On Saturday, May 4, 1968, the new single "Angel of the Morning" sung by Merrilee Rush (b. 1944) first registers on the popularity charts in the music-biz trade magazine Billboard. The Seattle singer has been an active presence on the Northwest's burgeoning rock 'n' roll teen scene since 1960, and has already cut a half dozen records, but this one -- recorded with studio professionals in Memphis, Tennessee -- breaks out as a sizable international radio hit. With memorable vocals, a pretty melody, and trail-blazing lyrics, the song will lead to a gold record, a Grammy nomination, and a long-term career for Rush.
By 1968 Seattle-born Merrilee Rush, a vivacious and soulful singer and keyboardist, was already an accomplished rock 'n' roll performer and one of the top draws on the Pacific Northwest's vibrant teen-dance scene. As a Shoreline High School student named Merrilee Gunst she had initially gained attention around 1962 as a member of the popular Burien-based combo the Statics, who became known for energetic R&B tunes and synchronized onstage dance steps. In 1965, and with the formation of Merrilee and the Turnabouts, the Lake Forest Park resident, by now married to fellow musician Neil Rush, became a genuine regional star, headlining dances and concerts all across Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
The Turnabouts recorded several singles for various local labels, garnering modest radio airplay, but along the way they won the friendship of the Northwest's radio kingpin, Pat O'Day (b. 1934), program director and top DJ at Seattle's mighty hit-making station, KJR. Besides ruling the roost there, O'Day also ran a statewide teen-dance empire that provided regular, and lucrative, work for a good number of his favored bands. The Turnabouts were among them, and Rush and company made a good living rockin' and rollin' every weekend.
Goin' to Memphis
As it happened, one of the biggest fans of her previous band, the Statics, was an up-and-coming Idaho-based bandleader named Paul Revere (1938-2014), who used to bring his band-mates, including singer Mark Lindsay (b. 1942), to Statics shows in order to study their exciting stage-show techniques. So over the years they had befriended each other -- but after Paul Revere and the Raiders had scored a hit in 1964 with "Louie, Louie" and gotten signed to a big-time contract with the mega-label Columbia Records, his stardom had superseded hers. Then in late 1967 the day came that the Raiders were able to invite Rush to join one of their nationwide concert tours and she jumped at the opportunity.
At tour's end, and while in North Memphis, Tennessee, the Raiders entered the fabled American Sound Studio to begin cutting what would become their eighth album, 1968's Goin' to Memphis. Lindsay invited Rush to attend a recording session where he introduced her to the studio's owner, veteran hit producer Chips Moman (b. 1937). She recalled, "He asked if I would do a demo for him, just so he could hear my voice ... I did a demo, and he said 'I want you to come back next month and we'll pick out a couple tunes and cut'" (Blecha interview, 1987).
When she returned to American Sound, Moman paired her with producer/musician Tommy Cogbill (1932-1982) and his fellow ace session cats who were gaining fame as The Memphis Boys. Then the song selection process commenced. "A song plugger brought 'Angel of the Morning,' and we listened to it and I just loved it" (Blecha interview, 1987). The tune had been penned by Chip Taylor, the songsmith also credited with "Wild Thing," which had been a hit in 1966 for a British band, the Troggs, and was also becoming a signature live tune for Seattle's greatest rock star, Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) -- who was another original fan of the Statics. Rush recalled, "I said 'If anybody listens to this lyric they're gonna wanna buy the record because no female artist has talked about this stuff in lyric before.' It was a revolutionary lyric. It was really important. So we decided to cut that" (Blecha interview, 1987).
"Angel of the Morning" was indeed a rather daring and lyrically ground-breaking pop ballad portraying the thoughts of a modern young woman making a pledge to a momentary lover to not be clingy if he chose to move on: "There'll be no strings to bind your hands, not if my love can't bind your heart." In sum, it was what has been deemed "a gutsy anthem of female sexual liberation" (Zak). It was also the thematic polar opposite of, say, the Shirelles' 1960 smash-hit version of Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" The recording was also "a slick, polished recording backed by a full orchestra. More significant, however, was the fact that it was sung by a mature voice -- the voice of a woman" (Walters).
Back in Seattle
Issued in February by New York's Bell Records, "Angel of the Morning"/"Reap What You Sow" (Bell 705) was quickly embraced by Pat O'Day and KJR back home in Seattle, where the A-side broke out as a radio hit that then spread to Spokane's KJRB, on to San Francisco, and then all down the coast and across the nation. The shocker came when the St. Louis, Missouri, radio market jumped onboard and an order for 30,000 discs suddenly poured into Bell.
On Thursday, February 8, 1968, the Bellevue American reported that Paul Revere and the Raiders were in Seattle, and that Paul Revere and Mark Lindsay -- along with Merrilee Rush -- held a press conference at the Olympic Hotel's Colonial Room to promote the band's Goin' to Memphis album.
An International Hit
"Angel of the Morning" first registered on the Hot-100 pop chart for the week of May 4, 1968, published in the May 5 issue of the record-industry trade magazine Billboard. Showing at No. 97, it was just below William Bell's single "A Tribute to a King" at No. 89, a fresh salute to the recently assassinated Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), and the new Motown single of King's own "I Have a Dream" speech at No. 92. Ultimately Rush's tune would chart nationally for sixteen weeks, eventually peaking inside the Top 10 at the No. 7 slot, simultaneously becoming a hit in the United Kingdom, Holland, Australia, Canada (where Rush earned a Gold Record award), and elsewhere. This success led to the issuing of her 1968 album Angel of the Morning (Bell 6020), a Grammy nomination for best Contemporary Pop Female Vocalist of the year, a string of additional radio hits, and a long-term solo career for Rush.
For its part, "Angel of the Morning," as tallied by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), sold more than 1 million copies by 1970 and then over time reached 4.5 million worldwide. It became an era classic, appearing later on countless different compilation albums of 1960s hits, and was even revived as a big country/pop radio hit by Juice Newton in 1981. Merrilee Rush's greatest hit was also featured in such major motion pictures 1978's Fingers; 1996's Jerry Maguire; and 1999's Girl, Interrupted, and covered by various other artists. And it was musically cannibalized by the Jamaican reggae singer Shaggy in his No.1 hit "Angel" from 2001-- an artistic move that drew minor criticism as well as a follow-up parody song that same year: Adam Posegate's "You Ripped off Angel (of the Morning)."
Merrilee Rush's own recording of "Angel of the Morning" continued its long life journey. In 2006 the British Rev-Ola label brought her original album into the compact disc era, releasing the original songs augmented with various additional singles and bonus songs as Angel of the Morning (The Complete Bell Recordings) (Rev Ola cr-rev-145).