The sky was a deep blue, the sun just tilting toward the horizon, when those who had come to mourn filed along manicured paths into the impossibly white little chapel at L.A.’s funereal stage set known as Forest Lawn Cemetery. It had been nearly a week since Eric Hilliard Nelson and six others had been killed in a fiery Texas plane crash, but the lingering unreality about his death—he who had hardly aged in life or memory—seemed only heightened by the setting for his tribute.
Some remembered that Ricky Nelson had been there before: A 1959 dream sequence titled “Ricky Gets Married” for the old The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet show had been filmed in the same chapel. At that time he had been the smart-aleck younger kid of the nation’s most famous family, a star since age 12 of the prototypical and longest-running family sitcom in TV history. Throughout the ’50s and early ’60s, the Nelsons’ fiction had been an American reality and Ricky’s rock ‘n’ roll coming of age was somehow eerily a generation’s own.
The Nelson family had been in seclusion since Rick’s death, but they made his memorial service as open-to-the-public as his life had been. A crowd of 1,000 watched his mother, Harriet, tiny and fragile at 71; his brother, David, now a middle-aged 49; his ex-wife, Kristin, whose 1982 divorce from Nelson had shaken the clan; his sons, Sam, 11, twins Matthew and Gunnar, 18, and his daughter, Tracy, 22, already a veteran carrying the family’s acting tradition into its fourth generation.
The service began bizarrely with a 20-minute sermon by Jesuit Father Frank Parrish, who said, “I think of him in heaven playing his instrument while all the heavenly beings gather around him, just like the teenagers on earth.” The Nelsons, however, brought genuine feeling to the ceremony. Tracy eulogized her father, saying, “I remember his grace, his gentleness. He was the kindest man you ever met. The man had class. He was an artist. He was wise—and he loved ice cream.” Sam read a poem, and his twins harmonized in small, out-of-tune voices on their father’s song Easy To Be Free. Brother David, struggling to contain his emotions, read condolences from President Reagan, recalled his kid brother’s boyish pranks and led the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer. Years ago, he said, their late father, Ozzie, used to sing along with an operatic version of the prayer with his sons. Then the family left with a few close friends for a private burial service, leaving the onlookers talking about Ricky. What had he been up to since the waning of his fame? What had happened? Where had all those years gone, anyway?
Nelson’s last few days, by all accounts, had been happy ones, perhaps typically marked by nostalgia, an act of generosity and a belief that the future was looking brighter. It was around dusk on Saturday, Dec. 28 when word reached the Guntersville, Ala. airstrip that a DC-3 carrying Ricky Nelson was about to land. The news was a double treat for Iris Harris and Bob Lock, local aviation enthusiasts who couldn’t believe their good fortune. Ricky Nelson and a classic DC-3 in sleepy old Guntersville on the same day! The DC-3 making its approach that evening was 43 years old and had once been owned by another fabled rock star, “the Killer,” Jerry Lee Lewis. After thrilling to the sight of the aircraft making a perfect landing on the field’s short, 3,500-foot runway, Harris and Lock were surprised to find themselves the plane’s sole welcoming committee. Harris says, “I looked all around and didn’t see anybody. I couldn’t believe Ricky Nelson was coming to Guntersville and there was nobody there to welcome him.” When the plane taxied to a stop, there was Ricky Nelson lowering the built-in stairway. On impulse the 40-year-old schoolteacher offered Nelson a glimpse of Southern gracious-ness. “I sort of curtsied,” Harris says, “and opened my arms and said ‘Welcome to Guntersville.’ ” She says she couldn’t help herself. Like a lot of people, Harris felt like she’d known Ricky Nelson all her life, as if he were “one of the family.”
As the members of his band stretched their legs on the tarmac, Nelson “started unloading all their stuff himself,” Harris remembers. “He was carrying bags and instruments and piling them up, ready to be loaded on the truck. I couldn’t believe he was 45 years old. He looked so young. He was polite, too. I got my camera, and he posed for pictures with his arms around my shoulders. His fiancée [Helen Blair, 29] seemed to be very nice, but anytime anything started happening around Ricky, pictures or whatever, she would sort of fade away like she didn’t want to take any attention away from him.”
Harris and Lock gave Nelson and some of his party a lift to town. Lock, a Boeing engineer, remembers being impressed by pilot Brad Rank’s professionalism. “He said he had full instrumentation, but added that he was a ‘fair weather pilot.’ He wouldn’t take any chances with Rick aboard. They had been to Orlando and were working their way back toward the West Coast. I heard some of the band members saying that [the plane] was a whole lot better than the bus they used to tour in. It was a beautiful old, customized plane. He said he didn’t have any trouble keeping the temperature comfortable because the DC-3 had a [gasoline fueled] 110,000 BTU heater in the back of the cabin.” Rank told Lock that the only problem the plane suffered was a balky primer system. Primer problems can cause engines not to start, but they can’t cause them to stop.
