Ricky Nelson gets more chicks than you. All ethnicities, even (except Africans). He collects them as if they were so many stamps – a 1 centavo from Mexico, a 5 pfennig from Deutschland, licked once before being pasted in a philatelist’s notebook and left on the shelf. It’s abhorrent behavior, traveling around the world for the express purpose of making girls fall in love with you before shipping off to the next port. Ricky offers no apologies either – just a simple shrug, “I’m a travelin’ man,” my only love is the open road and my only lady is the sea. But somehow, Ricky has a way of making you feel sorry for him. The way he sings it, it’s not a boast but a lament. He’s condemned to spend his days dragged from one port to the next by his incessant wanderlust, the vast stretches of loneliness broken only by the rare comfort of another human being (who may or may not speak English, but who is at least pretty). Just as Ricky came out the victim of “Poor Little Fool,” despite his caddish ways, here too he spins the situation in his favor and demonstrates just how he charmed all those girls before breaking their hearts. It’s the singer not the song pulling the weight, but unfortunately even Ricky’s charisma can’t elevate it above mediocrity. 5
Hit #1 on May 29, 1961 for 1 week; repeaked on June 12, 1961 for 1 week; total of 2 weeks at #1
51 of 969 #1’s reviewed; 5.26% through the Hot 100
Ricky Nelson may have been the guy for whom the term “teen idol” was invented, but this track is relatively rocking for a 1958 #1. Rather than a schmaltzy Pat Boone knock-off, “Poor Little Fool” is a credible country-pop-rock hybrid in the vein of The Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream.” Nelson’s vocals are mournful without being overwrought and rueful without being bitter. He bemoans a tease with “carefree devil eyes” who breaks his heart for seemingly no reason but sadistic pleasure. Being dumped for the first time may hurt (especially when it’s the day after you confess your love), but Nelson recognizes that this is only one speedbump in his romantic travails. He starts the song with a confession of his own: “I used to play around with hearts that hastened at my call,” he sings with zero trace of guilt in his voice. By the time the song’s over, he acknowledges the sting of his mischief catching up with him but offers no apologies. He’s too busy pitying himself for being the “poor little fool” beaten at his own game.
Nelson worshipped Carl Perkins, and it shows in the Sun Records-lite shuffle and country-crooner backing vocals. Perkins would have pumped it up to a rockabilly rave-up, however. Maybe Roy Orbison could have done a slow-ballad take, voice warbling with heartbreak and sorrow as he confessed his romantic sins (as both sinner and sinned against). Either way, the track would be more effective than Nelson’s neither-here-nor-there tempo. “Poor Little Fool” also suffers from a repetitive verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure that cries out for a middle eight to ratchet the song up to a level of convincing emotion, whether regret or contempt. As it is, the song just sort of plods along for two and a half minutes – but the plod is pleasant enough while it lasts. 6
- Written by a teenage Sharon Sheeley, frequent songwriting partner (“Break-a-Way,” “Dum Dum,” “You Won’t Forget Me”) with my much-loved Jackie DeShannon. Sheeley was also the fiancée of Eddie Cochran, breaking her pelvis in the 1960 taxi crash that led to his death.
- Part of the pop tradition of “Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” songs – cf. that track by The Marvelettes, “Conquest” by Patti Page. Others?
Hit #1 on August 4, 1958; total of 2 weeks at #1
1 of 963 #1’s reviewed; 0.10% through the Hot 100