After a casual dinner at the Mister Boomer homestead, Mister B settled in for a couple of hours of mindless television. Suddenly, there on his screen, appeared a commercial for Campbell’s Soup. From the initial frame the soundtrack was immediately identifiable. Mister B inched forward on the sofa and proclaimed, “That’s Ricky Nelson! Campbell’s Soup is using a Ricky Nelson song to sell chicken noodle soup!” The song was, of course, Never Be Anyone Else (1959).
We don’t hear much about Ricky Nelson these days. Yet, though he died in a plane crash on December 31, 1985, no matter what part of the boomer years you were born in, you are aware of Ricky and his music. Ricky was a big deal. Whether through radio-listening osmosis or retro sources, Mister B feels the vast majority of boomers know his music once they hear a reminder.
Ricky was born into a showbiz family. His father, Ozzie Nelson, was a bandleader who turned his family life into a make-believe radio show in 1944, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet — a forerunner of today’s reality TV. The parts of Ricky and his older brother, David, were played by actors until David was 12 and Ricky, eight. The year was 1948, and the show was so popular that Ozzie thought it would transfer to television, but could not find a backer. Instead, the family made, Here Come the Nelsons, a full-length motion picture that was released in theaters in 1952. The success of the film convinced TV producers of the viability of the program, and the first TV episode of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet aired on October 3, 1952. The show ran through 1966.
Ricky sang covers of popular songs on several episodes and in TV guest spots, including I’m Walkin’ by Fats Domino. His ability and profile (and a savvy manager-father) got him guest star spots on several TV variety shows, becoming among the first teen idols to use TV as a way to promote a musical career. Consequently, his first single, Be-Bop Baby (1957), sold over a million copies and hit number one on the charts. One year later, Poor Little Fool, debuted at number one in the newly minted Billboard Top 100.
Between 1958 and 1959, Ricky had 12 hit songs on the charts; by contrast, in the same time frame, Elvis had 11. This time overlapped Ricky’s military service, when he was drafted and served between 1958-1960. Among Ricky’s hits were:
Poor Little Fool (1958) – the first number one hit on Billboard’s Hot 100
Never Been Anyone Else (1959) – number 6
Travelin’ Man (1961) – number 1
Hello Mary Lou (1961) – number 9
Garden Party (1972) – number 6
Many boomers may also have forgotten that Ricky appeared in many high-profile movies, including:
Rio Bravo (1952), with John Wayne and Dean Martin
The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960), co-starring with Jack Lemmon
Over-the-Hill Gang (1960), with Walter Brennan and Edgar Buchanan
… and appeared in many more movies and guest appearances on TV.
Ricky was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.
Mister B does not recall exactly when he first heard a Ricky Nelson song. More than likely it was on his transistor radio in the early 1960s. Neither Mister B or Brother Boomer purchased one of Ricky’s singles or albums, so he is not represented in the Mister Boomer collection. Nonetheless, it is fun to hear his tunes from way back when.
How about you, boomers? How did you come to know Ricky Nelson?