Ricky Nelson grew up most publicly, on television. Once a week, every week, from 1952 to 1966, millions of Americans tuned in to "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet" and, over those years, watched Ricky transformed from a typically gawky, crew-cut 11-year-old to a pretty-boy teen heartthrob with 9,000 fan clubs, and then into a handsome young man who married his sweetheart on the show in 1963.
It was a fascinating process, but one that imprinted Ricky Nelson as a cultural memory, forever tied to '50s music and to the television show. Ultimately, that left little room for anything else.
Even when Nelson dropped the "y" from his name at age 20, he remained Ricky to most people. They seemed to prefer remembering the polite, vulnerable boy you wished lived next door, the surrogate little brother whose every awkward movement was documented, or the genial rock 'n' roller whose pliant melodies and simple beats would suddenly become anachronistic in the mid-'60s.
When Little Ricky grew up and became the man next door, one who was no longer welcomed in living rooms once a week, the public's interest dwindled. Which was its loss, because Nelson continued to make good, sometimes adventurous music right up until his death Tuesday in a Texas plane crash.
Nelson was not an innovator, but he was certainly more musically substantial than any of the other teen idols. Like much of his generation, he'd been inspired by Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Carl Perkins and rock's other founding fathers.
"Ozzie & Harriet" made Nelson into a teen star just as rock 'n' roll was finding its own identity. A 1956 episode had Ricky forming a rock band to impress his high school sweetheart; six months later, he sang for the first time, covering Fats Domino's big hit "I'm Walking." A week later, the song was a smash. Backed with "A Teenager's Romance," it became his first million-seller.
There would be others: "Be Bop Baby," "Lonesome Town," "Travelin' Man," "Poor Little Fool," "Hello Mary Lou." All told, Nelson sold more than 35 million records as he became the first to explore the link between television and hit records, a full quarter-century before MTV.
It also showed the power of television to define an image. Ricky Nelson -- clean-cut, middle-class, nonrebellious -- became a potent apple-pie symbol of the Ike Age, as did his entire family. He was from the right side of the tracks, and square, if by square you meant honest and direct. He had Elvis' good looks, but the fire didn't burn as fiercely. The narrow parameters of that image could be seen in the titles of his first six albums: "Ricky," "Ricky Nelson," "Ricky Sings Again," "Songs by Ricky," "More Songs by Ricky" and finally, in a desperate grab for maturity, "Rick Is 21."
Ironically, Ricky and his brother David almost didn't get on the show. When "Ozzie & Harriet" was a popular radio show in the '40s, the boys had been portrayed by other child actors. But for a 1949 Christmas special with Bing Crosby's clan, they volunteered to play themselves and finally made it onto the air. They stayed there for a long time.
In his musical career, Nelson always showed good taste -- in sources, in songs, in the musicians he performed with and had tutor him (including legendary guitarists Joe Maphis and James Burton). His career after the television series was a process of searching out a style. The music scene was changing rapidly, with the Twist, the folk revival, surf music, Motown and the British invasion. For a while, Nelson fell victim to an identity crisis and simply retired from the music business.
In 1967 he briefly returned to television, playing the Dean of the Drop-Ins on "Malibu U," a quickly canceled summer music show. But he never seemed as comfortable in that spotlight as in the one that found him singing in the concluding segments of many Nelson family episodes.
Music was his life, more so than the acting that had occupied 14 of his first 25 years. After all, his father had been a successful big-band leader, his mother a singer in that band, before they had become television's favorite real-life family.
Still, Nelson didn't like living in the past, didn't like being pinned down or straitjacketed by rock revivalism. "I'm not into nostalgia," he said in 1971. "I'm into the future." Like the Everly Brothers, he found some solace in country music, investing it with rock energies and eventually finding a pleasing country-rock framework. Bob Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" had rekindled his connections to country (he'd sung Hank Williams and Burnette Brothers at the start of his career), and Nelson started to work and to write in the genre. His 1966 album, "Bright Lights and Country Music," showed him to be in the forefront of the country-rock scene in Los Angeles, and his great Stone Canyon Band showed the junction of past (Tom Brumley, Buck Owens' steel player) and future (bassist Randy Meisner, who would go on to found the Eagles).
Despite his best efforts, however, Nelson never was able to escape his past. More often than not it was his name, not his music, that served as the catalyst for crowds on the concert trail. In fact, the most successful of Nelson's later songs addressed that issue directly. In 1971, despite previous reservations, he agreed to headline a '50s nostalgia concert at Madison Square Garden. The other acts came out in '50s dress and sang strictly '50s material. Nelson came out with his country-rock band, with long hair and country duds, and proceeded to mix things up, moving from the old songs to the new ones. It was a debacle that brought boos and later, unrepentant, he wrote and recorded "Garden Party."
But it's all right now
I learned my lesson well
You see you can't please everyone
So you got to please yourself . . .
If you gotta play a garden party
I wish you lots of luck
But if memories were all I sang
I'd rather drive a truck.
Ironically, it would become Nelson's first gold record in a decade.
He was more interested in being a goodie than an oldie. In recent years, Nelson continued to perform concerts -- he and his band were on their way to a concert when their plane crashed -- and to record. His most recent album, "Playing to Win" (1981), was a roots-type record that recalled Creedence Clearwater Revival. But like most of his solid post-'50s work, it got little attention, obscured by what had come so brightly before.