The Number Ones is a new column where I’ll review every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present. It is, in other words, a shameless ripoff of the great British blogger Tom Ewing’s long-running column Popular, in which he’s spent more than a decade doing the same thing with the UK charts. (Popular is so good. Start with Ewing’s masterpiece on the Sugababes’ “Freak Like Me” and work your way backwards.) Since there have been more than 1,000 #1 singles, I’ll do one of these every day, or as close to every day as I can manage. And in a nod to Ewing, I’ll give all of them a grade, from 1 to 10.
Ricky Nelson – “Poor Little Fool”
HIT #1: August 4, 1958
STAYED AT #1: 2 weeks
Ricky Nelson would’ve been a teen idol even if rock ‘n’ roll had never happened. In 1944, an eight-year-old Nelson started starring alongside his real-life parents on The Adventures Of Ozzie & Harriet, the proto-sitcom radio show. When the show made the leap to TV, so did Nelson, and it was his own good luck that he was a looker. And as it happened, he was in exactly the right place at the right time to catch in on the rock ‘n’ roll explosion, something he did by putting his puppy-dog soulfulness in service of a few great singles.
“Poor Little Fool,” which happened to be the biggest song in the country when Billboard consolidated its singles lists into the Hot 100 format, wasn’t one of those singles. It wasn’t Nelson’s best or most iconic song; that would be the timeless pocket melodrama “Lonesome Town.” But the fascinating and frustrating thing about the #1 spot is that the best, most iconic songs only rare reach those heights. And so Nelson’s first #1 — and Billboard’s — was this negligible midtempo bopper about a girl with carefree devil eyes and a heart full of lies.
The song has a fun backstory. Legend has it that 15-year-old Sharon Sheeley wrote the song after reeling from a breakup with one of the Everly Brothers, and she convinced Nelson to record it after driving to his house and claiming that her car was broken down. But the song itself is a whole lot less interesting than the drama that led to its creation. The rhythm is a staid plonk, closer to polka than rockabilly, and Nelson’s voice, usually so empathetic, is more of an ingratiating whine. He never bothers to sell his own heartbreak, even though selling heartbreak was one of the things Nelson was great at. (Seriously: “Lonesome Town.”) The song’s saving grace is its backing singers, who lend doo-wop buoyancy and seem to politely laugh at Nelson and his situation.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin singing together, and John Wayne pretending to enjoy it, in Howard Hawks’ classic 1959 Western Rio Bravo: