A New Jersey Salute to Ricky

February 5, 2006 - Ricky Retro, The Star-Ledger, NJ
           There are singers whose first audience is their family in the living room. Ricky Nelson launched his singing career when his family allowed him to perform in your living room. And millions of others.
           On the April 10, 1957, episode of the long-running sitcom "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet," which starred his parents, cast member Ricky Nelson sang Fats Domino's "I'm Walking." On the strength of that appearance, he got his first hit single when the song went to No. 4. The flip, "A Teenager's Romance," did even better, climaxing at No. 2.
           All these years later, Nelson, who died in a plane crash in 1985 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame two years later, is enjoying a career resurgence. Recent months have seen the release of a 25-song greatest-hits CD, the airing of a PBS special and a screening at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York of the documentary "Remembering Ricky Nelson," produced by Taylor Hackford ("Ray").
           Nelson - born Eric Hilliard Nelson in Tenafly, N.J. - parlayed a sincere delivery and good taste in pop, rockabilly and ballad material to chart 36 Top 40 singles between 1957 and 1972.
           Most of those singles were written by others. Among them were Nelson's first No. 1, "Poor Little Fool," the work of Sharon Sheeley, who'd been with her boyfriend, Eddie "Summertime Blues" Cochran when he died in a car crash in England; "Travelin' Man," a No. 1 written by Jerry Fuller, who also came up with "It's Up To You," "Young World" and dozens of others for Nelson, and "Hello Mary Lou," penned by Nelson's fellow pop idol Gene Pitney.
           However, Nelson did write one of his biggest hits, 1972's country-rock-flavored "Garden Party," inspired by an unnerving oldies concert he performed at Madison Square Garden.
           Five years after Nelson's death, his twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew, hit No. 1 as Nelson with 1990's "(Can't Live Without Your) Love and Affection."
           In "Garden Party," what did Rick Nelson say he'd rather do "if memories were all I sang"?
           Bravo, Ricky! "That rockin' babyfaced gunfisted kid." So Ricky Nelson's character was described on a poster for "Rio Bravo." Helmed by veteran director Howard Hawks, the 1959 western starred John Wayne and Dean Martin, so it didn't lack star power. But Hawks also wanted the youth vote, so teen idol Nelson was cast as Colorado Ryan, who toted both a gun and a guitar.
           Also in the cast were Walter Brennan, in yet another variation of his whiskery coot; Ward Bond, then star of TV's "Wagon Train," and ingenue Angie Dickinson.
           "Rio Bravo" was Wayne and Hawks' belated answer to another western, 1952's "High Noon." Nelson had wanted to include a song called "Restless Kid," written for him by Johnny Cash. When the song was turned down, Nelson included it in his 1959 album "Ricky Sings Again."
           In 1963, Ricky Nelson married Kristin Harmon, the daughter of football great Tom Harmon and the older sister of actor Mark Harmon. Since Ricky had been playing a TV version of himself on "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet" beginning in 1952, Kris Harmon joined the show to play his wife. Before divorcing in the early '80s, the couple had four children, the eldest of whom inherited the TV gene.
           Tracy Nelson first gained small-screen fame in the cast of the CBS sitcom "Square Pegs," which premiered in 1982. Created by "Saturday Night Live" writer Ann Beatts, the series revolved around a group of high-school frosh. Tracy, who survived Hodgkin's disease, continued to do TV, most notably as a sleuth nun on "Father Dowling Mysteries."

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