As Ricky Nelson celebrated his 21st birthday in 1961 with a new hit single and album, his song ‘Hello Mary Lou’ — technically the B-side of the chart-topping ‘Travelin’ Man’ — was getting ready to travel the world itself. Years later, it would prove what a mark it had left on the next generation of stars. It was covered by Creedence Clearwater Revival in the studio, and Led Zeppelin and Queen in concert.
‘Hello Mary Lou’ reached No. 9 on the Hot 100 just before the A-side of the Imperial single hit the top of the US chart. Then Liberty Records in the UK took the decision to make the B-side the lead track, to great effect. In June 1961, the single, listed as ‘Hello Mary Lou’/’Travelin’ Man,’ entered the UK chart at No. 32.
The super-catchy ‘Mary Lou,’ with its percussive style and outstanding guitar solo by the great session player James Burton, was written by Gene Pitney, during an important year in his career. The singer from Hartford, Connecticut had been recording since the late 1950s, but made the US charts as an artist for the first time in January 1961 with ‘(I Wanna) Love My Life Away.’
Texan country singer Johnny Duncan had recorded the first version of ‘Hello Mary Lou’ in 1960, but it failed to make the charts. When teen heartthrob Nelson cut it, it flew into the bestsellers, helping spread Pitney’s name as an accomplished singer-writer. He had another modest hit of his own that summer with ‘Every Breath I Take,’ produced by Phil Spector, and by early 1962 was in the US top 20 for the first time with his title song from the Kirk Douglas movie Town Without Pity.
Biggest-ever UK success
Nelson, for his part, had been enjoying UK success since 1958, the year after his American breakthrough as a solo artist at the age of just 17. The new single hit the top ten in its fourth week and went on to spend two weeks at No. 2 in July. It would be his biggest-ever hit there, and was a big seller in Norway and around much of Europe.
‘Hello Mary Lou’ went on to be covered by Creedence on their final album, 1972’s Mardi Gras, and the same year, it was part of the montage of songs within Led Zeppelin’s performance of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ at the Los Angeles Forum, later released on the How The West Was Won.
Queen, whose Brian May was a huge fan and student of Burton’s playing, also performed it on their Magic Tour of 1986. That version is available on the Live At Wembley ’86 album, which came out in 1992.