The Number Ones

November 14, 1992

The Number Ones: The Heights’ “How Do You Talk To An Angel”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

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.

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Picture this: You’re a dreamy young actor with a few credits to your name, and you’ve just won the lottery. It’s 1992, and Aaron Spelling has cast you in a prime-time soap opera that’ll air on the Fox network. This is dreamy-young-actor Valhalla — the stuff that dreamy-young-actor dreams are made of. Spelling, the producer of huge bygone-era TV hits like Charlie’s Angels and The Love Boat and Dynasty, has reinvented himself as someone who turns dreamy young actors into the kind of heartthrobs who get their pictures printed up on Trapper Keeper covers.

Two years ago, Fox started airing Spelling’s show Beverly Hills 90210. That series struggled a little at first, but it found its footing by airing new episodes in the summer, when every other show was in reruns. Almost immediately, stars Jason Priestley and Luke Perry became household names, and the show became a zeitgeist smash. A few months ago, Spelling spun that show off into the young-adult drama Melrose Place, which will become one of the defining TV shows of the Clinton years. Now, that’s about to become you.

But you’re not just about to become a TV star. You’re about to become a pop star, too. Spelling’s new show is called The Heights, and it’s about a fictional rock band. The guy writing the songs for the show is a TV pro. He likes you, and he’s going to spotlight you. You’re going to sing this guy’s songs on the show’s soundtrack, and those songs are going straight to pop radio. Before you know it, the theme song from your TV show is the #1 single in America. Then, a few days after that theme falls from #1, Fox cancels The Heights. The theme song might be a hit, but the show is not. Since the song isn’t really your song, that chapter of your career is over, too. Nobody wants more records from a fictional band that isn’t on TV anymore.

You are a brooding mannequin named Jamie Walters, and for a brief moment, you had it. But then it was gone. You sang about catching a falling star, and now you are a falling star. That’s some cold shit. But then again, maybe you just got lucky. Maybe that hit song never should’ve been a hit song in the first place.

Aaron Spelling reportedly got the idea for The Heights from The Commitments, the Irish movie that came out in 1991. The Commitments was a low-budget film with no real stars, though it did launch the career of future Oscar winner Glen Hansard. In Ireland, it became the highest-grossing film of all time. In America, The Commitments didn’t do well at the box office, but the people who saw it liked it. Eventually, the movie found its audience on video, and the soundtrack album went double platinum.

Of course, The Heights was not The Commitments. The Commitments was a story about working-class Dubliners playing American soul music for other working-class Dubliners. Aaron Spelling wasn’t going to make a show like that. Instead, the whole idea behind The Heights seemed to be: What if they were American and they made incredibly bland adult-contemporary pop-rock? Wouldn’t that be interesting? It was not.

I’m pretty sure I watched at least one episode of The Heights. I remember nothing about it. 90210 and Melrose Place were ridiculous shows in a lot of ways, but they had big characters that were played by actors with charisma. The Heights, by contrast, felt like an imitation of an Aaron Spelling show. Maybe that had something to do with Darren Star, the creator of both 90210 and Melrose Place, not being involved in The Heights at all.

Even the name of the show was generic. Presumably, the Heights is named after some neighborhood somewhere. It’s also the name of the band on the show, even though nobody in this fictional band was especially tall. I think this was a missed opportunity. After all, Nirvana had only just reached #6 with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Kurt Cobain gets all the credit for that one, but never forget that Krist Novoselic is 6’7″. (“Teen Spirit” is a 10.) A year after Fox cancelled The Heights, the 7’1″ Shaquille O’Neal guested on the Fu-Schnickens’ #39 hit “What’s Up Doc (Can We Rock?)” and then got to #35 with his own single “(I Know I Got) Skillz.” A few years later, a 6’8″ R&B singer would reach #1 on the Hot 100. Clearly, there was a ’90s appetite for music from extremely tall people. I’m just saying: If the show was going to be called The Heights, everyone in the band should’ve been tall. If the entire cast of The Heights had been at least the size of an average NBA small forward, the show would’ve lasted for 12 seasons.

