Ricky Nelson was born into a family of performers. Father Ozzie was a big band leader and mother Harriet, a singer. In 1944, his parents began a radio sitcom called The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The show’s episodes were based on the exploits of the Nelson family, and in 1949, eight-year-old Ricky joined the broadcast. In 1952, the family released a film, Here Come the Nelsons, which led to the television series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, one of the longest-running sitcoms in television history.
In 1957, Ricky Nelson performed the rock and roll song “I’m Walkin’” at the end of an episode. The performance was extremely popular and led to 17-year-old Ricky signing a lucrative record deal with Imperial Records. By the end of the year, Ricky Nelson’s debut album Ricky was #1 on the charts.
Ricky’s smooth tenor and blue-eyes made him an instant teen idol. Between 1947 and 1962 he had twenty Top 40 hits, second only to Elvis Presley. His chart topping hits included “Poor Little Fool” and “Travelin’ Man,” which was released along with one of the first ever music videos.
Because Ricky’s musical success occurred during the run of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the show and the singer helped promote one another. Ozzie Nelson masterminded the plan to have his son play his newest songs to a national audience at the end of episodes. These shows in the late 1950’s showed the enormous potential of mixing television and rock n’ roll, and served as motivation for the booking of more rock n’ roll artists on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Ozzie kept his son from performing on other shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, so that fans would tune into the family’s sitcom on ABC to see him. It was not until 1966, with the diminishing popularity of Nelson’s music due to the British Invasion and the sitcom’s cancellation that Ricky Nelson finally appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.
On January 23, 1966, Ed Sullivan introduced Nelson saying that over the years he had received “thousands and thousands of letters from youngsters asking for Ricky Nelson on the show.” An older Nelson dressed in a red sports coat sang “Your Kind of Lovin’” with a four man backup band. He came back to close the night’s show with “Fire Breathin’ Dragon.” Backed by only Sullivan Orchestra, Nelson stood alone on stage and serenaded the audience. He performed both songs with his classic monotone tenor and his slick, clean cut look contrasted with many of the British bands such as The Beatles on Ed Sullivan.
Nelson would never again achieve the success he had in the 50’s. In the 70’s, he formed The Stone Canyon Band, whose laid-back country sound was an influence on acts like The Eagles, Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt. He also continued to act, record and tour until 1985, when he was killed in a plane crash. He was inducted posthumously into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.