Nelson and his Stone Canyon Band had stopped off in Guntersville (pop. 7,200) as a personal favor to Ricky’s old friend and former bandmate Pat Upton, who now co-owns a nightclub there called P.J.’s Alley, a 4,000-square-foot converted tire store and warehouse. That night they played two sets—mostly oldies—and P.J.’s had never seen a crowd like it, despite a club record $12 admission. The fire department gave Upton a ticket for overcrowding, and the owner had to turn folks away at the door. Among the crowd that did get in were Lock and Harris, who said that when the band took the stage in front of a raw brick wall, the audience, mostly fans age 35 to 50, screamed like teenagers. After leaving the stage dripping with sweat and pleased with the audience’s reaction, Nelson offered to stay the weekend and play an unscheduled third show Monday night, though Upton says the fee he was paying was “not nearly what they would normally get.”
Ricky and his fiancée stayed in the Holiday Inn’s Room 106 Saturday and Sunday nights. Their room, with a view of man-made Lake Guntersville, cost $2 more than the rooms facing the parking lot. On Monday afternoon the couple visited the Uptons and their four children. They stayed about an hour, discussing old times and playing with the family’s new puppies. Upton says Blair was rather quiet and retiring, like Nelson, who told his friend only that she had been a fan whom he met at one of his shows.
Monday night, when the band arrived at P.J.’s, Upton noticed a strange odor. “I thought there was a dead rat somewhere,” he says. The show was delayed while an amplifier was fixed, but otherwise the evening’s performance went on without a hitch. Nelson closed the show with Rave On, the song by Buddy Holly, the early rock hero who died at 22 in a 1959 plane crash. Responding to calls for more, Ricky walked out on stage twice to take a bow. His last words to the crowd were “Rave on for me.”
After the show Upton and the band found the source of the unpleasant odor. A dead boa constrictor was curled up inside the faulty amp. Nelson said the seven-foot snake belonged to one of his kids and must have slithered into the amplifier for warmth over the Christmas holidays at home. The band members figured the boa had frozen to death in the unheated cargo hold of the DC-3 during the band’s trip to Orlando a week earlier.
The next day, New Year’s Eve, the band was scheduled to take off at 10 a.m., but pilot Rank delayed departure because of a rainy, 500-foot cloud cover, conditions he deemed too “chancy.” Once the clouds moved out of the area, there was a further delay when the plane’s engines failed to start. Ricky and the band whiled away the time playing Space Invaders, petting an airport cat named Garfield and eating cheeseburgers and onion rings. Nelson clowned around, donning an aviator’s cap and tossing a long white scarf over his shoulder. Despite the fact that at least one band member had told friends he was afraid of the plane, none of the Stone Canyon players seemed worried during the long wait. Finally, at 2 p.m., after the fuel tanks were filled, the DC-3, white with black-and-gold trim, took off smoothly for the 450-mile flight to Dallas, where the group had a New Year’s Eve date at the Park Suite Hotel.
Three hours later, near the Texas border, something happened. Rank radioed the Dallas-Fort Worth airport that there was smoke in the cockpit and asked for emergency landing fields. The airport suggested several, but Rank said he couldn’t make them. He then apparently tried to land on a highway but veered away because of vehicular traffic. He put the plane down in a cow pasture near De Kalb, Texas at about 5:15 p.m. Federal investigators later said the plane made a good emergency landing and full stop, but the on-board fire by that time was intense enough to melt aluminum. Rank, 34, and co-pilot Kenneth Ferguson, 40, were able to escape, apparently through a cockpit emergency hatch, though they suffered severe burns and smoke inhalation. The plane burned for four hours. The remains of the seven passengers were found huddled near the cockpit door. Dead with Nelson and Blair were bass player Patrick Woodward, 35; drummer Rick Intveld, 22; pianist Andy Chapin, 30; soundman Clark Russell, 35, and brilliant lead guitarist Bobby Neal, 38. A week after the accident, the pilots were still too injured to talk. By that time, the investigation of the crash had focused on a broken fuel line that fed the powerful cabin heater. Authorities said a full report on the cause of the crash might take six months.
A few hours after the crash, a phone rang in the L.A. home of James Burton, the talented guitarist who gave Nelson’s first records much of their rockabilly authenticity. Burton, 44, who attended Hollywood High School with Nelson and cruised Hollywood Boulevard with him on their motorcycles, remembers, “My wife and I were getting ready to go to Las Vegas for New Year’s Eve. She answered the phone, then screamed and dropped it. Ricky and his band were dead.”
That sort of shock was widespread. For a certain generation, Ricky was supposed to live forever, like youth, like the era when rock ‘n’ roll would never die. His music may never have gotten great respect—he was a guy who never could shake the boyish “y” from his name—but after his death, tributes burnished his memory. As rock critic David Hinkley put it, “the deceptively clean-cut kid named Ricky Nelson” helped “smuggle rock and roll into American living rooms.” Rock historian Greg Shaw once said, “Of all the Hollywood teen idols, only one can be said to have any claim to lasting importance—Ricky Nelson….”
