Tragic Facts About Ricky Nelson, The Doomed Teen Idol

Gareth Graveline

The story of Ricky Nelson is one of fame, fortune, and tragedy. Born to be a celebrity, he became the world’s first teen idol and a rock and roll icon by the time he was 17. His rise to fame was meteoric, and his fall was just as fast.


1. He Was Born Into To A Family Of Celebrities

Ricky Nelson was born in the limelight. On May 8th, 1940 Ricky came into the world as the second son of a successful celebrity family. Harriet and Ozzie Nelson were already established actors and singers of remarkable talent, and they set their expectations for Ricky high right from the start. But his early childhood wasn’t all glitz and glam.

2. He Was A Weird Boy

Ricky was a sickly and shy child. He suffered from severe asthma and was thin and unwell in his early years. Often described as shy, mysterious, and introspective as a child, this was hardly the start you’d expect of a world-renowned teen idol. But the spotlight called to him, and he had a lightning quick path to stardom.

3. He Became A Child Star

Ricky soon joined his parents’ sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, where he and his older brother David played fictional versions of themselves. Success was instant: The show first became a film, where Ricky got to work alongside Hollywood hunk Rock Hudson, and then a television series. But all this fame came with a dark side.

4. He Was A Natural From The Start

Ricky’s stage presence was evident from the start. On The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the young boy took to ad-libbing and chewing the scenery “like a miniature Jerry Lewis” to get spontaneous laughs from the studio audience. The thing is, his father Ozzie hated it, once snapping at him, “Son, there is no such thing as a child comedian”.

But that wasn’t the only way Ozzie Nelson exerted his control.

5. He Had A Complicated Relationship With His Father

With the massive success of Ozzie and Harriet, Ricky was swimming in money at a time when most kids his age were counting their pennies. Both David and Ricky were earning a massive $500 a week, which was more than the average American lawyer made at the time. Not that his father let him see that money.

Instead, Ozzie squirrelled it away in a savings fund and only doled out a meagre allowance to his sons to stop them from being “spoiled”. On paper, it was a good idea. In practice, it was the beginning of lifelong problems for Ricky.

6. He Grew Alienated From His Peers

Ozzie and Harriet became one of the longest-running sitcoms in American history, in large part due to Ricky. But behind the scenes, it was falling apart. With his massive success but pitiful allowance, Ricky was becoming hugely removed from both the life of a star and the life of a normal child. With nowhere to fit in, the wheels started falling off.

7. He Was An Academic Delinquent

At school, Ricky became a known troublemaker and slacker. In one typing class where he received a “D” grade, he threw spitballs and made voices behind the teacher’s back. He also flunked English for always being late on the very few days that he bothered to show up. Then again, it was around this time that Ricky found his true calling—the one that would cement his legacy forever.

8. He Fell In Love With Rock And Roll

Ricky wasn’t only an incredible child actor; early in his teen years, he also developed another obsession. He learned the guitar and drums, honing a real knack for music. Ricky was captivated by Elvis Presley in particular and rock and roll in general, which had become a rallying cry for rebellion against staid 1950s expectations. And, well, Ricky sure did rebel.

9. He Disappointed His Father

Ricky had grown up under his father’s thumb, and now there was a musical revolution sweeping the nation. He responded with a scandalous new look. His teenage rock rebellion took the form of sideburns, slicked-back hair, and even an attempt at tattooing himself. His controlling father Ozzie was likely apoplectic…but the patriarch had bigger things to worry about.

10. He Was A Playboy

What else comes with fame besides the posh lifestyle and piles of cash? Admirers and romance. Ricky’s teenage years were full of young love and brief romances with co-stars, fans, and other young celebrities in his age group. Ricky obviously didn’t hate the attention that his celebrity brought him—and he started very early.

11. He Had An Intimate Relationship With A Co-Star

While working on the set of Ozzie and Harriet, a teenaged Ricky fell head over heels for the actress playing his TV girlfriend, Marianne Gaba. It was by all accounts brief, and they were apparently “too young to enter a serious relationship”. What they did get up to, though, was steamy. Ricky once confessed that they’d “neck for hours”.

The parade of girls wouldn’t stop at Marianne, but this is where Ricky’s troubles really started.

