Monday, December 29, 2008

"Travelin' Man" / Ricky Nelson

I've been intending to get hold of some Ricky Nelson tunes for months now. I don't know what triggered this . . . maybe listening to Paul McCartney's cover of "Lonesome Town" on Run Devil Run; maybe an article discussing legendary guitarist James Burton, who did some of his finest work with Ricky; maybe it was the unexpectedly large trove of Ricky Nelson artifacts at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last summer? But there I was this afternoon in an FYE record store, sifting through bins and bins of post-holiday discounted CDs, and this Ricky Nelson greatest hits compilation just jumped out at me. For two bucks, I figured, I couldn't lose. I've been playing it all afternoon, and I'm truly digging it.

I was too young for the Elvis Presley thing (in my household, Elvis definitely means Costello), but I do have fuzzy early memories of Ricky Nelson on the old black-and-white Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. I swear, even as a little kid, I cynically assumed that Ricky only got to sing on TV because his folks owned the show. Sure, his records sold, but teenage girls were bound to buy them -- Ricky Nelson at 16 was just about the most gorgeous thing that television had ever offered. Even I could tell that.

It took me years to realize that Ricky Nelson was a credible rockabilly artist; if anything, being a TV personality probably worked against him getting the respect he deserved. (Well, that and the fact that he still had to release a certain number of soppy ballads for the teenage idol market. )

I remember watching his performance of "Travelin' Man" from 1961 -- a segment that's been called the first music video, a montage dropped into the end of the show to promote Ricky's new single. It worked, evidently, because this single shot to #1. (The fact that the flip side was "Hello Mary Lou" couldn't have hurt, either. ) Apparently the songwriter, Jerry Fuller, first wrote this song for Sam Cooke, and oh man, he'd have done a lovely job with it, I can just imagine. But Ricky snapped it right up, and his version is pure gold.

The Beach Boys' "California Girls," and by extension the Beatles' "Back in the USSR," lead straight back to this song, a rockin' atlas of love in three verses plus chorus. Yes, it's a Tin Pan Alley conceit, about all the girls that this footloose guy has stringing along; even Ricky's ultra-sincere delivery can't entirely subdue the caddish subtext, as he lists these adoring women from Mexico to Alaska to Germany to Hong Kong to Polynesia to Hawaii (what a 50s list of hotspots that is!). It isn't exactly autobiography, but after all Ricky did have a world-wide legion of adoring fans by then -- that had to add a little spark of authenticity to the single.

Know what? This song still works. That liquid melody, laid over a light cha-cha-cha beat, with the doo-wop backup chorus -- it glides along with such a light, suave touch. I love how the key shifts upward, longingly, for that chorus: "Oh my sweet Fraulein down in Berlin town / Makes my heart start to yearn / And my China doll down in old Hong Kong / Waits for my return." Sexist? Yeah, probably, and racist too. Come to think of it, Sam Cooke might have detected those darker undertones; maybe that's why he passed on this song. But smooth-faced Ricky Nelson, with those innocent blue bedroom eyes -- he totally got away with it.

Okay, so youthful rebellion wasn't his thing; he wasn't selling himself as a dangerous wildcat. Ricky Nelson was the safe alternative to Elvis, the one the nice girls preferred; his honey-like voice didn't have the jolt, or the guttural snarl, that Presley had. (Think of him as Paul to Elvis' John.) On the other hand, Ricky Nelson didn't need to have the camera fixed rigidly above the waist -- hell, the guy barely even moved his lips when he sang, let alone swivel his pelvis. He made rock and roll palatable to anxious middle-class parents across the nation; if Ozzie and Harriet could let their beloved youngest son dabble in this new music, maybe it wasn't so dangerous after all.

Little did they know where all that would lead...

Travelin' Man sample

1 comment:

Carabella said...

Ricky was one of the most beautiful guys ever and also died tragically too young. He attempted to get out of his teen idol mode. The tune "Garden Party" is his big rebellion. Sweet voice too. Poor Little Fool, ah Ricky. My 33 year old daughter really likes him too, but she had her Mom's eclectic influence so she heard stuff all over the place.