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Shelley Fabares

Johnny Angel

“Do you like being on the show?” asked producer Tony Owen of The Donna Reed Show to teen star Shelley Fabares. Shelley responded, “Oh yes, I love being on the show!” Owen told her, “Do you want to be on it next year?” She answered, “Absolutely.” “Then sing!” Owen told her. That was the end of their conversation. (1)

Shelley Fabares, recounting how she was persuaded to sing on The Donna Reed Show.

Born in Santa Monica, California on January 19, 1944, Shelley is the niece of comedy star, Nanette Fabray. She began her show business career at the age of three when she modeled children’s fashions and made her acting debut at the age of ten on The Loretta Young Show. From 1955-1958, she appeared in seven movies as well as TV shows Captain Midnight, Annie Oakley, Fury and Colgate Theater.

She auditioned for The Donna Reed Show at fourteen years old, won the part and the show began production on July 14, 1958. “We were placed in a time slot on ABC opposite The Milton Berle Show so our ratings weren’t good. Our sponsor was Campbell’s Soup and Mrs. Campbell liked the show. So, we were renewed, the show moved from Wednesday to Thursday nights, caught on during the second season and stayed on a total of eight years,” Shelley recalled. “It was a show of its time. Strong family values like Father Knows Best, likable characters from a typical Midwest family and great writers who made viewers feel as if they were part of the family.” (2)

The cast of The Donna Reed Show. L-R: Paul Petersen, Donna Reed, Carl Betz and Shelley Fabares.

Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Post Examiner.

Prior to the 1961-1962 season, co-producer Tony Owen (he was married to Donna Reed, the show’s other co-producer) noticed the ratings of The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet spiked whenever Ricky Nelson sang at the end of the show. “Television (producers), being an industry of lemmings, decided we must have somebody sing. Tony approached Paul Petersen (also a co-star on the show) and myself and told us, ‘Got a great idea for next season. We’re gonna have both of you sing on the show.’ Paul responded by saying, ‘Great! I’d love to sing,’” Shelley said. (1) Petersen jumped at the chance to record. "I was friends with Ricky Nelson," he said. "He was having fun. The girls were screaming. He drove a fast car. I was like, give me some of that. I have never been shy about singing. That is how I became an original Mouseketeer." (3)

Fabares was convinced this wasn’t a good idea. “I told him, ‘Mr. Owen, that really isn’t a very good idea. I can’t sing.” The conversation went back and forth for about three weeks before Owen finally issued his “sing or else” edict.

“Paul and I each made a demo and Colpix Records (a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures) sent them to New York for producer, Stu Phillips to determine if he can make our voices work on record.” Phillips was nonchalant saying, ‘Yeah, I can make anybody sound good, we’ll record them,”’ Shelley recalled. (1)

Songwriters Lyn Duddy and Lee Pockriss wrote Johnny Angel while they were trapped in Duddy's apartment during a blackout. They each had other songwriting partners (Pockriss and Paul Vance were the creative minds behind Brian Hyland’s Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini and Perry Como’s Catch A Falling Star) but with nothing else to do, they decided to brainstorm some ideas. 

"I had always wanted to write a soliloquy - a song written from the point of view of someone who waited on the corner every night for someone to pass by," Duddy told Billboard. He had the idea for one called Seven-thirty, but changed it to Johnny Angel when Pockriss suggested it should be a guy's name. "I just picked that name out of thin air. It didn't mean anything," he said. Although they produced a chart-topping hit out of their alliance, Duddy and Pockriss never worked together again. (6)

The song was first recorded and released by Georgia Lee in January of 1960. Laurie Loman tried her luck with the song in May of 1960. Patti Lynn released her version in March of 1962 after Fabares’ version hit the charts. None of them made a dent with the record-buying public.

The recording session took place at United Western Recorders in Hollywood during the fall of 1961. Members of The Wrecking Crew who backed Shelley on the recording included Hal Blaine on drums, Carol Kaye on bass, Glen Campbell, Bill Pitman and Howard Roberts on guitar as well as background singers, Darlene Love, Fanita James and Jean King…otherwise known as The Blossoms. (5) (17)

Photo courtesy of Da Guy at albumartexchange.com.