12. His Parents Strongly Disapproved Of His Girlfriends

Ricky’s parents expected nothing less than perfection from their son, and they were determined to make him the next superstar. So when a steady stream of would-be girlfriends came into Ricky’s life, the Nelsons were quick to put their feet down. They thought girls would only distract him from his career—not to mention that none of them were good enough for their boy.

If they had it their way, Ricky wouldn’t date. Period. Little did they know, it was a girl who kickstarted his career as a musician.

13. He Wanted To Be Bigger Than Elvis

One day, Ricky was out on a date with a girl who, like him, was also a massive fan of Elvis Presley. It was then that Ricky made a fateful decision. Despite the fact that he had no record contract to speak of, Ricky boasted to the girl, trying to impress her, that he was going to make a record, just like their hero Elvis.

But before he could even start, a horrific accident almost took it all away.

14. He Got A Very Adult Gift

When he was 16, Ricky’s parents bought him a Porsche as a gift. Apparently, Ozzie had relaxed his “no spoiled kids” rule; the cars were so exclusive in the 1950s that no dealers even existed in California. Instead, they had to be custom-built and then shipped six months after ordering. But Ricky was about to prove why maybe 16-year-olds shouldn’t get nice things.

15. He Liked To Show Off His Assets

A couple of months into his ownership of the Porsche, Ricky and his friend Forrest Stewart took it for a spin to a theater to see the rock and roll movie The Girl Can’t Help It starring the bodacious Jayne Mansfield. After showing off the Porsche to some girls, the pair started to drive down Sunset Boulevard. But this is where it all went so, so wrong.

16. He Was A Daredevil

While on Sunset Boulevard, Ricky approached a straightaway and decided to see what his Porsche could really do, despite the fact that he and his friend Stewart hadn’t bothered to put on seatbelts. Soon, Ricky was going 120 miles an hour down the road, with Stewart begging him to slow down. But the moment the plea escaped his lips, disaster struck.

17. He Had A Horrible Car Crash

As the pair careened down the street, the car reached a section of road where a sprinkler system had flooded the pavement. Panicked, Ricky slammed on the brakes, first spinning the car and then making it roll a breathless eight or nine times, ripping the tires off the car in the process. And when it finally came to a halt, everything was not okay.

18. He Got Very, Very Lucky

Although Forrest Stewart felt miraculously unharmed, he looked over to Ricky and watched a horror show. The star was screaming about his leg, and when ambulances arrived on the scene they immediately took the pair to the hospital. As it  turned out, they had both suffered cracked pelvises in the massive crash and were lucky to be alive.

No one knew it at the time, but this was tragic foreshadowing.

19. His Dad Kickstarted His Music Career

Ricky’s father Ozzie might have been annoyed at his son’s rebellion and terrified at his subsequent crash, but he also knew Ricky had a future in music—and he knew a moneymaker when he saw one. He threw himself completely behind Ricky’s burgeoning singing career despite Ricky’s protestations of interference.

Still, given what came next, no one could say it didn’t pay off.

20. He Got A Big Record Deal

With his industry connections, Ozzie eventually set Ricky up with Verve Records, who were looking for a young person with a pre-existing fanbase and passable singing talent. After Ozzie and Harriet, Ricky thought he had both. They signed him up to record three songs, including “I’m Walkin'”. But it started to go wrong almost immediately.

21. He Was Bad At His Job

Given Ricky’s obsession with rock and roll, his entertainment roots, and his ambition to become a singer, Verve Records had some hope that their new star had a set of pipes. They were sorely disappointed: Although Ricky had some raw talent, his recordings would often go off the rails if the songs required too much breath control, had a wide range of notes, or simply contained certain words Ricky had trouble singing.

As the one executive put it, “He was not a very accomplished singer…There wasn’t even much voice”. In the end though, this hardly mattered, because his father Ozzie had another brilliant idea.

22. His First “Live” Performance Was On The Family TV Show

By March 1957, Rick Nelson’s first professional recordings (such as they were) were up and ready to go. Then came one of the smartest marketing plans of the 1950s. Ever the impresario, Ozzie decided to air Ricky’s first “live” performance on the family TV show, Ozzie and Harriet, ahead of the release of “I’m Walkin'” as a single. It was not an immediate success.