Anyway. When he was putting together The Heights, Spelling worked heavily with one Steve Tyrell. Tyrell started off as a record producer and songwriter in the early ’60s, working with people like the Shirelles and BJ Thomas. In the ’80s, he’d become a music supervisor on movies like Flight Of The Navigator and Mystic Pizza. Stephen and his wife Stephanie had also written the theme songs for the short-lived cartoon adaptations of Teen Wolf and Garbage Pail Kids.

Steve Tyrell got the music-supervisor job on The Heights because of the work he’d done on the 1991 Fox movie The Five Heartbeats. Tyrell was also involved in casting the show. Tyrell auditioned Jamie Walters, the dreamy young actor who would become the lead of the TV show. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Tyrell says that he told Aaron Spelling, “You should hire this guy. He looks like James Dean and sounds like Bryan Adams. And he can act!”

At that point, Jamie Walters would’ve been in his early twenties. (When Walters was born, the Beatles’ “Get Back” was the #1 song in America.) Walters, a Massachusetts native, had studied film and acting at NYU, and he’d moved to LA to get famous. When he landed the part on The Heights, Walters had done one episode of Quantum Leap and a short arc on The Young Riders, and he’d played a big role in the John Travolta period-piece musical Shout.

Wikipedia tells me that Walters played the sensitive young lyricist Alex O’Brien on The Heights. On the show’s pilot episode, which I did not watch for the purposes of this column, Alex isn’t initially part of the Heights. He writes “How Do You Talk To An Angel” because he’s got a crush on Rita MacDougal, the band’s saxophone player. (She’s played by Cheryl Pollak, who never got famous.) The band likes the song, and Alex gets invited to join the band. Riveting stuff.

Fox saw money in The Heights. Jamie Kellner, the head of the network, loved “How Do You Talk To An Angel.” Joe Smith, Kellner’s father-in-law, was the head of Capitol Records, and so Capitol came up with a deal for the Heights, the fictional band, to record a whole album and for that album to reach stores when the show’s pilot aired. (The Heights’ album is still on streaming services, amazingly enough. It is terrible.) Capitol started pushing “How Do You Talk To An Angel,” and the actors shot a music video that was pretty much just an extended version of the show’s opening credits. A couple of months later, “How Do You Talk To An Angel” became the first TV-show theme to hit #1 since Jan Hammer’s “Miami Vice Theme” seven years earlier. As of right now, “How Do You Talk To An Angel” remains the last TV-show theme ever to top the Hot 100.

Steve Tyrell co-wrote “How Do You Talk To An Angel” with his wife Stephanie and with one Barry Coffing. Stephanie came up with the title, which is probably the main thing that the song has going for it. “How Do You Talk To An Angel” almost plays like a parody of circa-1992 pop balladry. Jamie Walters intones the lyrics with a slight rasp, like he’s really speaking from his soul, but the lyrics are pure goofiness: “Tell me, tell me! The words to define! The way I feel about someone so fine!” The entire conceit of the song and the show depends on you, the listener and/or viewer, accepting the idea that a guy who looks like Jamie Walters does not know how to talk to an angel. Suspension of disbelief can only reach so far.

Steve Tyrell’s production on “How Do You Talk To An Angel” is ridiculous. Since this is ostensibly a song about a saxophone player, maybe there’s a storyline reason for the smooth-jazz sax-tootles that run all through the track, but that sax sounds like absolute ass. There are a bunch of moments where that saxophone has to interact with a generic squeedling guitar, and I feel like those moments were concocted specifically to aggravate me, personally. The rest of the song is blandly blank Richard Marx pastiche. Jamie Walters does sound a little like Bryan Adams, but he’s got less of the raspy Bryan Adams melodic-croak thing and more of a regular croak-ass croak. Everything else is just keyboardy goo.

The Heights was supposed to be a show about working-class musician kids with big dreams, but working-class musician kids with big dreams don’t typically sound like polished-to-a-fault session musicians. The ugly-slick professionalism of “How Do You Talk To An Angel” probably didn’t do the show any commercial favors. Especially in the early grunge era, it was hard to believe that a band who sounded like this had anything at stake. You will not be surprised to learn that the actors on the show did not play on “How Do You Talk To An Angel.” Instead, Tyrell recorded the song with wizened studio-musician pros — guys like Michael Landau and John “JR” Robinson and Leonard Sklar, all of whom have shown up in this column again and again. Walters sings lead, and the other actors on the show sing backup vocals, but that’s it.

