963 | Photo: Getty Images
A few days before they left for the Dallas concert, Ricky seemed to have had a premonition and decided he'd not fly in the company of his sons. Consequently, he called them to break the news.
Gunnar seems to think his father changed his mind because the plane they were supposed to travel in had had some engine trouble. That last-minute decision by their father saved their lives.
On that fateful day, Ricky boarded the chartered DC-3 in Alabama. Shortly before arriving in Dallas, Ricky's cabin filled up with smoke from a fire whose origin has remained a mystery for over three decades.
David and Ricky Nelson in 1959. | Source: Wikimedia Commons
While the pilot successfully landed the plane in a field outside of De Kalb, Texas, all passengers aboard did not make it out alive, including Ricky. The fans' favorite was gone, snatched from the world forever.
UNPROVEN THEORIES SURROUNDING THE CRASH
Following his untimely death, published reports began claiming that the fire resulted from Ricky and his then-girlfriend, Helen Blair, "free-basing" cocaine.
Ricky's brother, however, vehemently denied that Ricky had ever used cocaine. At the same time, Ricky's manager Greg McDonald disclosed that Ricky and Blair had been asleep in their cabin when the smoke started.
Ricky Nelson for the film "The Wackiest Ship in the Army" | Source: Wikimedia Commons
Ricky's daughter, Tracy Nelson, had another theory in mind. Speaking with Larry King, she said that the plane, nicknamed the Flying Bus due to how slow it was, had had several problems with the gasoline-heater, and that was what caused the fire.
Thirty years down the line, there is still no concrete theory that explains the cause of the fire leading to the death of one of America's most iconic rock and roll stars and his band.
THE CHILDREN HE LEFT BEHIND
Ricky left behind four beautiful children. His daughter Tracy is an actress, well known for her role as Rachel in the film "The Perfect Tenant" and Theda Bara in "As Long as I'm Famous," among many others.
Ricky Nelson Remembered staring his twin sons Gunnar Nelson and Matthew Nelson perform at City Winery Nashville on July 30, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. | Getty Images
His twin sons Matthew and Gunner followed in their father's footsteps and are renowned musicians. Besides touring to support their music, they also do special concerts for their father to remember his legacy. Matthew says:
"It's an ongoing labor of love, an open letter to our dad, who was our best friend."
The youngest of the Nelson children, Sam Nelson, is also a musician and is the lead vocalist for his band H is Orange. He performs in the band alongside Guy Staniar, Marcel Blanco, and Troy Brittain