RIP: Angel Baby
On May 22, 1999, Rosie Hamlin, a 53-year-old Mexican-American entertainer, took the stage of the Petroleum Club and sang several songs much to the approval of the 300 plus paying patrons of the now-defunct Southern California Doo Wop Society.
Though her material was hardly doo wop, there was still much appreciation for her most famous hit, “Angel Baby” credited to Rosie & the Originals.
“Angel Baby” amounted to the first time in post 1950s pop music history that a song put together and recorded by early teenagers with no supervision of adults or in association with someone’s record label ever made the top five pop charts. It was also the earliest known example of a teen Latina vocalist making the national charts in the rock’n’roll era.
In fact, the after-the-fact label she hooked up with was a gangster’s paradise, not unusual in the cutthroat record industry of the late 50s/early 60s. Some of the Highland label practices were to bootleg their own records to avoid royalty payments. “They would buy their own records so they could go up the charts,” said a label owner who dealt with them. “I bought 2,500 records to get mine to chart.”
But despite that, “Angel Baby” turned into the national anthem of the oldies generation, locally, for those who cruised Hody’s Drive-In and other teen spots in customized Chevies, Mercurys and even the occasional VW Bug with their favorite 45 rpm vinyl on their dashboard record players.
“Angel Baby” came to life in November 1960. It started with a guitar undertone, joined by an out-of-tune saxophone and into Rosie’s earnest vocals, a real grabber for those who love ultra-romantic efforts. Recorded in a converted aircraft hangar in rural San Diego County, the band’s teen sax player couldn’t make the date because he had to mow the lawn, so another member stood in. Hardly an auspicious beginning. But in the end, they created a garage classic, which never stopped selling throughout the decades.
Born in Klamath Falls, Oregon, Rosie Hamlin grew up in Alaska and arrived in San Diego as an elementary school student, later attending Mission Bay High School and performing in clubs as early as age 13.
“A lot of the songs were ‘baby this or baby that.’ My boyfriend, Robert Foster used to call me his ‘little baby,’ make little endearments like that. He was 16, I was 14. I used to write poetry, but it was real secret; I wrote the song as a poem for him, we were very shy; we were allowed to sit on the front porch and that’s about it. We sat there and talked until somebody yelled for us to ‘break it up, come in now.’
“Long after we’d broken up, I had an old used piano and that’s when I learned the old four-chord progression and I put it to that. It was a shy way of expressing your inner feelings.”
The Originals were comprised of a lead guitar player, who also sang, rhythm guitar, saxophonist who “could sing a teeny bit” and a drummer, teens all. “I lived in National City, some of the guys lived in Logan Heights, one guy lived in Point Loma. There were no recording studios out there, but we found an old building that had been an aircraft hanger in Santee, way out there. The quality of the record speaks for the era itself. Everything was four track, it’s typical of that era.”
Band members took acetates of the song to various record shops and other venues. At a local shop, Rosie met a salesman who took the acetate that had a scratch on it as it had been played at parties. It was that defective copy that Highland Records pressed up for release. When it started selling, it never stopped.
“Alan Freed on KDAY got it started,” said Hamlin. “He was given half the publishing for a period of time, it broke on the East Coast at the same time.” In mid-November, “Angel Baby” charted on Wallichs Music City, No. 2 on “Coloradio” KFWB and No. 3 on KRLA and went to No. 1 on border radio Mighty 690, very near to where the song was created.
One of the great oldies, “Angel Baby” was one of John Lennon’s favorite records. And a favorite of Long Beach’s own international star, Jenni Rivera. In fact, both Lennon and Rivera recorded their own versions, but neither touched Rosie’s original.
For many years, the truly shy Rosie stayed out of the spotlight, however, about 20 years ago, she began making limited appearances. She was at a benefit at an Anaheim park in summer 2008, but by then she could not sing because of illness.
On March 30, 2017, as ignored by the LA Times and the Press-Telegram, Rosie passed away in her adopted home state of New Mexico. Despite this omission, her voice and her song, “Angel Baby” will forever inspire generations of lovers.