Ricky Nelson was adored by his fans for years as a teen pop idol and was one of the most televised musicians of his era.
While many know of the mysterious circumstances of his death, not many know how a last-minute choice saved the lives of his two young sons.
Ricky Nelson was born Eric Hilliard Nelson in Teaneck, New Jersey, on May 8, 1940. His parents, Ozzie Nelson and Harriet Hilliard Nelson were known for their popular sitcom: “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”
The Nelson’s sitcom ran for sixteen years, a record in sitcom history. Ricky and his older brother, David, joined the cast of the show when they were about the ages of 8 and 10 as well.
Throughout this time, Ricky attended Gardner Street Public School, eventually reaching Hollywood High School. He tended to have an aversion to education, which caused friction with his father, who wanted Ricky to attend college.
By the time he began approaching the proper age for college attendance, he was already making more money than most established adults. His earnings were already roughly $100,000 a year and therefore exempted him from needing a college education.
At the age of 17, Ricky appeared in the episode “Ricky, the Drummer” of his family’s show. A song he played on that episode was recorded and released as his first single–”I’m Walking.” It quickly became number 4 on Billboard’s Best Sellers list.
His popularity skyrocketed and allowed him to often debut music on his parents’ show before releasing songs as singles to the public. Some notable hits included “Garden Party,” “It’s Late,” “Fools Rush In,” “For You,” “Poor Little Fool,” and “Travelin’ Man.”
Around 1961, Rickey began dating Kristin Harmon. Kristin was from a similar background, as she also was raised in Hollywood. Additionally, her family and the Nelsons were close friends.
The two married in April 1963. They had four children: Sam Hilliard Nelson, twins Matthew Gray Nelson and Gunnar Eric Nelson, and their daughter, Actress Tracy Kristine Nelson.
Ricky’s fame continued to increase throughout the ’60s as he consistently came out with Top 40’s hits. His popular music was in the growing rock n’ roll genre and led to various tours for him over the years.
Unfortunately, it was on one of these tours that he met his untimely and still-mysterious death.
Ricky was known to hate flying despite having to take planes for tours and promotions so often. He reportedly even attended psychotherapy sessions in an attempt to feel better when on planes so that he could continue his career and continue to meet his fans.
Nelson and his sons, Matthew and Gunnar, were supposed to fly to Dallas together for a New Years’ show that Ricky was performing. However, Gunnar said:
“We were supposed to be on the plane on that trip. Our dad called us right before we were supposed to come down to Alabama and meet him and fly with him to the New Year’s show in Dallas.”
A few days before they were meant to depart together, some kind of bad feeling or premonition prompted Ricky to call his sons and explain they would not fly together to Dallas.
The plan Ricky was scheduled to take did have some reported engine trouble a few days before the departure as well.
Ricky boarded the DC-3 plane in Alabama without his two sons, and it was as the plane neared its destination that the cabin filled with smoke. The fire sadly took the life of Ricky and the other passengers on board, but the pilot could safely land the plane in Texas.
The origins of the fire on the plane remain a mystery thirty years later. Rumors flew about as far as the cause is concerned, including salacious ones about Ricky using cocaine with his then-girlfriend Helen Blaine.
Ricky’s brother David vehemently denies this possibility, explaining that his brother never used cocaine. Greg McDonald, Ricky’s manager, did later say that Ricky and Helen were asleep in the cabin when the fire started as well.
Tracy Nelson, Ricky’s daughter, revealed later to Larry King that she believes it was a mechanical issue that led to the tragedy.
Tracy explained that the plane–also nicknamed the “Flying Bus” for its slow speed–had been known to have problems with its gasoline heater, which easily could have led to an accidental fire.
While there are still no answers to the cause of the fire thirty years later, it is clear that Ricky Nelson’s premonitions helped to prevent an even larger family tragedy.
Matthew and Gunnar, the twin sons of Ricky went on to have their own successful music careers together in remembrance of their father. Matthew says:5
“It’s an ongoing labor of love, an open letter to our dad, who was our best friend.”