Thursday, September 16, 2010

White Big Band Memoirs: Ozzie Nelson


 The son of George Waldemar and Ethel Irene Nelson, Ozzie Nelson was born in Jersey City, New Jersey. His ancestry was Swedish and English. Nelson was raised in Ridgefield Park. He graduated from Ridgefield Park High School, where he played on the American football team. He graduated from Rutgers University, where he also played football despite his slight build. He entered Rutgers School of Law Newark. As a student he made pocket money playing saxophone in a band and coaching football. During the Depression he turned to music as a full-time career.
Ozzie started his entertainment career as a band leader. He formed and led the Ozzie Nelson Band, and had some initial limited success. He made his own 'big break' in 1930. The New York Daily Mirror ran a poll of its readers to determine their favorite band. He knew that news vendors got credit from the newspaper for unsold copies by returning the front page and discarding the rest of the issue. Gathering hundreds of discarded newspapers, the band filled out ballots in their favor. They edged out Paul Whiteman and were pronounced the winners.



From 1930 through the 1940s Nelson's band recorded prolifically—first on Brunswick (1930-1933), then Vocalion (1933-1934), then back to Brunswick (1934-1936), Bluebird (1937-1941), Victor (1941) and finally back to Bluebird (1941-through the 1940s). Nelson's records were consistently popular and in 1934 Nelson enjoyed success with his hit song, "Over Somebody Else's Shoulder" which he introduced. Nelson was their primary vocalist and (from August 1932) featured in duets with his other star vocalist, Harriet Hilliard. Nelson's calm, easy vocal style was popular on records and radio and quite similar to son Rick's voice and Harriet's perky vocals added to the band's popularity.

In 1935, Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra had a number one hit with "And Then Some", which was number one for one week on the U.S. pop singles chart. Ozzie Nelson composed several songs, including "Wave the Stick Blues", "Subway", "Jersey Jive", "Swingin' on the Golden Gate", and "Central Avenue Shuffle".




In October 1935 he married the band's vocalist Harriet Hilliard. The couple had two children. David, born in 1936, became an actor and director. Eric "Ricky" born in 1940, became an actor and singer, as we remember him in Rio Bravo with John Wayne.

Ozzie Nelson appeared with his band in feature films and short subjects of the 1940s, and often played speaking parts, displaying a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor (as in the 1942 musical Strictly in the Groove). He shrewdly promoted the band by agreeing to appear in Soundies, three-minute musical movies shown in "film jukeboxes" of the 1940s. In 1952, when he and his family were established as radio and TV favorites, they starred in a feature film, Here Come the Nelsons (which actually doubled as a "pilot" for the TV series).



In the 1940s, besides band appearances, he and Harriet had been regulars on Red Skelton's radio show. He developed and produced his own radio series, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. The show went on the air in 1944, with their sons played by actors until 1949, and in 1952 it moved over to television (the radio version continued for another two years).


In 1973, Ozzie Nelson published his autobiography, Ozzie. He suffered from recurring malignant tumors in his later years, died of liver cancer and is interred with his wife and son Ricky in the Forest Lawn - Hollywood Hills Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.



Stills from Jean Negulesco's short film, made in 1943.
Information from Wikipedia.

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