Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Dec 26th 2008 5:00PM by James Sullivan
When the song ended, Matthew Nelson stopped smiling and began to scream. Rick Nelson, the DJ explained, had just died in a plane crash the night before.
Child star Ricky Nelson was a real American idol, playing himself on his parents' classic 1950s TV series, 'The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet' and using his show-business connections to launch a career in rock 'n' roll. Beginning with his cover of Fats Domino's 'I'm Walkin',' Nelson was a fixture on the pop charts from 1957 through 1963, scoring No. 1 hits with 'Poor Little Fool' and 'Travelin' Man.'
'Garden Party' was Nelson's response to his appearance at an oldies revival concert at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1971, where he was booed for playing newer material. "You can't please everyone," he sang, "so you've got to please yourself." The song pleased enough pop fans to become Rick Nelson's last significant hit.
Despite his brief return to the charts, the 1970s were a difficult time for Nelson. His 1963 wedding to Kristin Harmon, sister of the actor Mark Harmon and daughter of a former Heisman Trophy winner, had been called the "Wedding of the Year" by Life magazine. Now the couple were engaged in an ugly, protracted divorce. To pay his debts and legal fees, Nelson toured constantly. When he was home -- a sprawling ranch house on L.A.'s Mulholland Drive built by the swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, a sexual omnivore who'd outfitted the house with peepholes and two-way mirrors – he led a vampiric life, staying up all night and sleeping by day with the windows covered in newspaper.
In 1985, to ease his hectic travel schedule, Nelson bought a vintage DC-3 once owned by Jerry Lee Lewis. In September, he took part in an all-star Memphis recording session featuring several of his own idols, including Lewis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. The next day was Farm Aid in Illinois; when Nelson offered to take anyone interested in going, Lewis declined. "No way he would get on that plane again," wrote Nelson's biographer, Joel Selvin.
On takeoff, the plane backfired, and the engine died. Marty Stuart, then Cash's guitar player, recalled Nelson joking about the old plane's unreliability as they left it behind for repairs. They talked about how a farmer had found Buddy Holly's glasses after the plane crash that killed him.
Three months later, Nelson played a small club show in Guntersville, Ala., closing with a cover of Holly's 'Rave On.' "Rave on for me!" he said as he left the stage. The next night he was scheduled to play a New Year's Eve Sock Hop in Dallas. By some accounts, he'd considered making the trip with his twin sons, Matthew and Gunnar, who would soon become famous in their own right as the flaxen-haired pop-metal duo Nelson. Instead, the singer was accompanied by his five band members and his fiancée, Helen Blair.
Four hours into the flight, the pilots radioed ahead to Fort Worth, saying there was a problem: smoke in the cockpit. The plane "was on fire when it came over me," reported one eyewitness. It crash-landed into a tree in DeKalb, Texas. The two pilots survived by crawling out the cockpit windows. All seven passengers were dead.
Two weeks later, the Washington Post reported that investigators were targeting a freebasing mishap as a possible cause of the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board ultimately ruled that it found no such evidence, noting that DC-3s had a history of problems with their gasoline-powered cabin heaters. Still, trace amounts of cocaine were found in Nelson's body, and the freebasing rumor persists to this day.
A few months after Nelson's death, Epic Records reissued his version of 'Dream Lover' in tribute. The flip side
was Buddy Holly's 'Rave On.'