He was an unlikely agent for sedition—the puppyish kid brother on his mom and pop’s wholesome TV show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. So when 16-year-old Ricky Nelson took to the mike on a 1957 episode and lip-synched a sweet-scrubbed version of Eats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’,” the nation wasn’t all shook up. It was all calmed down. Rock and roll had been blasphemy till then, the devil’s thunder call. But when Ozzie’s kid sang it, well, gosh, it seemed just cute.
Sleepy-eyed and slack-jawed, the boy next door “smuggled rock and roll…into America’s unsuspecting living rooms,” music critic David Hinckley observed. Nelson had already had one iconic life as America’s favorite son, and now he’d been reborn into another: rock and roll idol, a phrase used to anoint him by LIFE magazine. In his second act he was blazing, even sprinting past Elvis for a short time. By the time he dropped they from his name, at 21, Rick’s balance sheet included nine gold singles, 35 million records sold and a yearly income of about $400,000.
Act 2 ended when the British pop-music invasion forced him off center stage. His marriage to Kris Harmon produced four children (actress Tracy, twin musicians Gunnar and Matthew, and Sam, a high school senior) but eventually withered, along with his finances. Rick’s last hit had been 1972’s “Garden Party,” a smack back at those who booed him for singing new material during a rock revival at Madison Square Garden. There was no Act 3. Nelson died on New Year’s Eve, 1985, when his plane crashed en route to a Dallas concert. He was one of the few actor-singers who could claim real success in both worlds. Observed rock historian Greg Shaw: “In addition to his moody sex appeal and television sinecure, he also happened to have real talent.”