In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Shelly Fabares wasn’t a singer. She was an actress, and she kept working as an actress for decades after she first broke in. She was James Caan’s wife in Brian’s Song and Craig T. Nelson’s wife on the sitcom Coach. On Superman: The Animated Series, she played the voice of Ma Kent. She didn’t think much of her own singing voice. But in 1962, a teenaged Fabares played a character who wanted to become a singer, and that was enough to get her to #1.
Starting in 1958, Fabares starred on the sitcom The Donna Reed Show, playing Reed’s daughter Mary. A couple of other singers had already recorded “Johnny Angel” before Fabares got to it, but what pushed the song to #1 was the episode of the show where Fabares sang it. It’s a lush-but-simplistic tune about an unrequited crush on an oblivious boy: “He’s got something that I can’t resist / But he doesn’t even know that I exist.”
Fabares’ vocal is warm and vulnerable and slathered in echo. When she was recording the song, she knew that the backing vocalists, including a young Darlene Love, could sing rings around her. (Glen Campbell, another session musician who would become a solo star, played guitar on the song.) It’s a chaste pop song and a deeply whitebread one, and I have to imagine that it sounded pretty retro even in 1962. And not long after recording it, Fabares gave up singing entirely.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the video for Joni Mitchell’s 1988 song “The Beat Of Black Wings,” on which she interpolates “Johnny Angel”: