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
- 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