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Ricky Nelson

Travelin’ Man

“I was sitting in Delongpre Park in West Hollywood waiting to pick up my wife from work. I didn’t play an instrument so I just beat on my dashboard and hummed the melody,” stated ‘Travelin’ Man’ songwriter Jerry Fuller. “And it’s a fairly simple song, but I had a world atlas. I looked up what they called a girl in Germany, Mexico, China…and I made a song out of it. ‘A girl in every port’ was the idea.” (1)

Texas born and bred, Fuller was 21 when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1959 after a brief recording career for a Lin Records, a small Texas label. Along with songwriting, he sang demos for Challenge Records. He also had some early success as an artist in the late 50s and early 60s. “I was an avowed fan of Sam Cooke and I wanted to write something for him.” (1)

“After I finished the song, I called up Glen Campbell and we went into the studio,” he continued. “Glen played guitar, I beat on the back of one and sang the thing like Sam Cooke. So we took the demo on a little acetate up to J.W. Alexander, who was Sam Cooke’s manager. I had met J.W. before, through a friend, and he said, ‘I’ll give it a listen when I get the chance.’” (2)

Meanwhile, Ricky Nelson was one of the hottest artists on the radio. Between the summer of 1957 and the summer of 1959, he’d charted twelve Top Ten hits. (3) Only Elvis Presley and Pat Boone did better.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Hulton Archive.

His next eight singles over the next thirteen months didn’t fare quite as well as only two entered the top twenty. Rock and roll was changing as Bobby Darin released Mack The Knife and Elvis paired with Frank Sinatra on a TV special shortly after his release from the US Army. Record companies believed rock and roll was just a dying fad and were pushing their artists toward a middle of the road style. According to Nelson’s biographer, Philip Bashe, “Unfortunately, you hear it on Rick’s records. Those horrible chick singers — oh my god. It wasn’t Rick and his little band anymore. It was orchestrations, brass, and in particular, those horrible girl singers. Those are the records I would hear on the radio, and I wouldn’t hear the stripped down, very authentic rockabilly stuff. In fact, it wasn’t until I started researching for the book and getting all his old records that I associated Stood Up or Waitin’ in School with Rick.” (4) Rick needed some changes to return to the top of the charts.

In 1960, Rick made some personnel changes to his band. Ray Johnson replaced Gene Garf on piano and Joe Osborn, a boyhood friend of lead guitar player James Burton, took over for James Kirkland on bass. It was Osborn who went to offices of Imperial Records to listen to a pile of demos that were sent to Rick on a daily basis. Always looking for fresh sounds, artists found the process tedious but it’s where they found the gold.

Osborn sat in Imperial Records owner Lew Chudd’s office and began the task of sorting the various demos stacked in a pile. Occupying the office next door was J.W. Alexander who was also in the midst of a demo-listening session. Through the wall, Osborn heard a melody that caught his attention. Joe decided to investigate.

Osborn knocked on the door and asked, “J.W., do you have that 'Travelin'' song you just played?” He said, ‘Yeah, you can have it,” and he reached in the trash and he pulled out the demo. (5)

Osborn took it to Rick who immediately liked it. So, on March 13, 1961, (1) Rick and his backup band went to Master Recorders in West Hollywood to record Travelin’ Man.

Master Recorders had isolation booths shaped like little cabins with windows. As the band played in the studio, Rick sang in a booth while listening over headphones. Sessions were recorded on 1, 2, or 3-track recorders, usually with several generations.

All the Imperial recordings followed this sequence:

1. Instrumental tracks were recorded with Rick doing a guide vocal as a reference. Most of the instrument mics were mixed live to mono or stereo.

2. Rick overdubbed the lead vocal. 

3. Rick overdubbed acoustic rhythm guitar and occasionally some other vocal parts. At least two guitars were used on all recordings.

4. The Jordanaires overdubbed their background vocals later when they were in town. Sometimes they would add their harmonies to an unfinished track that had no lead vocal. They worked out the arrangements with Rick in the control room. (6)

When Osborn later called Fuller to tell him “Ricky just cut your song,” the writer’s reply was “Ricky who? And what song?” Fuller remembered: “He said ‘Rick Nelson, he just cut your Travellin’ Man. I said ‘No kiddin’, how’d he get it?’ And he told me the story.

