(Music: "Travelin' Man" by Ricky Nelson)
May 29, 1961 - June 4, 1961
"Travelin' Man" was a comeback record of sorts for Ricky Nelson, who had eight consecutive top 10 singles between 1957-1959, including his first number one ("Poor Little Fool"). After "Just a Little Too Much" in the summer of 1959, Ricky failed to make the top 10 with his next four releases. In 1961, the two-sided smash "Travelin' Man" and "Hello Mary Lou" broke the spell.
"Travelin' Man" was written by Jerry Fuller while he was waiting for his wife in a park. He had a world atlas with him and picked out different locales around the world to write about. He wrote the song for Sam Cooke, and recorded a demo with Glen Campbell and Dave Burgess of the Champs ("Tequila") backing him. Fuller took the completed demo to Cooke's manager, J.W. Alexander, whose office was adjacent to Lou Chudd's, head of Ricky's label, Imperial Records.
Alexander played the demo, thanked Fuller, and threw the tape away as soon as he had gone. But Nelson's bass player, Joe Osbourne, was in Chudd's office and heard the song. He went in and asked Alexander if he could hear that song again. Cooke's manager pulled it out of the garbage and gave it to him. Fuller heard the song on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" one night, as Ricky continued his tradition of singing a song at the end of every episode.
The flip side of "Travelin' Man" was written by Gene Pitney, who had already recorded it himself with no success. "Hello Mary Lou" peaked at number nine.
After "Travelin' Man," Ricky had several more big hits on Imperial, including "Young World," "Teenage Idol" and "It's Up to You." His contract with Imperial was set to expire at the end of 1962 and a major bidding war erupted. The ultimate winner was Decca Records, owned by MCA, which offered Ricky one million dollars over a 20-year-period.
There were only two major hits on Decca, "Fools Rush In" and "For You." America had seen Ricky grow from a precocious eight-year-old boy to a happily married adult (his real- life wife, Kris Nelson, played his wife on the series) on television, and when the series ended in 1966, Ricky --- now known as Rick --- found his recording career in a slump.
In 1969, a more mature Rick Nelson returned to the charts with a version of Bob Dylan's "She Belongs to Me," backed by the Stone Canyon Band. Three years later, he headlined one of Richard Nader's rock and roll
revival shows at Madison Square Garden. After playing some of his biggest hits, Rick turned to his newer material. The audience turned too, against him. Their ungrateful reaction resulted in the song "Garden Party," in which Rick vented his frustration at his fans who wanted him to remain in an early sixties time warp. The song went to number six on the Hot 100.
After his 20-year pact with MCA ended, Rick recorded an album for Epic in 1977 and one for Capitol in 1981. He continued his acting career, starring as the principal in an NBC- TV movie, "High School, U.S.A.," in 1983. His secretary was played by his mother, Harriet. Rick also performed in concert frequently, sometimes doing up to 200 dates in one year. On December 30, 1985, Nelson and his band played at PJ's Lounge in Guntersville, Alabama. The next day they were en route to Dallas for a New Year's Eve show at the Park Suite Hotel. Their chartered twin-engine DC-3 crashed at 5:15 p.m. CST in a hayfield near De Kalb, 135 miles east of Dallas. Rick Nelson was killed along with his fiancée, Helen Blair, four members of his band, and one of his road crew.
Reprinted from The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits, copyright © 2003 by Fred Bronson.