Born Eric Hilliard Nelson (Hilliard was his mother's maiden name), he began his career on the radio, with his family on The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet. The show soon moved to television. Ricky began a rock and roll career in 1957. Apocryphally, he recorded his debut single, the Fats Domino song "I'm Walkin'", in order to impress his girlfriend; the song was a hit. It was clear, however, that he knew and loved music before breaking out as a performer.
He is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Unlike most teen idols of the time, Nelson worked with some great musicians, including James Burton, Joe Maphis, and Johnny and Dorsey Burnette. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Nelson was one of the highest-selling singers, second only to Elvis Presley. In 1963, Nelson signed a 20-year contract with Decca Records, but he had no further major hits after 1964's "For You". 1972's "Garden Party", a self-penned country song bewailing his fans' unwillingness to hear him play new music, was a moderate success, but he never regained his career's momentum.
He died in a plane crash in De Kalb, Texas in 1985, on his way to a New Year's Eve concert in Dallas, Texas and was interred in the Forest Lawn, Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. The crash was due to mechanical problems.
Ricky Nelson has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1515 Vine Street.
His father, Ozzie Nelson, had a big band and his mother was his singer. His twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, also were teen idols, performing as Nelson, and his daughter Tracy Nelson is an actress.