“He said, ‘Ricky was wondering if you’ve got any more songs.’ I said ‘Yeah, I’ve got about 80 of them, I’ll get ’em over to you.’ And Ricky wanted to know who sang the backgrounds on the demos. I said, ‘That was me and Glen Campbell and Dave Burgess.’ (1)

The Jordanaires sang backup on Travelin’ Man but weren’t always available. Rick liked the sound of the trio on the demos Fuller sent him so he hired them as backup singers.

No photo credit was found.

Travelin’ Man was released in April of 1961 and entered Billboard’s Hot 100 chart on April 24th. The song stayed on the chart for 16 weeks eventually landing at #1 on June 4th. The flip side, Hello Mary Lou, entered the chart a week later, stayed 15 weeks reaching #9 on May 22nd. (3) (7) The double-sided hit sold over six million copies and hit #1 in twenty-two countries. (8)

Part of the reason for the success of the record was the unique way it was marketed. Ozzie Nelson, Rick’s dad and the producer of The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet, noted that whenever he had Rick sing on the show, the record sales were boosted the next day. So, when a new record by Rick was released, “Ozzie managed to work a plot around it. “Ozzie basically smuggled rock & roll into American living rooms under the pretext of this ‘wholesome family show.’ He’s very influential in the rise of rock & roll,” stated Rick’s biographer, Philip Bashe. (4)

Travelin’ Man presented a bit of a problem with the script, so Ozzie filmed Rick singing with some travelogue footage superimposed over the film and added the mash-up to a finished episode that first aired on April 5, 1961. If one were to discount movie scenes and live performances, many believe this was the forerunner of music videos.

Guitarist James Burton, who played behind Rick for a number of years and eventually worked for Elvis, talked about his favorite Rick Nelson recordings. “Probably my two favorite Rick Nelson songs are Travelin’ Man and Hello Mary Lou. If you can believe it, those two songs were the ‘A’ and ‘B’ side of the same single, respectively. An obscure one is The Nearness of You, a really cool standard on the Rick Nelson Sings For You album in December 1963. Lonesome Town, that’s one I love, which I played acoustic guitar on. That’s All, a fine ballad from June ’59, remember that one?” (9)

Rick chose to record a number of Fuller songs. A Wonder Like You, It’s Up To You, and Young World are three additional songs penned by Fuller that were released as singles.

Bass player Joe Osborn stayed in Los Angeles and became part of rock and roll history with the Wrecking Crew. His riffs can be heard on hit records by the Mamas And Papas, Johnny Rivers, The Association and the 5th Dimension.

Rick Nelson died in a plane crash on December 31, 1985 in a plane crash near DeKalb, Texas. He was 45 years old.

Songwriter Jerry Fuller tells the story of Travelin' Man.

This video is a media mash-up of Travelin' Man.

From a 1961 episode of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

1) Sexton, Paul, udiscovermusic.com, Travelin’ Man: The Ricky Nelson No. 1 Song Rescued From The Trash, May 29, 2018, Link.

2) YouTube video, Jerry Fuller and the Amazing True Story of Ricky Nelson's "Travelin' Man," Link.

3) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Pages 502-503.

4) Roberts, Jeremy, Medium, Saluting the artistic integrity of Rick Nelson 30 years after his shocking death, December 1, 2016, Link.

5) Songfacts, Rick Nelson: Travelin’ Man, Link.

6) Bartlett, Bruce, Prosoundweb.com, In The Studio: Detailing The Techniques Used To Record Rick Nelson, February 26, 2013, Link.

7) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties.

8) Bashe, Philip, Teenage Idol, Travelin’ Man: The Complete Biography of Rick Nelson, May 8, 1992, Page 128.

9) Roberts, Jeremy, Elvis Information Network, James Burton Interview: Rick Nelson—And Elvis, April, 2011. Link.

1963 photo of the Nelson family.

Photo courtesy of Museum of Broadcast Communications.

© 2018 Jerry Reuss

Copyright  2009