One of Ricky Nelson's most popular songs, in "Hello Mary Lou" he gets a case of love at first sight, as she steals his heart at first glance. It's a very simple tune but quite memorable, with 14 mentions of the melodious Mary Lou packed into a 2:17 running time. The song begins and ends with the chorus, with another between the two verses.
There are two credited writers of this song: Gene Pitney and Cayet Mangiaracina.
Pitney is a rock legend whose biggest hits as an artist - "Only Love Can Break A Heart" and "(The Man Who Shot) Liberty Valance" were written by the Burt Bacharach-Hal David team. Pitney also wrote some hits for other artists, including "He's A Rebel" for The Crystals and "Rubber Ball" for Bobby Vee. He wrote and recorded "Hello Mary Lou," but he had another single out so his record company didn't release it. Meanwhile, his publisher shopped the song around to various artists, including Ricky Nelson, whose version became a huge hit.
In 1957, a New Orleans group called The Sparks released a song called "Mary, Mary Lou," which goes:
Mary, Mary Lou Why must you do The things that you always do
In this song, Mary Lou runs off to marry another man, leaving our hero heartbroken.
Cayet Mangiaracina, who was a member of The Sparks, wrote it in 1954 and the band started playing it at their gigs. Mangiaracina, who said there was no Mary Lou and that the lyric just sounded good, left the band in 1956, but the following year they won a "battle of the bands" competition that earned them a deal with Decca Records to record the song and release it as a single. The Sparks version went nowhere, but Bill Haley and Sam Cooke both covered it, Haley in 1957 and Cooke the following year.
After "Hello Mary Lou" became a hit, Cayet Mangiaracina's publisher, Champion Music, took legal action and got a share of the song, with Mangiaracina listed as a co-writer along with Pitney. Mangiaracina became priest and claimed to give royalties from the song to the Southern Dominican Province, where he served.
Pitney, who died in 2006, never spoke of Mangiaracina or the lawsuit.
In America, this was released on the flip side of "Travelin' Man," which went to #1. Conventional thinking at the time was to put hastily produced or unwanted songs on the flip sides of singles, but Nelson took his B-sides seriously, figuring the singles would sell better if he did.
This was a huge hit in Australia, where it went to #1. In the UK, it was also very popular, reaching #2.
Nelson's father Ozzie, a popular bandleader and star (along with Ricky and the rest of his family) of the TV series The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, played tenor guitar on this song. The solo is by Nelson's guitarist James Burton, who later joined up with Elvis Presley.
Gene Pitney claimed to be baffled by this song's success. "I've spent a lifetime trying to analyze why it was as big as it was," he said.
Several acts have done popular covers of this song, including Brownsville Station, New Riders of the Purple Sage and Creedence Clearwater Revival. When Ricky Nelson entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, he was inducted by John Fogerty.
Nelson's voice sounds very full and ambient thanks to overdubs in the studio. Producer Jimmie Haskell joked that he used "15 layers of overdubbing."