“I was sitting in the recording booth listening to the musicians banter with the names like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and the like coming up and then someone said to me, ‘OK, Shelley, let’s go.’ I looked out of my tiny booth at everyone and I don’t know how I lived through it, I was just dying.” she remembered. “For those of us who know we can’t sing, this would be a horrifying experience.” (1) She was clearly overwhelmed with the caliber of the musicians and the gorgeous voices of the Blossoms. (6)

“So, we tried to calm her down,” remembered Darlene Love. “We’re just like you. We’re just back up singers and you’re singing the lead.” And, it ended up turning out really, really great, because of the sound that we got – Stu Phillips wanted it to sound ethereal. Maybe they thought that’s how angels would sound so that’s how they actually came up with that sound.” (7)

From all indications with none of them verified, the final master of Johnny Angel took a number of edits from different takes to splice together the final product. In a Facebook entry by Goldstar Records, they claimed, “In an interview a while back, Shelley stated that when 'Johnny Angel' was a hit, the people from the 'Ed Sullivan Show' had called her house wanting her to come to New York and appear on the show to sing it. Shelley's mother, who answered the phone replied, "She can’t sing that song live! Why, that record was spliced together with about fifteen takes!" Shelley laughed about that because it was very much the truth. Stu Phillips recorded her phrase by phrase and at the parts in the song where the lyrics are "I'm in heaven..." and "Other fellas...", She tried and tried but could not sing those parts. They were ultimately handed off to the Blossoms. (8)

Johnny Angel was released early in 1962 and entered the Billboard Top Pop chart on March 3rd, 1962…just two days after the song premiered on The Donna Reed Show episode, Donna’s Prima Donna.

Unlike the episodes of Ozzie And Harriet when Ricky Nelson sang at the end of the show, a script was written around the song. “Mary (Shelley’s character on the show) wants to sing. Donna’s never heard Mary sing. Mary’s at a school performance and Donna comes to hear her sing. The looks on Donna’s face were so brilliant as she goes through an array of emotions,” Shelley stated. (1) IMDB was more succinct in their description. Mary considers skipping college to pursue a singing career. Donna is skeptical until she hears her sing "Johnny Angel." (9)

With the momentum of the TV show’s major promotional push for Johnny Angel, the song began its fifteen-week run on the Pop chart eventually landing at #1 for two consecutive weeks on April 7th. (10) (11) The song’s success had a major impact on her relationship with Tony Owen. “From the time the song appeared on the show, the only thing I heard from Tony was ‘Do you know how many records you sold last week? Over a million copies!’ Eventually, it sold over three million but that was over the years after my father bought most of the records,” Shelley mentioned with a laugh.

It also created a good news/bad news scenario. “The bad news was that as a #1 hit, I had to do an album. That’s twelve songs and again, it was horrifying with this exception. I’ll be walking down the street and somebody will point at me and start singing Johnny Angel. They tell me it was the song of their life…my first boyfriend and so on. It’s been an astonishing touchstone for me as well as other people. It’s very moving for me.” (1)

The aforementioned album, Shelley! was released during the summer of 1962 and hit the Billboard Album Chart on July 21st. (12) Bouyed by the hit single, the LP stayed among the top-sellers for 11 weeks.

From 1968, a publicity shot for the movie, A Time To Sing.

Photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

Colpix, looking to cash in on another hit single, had Shelley record a sequel, Johnny Loves Me. Written by the Brill Building songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and released in May, the song debuted on the Top 100 on June 9th, stayed for eleven weeks peaking at #21. (10) Tony Owen and Colpix Records released another Fabares album in the fall of 1962, The Things We Did Last Summer but by this time, the bloom was off the rose. (12) Future singles generated little interest and her singing career vaporized into the ether.

Fabares left The Donna Reed Show in 1963 (she would return periodically until its end in 1966) to pursue other acting opportunities. “I loved the show but I was in such a cocoon. I was like my character, wanting to stay but also wanting to grow. Plus, I needed some time off as I was approaching 20, working since I was three.” Shelley appeared in a number of TV shows before she appeared in Girl Happy, a 1965 movie starring Elvis Presley. “It was absolutely fabulous working with Elvis. He had an amazing presence that could stop a room.” (13) She worked with Elvis in two other movies — Spinout in 1966 and Clambake in 1967.

Publicity photo from the TV show Coach taken July 1, 1995.

