Apr 27, 2016

Ricky Nelson

Ricky Nelson was the first teen idol produced by television.  He was born in 1940 to show biz parents, band leader Ozzie Nelson and singer Harriet, who played "themselves" on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet on radio.  Both Ricky and his brother David began playing themselves in 1952, after the switch to television.

His plotlines were standard Boomer-kid stuff -- paper routes, bullies, homework --until the night of April 10, 1957, when Ricky performed the Fats Domino classic "I'm Walkin'."

Teenagers -- never big fans of the program before -- went wild.  Envisioning a whole new market, Ozzie had Ricky sing every week after that.  At first he used the pretense of a "talent contest" or "school dance," but then he gave up, put a guitar in Ricky's hands, and let him perform to audiences of rapturous teens.




Ricky stayed on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet until it finally ended in 1962, but his parts became increasingly smaller as his performing career took off.  Between 1957 and 1962, he hit the Top 40 charts 30 times, more than any other performer except Elvis and Pat Boone. In the interest of maintaining closeness with his brother, he also performed in "The Flying Nelsons," a trapeze act, as the flier to David's catcher.
Many performers in the 1950s were androgynous or slightly gender-transgressive -- singing itself was coded as a "sissy" activity -- but Ricky was the first teen idol to promote a gender-transgressive image, as soft, shy, introspected, and somewhat dark, as if he had a secret pain.  Though he was attracted to women and married multiple times, his primary relationships -- his most fulfilling, intimate relationships -- were with same-sex friends.  At the same time, he was rather homophobic.

Teen magazines didn't do a lot of beefcake shots in those days, but that didn't matter.  Ricky looked good in chinos, and he could fill out a cowboy outfit.

Ricky tried to rename himself "Rick," but it didn't work -- fans called him Ricky through his life.  He was busy through the 1960s and 1970s, writing new songs, experimenting with new genres. "Garden Party" (1972), about Hollywood hypocrisy, became a hit for a new generation.

He died tragically in an airplane crash in 1985.

See also: David and Ricky Nelson