15 December 2023

Only in Oz (18): Johnny Burnette - Big Big World (1961)

Another in my series of posts about tracks that were more popular in Australia than in their countries of origin. See also: Only in Melbourne.

18. Johnny Burnette - Big Big World
(Fred Burch - Gerald Nelson - Red West)
USA 1961

London single (USA) #F-55318
London single (Australia) #HL-2164

US Charts: #58 Billboard, #49 Cash Box
Australian charts: #38 Sydney, #19 Melbourne (Ryan), #14 Melbourne (Guest), #37 Brisbane | #37 Australia


Not a dramatic case of Only in Oz, but the lower reaches of Australia's Top 40 do beat the lower reaches of Top 60 Billboard and Top 50 Cash Box. 

Johnny Burnette
Johnny Burnette's three biggest hits Dreamin' (1960), You're Sixteen (1960), and Little Boy Sad (1961) all charted at least Top 20 in the US, the UK, Australia, and NZ but Australia is the only one where Big Big World made Top 40. 

In 1961 I was listening to Melbourne radio, so I remember Big Big World as well as Burnette's better-known songs. Depending on the chart compiler, Big Big World charted in Melbourne at #19 (Gavin Ryan) or #14 (Tom Guest). (For a plunge into the metaphysics of retrospective charts see my post Toppermost of the poppermost: the charts.) 


Big Big World evokes the feeling of searching for one person among millions and being defeated by the vastness of the city. 

In Snuff Garrett's production the elements meld perfectly, all contributing to the final effect: composition, arrangement, performances. There are no jarring distractions.1  

I admire the way the story is told economically, in colloquial language, without any wasted words. It takes place in two locations, an apartment block - Nine one, 27th Avenue - and a phone box. 

At the apartments, where the searcher tells them he is just looking for a friend living in Apartment 10, he has no luck: You say she's gone. Please, how long has it been?

In the phone box, the futility of his quest is brought home to him when he consults the telephone directory. 

Joneses, Joneses
Oh, I see,
 page 19 to 23
Big, big world can be unkind
The phone just took my last dime

I love the sound of Joneses Joneses. Every "s" has a /z/ sound, setting up a nice percussive effect with the repetition.  

This is a song of numbers: the address and the apartment number (Nine one, 27th Avenue... Apartment 10), the pages of Joneses (19 to 23).

I assume the numbers that open the song - Nine one, 27th - were carefully chosen, as they are perfect. 

I am reminded of that much-repeated story about the comedy writers on Sid Caesar's TV show deciding which number on a roulette wheel would be funniest. (The final choice was thirty-two). 

Big Big World isn't comedy, but I can imagine a similar process going on for Nine one, 27th, as well as for the numbers of the telephone directory pages 19 to 23.

Clearly, the rhythm of the words is a factor. And although the selection might have been intuitive, I wonder whether the result has something to do with the repeated sounds in nine one twenty-seven: the /n/, the short "e" (/e/) and the /w/?


The composers of Big Big World are Gerald Nelson (1935-2012), Fred Burch (c.1932- ) and Bobby "Red" West (1936-2017).

Red West was a long-time associate of Elvis Presley from high school days, and a member of Elvis's entourage. He worked successfully as a bodyguard, stuntman, movie extra, actor, songwriter and artists' agent. West would be the most visible of the three writers of Big Big World, partly through the Elvis Presley connection, but also through his many appearances in films, sometimes uncredited but also credited alongside some well-known names. 

There are 138 Red West compositions listed by BMI at Songview. He wrote or co-wrote several songs recorded by Elvis including Separate Ways (1972, #20 USA) and If You Talk In Your Sleep (1974, #17 USA). He co-wrote I'm A Fool which charted for Dino, Desi & Billy (1965, #17 USA) but was first released by Rick Nelson (1964).

Gerald Nelson and Fred Burch were frequent collaborators. They were both from Paducah, Kentucky, where Nelson was in The Country Gentlemen, later known as The Escorts.  
Nelson and Burch started writing together when Burch was at the University of Kentucky in 1958. Their composition Tragedy charted for Thomas Wayne (1959, #4 USA), The Fleetwoods (1961, #10 USA), and Bryan Hyland (1969, #56 USA). A version by Paul McCartney appeared as a bonus track on a later reissue of Red Rose Speedway.
         Fred Burch

Fred Burch
* was a prolific songwriter based in Nashville where he was a staff writer for Cedarwood Publishing Co. He collaborated, for example, with Marijohn Wilkin on Jimmy Dean's P.T. 109 (1962, #8 USA, #29 Australia). 

Jan Crutchfield was Burch's co-writer on Perry Como's Dream On Little Dreamer (1965, #25 USA). Crutchfield was also from Paducah, and he was in The Country Gentlemen-Escorts with Big Big World co-writer Gerald Nelson

Strange, recorded by Patsy Cline (1962, #97 USA), was a Fred Burch - Mel Tillis composition. Tillis was also contracted to Cedarwood Publishing and they wrote several songs together.

It didn't surprise me to read in the archives that Burch was a "student of journalism" who studied English at university before turning to professional song writing. Clearly, at least one writer who knew their way around words had a hand in Big Big World, and as a songwriter Burch seems to have specialised in lyrics. 

For example, it was Burch who started off Tragedy with some lines of verse.2 Local press in Paducah (1962) gives him credit for being the lyricist of P.T. 109 and numerous other songs including Big Big World,3 although in the Tennessee press Burch himself acknowledges co-composer Marijohn Wilkin's role in polishing the lyrics of P.T. 109.4

Selected sources, further reading:
1. I wrote something similar about Snuff Garrett's production of Gene McDaniels - It's A Lonely Town (Lonely Without You). That post also has a list of some of Garrett's notable productions.

2. "Burch, Helms on High Road": background on Burch & Nelson and the writing of "Tragedy", The Tennessean, Nashville, 12 November 1961.
3. "P.T.109... Former Paducah Man Writes Hit Song"The Paducah Sun, Paducah, Kentucky, 3 June 1962.
4. "PT 109: How It Came About", The Tennessean, 20 May 1962.

Item of interest:
"Composers Take Cruise": songwriters Marijohn Wilkin and Fred Burch with Wilkin's husband and son on a cruise trip to Paducah on the Wilkins' houseboat,  The Leaf-Chronicle, Clarksville, Tennessee, 7 August 1961.

*Don't confuse Fred Burch with Don Burch who wrote The Shields' hit "You Cheated" (1958) or John Burch who wrote Georgie Fame's "Preach And Teach" (1964) and "In The Meantime" (1965).