Regular visitors to the ol’ GMC will probably recall that Ricky Nelson has made the occasional appearance here, and his family’s TV show has also been covered (for example, HERE), but did you know that Ozzie and Harriet were once musical stars in their own right? OK, maybe not stars, but Ozzie did lead a very popular orchestra back in the big band era, and Harriet was apparently his favorite band singer because he ended up marrying her.
Jersey City’s own Oswald George Nelson was a classic overachiever; a star athlete in both high school and college, he even coached football while attending law school in the late 1920s. But young Ozzie was also fascinated by music, and taught himself to play several instruments while at the same time singing in various small groups in area clubs and on radio. His similarities in looks and singing style to superstar Rudy Valee helped get him noticed, and by the early 1930s he was leading his own swing band.
As Ozzie’s orchestra grew in popularity he decided to hire a female singer — a rarity in the early swing era — and he chose Peggy Lou Snyder from Des Moines, who performed under the stage name of Harriet Hilliard. Ozzie was still singing with the band too, and the twosome often performed together. By 1935 they’d also married, and over the next few years would become parents to sons David and Ricky.
During the 1940s the band continued to do well with a mix of music that included both the sweet stuff and a surprising amount of respectable jazz too. They sold a lot of records, showed up in the occasional movie, and made regular appearances on radio — and as the big band era began winding down it was the latter activity that led to what would be Ozzie and Harriet’s most inspired career change. They began starring in a radio show that would be the forerunner of their memorable TV program, and we all know how that turned out.