Even the beginning of his musical career seems as if it had been scripted for his parents’ TV show. In 1957 a high school girlfriend visited Ricky and swooned when an Elvis Presley song played on the radio. “To impress her,” Ricky later remembered, “I said, ‘I’m going to make a record.’ She laughed. And then I thought, ‘I’m going to make a record and hand it to her.’ ” Instead he formed a band and recorded a cover of the Fats Domino hit, I’m Walkin’. In April 1957 the band took the unusual step of playing the song on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. “Nobody realized the power of television,” Nelson said. “Within a week we sold a million records.”
The tactic became a standard feature of the TV show, making Ricky, in a sense, the first rock-video star. During the next few years he churned out such smash hits as Be-Bop Baby, My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It, Poor Little Fool, It’s Late, Travelin’ Man and Hello Mary Lou. By 21, he had recorded nine gold singles, sold 35 million records and was making about $400,000 a year when that sum could nearly buy Bur-bank. LIFE magazine put him on its cover in 1958 and coined a new phrase to describe him: Teen Idol.
The idyll ended in the mid-’60s. The British pop invasion led by the Beatles eclipsed Nelson’s career, as it did those of others, like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Vinton and even the great Elvis. With the advent of psychedelic sound, Ricky’s boy-next-door charm seemed hopelessly dated. But he was still making good money; in 1963 canny Ozzie had his son sign a 20-year contract with Decca Records.
Ricky took the change in musical style in good grace, and he never abandoned his work. To a greater degree than any other early rocker, his perseverance turned into durable survival. Galvanized by Bob Dylan’s 1969 country LP, Nashville Skyline, Nelson formed a new group, the Stone Canyon Band, and tried a comeback. “Ricky decided to record country music because he thought it was the basis for rock ‘n’ roll,” remembers guitarist Burton. “He loved it.” His cover of Dylan’s She Belongs to Me was a minor 1969 hit, but Nelson’s country music, never caught on. The sound created by the Stone Canyon Band, however, surfaced resoundingly in the 1970s in the megahits of such groups as the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Poco and the New Riders of the Purple Sage. Nelson got little credit for that.
He would, in fact, have only one more big hit, a triumph salvaged from adversity. At a Madison Square Garden appearance in 1971, Rick was booed unmercifully when he tried to sing new songs instead of his oldies. His manager, Greg McDonald, claims the boos were directed at a fight on the balcony. “They were booing the police, not Rick,” McDonald says, “but Rick took it personally.” Afterward he wrote 1972’s wry Garden Party, a pointed and self-revealing comment on those who would have him remain “Little Ricky” forever.
And then? He played state fairs, the clubs, sometimes 200 nights a year. The touring took a toll on his wife and family. In 1963 he had married artist Kristin Harmon, then 17, the daughter of football great Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox. Never one for the Hollywood party circuit, Nelson at home was almost reclusive; the family had long valued privacy. In 1977, after 14 years of marriage, he and his wife separated. The five-year battle that ensued was traumatic and bitter and, after a brief reconciliation, ended in divorce. In court papers Rick said he was besieged by creditors, and had a $32,000 bank overdraft despite property and cars worth $707,522. Kristin won custody of the kids, and Rick moved into a Hollywood Hills estate once owned by Errol Flynn. A family friend says Rick had “a pretty bad time of it five years ago. The divorce hurt him a lot. This was the year he had just gone back to work.”
Friends—and reportedly even his mother—attribute much of his resurgence to Helen Blair, for whom he bought a diamond engagement ring two Christmases ago. A native of New Jersey and a onetime animal trainer, Helen became a model and aspiring actress; she met Rick after a 1982 performance at L.A.’s Palomino Club. Helen reportedly got along well with his children, including the twins, who had moved in with their dad when they turned 18 last September. Rick was “feeling better, cheering up and getting out to meet more people,” says close friend Alan Bush. “His career was on an upswing,” adds manager McDonald, who points out that Rick had videotaped a concert with Fats Domino last summer (ironically scheduled to air the week of his death but now postponed) and had recorded the basic tracks for a new album. “He was very optimistic about the future.”
Some of that optimism was apparent last May when family and about 30 friends gathered to celebrate Ricky’s last birthday. The party went well, and it ended with a Nelson family tradition—a running, whooping entrance by his children hurling whipped cream pies at the birthday boy—well, man. Most of those who had attended the party were at his funeral last week. Like James Burton. “He was one of the most talented guys in the business,” said Burton. “It was an honor to work with such a gentleman. He was my best friend, and I will miss him terribly. I think everyone who grew up in America in the ’50s will miss Rick Nelson.”