68) Shelley Fabares – “Johnny Angel”

Generations, in the over-arching cultural sense, are roughly delineated in 20-year segments.  But in pop music, the passage of time is accelerated.  Never was this truer than in the 1960s, when “revolutions per minute” could refer not only to a lone record on a turntable, but to pop radio as a whole.  Connie Francis may have been only 23 years old when her final #1 hit topped the charts, but she felt like a relic of an older time.  Indeed, while her fanbase in the late ‘50s stretched across the generations, Francis would primarily pursue the adult pop market for the rest of her career.  The common culture shared by adults and adolescents had begun to splinter around the birth of rock and roll, and was well on its way to becoming a full-on generation gap.  Francis, born in 1938, predated the Baby Boom; her successor to the top of the Hot 100, born in 1944, was a product of it.  This new generation wanted music that spoke (or, rather, sang) explicitly to the experience of being young – and the nascent girl group explosion, made by teenagers for teenagers, had exactly the right sound.

Thus when the producers of The Donna Reed Show decided to have their teenage star Shelley Fabares record a tie-in single, they took a bog standard, fill-in-the-blanks teen pop song and dressed it up with the backing vocals of The Blossoms.  While The Blossoms weren’t a household name, the tight harmonies of Darlene Love and her fellow group members added a jolt of relevancy to the pop-by-numbers “Johnny Angel.”  Nevertheless, the result isn’t a very convincing.  Fabares, firmly an actress and not a singer, was reportedly unenthusiastic about recording a single and felt intimidated by The Blossoms’ vocal chops.  Her voice is fine here, actually; if anything, it presages the girlish vocals of Lesley Gore and Mary Weiss that would form the white counterparts to the girl groups produced by Motown and Phil Spector.  But the vocals of Fabares and The Blossoms never meld in a way that sounds organic.  The bulk of the successful girl groups had, in some form or another, been singing together for years, in high schools and churches, before they cut their first singles.  Here, Fabares’s voice floats out limply in front of the backing singers.  Further, “Johnny Angel” is, if possible, too pop to be real girl group material.  The genuine girl group hits drew to varying degrees from other genres, whether they be R&B/soul, rock and roll, gospel, or even country. This cross-genre pollination led to more complex and exciting singles, which attracted listeners outside of the teenage girl market and, in turn, influenced the genres the girl groups had originally borrowed from (e.g., The Beatles covering The Shirelles, The Marvelettes and The Cookies).  “Johnny Angel,” however, owes strictly to the limpid, syrupy pop of Frankie Avalon and teen idols who followed in his wake.  Essentially, this is “Venus,” but from a female POV – and one just as dull and vacuous. 3

Liner Notes:

  • The Blossoms would again top the Hot 100 just a few months later – albeit with a single falsely credited to another girl group.

Hit #1 on April 7, 1962; total of 2 weeks at #1
68 of 970 #1’s reviewed; 7.01% through the Hot 100

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6 Comments

Filed under 03, 1962

6 responses to “68) Shelley Fabares – “Johnny Angel”

  1. As usual, your assesment of the song is more interesting than the song itself. Reminds me of 50s musicals or the Disney films of that era: sweeping, melodic orchestration, over-produced vocals, and harmless lyrics. (Though, listening to the Beatles remasters this week, I have to admit they had some similar tracks in the early days.)

  2. Thanks for the compliment!

  3. Just ran across your blog, Sally, searching for some background on the recording of Johnny Angel.

    I was around 12 or 13 or so when JA was released (and, of course, I had a devastating crush on Shelly Fabares at the time from watching the Donna Reed Show!).

    But first, just to give you an idea of my “adult” tastes in music, my favorite female vocalists are the likes of Anita O’Day or Blossom Dearrie, to name two. But I’ve always been a sucker for a well done pop song with a catchy tune and pretty female voice singing lead. So there are lots of individual recorded songs over the years that I like that fits this criteria, but unless the singer is truly talented, my interest doesn’t go any further than the individual songs themselves. It’s the package I like when it comes to pop, and Johnny Angel is a perfectly tasty little package for me. Simple as that!

    So I think that your analysis of JA maybe misses the simplicity of it all. I do certainly agree with you that JA doesn’t have much in common with real “girl group” music–it’s simply a well-done vehicle for Shelly Fabares (with the Donna Reed Show being the actual intended beneficiary, of course).

    But still, Johnny Angel was a huge hit at the time, and remains a favorite that continues to attract new admirers even now–so something was done right. Ms. Fabares herself said she thought the song’s popularity was due to the fact that it was a pretty song, with a good arrangement. A simple analysis, and pretty much right on the mark as far as I’m concerned.

    You wrote that you didn’t think the voices of the Blossoms and Fabares melded well. But one of the things that makes this a perennial favorite of mine is that the arrangement and all the vocals seem to me as tightly fitting as a bee hive hair-do. Lines are begun with one voice (Love’s?), finished by Fabares, with the Blossoms laying down a solid background on top of a perfectly fitting instrumental with a subtle but very catchy little base line. The Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” comes to mind, but just a much softer, more airy version of it.

    You end up comparing JA to Frankie Avalon (now there’s someone whose popularity I could *never* figure out) and his Venus, and ultimately calling JA “dull and vacuous”. Maybe you just have to be a guy to appreciate Shelley Fabares’ Johnny Angel, and late ’50s teenage girl to appreciate Frankie Avalon???

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment!

  4. Guy Parker

    First off, congratulations on your Jeopardy success. My wife is going to LA next month to audition. As a former DJ, I’m really happy that you are helping to keep these songs from being forgotten. Most stations consider songs from the 80’s to be “oldies”. I played most of these songs when I started in the early 70’s. I have to ask, what motivated you to create something like this and would you consider putting your blogs and thoughts into book form ?

  5. First, the baby boom began in 1946, so Shelley Fabares was not part of it. Besides that the whole of idea of cultural generations is nonsense.

    Second, I can’t believe you think her voice is fine. It is very weak. The producer did a good job covering it up, as Curtis Mayfield did for Major Lance, but she is a worse singer than Lance was.

  6. GeorgeL

    Shelly Fabares would be the first to admit she couldn’t sing. The Blossoms totally carry the song & the echo chamber does the rest. Miss Fabares also said that she couldn’t appear on the Ed Sullivan show to perform the song because she couldn’t sing live. Of course, these days we have all that auto tune garbage so nothings really changed. And hey Cliff… Major Lance rocked!

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