23. He Was Super Awkward

In truth, there was nothing “live” about Ricky’s performance at all, as the young actor lip-synced all of his lines from “I’m Walkin'”. But more than that, to anyone who knew him it was an extremely awkward showing. According to Ricky’s brother David, this was “a very embarrassed version” of the song because Ricky “did not know quite what to do with himself”.

When Ricky finally got through the piece, everyone heaved a sigh of relief. They likely hoped the performance wouldn’t damage his career too much. Absolutely no one predicted its true impact.

24. He Got The Surprise Of His Life

Just after this episode aired, Ricky started hustling, doing an unpaid performance of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” at a local high school assembly. It was typical early career grunt work…which is what made the next development so stunning. A mob of teenage girls, having apparently caught and approved of the latest Ozzie and Harriet instalment, greeted him at the assembly with screams, cries, and gasps.

If it wasn’t clear to him then what was going on, it soon would be.

25. He Was An Overnight Sensation

As it turned out, Ricky Nelson had become almost literally an overnight sensation. Ozzie and Harriet had an audience of millions, and the fan mail soon came through in a steady avalanche, all while the phone never stopped ringing. More groups of adoring teen girls would gather at the studio gate just to catch a glimpse of Ricky. And it was just the beginning.

26. He Helped Coin A Famous Phrase

It’s hard to overstate the mania around Ricky Nelson at the time. Not only did “I’m Walkin'” and “A Teenage Romance” rocket to near the top of the charts, but the child actor’s success also coined a new term. The phase “teen idol” was invented specifically to describe Ricky Nelson. Yet complications were on the way. 

27. He Had A Huge Crush

Despite the mobs of adoring fans that followed him wherever he went, Ricky had eyes for only one girl: fellow singer Lorrie Collins. This was actually a little dicey, considering Ricky was nearly 18 years old at the time, while Collins was just 15 years old. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t hold her own against him. In fact, she changed his life.

28. His Girlfriend Was A Musical Genius

Despite Collins’ young age, she too had been through the entertainment ringer already, having starred alongside her brother as the “Collins Kids” since she was a child. Of course, this gave her common ground with Ricky—but it also gave her huge connections and seasoned skills that quickly proved very useful to him.

In between introducing Ricky to country heavyweights like Johnny Cash and Tex Ritter, Collins also helped co-write his first song, “My Gal”.  Unfortunately, they were doomed from the start.

29. He Fell Madly In Love

Ricky Nelson knew a good thing when he saw it, and he fell madly in love with Lorrie Collins before long. The two teens were so devoted, they even began talking about marriage with each other. Which is right about when Ricky’s mother Harriet, still terrified of her son straying from his path to stardom, stuck her nose in yet again and shut that kind of talk right down.

And to be fair, Ricky was about to achieve an enormous career milestone.

30. He Was Bigger Than Elvis

In October 1957, Ricky officially released his first album, aptly named RickyThe following months were unbelievable. It reached #1 on the charts before the end of the year, but that wasn’t even the best part. For a brief shining moment, Ricky even surpassed his idol Elvis. Between 1958 and 1959, Ricky had 12 hits on the charts; Elvis only had 11.

Ricky Nelson was flying high…and with fame came terrifying pitfalls.

31. His Fans Got Disturbing

While the masses of fans, fan clubs, and fan mail must have been a massive ego boost for Ricky at first, all this adulation quickly turned sour. At one event, six girls mobbed Ricky, threw themselves under his car…then begged him to run them over. Uh, weird. Yet Ricky’s fame was about to get an even bigger boost.

32. He Starred In A Movie With Dean Martin And John Wayne

With Ricky Nelson fever sweeping the nation, Hollywood cast him in a big-budget western. Starring alongside Dean Martin and typecast cowboy John Wayne, Rio Bravo was a massive hit. A lot of that was because of Ricky’s incredible star power, and director Howard Hawkes gave him several singing scenes in the film.

Hopefully Ricky enjoyed it, because it was to be the height of his career. A downfall was coming.

