Rock and Roll Heaven: How A Priest Helped Write Ricky Nelson’s "Hello Mary Lou"

“The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” one of the longest-running sitcoms in TV history, starred the real-life Nelson family: ex-bandleader Ozzie, his wife, singer Harriet, and their sons, David and Ricky. Ozzie, who also served as producer and head writer, incorporated the events of his family’s life into the show; when 16-year-old Ricky bragged to a girlfriend that he would cut a record, the song was featured on an episode. Ricky’s 1957 cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin'” sold one million records the first week; thus began weekly performances by Ricky at the end of each show that propelled songs like “Travelin’ Man,” “Fools Rush In” and “Hello Mary Lou” to the top ten.

“Hello Mary Lou” is credited to two writers: Gene Pitney and Cayet Mangiaracina. Most know Pitney from his hits “Town Without Pity” and “Only Love Can Break a Heart.” But his co-writer never worked with Pitney on “Hello Mary Lou.” Cayet Mangiaracina is a priest; the tens of thousands of dollars he earns each year from the song are forwarded to the Dominican Order.

Mangiaracina’s story begins in 1953 when the 18-year-old graduate of New Orleans’ Jesuit High School auditioned as a piano player for the Sparks, a local rock group. A year later, Mangiaracina wrote “Merry, Merry Lou,” a song of unrequited love that became a local hit for the Sparks. Two years later, Mangiaracina found a higher calling than rock; he decided he should serve others by becoming a priest.

While Mangiaracina left New Orleans to study for the Dominican priesthood, the Sparks won an opportunity to record for Decca Records; one of the two songs they chose was “Merry, Merry Lou.” The song got national attention in 1958 when Bill Haley and his Comets recorded the tune as “Mary Mary Lou.” Later that year, Sam Cooke released his own cover of the song.

Around this time, struggling songwriter Gene Pitney made a record as Billy Bryan; he also recorded with Ginny Arnell as part of a duo called Jamie and Jane. Pitney’s first success came writing hits for others: “Today’s Teardrops” for Roy Orbison, the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel,” Bobby Vee’s “Rubber Ball” and 1961’s “Hello Mary Lou,” which became a huge hit for Ricky Nelson.

Pitney’s “Hello Mary Lou” sounded so much like “Merry, Merry Lou” that the Sparks’ publisher sued. As a result, Father Mangiaracina was given co-authorship with Pitney. The priest’s mother received royalties from the song until her death in 1988; since then the payments, which total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, have gone to the Dominicans’ Southern province.

Source by Lee Jensen

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