There’s something charmingly goofy about this entire enterprise — Aaron Spelling taking the whole Monkees strategy and trying to make it work for an ultra-sincere prime-time soap opera 25 years later. In just about every respect, it’s a massive failure. But “How Do You Talk To An Angel” has a chorus. The song’s hook is stupid and basic and obvious, but it’s also memorable and weirdly fun. It’s a labrador retriever chorus — big and friendly and sloppy and desperate to please. Before researching this column, I could not tell you one thing about The Heights, but I could sing you the entire hook from “How Do You Talk To An Angel.” I’d probably sing it with a big, doofy grin on my face, too. Everything else about that show faded away, but the chorus remained. “How Do You Talk To An Angel” is definitely a bad song, but I find myself incapable of hating it. That little pause? “How do you hold her close to where you [deep sigh] are?” I can’t be too mad at that.

Fox filmed 13 episodes of The Heights, and the network never even bothered to air the season finale. The ratings started off bad, and they got worse over those 12 weeks before the network unceremoniously yanked the show. The “How Do You Talk To An Angel” single and the show’s soundtrack album both went gold, but by that point, it didn’t matter. The whole Heights enterprise was done.

Most of the cast kept working, but none of them ever truly broke through. Charlotte Ross became a series regular on some of the later seasons of NYPD Blue. Donnelly Rhodes was the doctor on the Battlestar Galactica reboot. Alex Désert, the one Black member of the Heights, has probably been the busiest of them. He was in PCU and Swingers and High Fidelity, and he spent six years on the Ted Danson sitcom Becker. Désert recently started playing the voices of Lou and Carl, two Black characters on The Simpsons. (Hank Azaria used to do those parts, but someone eventually realized that it’s not cool to cast white actors in Black voice roles.) Désert is also one of the two lead singers in Hepcat, a retro-trad ska band that got pretty popular in the late ’90s. Good band!

Aaron Spelling kept Jamie Walters around. In 1994, Spelling cast Walters as Ray Pruit on Beverly Hills 90210. Ray, a mysterious musician, comes into town and starts dating Donna, the character played by Aaron Spelling’s daughter Tori. Pretty quickly, Ray becomes an abusive nightmare, and he never really gets any kind of redemption arc. Walters was on 90210 for a couple of years, but nobody remembers the Ray/Donna stuff with any fondness.

When he was on 90210, Walters also got another shot at pop stardom. He signed with Atlantic, and he released a self-titled solo album in 1994. Walters co-wrote the lead single “Hold On” with Steve and Stephanie Tyrell. The song peaked at #16, but the album didn’t sell. In interviews, Walters has sometimes implied that the villainy of his 90210 character probably hurt his music career.

Steve and Stephanie Tyrell kept working in TV and in the movies. In the mid-’90s, they wrote the music for California Dreams, a Saturday-morning young-adult sitcom about another fictional band. California Dreams never made spun off a hit single, but the show did manage to stay on the air for a few years. Steve later won a Grammy for producing one of those Rod Stewart albums of standards. Stephanie died of cancer in 2003. She was 54.

Eventually, Jamie Walters became a firefighter and an EMT, and as far as I can tell, that’s what he’s still doing now. Walters has barely acted since the late ’90s, but he did show up on one episode of the reboot series BH90210 in 2019. In that episode, Tori Spelling’s Donna thinks she sees Ray Pruit, her former abuser. But the guy isn’t really Ray; it’s a firefighter and former actor named Jamie Walters. This was pure fan service, but apparently none of those fans cared enough to put that scene up on YouTube.

GRADE: 4/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1992, The Ben Stiller Show, another Fox series that was cancelled almost immediately after it started, skewered the living shit out of the entire Aaron Spelling industrial complex in a sketch called “Melrose Heights 9021024026.” Fox cancelled The Ben Stiller Show after just 13 episodes, but all the people involved — Stiller himself, Judd Apatow, Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo, even Andy Dick — went on to much bigger things. That show was great, and the little fake Heights song at the end of that sketch is better than most actual Heights songs. Here’s the sketch:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Shai’s cascading, harmony-drunk regret anthem “If I Ever Fall In Love” peaked at #2 behind “How Do You Talk To An Angel.” It’s a 9.

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