33. He Got Stiff Competition

By the early 1960s, an invasion from across the pond quickly displaced American rock and roll stars. It was none other than the fab four that led this British invasion—the Beatles. Not even Elvis could compete with their appeal, and Ricky’s seemingly untouchable star power started to quickly fade. To keep it alive, he came up with a desperate plan.

34. He Tried To Reinvent Himself

What’s in a name? Well, to Ricky Nelson, everything. In a bid to shed his teenage idol moniker and squeaky-clean, all-American image, on his 21st birthday he changed his recording name to Rick Nelson. But it was largely a swing and a miss. He would never again achieve the height of success he had experienced in the late 50s…and personal issues were on the horizon, too.

35. He Met The Girl Of His Dreams

It was at this time that Ricky fell for a gorgeous young woman named Kris Harmon. She was the daughter of an actress-model mother and a famous football star father. Sounds like a match made in heaven, right? But here’s the kicker. Harmon was actually a friend of the family, and at long last, Ricky’s hard-to-please parents approved of one of his girlfriends. And that wasn’t the only thing.

36. He And Kris Had Lots Of Chemistry

Ricky and Kris were alike in so many different ways, and it seemed like destiny had brought them together. Both of them were secretly quiet and introverted. Both grew up firmly in the glare of the limelight. Both had overbearing and controlling parents—Harmon’s were strict and judgy Catholics—who wanted to micromanage their lives.

Is it any surprise things escalated quickly? Maybe a little too quickly.

37. He Had A Rushed Wedding

In 1963, Kris found herself pregnant. It turned into a stress nightmare. With her conservative parents, there was now no question that Ricky and she would marry, lest Nelson face the wrath of the Harmons. So on April 20 of that year, Ricky tied the knot in what he himself described as a “shotgun wedding”.

What should’ve been a fairytale marriage was more of a patch job. It was a signal of things to come for the couple.

38. He Went On A Failed Comeback Tour

Ricky and Harmon would go on to have four children together, but having more mouths to feed didn’t help Ricky’s faltering career. More determined than ever, Ricky started a comeback tour in the 1970s, hoping to find a new audience with new material. It went about as badly as it could: While performing in Madison Square Garden, the audience loudly booed him.

It was perhaps related to police action in the crowd, or maybe disappointment from an audience. Either way, it left him feeling enraged—but this fury produced one last glimmer of success.

39. He Had One Last Hit

Ricky channeled the disgust he felt after the Madison Square Garden concert into writing a new song, the famous “Garden Party”. With lyrics like: “you can’t please everyone / so you got to please yourself”, it was Ricky’s last hit. The dream of the world’s first teen idol had finally withered away. And in the meantime, his private life imploded.

40. His Relationship Fell Apart

By 1975, Ricky’s relationship with Kris was far from harmonious, and it began to groan under the increasing pressure of Ricky’s dying career. Harmon, who had spent extravagantly since the day they married, now wanted Ricky to both be at home more AND somehow come up with mountains of money to support her lavish lifestyle.

Torn between two impossible choices, Ricky just kept constantly touring in the hopes it would keep his wife happy. Before long, it reached a harrowing boiling point.

41. He And His Wife Began To Despise Each Other

Disappointed in her life and lonely at home, Kris Harmon turned increasingly more to drink to ease her sorrows. It came to a heartbreaking end. Eventually, Kris became an alcoholic, and began leaving their children in the care of their household staff. At this point, the marriage was beyond saving. They filed for divorce in 1977, but their bitter entanglement was far from over.

42. He Had A Disastrous Divorce

Divorce is never a pleasant thing, but divorce in the public eye must be so much worse. For Ricky and Kris, the tabloids were ruthless, plastering rumors and stories of the family’s squabbles all over the headlines. That wasn’t all. After he paid the lawyers and the split became official in 1982, Ricky was practically bankrupt.

Perhaps this is what led him to some very questionable decisions.

43. He Had A Child Out Of Wedlock

In 1980, Ricky’s love life was in tatters, and his rebounds were even more ruinous. Ever the playboy, Ricky met the young Georgeann Crewe while touring and ended up in bed with her. It came back to haunt him. Months later, Crewe discovered she was pregnant. She tried to reconnect with Ricky to tell him the news, but the reaction was nothing short of appalling.

