‘Travellin’ Man,’ the song that became the second and final US No. 1 single for one of pop’s original heartthrobs, Ricky Nelson, was one that was literally rescued from the garbage can. Not only that, it’s a number with connections to both Sam Cooke and the early, session-playing days of Glen Campbell.
Nelson recorded the song, written by singer-composer-producer Jerry Fuller, on 13 March 1961 and saw it enter the charts just a few weeks later. But it only reached Nelson by complete chance, starting a creative relationship that saw him record many further Fuller compositions, including the top ten hits ‘Young World’ and ‘It’s Up To You.’
In the documentary The Wrecking Crew: The Untold Story of Rock & Roll Heroes, Fuller told the unlikely tale of how ‘Travellin’ Man’ reached Ricky in the first place, and how Campbell literally played a part in it.
“I was sitting in a park in Hollywood…and I didn’t play an instrument, I just beat on my dashboard, and hummed the melody,” he said. “And it’s a fairly simple song, but I took a world atlas, and I looked up what they called a girl in Germany, and Mexico…and I made a song out of it. ‘A girl in every port’ was the idea.”
Fuller, who had had some early success as an artist in the late 1950s and early ’60s, was an avowed fan of Sam Cooke. “After I finished the song, I called up Glen Campbell and he and I went into the studio,” he continued. “Glen played guitar and I 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.’
“He obviously played it right after we left, because Joe Osborn, who was Ricky’s bass player, heard it through the wall. He went next door and said ‘J.W., do you have that ‘travelling’ song you were just playing?’ And he said ‘Oh yeah, Joe, you can have it. And he reached in the trash and pulled out the demo. He gave it to Joe and he…put it in Rick’s pile, and Rick liked it, so they recorded it. And it sold like six million records right off the bat.”
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.’
“He’d already recorded ‘Travellin’ Man’ and he had the Jordanaires singing background on that, but from that moment on, even on stuff I didn’t write, Ricky hired us to do the background vocals. So from that moment on, we took over where the Jordanaires left off, and did a lot of his records.”
‘Travellin’ Man’ hit the Hot 100 on 24 April 1961 and was No. 1 by the 29 May chart, while its celebrated flipside ‘Hello Marylou’ reached No. 9 in its own right. That side became the lead track in the UK, and went to No. 2. He went on to be fast friends with Campbell, guested on Glen’s TV show and became his golfing buddy.
Fuller went on to write and produce a wide range of other artists, including the Knickerbockers’ 1965 hit ‘Lies’ and the late ’60s run of hits by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, among them the global No. 1 ‘Young Girl.’ But his career might have been very different if that ‘Travellin’ Man’ demo hadn’t been lifted out of the trash.
Purchase ‘Travellin’ Man’ on the Rick Is 21 album, twinned with its 1960 predecessor More Songs By Ricky, here.
Follow uDiscover’s Ricky Nelson Best Of playlist.