The writer responsible for “Wichita Lineman” and many other hits, Jimmy Webb, once wrote a song called “Parenthes is .” The song laments the fate of the songwriter, reduced, it seems, to a minor participant, squeezed on the record label as a tiny name in parentheses. The public imagines the singer as the artist — after all, they have the big name on the label and the glossy picture on the cover. But the music industry has always known better.
A hit recording still depends on the song. And without a great song, there is no hit record.
No singer-songwriter or producer ever had a year as big as Jerry Fuller. Between 1968 and ’69, Fuller wrote and produced songs and singers who outsold the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash and every major Top 40 act — combined.
“J. Fuller” may have been the little name in parentheses, but Jerry Fuller’s career has been as expansive as the Lone Star State. As a singer, Fuller had hit records and appeared on American Bandstand. He was part of the legendary Wrecking Crew, one of the most successful groups of studio musicians in music history. He wrote some of the biggest pop hits of all time, including “Travelin’ Man” for Rick Nelson, “Young Girl” for Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and “Show and Tell” for Al Wilson. And he produced some of the top pop records of all time, like “Little Green Apples” for O.C. Smith and “Lies” for the Knickerbockers. In addition, Fuller was responsible for bringing Glen Campbell to Hollywood and signed and recorded Lubbock’s Mac Davis, kickstarting Davis’ career.
Between his songwriting and production work, Fuller’s compositions have tallied over 23 million radio airplays, and songs written by Fuller have charted over 100 times, including an astonishing 20 No. 1 hits.
Born in 1938 in Fort Worth, Fuller recalled his first memory. “I was 5 years old, and my dad was in the service during WW II, somewhere in the Philippines. We lived in government apartments at Henderson and Belknap. We owned a big radio with all these bandwidths, and my mother was trying to tune in a station. Suddenly we heard Bing Crosby singing “I’ll be Home for Christmas.” When the song finished the announcer said ‘This is Armed Forces radio from Manila, and that was First Sgt. Clarence Fuller.’ It was my dad, clear as a bell. And sure enough — to top it all off — Christmas morning he was standing at the front door. I still choke up thinking about it.”
Fuller’s father, Clarence, was a carpenter who could sing like Bing Crosby. His mother Lola was also musical and could sing like Patti Page. Both performed as amateurs. Music was always part of the family. Jerry loved Nat King Cole, Patti Page, Elvis and Johnny Mathis. Bob Montgomery, who sang with Buddy Holly, was one of Fuller’s best friends.
Fuller’s mother took Jerry and his brother Bill to every open mic audition available, and the two formed a group called the Fuller Brothers, who became popular in the Fort Worth area. “We attended Amon Carter Riverside High School and sang at every function available,” Fuller recalls. “Eventually Bill and I cut a record on a tiny label, but it went nowhere. I started singing on my own. I’d met Ken Copeland, a local singer who had a minor hit record called “Pledge of Love.” [Copeland would later become known for his Kenneth Copeland Ministries.] Ken and I met at a local talent show, and he gave me a number for Joe Leonard, who owned a radio station in Gainesville and, like many radio people in those days, had a small record company called Lin Records. He gave me an audition, and I cut my first record, “I Found a New Love,” in 1957. We recorded at Clifford Herring’s studio on 7th Street in Fort Worth. We used a garbage can lid for a snare drum. In all, I cut 10 songs. They did absolutely nothing, but they did sell at my high school.”
In 1959 Fuller decided he wanted a full-time career in music. “I headed to California to try my luck,” he remembers. “I filled my Ford Skyliner with all my belongings. I’d saved some money singing and working at a market, so I struck out for L.A. I didn’t know anyone, but I had an address for the West Coast distributor of Lin Records. Turned out it was a record store. The record store owner was kind to me — helped me find an apartment and set me up singing demos. I got $10 to $15 a song and paid the rent. I became sought after as a demo singer.”Fuller worked with an eclectic mix of performers, including the band Muench (top, pictured with label owner Gene Autry, center; Fuller is second from left)
Fuller had a three-and-a-half octave range, and his voice was a crisp teenage version of Sam Cooke with a hint of a Texas accent. It wasn’t long till he was signed to Gene Autry’s Challenge Records as a singer and as a songwriter for Autry’s Four-Star Publishing. Fuller’s first record was a song called “Betty My Angel,” followed by a rockabilly version of “Tennessee Waltz.” Both records charted. Fuller soon became friends with Dave Burgess of the Champs (of “Tequila” fame). “Dave ran the publishing part of Challenge Records and also owned the Champs,” Fuller says. “They were an instrumental group, and I’d go on tour with them, singing my records and fronting the shows.”
In 1960 Fuller and the Champs were playing the Albuquerque Civic Center when Jerry Naylor came backstage. Naylor, a fellow Texan Fuller knew from Fort Worth as Jerry Jackson, had taken Buddy Holly’s place in the Crickets after Holly died. “Jerry said, ‘Someone wants to meet you,’” Fuller recalls. “He then introduced me to Glen Campbell, who asked for my autograph. Campbell was playing a club in town with his uncle, and he asked me to drop by to see him play. I went to the show, and it took about two minutes to realize his talent. I urged Glen to come to California, and he couldn’t wait. A few weeks later he literally showed up on my doorstep. I got him a job playing with the Champs, and we became best friends. In less than a year he was playing recording sessions full time with the Wrecking Crew. Glen would later introduce me to my wife and be the best man at my wedding.” (Jerry and Annette Fuller celebrated 50 years of marriage in December).