44. He Was A Deadbeat Dad

Unfortunately, Crewe never even got to see Ricky to tell him the news. One of his minders headed her off at the pass, sniping, “Rick won’t ever want to see that child”. Countless of Crewe’s other attempts failed too (or so Ricky’s story goes) and Crewe had her son—Eric, in homage to his father—alone. But then she took matters into her own hands.

45. His Lover Went To Desperate Measures

When her son Eric was six months old, Crewe carted the boy to one of Ricky’s concerts. She then sat herself down right in the front row. According to her, “The whole time he was performing he was looking at Eric”. She didn’t stop there. She started legal proceedings soon after; once blood tests confirmed the boy was Ricky’s, support payments quickly followed.

But lest you wonder if this was all just a big mistake on Ricky’s part…just wait.

46. He Was Creepy

Georgeann Crewe’s story of desperately trying to connect with an ignorant Ricky Nelson might be true, but there is another, darker rumor about the night they met. See, that night Crewe had been with her sister—and one of Ricky’s crew admitted that after sleeping with Georgeann, Ricky slipped out of bed to go romance her sibling. Ew.

47. He Found His Soulmate

By now Ricky was basically penniless, his career was in the gutter, and the stink of a messy public divorce still lingered. But then he met Helen Blair, a stunning model and exotic animal trainer in Las Vegas. It was a whirlwind romance, as was typical for Ricky: Within months Blair was touring with him, and a short time later she had moved into his house.

Ricky seemed finally ready to settle down again. But old demons continued to haunt him. 

48. His Parents Hated His Girlfriend

Blair quickly became the center of Ricky’s life. Beyond being his lover, she became his personal assistant and fan club liaison. But for all this, Ricky’s family interfered in his relationship again, claiming that Blair wasn’t good enough for him. They were so insistent, Ricky even dropped plans of marrying her, in part to keep them off his back.

In the end, it was all for naught.

49. He Couldn’t Give Up His Luxuries

Even as a washed-up star, Ricky could never truly forget or give up the luxuries of the high life. In fact, even though he was afraid of flying, he refused to travel with a tour bus for his 1985 tour. So, setting aside his fear, he forked out a ton of cash for his own private plane—though given his tight budget, it was secondhand, having once belonged to Jerry Lee Lewis.

Like Ricky Nelson himself, the plane had seen better days and was riddled with mechanical problems. The purchase was a decision with dire consequences.

50. His Plane Was A Death Trap

The 1985 tour got off to a shaky start for Ricky and his band, mainly because Ricky’s plane could never seem to work. It quickly turned terrifying. At one point, they couldn’t get the engine to start and had to push the craft off the runway. At another, Ricky had to cancel one of his appearances because the plane was malfunctioning again.

Still, Ricky kept pushing, kept touring, and kept trying to make more money. It would be his end.

51. He Crash Landed

On New Year’s Eve 1985, Ricky’s careless purchase finally caught up with him. After taking off from Guntersville, Alabama and intending to go to a New Year’s party in Dallas, Texas, the crew experienced mechanical difficulties in the air and, after most probably catching fire, crash-landed just north of their destination.

When the smoke cleared, the truth was almost unbearable.

52. He Died In A Terrible Accident

The teenage car crash that Ricky caused had nothing on this accident. Besides catching fire, the plane hit several trees on its way down, and the damage was brutal. Only two passengers, the pilot and co-pilot, survived. Ricky, his girlfriend Helen Blair, and all of his bandmates and crew perished, including former Steppenwolf band member Andy Chapin.

The world’s first teen idol died in the most tragic of circumstances. And there was a cruel twist.

53. His Family Betrayed Him

Ricky’s family proved their hatred of Helen Blair tenfold after her death. When the Blair family requested that they bury their daughter alongside Ricky, Ricky’s mom declined outright. Indeed, at the funeral—which had over 700 fans and multiple celebrity mourners in attendance—no one even mentioned Blair’s name.

54. He Became A Hall Of Famer

The world mourned the death of one of its great musicians for many years after, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted Ricky in 1987. It was in recognition of his trailblazing life, his contributions to early rock and roll music, and no doubt his untimely death. Radio star, tv star, movie star, rock star, he was so much to so many people.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

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