In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing 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.
Is it fair to judge ancient songs by contemporary standards? I’ve been struggling with that question since I started writing this column, especially when it comes to the question of racism. Some old songs, like Larry Verne’s “Mr. Custer” or Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear,” are racist in obvious and odious ways. But what do we do with something like Ricky Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man”? It’s not a vicious song. It’s a song about falling in love again and again, all over the world. And yet the lyrics amount to: Hey, look at this collection of thunderingly simplistic racial stereotypes! I love them all!
Look: This is pretty much what Jay-Z was doing on “Girls Girls Girls” in 2001, except that Jay also got to make Deuce Bigalow references. I don’t remember having any problems with it then, and I don’t remember anyone else having any problems, either. Nelson’s song’s whole tone is kind-hearted and good-natured, and yet it’s full of stupid stuff: “I’ve a pretty señorita waiting for me down in old Mexico / And if you’re ever in Alaska, stop and see my cute little Eskimo.” And it just sucks to listen to a feather-light old song like this and hear someone singing the words “China doll.”
Still, if you can get past that — and I would never tell you that you should — “Travelin’ Man” is a good song. A remarkable thing about it is the way that Nelson manages to sell this song, about being a hopeless globetrotting hornball, and makes it sound sweet and even vulnerable. It’s what he did. Nelson was still a sitcom star when he made “Travelin’ Man.” (Ozzie Nelson, Ricky’s real-life and screen father, had the bright idea to make a promotional clip for “Travelin’ Man”; some people now call it the first music video.) And the big-eyed softness in Nelson’s voice does everything to make the song’s womanizing seem like just something a lost little boy might do.
Musically, too, it’s top-shelf early-’60s pop. The song is spare, but the arrangement makes it luxurious, with its strummy propulsion and its perfect little descending piano figure. The Jordanaires, who sang backup on all of Elvis Presley’s records during that era, flesh things out with doo-wop panache. The whole arrangement fits Nelson’s dreamy delivery much better than that of “Poor Little Fool,” Nelson’s previous number one. There’s a warmth to the recording, one that almost makes the song sound OK today. Almost.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s a recent video of Nelson’s twin sons Matthew and Gunnar Nelson — who eventually became chart-toppers themselves with the band Nelson — covering “Travelin’ Man” in what appears to be the office of a Milwaukee oldies station: