Born in Teaneck, New Jersey, he was the younger son of Ozzie Nelson, the leader of a big band, and Harriet Hilliard Nelson, the band's singer. Along with brother David Nelson, the family starred in the long-running radio and television series The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet from 1944 to 1954 on the radio, and 1952 to 1966 on television. However, David and Ricky Nelson did not join the cast until 1949; for the first five years of the radio show, the sons were played by professional actors.
Ricky Nelson began a rock and roll music career in 1957. He recorded his debut single, the Fats Domino song "I'm Walkin'", seeking to impress a date who was an Elvis Presley fan — Nelson's first song was a hit, reaching #4 on the charts. Soon, each episode of the Ozzie & Harriet television show ended with a musical performance by "Ricky". It was during the sitcom's run that Ozzie Nelson, either as a move to keep his son's fans tuned in each week, or as an affirmation of his reputed behind-the-scenes persona as a control freak, kept Ricky from appearing on other TV shows that arguably would have enhanced his public profile, American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show in particular. Ironically, Rick finally did appear on the Sullivan show in 1967, but where his career was at that time made it seem irrelevant. Rick also appeared on other TV shows (usually in acting roles); in 1977, he guest-hosted on Saturday Night Live where he proved to be a good sport in spoofing his TV sitcom image, by appearing in a Twilight Zone send-up, where, trying to go "home", he'd find himself among the characters from other 1950s/early 60s-era sitcoms, Leave It To Beaver, Father Knows Best, and Make Room For Daddy.
Despite the promotional aspects of his career, it is clear that Nelson knew and loved music, and was a credible performer before he became a teen idol, largely due to his parents' musical background. Unlike many teen idols of the time, Nelson showed his personal taste in working with strong musicians, including James Burton, Joe Maphis, The Jordanaires, and Johnny and Dorsey Burnette.
From 1957 to 1962, Nelson had 30 top 40 hits, more than any other artist at the time, except Elvis Presley (who had 53) and Pat Boone (who had 38). Many of Nelson's early records were double hits with both the A side and the B side hitting the Billboard charts. When Billboard introduced the Hot 100 chart on August 4, 1958, Nelson's single "Poor Little Fool" became the first song ever in the #1 position on that chart.
While Nelson preferred rockabilly and uptempo rock songs like "Hello Mary Lou", "It's Late", "Stood Up", and "Be-Bop Baby", his smooth, calm voice made him a natural to sing ballads. He had major success with "Travelin' Man", "Poor Little Fool", "Young World", "Lonesome Town", and "Teenage Idol", which clearly could have been about Nelson himself at the time.
In addition to his recording career, Nelson also appeared in movies, including Rio Bravo with John Wayne and Dean Martin (1959) The Wackiest Ship In the Army (1960) and Love and Kisses (1965).
In 1961, Nelson began to be credited on his records as "Rick Nelson" instead of "Ricky Nelson".
In April 1963, he married Kristin Harmon in what Life Magazine referred to as "The Wedding of the Year." Kristin Harmon is the daughter of Football All-American University of Michigan football legend and Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon and actress Elyse Knox, and is the older sister of movie and television star Mark Harmon, perhaps known best for the hit series "NCIS."
In 1963, Nelson signed a 20-year contract with Decca Records, but he had no further major hits after 1964's "For You". In the mid-1960s, he began to move towards country music, but did not reach the Top 40 again until 1970, when he recorded Bob Dylan's "She Belongs To Me" with the Stone Canyon Band.
In 1972, Nelson reached the top 40 one last time with "Garden Party", a song he wrote in disgust after a Madison Square Garden audience booed him when he tried playing new songs instead of just his old hits from the 1950s and 1960s. "Garden Party" reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, and was certified as a gold single. (Coincidentally, "Garden Party" was a hit at the same time Nelson's influence Elvis Presley was having his last top 10 single, "Burning Love", as was Chuck Berry with "My Ding-a-Ling"; Berry is among the musicians alluded to in the lyrics of "Garden Party".)
However, Nelson never regained his career's momentum. By the late-1970s, Nelson's life was in shambles. His wife had divorced him and taken their four children. He wasn't making records and when he played live at all, it was in very small, insignificant venues. Nelson began using drugs, especially marijuana. In 1985, he joined a nostalgia rock tour of England. It was a major success, and it revived some interest in Nelson. He tried to duplicate that effect in the United States, and he began a tour of the South. While on that tour, he died in a plane crash in De Kalb, Texas in 1985; he was on his way to a New Year's Eve concert in Dallas, Texas. Nelson was interred in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. The last song he sang on stage before his death was Buddy Holly's "Rave On."
Rumors that drug use among the passengers caused the crash frequently resurface, but the original NTSB investigation long ago stated that the crash was probably due to mechanical problems. An examination indicated the fire originated in the right hand side of the aft cabin area at or near the floor line. The ignition and fuel sources could not be determined, although many believe that the most likely cause was a defective cabin heater. The pilot indicated that the crew tried to turn on the cabin heater repeatedly shortly before the fire occurred, but that it failed to respond. After the fire, the access panel to the heater compartment was found unlatched. The theory is supported by records that showed that DC-3s in general, and this aircraft in particular, had a previous history of problems with the cabin heaters.
Nelson was elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and also to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1515 Vine Street.
His twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, also were teen idols, performing as Nelson, and his daughter, Tracy Nelson, is an actress and cancer survivor. She may be best known for her role in the television series Father Dowling Mysteries, which starred Tom Bosley. Nelson's youngest son, Sam Nelson, is an actor and singer.
In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of his passing, PBS aired a one hour documentary entitled "Ricky Nelson Sings", featuring interviews with his children, as well as James Burton and Kris Kristofferson. The only time Kris Kristofferson played with Ricky Nelson was in Elroy, Wisconsin at Party in the Park July 3, 1985.
Bob Dylan, in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles, Vol. 1, wrote about Nelson's influence on his music. Also in 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Nelson #91 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
On December 27, 2005, EMI Music released an album titled Ricky Nelson's Greatest Hits, with 25 songs. It peaked at #56 on the Billboard 200 album chart.
In Stephen King's Nightmares & Dreamscapes, Nelson appears in You Know They Got a Hell of a Band as an evil version of himself, who torments an unsuspecting couple trapped in a town inhabited by late rock n roll legends. Nelson was portrayed by William McNamara in the 2006 television mini-series adaptation of Nightmares & Dreamscapes.
His estate is run as The Rick Nelson Company, LLC, and owns ancilliary rights to the classic Ozzie and Harriet television series. As of 2007, after years of public domain video releases on VHS and DVD, an officially released edition of the show has been released via Shout! Factory.