In the second half of the 1950s the market was hot for teen idols. A singer with a guitar and pouting good looks could soar to the top of the charts one week, bring in millions to a record company, and be disposed of the next. Record companies set their sights on dethroning or at least hanging to the coat tails of a kid from Memphis with swivelly hips. Few made it big. One singer, though, had path set out for him, the legacy of which would extend across the decades from the 1930s through to today.
Ricky Nelson, born Eric Hilliard Nelson, was born into a family of entertainers. His father, Ozzie Nelson, led a band and had been recording since the 1930s. Ricky's mother, Harriet Hilliard, had been a vocalist in Ozzie's band. Ozzie and Harriet married in 1935, having two children, David in 1936 and Ricky in 1940.
As the family grew, Ozzie branched into other avenues of entertainment, appearing in films and on radio. In a move mimicked to a certain extent years later by another Ozzie, he developed a radio show focusing on his family's day-to-day life, with Ozzie playing a sweet but scatter-brained patriarch. In truth, Ozzie was an astute businessman, far from his TV persona.
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet debuted on radio in 1944 and would be welcomed into homes for over 20 years on radio or TV. Initially Ricky and David's part where played by actors, but the boys took over the parts in 1949. By 1952 the show moved to television.
As Ozzie and Harriet raised their family on the air, a man named Norman Granz was raising a family of jazz musicians of his own. He began by recording a series known as Jazz at the Philharmonic, and releasing it on various labels prior to forming his own labels, Clef and Norgran. By the mid 50s he consolidated all of his output onto one label, Verve, and the search for talent was on.
Meanwhile over at the real life Ozzie and Harriet's house, a young Ricky wanted to impress a girl. Like other girls she was head over heels for Elvis. Ricky, seeking only to impress her, told her that he was going to make a record. Ricky had no real plans to do so, but once the challenge was made, he soon found himself in a studio recording a demo of Fats Domino's song I'm Walkin'.
Dad Ozzie was encouraged by the demo and had MCA, their agency, shop it around, but no labels were interested. It wasn't until Ozzie approached Barney Kessel, A&R man at Verve that a deal was struck. Barney, who had played guitar in Ozzie's band in the 40s, arranged a session in Los Angeles for Verve. On 27 March 1957, 3 tracks were laid down; I'm Walkin', You're My One And Only Love, and A Teenager's Romance, the first and the last making up Ricky's first release. On 10 April 1957, in an episode entitled Ricky, the Drummer, Ricky playing drum in the Tommy Jackson Band for a charity affair. He later ends up singing I'm Walking. Buoyed by the success of his musical premiere on TV, the record, with A Teenager's Romance on the flip, began its climb up the charts. By mid summer it reached #4 and the soon its B-side charted, reaching number 2. I'm Walkin' didn't chart in Canada, but A Teenager's Romance went to #5 on the CHUM charts on its Verve release. Verve was totally unprepared for this, and soon it found that it couldn't meet not only the demand for records by the public, but also the demand for royalties! This last bit particularly irked Ozzie.
Sitting on the sidelines was Lew Chudd of Imperial Records. Imperial was home to Fats Domino, the composer of I'm Walkin', and also held its publishing rights. Lew was impressed with Ricky's talent, so he approached Ozzie about signing him. It was a deal that would benefit all, including Barney Kessel and Verve records, although they didn't see it at the time.
Imperial was able to sign Ricky as the deal with Verve only covered the first 3 recordings. As Ricky's first Imperial release, the double-A side Have I Told You Lately that I Love You and Be-Bop Baby, climbed the charts, Verve took You're My One and Only Love, the remaining recording from the session it sponsored, coupled it with an instrumental, Honey Rock, hurriedly recorded with no involvement from Rickey several week later by Barney Kessel. This, the last of the Verve sessions, would battle it with the Imperial recording, and chart at #14 in the USA and #20 on the CHUM charts.
As would happen to the Beatles on VeeJay in the 60s, Verve would repromote the recordings it owned by packaging all three of them plus Honey Rock as an EP and a various artist album called Teen Time in the 60s. Soon however, Ricky's output at Imperial would overshadow the Verve recordings and the public would largely forget them. Ricky served as a true rival to Elvis Presley and Pat Boone during his time on Imperial. He stayed at them until 1963, signing then with Decca. As his sound matured, Ricky would drop the 'y' from his first name, opting to be known as Rick Nelson.
The train that was the British invasion brought a halt to his fortunes and in 1964 the hits dried up. While he continued to record, it took a concert at Madison Square Garden where the audience dissed his new material preferring his old hits, to inspire what would be his last hit single, Garden Party, a number 1 released in 1975. The song included a sly reference to the Beatles via the line 'Yoko brought her walrus'.
Ricky's career faltered after that and he would never regain the momentum he once had. Largely relegated to being an 'oldies' act her continued to record and play small venues. His children, though, would see success in the 1980s, with daughter Tracy appearing in the TV show Square Pegs and The Father Dowling Mysteries. His sons Gunnar and Matthew would hit the charts in 1990 with the song Love and Affection, making the Nelson family the only family to music history to have number 1 records in 3 generations. His other son Sam is an executive in the music industry
After a largely successful tour of the UK in 1985, Ricky returned to the USA to attempt to repeat that triumph. It was not to be, as he died when a small plane his on crashed near Dallas Texas.
As to the Verve recordings, I'm Walking is a rollicking rockabilly treatment of Fats Domino's classic. A Teenager's Romance is a moody ballad filled with all the pathos and angst of those hormone-fuelled years. They would initially show up on the black and silver verve label. A rarer release would be on the orange and yellow version.
You're My One and Only Love is a slice of R & B that features an unknown female vocalist responding to Ricky by repeating the phrase 'my one and only'. She also seems to have shown up on the B-side, Honey Rock, which while largely instrumental, has a female vocalist singing the word 'honey, in a somewhat seductive fashion. While much better than the B-Sides of some of Phil Spector's productions, will always be largely ignored as the filler that it is. This release is only known to exist on the black and silver Verve label.