Photo courtesy of ABC/Getty Images.

She married record producer Lou Adler in June of 1964, separated from him in 1966 before they divorced in 1980. She married actor Mike Farrell on December 31, 1984.

In 1989, she won the role of Christine Armstrong Fox on the ABC sitcom Coach. "Here was an intelligent, funny, well-written series," Fabares said "And the people putting it on wanted me to play a very successful, ambitious woman in it.” (14) It was during the later years with the show that Shelley noticed she was feeling weak and getting progressively weaker. After a series of tests, doctors determined she needed a liver transplant. In April 1999, she was placed on the liver transplant waiting list. She knew that it could be a long wait. Indeed, the demand for donor livers far outweighs the supply. "More than half the people on the liver transplant list don't live long enough to get one," she points out. "I was very much aware that I was living on borrowed time. The strain was enormous, but there was also a level of acceptance within me. There are no words to express what this experience is like - physically, psychologically and spiritually." After a wait of 22 months, a donor was found. Shelley had her transplant on October 23, 2000. (15)

Shelley and Mike Farrell from February 10, 2000.

Photo courtesy of Ron Galella/Getty Images.

"Situations like this - catastrophic illnesses - can tear some families apart, but ours only got stronger and closer. I'm grateful for my life… Grateful for my doctors… Grateful for what I have learned about myself and about life. And most of all, I'm grateful for my husband. I've gained so much." (15)

“While I was sick, life still went on. Mike would drive me everywhere — including the hairdresser. One day, I saw this absolutely gorgeous woman. Her hair was black but all of the ends were spiked with the color pink. I asked my hairdresser about the process the lady went through and he explained it to me. So, he asked if I wanted to do that. It occurred to me that I’d been working since I was three and this was the first time nobody could tell me, ‘You can’t do that.’ I realized that without the transplant I was dying. If I can’t do it now, then when? I told the hairdresser, ‘Let’s do it.’ I started with a strand of pink and gradually added more.” (16)

Shelley and Mike still live in Los Angeles and are active in charitable causes.

From January of 1960, the first recording of Johnny Angel by Georgia Lee.

Laurie Loman released her version of Johnny Angel in May of 1960.

From The Donna Reed Show, Shelley sings Johnny Angel. The episode, Donna's Prima Donna was filmed during the 4th season and premiered on February 1, 1962.

1) Shelley Fabares, frankietalk, Part 3 Actress Shelley Fabares "Johnny Angel" interview with host Frankie Verroca. Link.

2) Shelley Fabares, frankietalk, Part 2 Actress Shelley Fabares “Donna Reed” interview with Frankie Verroca. Link.

3) Susan King, Los Angeles Times, Classic Hollywood: The Donna Reed Show, December 26, 2011. Link.

4) Songfacts, Johnny Angel, Link.

5) Facebook, The Wrecking Crew, April 7, 2015. Link.

6) Fred Bronson, The Billboard Book Of Number One Hits, Johnny Angel, 1985, Page 107.

7) Lisa Torum, Penny Black Music UK, Interview with Darlene Love, October 27, 2011, Link.

8) Facebook, The Wrecking Crew, Goldstar Records, Link.

9) IMDB, The Donna Reed Show, Donna’s Prima Donna, Link.

10) Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Singles 1944-2002, Page 234.

11) Joel Whitburn, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties, April 7, 1962.

12) Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Albums 1955-2001, Page 277.

13) Shelley Fabares, frankietalk, Part 4 Actress Shelley Fabares "Elvis Presley" interview with host Frankie Verroca. Link.

14) Alan Mirabella, Orlando Sentinal, Coach Is New Life For Shelley Fabares, November 28, 1989.

15) Leslie J. Schoenfield, M.D., MedicineNet.com. Shelley Fabares: Illness And Liver Transplant, April 22, 2003. Link.

16) Shelley Fabares, frankietalk, Part 1 Actress Shelley Fabares "Plume Afloat" interview with host Frankie Verroca. Link.

17) AFM/SAG-AFTRA Intellectual Property Rights Distribution Fund, Link.

From the red carpet at the Shrine Auditorium for the 10th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards dated February 22, 2004.

Photo courtesy of L. Cohen/Getty Images.

© 2019 Jerry Reuss

Copyright  2009