His first hit, in 1957, was a cover of Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'," which went to #4 and sold a million records after Nelson performed it on TV. The flip side, "A Teenager's Romance," hit #2.
Between then and 1961 he had more than two dozen pop hits:
"Be-Bop Baby" (#3, 1957),
"Stood Up" (#2, 1958) b/w "Waitin' in School" (#18, 1958),
"Believe What You Say" (#4, 1958) b/w "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It" (#12, 1958),
"Lonesome Town" (#7,1958) b/w "I Got a Feeling" (#10,1958)
"Poor Little Fool" (#1, 1958)
"It's Late" (#9, 1959) b/w "Never Be Anyone Else but You" (#6, 1959),
"Just a Little Too Much" (#9,1959)
"Lonesome Town," "Sweeter Than You" (#9, 1959)
"Travelin' Man," (#1, 1961), b/w "Hello Mary Lou" (#9, 1961).
Some of his early hits, including "Waitin", "Believe What You Say," and "It's Late," were penned by Dorsey and/or Johnny Burnette and early rocker Gene Pitney wrote "Hello Mary Lou". For seven years, his backup band featured James Burton, who later became Elvis Presley's lead guitarist.
Nelson's fame also brought him numerous film offers, but unlike many other teen idols, he eschewed the typical teen fare for acclaimed parts in Howard Hawks' classic "Rio Bravo" (1959), which co-starred John Wayne and Dean Martin, and "The Wackiest Ship" in the Army (1960), with Jack Lemmon.
Nelson had three more Top Ten hits in 1962; "Young World", the autobiographical "Teenage Idol", and "It's Up to You", and still another in 1964, "For You".
By then he had married Kris Harmon, another product of a show-business family, and become the father of four children, daughter Tracy, Twins Matthew and Gunnar, who would grow up to have some Rock and Roll success of their own, and a third son, Sam.
As of 1964, Nelson's hit making days were behind him, and after the family's show was cancelled in 1966, he found himself at loose ends. Late that year he appeared, co-starring with Joanie Summers of "Johnny Get Angry" fame, in a little seen, sophisticated rock satire entitled "On the Flip Side".
He continued to record (he'd signed a 20-year contract in 1963), but as he later admitted, without enthusiasm, until he began recording in a style that would soon become known as country rock. On the albums, "Bright Lights & Country Music" and "Country Fever", Nelson covered material by Doug Kershaw, Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, and Bob Dylan, as well as his own "Alone".
Hanging out at the L.A. country-rock bastion the Troubadour, Nelson recruited ex-Poco bassist Randy Meisner and began forming the Stone Canyon Band, which at various times would also include Dennis Larden of Every Mother's Son; Richie Hayward, briefly on leave from Little Feat; Tom Brumley of Buck Owens' Buckaroos; Steve Love, later with Roger McGuinn and the New Riders of the Purple Sage; and Steve Duncan, later of the Desert Rose Band. With this group, he scored a minor commercial comeback with a cover of Dylan's "She Belongs to Me" (#33, 1969). A double live album recorded at the Troubadour in 1970, "Rick Nelson in Concert", marked a crucial turning point for him. With songs by Dylan, Tim Hardin, and Eric Andersen (who supplied the liner notes), it put to rest the charge that he was a talentless teen idol and garnered unanimous rave reviews.
His next success rose out of failure. In October 1971, when Nelson and his band appeared at a rock & roll revival at New York's Madison Square Garden, the audience booed his long-hair look and new material, particularly a version of the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Women." Just a few months later, on a tour of England (his first, despite having had 19 Top Forty hits there), fans, including Elton John and Cliff Richard, turned out in droves, and more important to Nelson, fully accepted his new direction. Out of these experiences, he wrote his last million-seller (his first in over a decade) and his personal anthem, "Garden Party". It hit #6 and went gold in 1972.
Nelson's follow-up albums didn't catch on, and by the mid-Seventies he had lost his MCA contract. He released an album on Epic in 1977, then moved to Capitol for "Playin' to Win". For a while it was rumoured that, Paul McCartney planned to produce Nelson, but nothing came of it. Partly because he so loved performing and partly due to an expensive divorce from his wife, Nelson found himself on the road an average of 250 nights a year through the late Seventies and early Eighties. When he sang in "Garden Party," "If memories are all I sang/I'd rather drive a truck," he meant it, even turning down a long-term, $1-million-dollar-plus offer (arranged by Elvis Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker) to play Las Vegas at a point when he was deeply in debt.
In September 1984, he was invited, along with John Fogerty, the Judds, and Dave Edmunds, among others, to join in the finale of a Sun Records reunion album that featured Nelson's early idols Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis. (The album documenting the event, Interviews from "The Class of '55" recording sessions, won a Grammy in 1986 for Best Spoken Word or Non-musical Recording; it was Nelson's only Grammy.)
By 1985, he had assembled a new, young band: bassist Pat Woodward, drummer Ricky Intveld, keyboardist Andy Chapin (who'd worked with Steppenwolf and the Association), and lead guitarist Bobby Neal, whom Nelson had met while recording in Memphis earlier (the resulting Memphis Sessions, a collection of rockabilly covers, was released posthumously). That August, a live documentary of Nelson was taped during a tour on which he opened for Fats Domino and was backed by the Jordanaires. He had signed a new deal with Curb/MCA and on December 26, completed recording Buddy Holly's "True Love Ways" for his upcoming album. He closed his last performance four days later with Holly's "Rave On."
On December 31, 1985, en route to a New Year's Eve show in Dallas, Texas, Nelson's burning DC-3 (which was previously owned by Jerry Lee Lewis) crashed in a field near DeKalb, Texas. Early press reports erroneously suggested that drug use, namely freebasing, might have played a role in the crash that killed Rick, his band, and his fiancée Helen Blair (the pilot and co-pilot survived). In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board's 1987 report determined that the fire began in a malfunctioning gas heater. Nelson was buried in Los Angeles' Forest Lawn Cemetery. In the years immediately following his death, many other artists paid tribute to him: Bob Dylan included "Lonesome Town" in his 1986 concerts, and newer artists, including Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Chris Isaak, have cited his influence.
Rick Nelson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and in 1996, was ranked #49 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time. In 2004, Rolling Stone placed him at #91 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time
On the 20th anniversary of his death, PBS televised Ricky Nelson Sings, a documentary featuring interviews with James Burton, Kris Kristofferson and Rick's children. On December 27th, 2005, EMI Music released "Ricky Nelson's Greatest Hits", that peaked at #56 on the Billboard Hot 200 album chart.