Call it the day the music died, part 2: On New Year’s Eve, 1985—more than 25 years after the plane crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper—another ’50s rocker, Rick Nelson, died in an eerily similar tragedy. Nelson, 45, was flying to a sold-out gig at the Dallas Park Suites Hotel, where he was scheduled to perform with his country-rock group, the Stone Canyon Band. When his DC-3 plane burst into flames midflight and clipped two electric power poles outside of DeKalb, Tex., Nelson, his fiancée, Helen Blair, 27, and five band and crew members were lost. There was talk that Nelson had caused the explosion by freebasing cocaine on board (traces of it were found in his blood), but the FAA determined the accident was the result of a faulty heating system.
Nelson had literally grown up in public, making his showbiz debut at 8 on the popular radio program The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet (named after his parents). After the show moved to TV, where it ran from 1952 to 1966, America fell under the spell of the Nelson family. Ricky essentially played himself, and when he developed a love of rock & roll, so did his character. In 1957, at 16, he recorded a cover of Fats Domino’s ”I’m Walkin’,” and the tune made him a teen sensation. Other hits, like ”A Teenager’s Romance,” ”Travelin’ Man,” and ”Hello Mary Lou,” followed.
While Nelson’s white-bread image caused some to scoff, he was an undeniably captivating performer, and a natural rocker—even Lou Reed counts him as an influence. After his TV run ended, Nelson continued to make music, chalking up a top 10 hit in 1972 with the sardonic ”Garden Party,” about a Madison Square Garden concert at which he resisted playing the oldies the audience wanted. ”He’s in the Elvis category,” says Eagles bassist Randy Meisner, a former member of the Stone Canyon Band. ”He was in there first, he was one of the best.”
Nelson is survived by four children from his marriage to Kristin Harmon: Tracy, 38, Sam, 27, and twins Gunnar and Matthew, 34, who formed the pop-metal band Nelson and had a hit with 1990’s ”Love and Affection.” And while Sam has shied away from the limelight, Tracy pursued acting, starring in CBS’ Father Dowling Mysteries and appearing on Seinfeld.
Gunnar and Matthew continue to keep their dad’s legacy alive by playing some of his early hits. Meisner says seeing them pay homage to Rick always brings old memories flooding back. ”I think you miss a person more after they’re gone for a while,” he says. ”You realize that it actually is real.”