In 1961 Fuller got the break of his career when a song he wrote was thrown in a trash can. “I had a globe and was spinning it when I thought of a song about a traveling man. I wrote it specifically for Sam Cooke. Glen helped me demo the song, and I took the tape to J.W. Alexander, Cooke’s manager. Cooke recorded at Imperial Records, so Alexander’s office was in the building. Rick Nelson also recorded for Imperial, and Joe Osborn, Rick’s bass player, was in the building at the time, waiting on Rick.
“The walls at Imperial were notoriously thin, so when I played the demo for Alexander, Osborn heard the song through the walls. After I left, Joe went into Alexander’s office and said, ‘Are you going to use that traveling song?’ ‘No,’ Alexander said. ‘Here — take it.’ Osborn told me that Alexander reached over and pulled the tape out of the trash can and handed it to him.” Nelson loved the song, and Osborn created the first music video, a montage with Nelson singing “Travelin’ Man,” which was shown at the end of an episode of Ozzie and Harriet, a popular TV show that featured Nelson’s real-life family. The record would sell 6 million copies, and, over 50 years later, it still receives daily airplay.
After “Travelin’ Man,” Nelson stopped using the Jordanaires and had Fuller, Burgess and Campbell sing backup on all his records. Fuller also wrote many of Nelson’s hits, including “Young World” and “It’s Up to You.” (In all, Fuller would write 24 songs for Nelson.) Fuller fondly recalls the Nelson recording sessions. “One time we were stuck in the studio, trying to finish a song. It was dark and quiet — everyone was tired, just standing around. Glen broke the silence with a really raunchy joke. Out of the control booth came Harriet Nelson’s voice. ‘That was a good one, Glen. Do you know another?’ Glen crawled under the piano.”
Fuller was writing million-selling hits and then got hit by a ton of bricks. “I was drafted — I couldn’t believe it!” he says. “I was 23 at the time. I wound up serving at a base in New York, where I continued to write.” Upon release from the army, Four Star Publishing opened a Manhattan office. “I hated New York with a passion,” Fuller says. “A Texan doesn’t belong in New York City.” Fuller had a new record released in 1964 as a singer and booked a weekend gig in Albany. “I needed a backup band, and the club owner said ‘We have a great house band to back you.’ That’s when I heard the Knickerbockers.” Fuller soon signed the band to Challenge and produced their hit record “Lies,” which hit No. 20 on the 1965 Billboard charts with many listeners believing it was the Beatles. Paul McCartney later gave “Lies” the ultimate compliment when he said “When did we record that?”
In 1967 Challenge folded and Fuller was hired by Columbia Records as a house producer. “I was looking to sign acts to the roster,” he recalls. “Gary Puckett and his manager brought me an audition tape, but it was just awful. I made a trip to San Diego to hear the group. They were playing a lounge at a bowling alley called the Quad Room. As soon as I heard that voice, I knew I had to sign them. Glen had a song he was considering called ‘Woman, Woman,’ a country tune written by Jim Glaser and Jerry Payne. Glen decided to record ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ instead, so I asked if I could use ‘Woman, Woman,’ and he said sure. I reworked it as a pop tune, and Gary Puckett nailed it. After ‘Woman, Woman,’ I wrote the next three hits, ‘Young Girl,’ ‘Lady Willpower’ and ‘Over You.’ They were all multi-million sellers and top 10 hits.”
Gary Puckett and the Union Gap had four Top 10 hits in one year and outsold the Beatles in 1968. To date “Young Girl” has sold over 5 million copies; it hit No. 1 one in England in 1968 and again hit the British top 10 in 1974. It remains one of the top hits from the 1960s in terms of radio airplay.
Fuller continued to produce Columbia acts, and in the same year, 1968, while he was producing Gary Puckett, Fuller produced O.C. Smith, a jazz singer who’d sung with Count Basie. His career was on the skids. Fuller talked Smith into recording a country-flavored album. “We recorded Hickory Holler Revisited,” Fuller recalls. “I’d heard the Bobby Russell song ‘Little Green Apples’ and thought it would work perfectly for O.C.’s voice.” Both the song and the album were huge hits and multi-million sellers. Fuller won producer of the year, and “Little Green Apples” won two Grammys for Bobby Russell, including song of the year.
Jerry next produced two gold records for Andy Williams, and, in 1970, signed fellow Texan Mac Davis to a recording contract and produced his first album, Song Painter, and the hit single “Whoever Finds This, I Love You.” “Mac, Glen and I golfed together,” Fuller remembers. “Mac had already written hits for Elvis but wasn’t known as a performer or singer. I’d produced his song “Memories,” which was a hit for Andy Williams. We were golfing one day, and I said, ‘Mac, let’s do an album,’ and I signed him to a contract. The record jump-started Mac’s singing career.”
Fuller decided to leave Columbia and formed his own independent company. He produced five albums for his idol, Johnny Mathis (another Texan) and produced a top 10 hit for Roger Miller, “Loving Her Was Easier” (written by Kris Kristofferson). “I never dreamed I’d get to produce Johnny Mathis,” Fuller says. “All the albums were hits, but I thought Johnny deserved a hit single. I wrote ‘Show and Tell’ for him in 1971. His albums sold so well Columbia didn’t care about promoting a single record, so ‘Show and Tell’ didn’t do real well. In 1973 I signed a contract with Bell Records. Bell was going to release soul singer Al Wilson. I thought ‘Show and Tell’ could be reworked to fit Wilson’s voice.” The record was a smash, reaching No. 1 on both the Billboard and Cashbox charts. It sold 3 million copies and was the Cashbox single of the year in 1973. Peabo Bryson would bring “Show and Tell” back to No. 1 on the R