The Number Ones

March 31, 2001

The Number Ones: Shaggy’s “Angel” (Feat. Rayvon)

Stayed at #1:

1 Week

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.

“Angel Of The Morning” is one of those miracles of American pop music. Over the decades, countless people have recorded their own versions of that song, and it’s never lost its punch. “Angel Of The Morning” stands as a timeless koan to hopeless, stupid love, and it works in any context. When Chrissy Hynde sings “Angel Of The Morning” solo-acoustic on Friends, it works. When “Angel Of The Morning” plays as an ironic opening-credits needledrop in Deadpool, it works. And when Shaggy takes “Angel Of The Morning,” welds it to a Steve Miller Band bassline, and scores one more international chart-topper, the song somehow refuses to stop working.

“Angel Of The Morning” had a long and rich history before Shaggy got ahold of it. The song came from Chip Taylor, the younger brother of Jon Voight. Taylor had become a songwriter when his professional golf career didn’t work out, and he’d written “Wild Thing,” the song that the Troggs took to #1 in 1966. Taylor write “Angel Of The Morning” in 1967, and the New York singer Evie Sands recorded the first version of the song that year. (Evie Sands’ two highest-charting singles, 1974’s “You Brought The Woman Out Of Me” and “I Love Makin’ Love To You,” both peaked at #50.) Sands’ version of “Angel Of The Morning” came out on the ailing Cameo Records, and it didn’t chart, but it rules.

In the next few years, a bunch of other artists recorded “Angel Of The Morning,” and one of them made it into a hit. The Seattle-born singer Merrilee Rush, who’d been touring as the opening act for former Number Ones artists Paul Revere & The Raiders, recorded a 1968 version of “Angel Of The Morning” with Memphis producers Chips Moman and Tommy Cogbill. That version, credited to Merrilee Rush And The Turnabouts, peaked at #7. (It’s a 9.)

Thirteen years later, another version of “Angel Of The Morning” hit even bigger. Juice Newton, a singer who existed on the boundary between country and pop, released her towering, string-soaked take on “Angel Of The Morning” in 1981, and it became a major crossover hit, getting as high as #4. That’s the version of the song that just about everyone knows today. (It’s a 10.) Twenty years afterward, however, a very different take on “Angel Of The Morning” went all the way to #1.

In its original form, “Angel Of The Morning” is a song about a fucked-up power dynamic. Chip Taylor wrote the song, and he eventually released his own version, but most of the artists who have recorded “Angel Of The Morning” are women. The song’s narrator is having an affair, and she knows that the other person doesn’t care about her the way that she cares about the other person. But she goes through with it, and she soaks up every drop of affection that her partner is willing to give. She asks this person just to touch her cheek before they leave. Shaggy wasn’t especially known for his tender relationship songs, and he wasn’t going to act needy on a song, but he still used “Angel Of The Morning” to convey his own kind of softness.

Shaggy’s “Angel” started off with a very familiar bassline. Shaggy’s producer Shaun “Sting International” Pizzonia put together a beat that used the instantly recognizable bass-lope from the Steve Miller Band’s 1974 chart-topper “The Joker.” Shaggy thought that bassline sounded like reggae, but he was a little stumped on what to do with the track. While working on the song in Jamaica, Shaggy turned to Rickardo “RikRok” Ducent, the songwriter who sang the hook on “It Wasn’t Me,” the song that became a massive global smash for Shaggy.

In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, RikRok says how he came up with the idea of combining “Angel Of The Morning” with that bassline from “The Joker”: “Out of frustration, I started humming anything that came into my head.” Shaggy concurs: “He was fooling around and sang, ‘You’re my angel in the morning,’ and we knew we should use that. So we changed the words to make it a little harder, and I came up with the melody for the verse. All of us put words to it, and later on, Ricky finished the end part.”

I’ve always enjoyed the dancehall tradition where any song in history is fair game. You could be sitting there listening to Elephant Man, and he’ll suddenly bust out with a melody. You’ll be like: “Wait, what the fuck, is that Céline Dion?” It’s the same impulse that led some Jamaican producer to come up with the Cure Riddim in 2002, building a beat based on the melody of the Cure’s “Close To Me.” Dozens of dancehall artists recorded tracks with that beat. I love that shit. Dancehall just takes in all these sounds and ideas from around the world and uses them for whatever feels right in the moment. For Shaggy and his collaborators, the “Joker” bassline and the “Angel Of The Morning” melody made the same kind of sense together. The whole mash-up craze became an online sensation a year or two later, but Jamaica had been doing that.

With “Angel,” Shaggy and his collaborators used those elements to write a whole new song, but they didn’t get any songwriting credit. Instead, they had to split the publishing 50/50 between the writers of “Angel Of The Morning” and “The Joker,” keeping none of it for themselves. As far as that publishing split goes, Shaggy, Sting International, and RikRok had nothing to do with writing “Angel.” Instead, “Angel” is recognized as a cover song — or, more accurately, as two different cover songs at once.

On “The Joker,” Steve Miller quotes a couple of lines from the Clovers’ 1954 R&B single “Lovey Dovey.” (Sampling existed long before people used drum machines or MPCs, long before anyone had a name for it.) When “The Joker” became a hit, the two writers of “Lovey Dovey,” Eddie Curtis and Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, sued Steve Miller and won songwriting credits. Because of that, Curtis and Ertegun are both credited as co-writers on Shaggy’s “Angel.” Shaggy just used that song’s bassline, not the bit from “Lovey Dovey.” When “Angel” came out, Ertegun was near the end of his long life, and Curtis had been dead for nearly 20 years. Those guys definitely didn’t have more to do with writing “Angel” than Shaggy, RikRok, and Sting International, but it didn’t matter. That’s copyright law for you.

On “Angel,” Shaggy uses the hook from “Angel Of The Morning,” but he doesn’t use the perspective. Instead, Shaggy’s “Angel” is a sort of love-song lament. Shaggy’s narrator spent too long messing around on a woman, taking her for granted, but she stuck with him through all sorts of hardships, including a prison stint. Shaggy is overcome with gratitude, growling about all the great things that this person has done for him: “She was there through my incarceration/ I wanna show the nation my appreciation.” That lyric is the song in a nutshell. Shaggy alludes to squalid real-life circumstances, but he doesn’t elaborate. Instead, he goes straight into one of the lamest rhymes in history, and he sells it through sheer charm.

Shaggy isn’t the only charming voice on “Angel.” For the song’s chorus, Shaggy turned to a regular collaborator, Bruce “Rayvon” Brewster. Rayvon was born in Barbados, and he moved to Flatbush, the heavily West Indian Brooklyn neighborhood. Rayvon and Shaggy met in the early ’90s, when they were both recording with Jamaican-style soundsystems. One of Shaggy’s early underground hits was “Big Up,” a 1993 collaboration with Rayvon. Great song. On “Angel,” Rayvon is given some truly clumsy lines — “closer than my peeps you are to me” — and he somehow makes them sound graceful.

There is absolutely zero chance that Shaggy’s “Angel” would’ve appeared in this column if not for the single that came immediately beforehand. “Angel” was a legit hit on its own, but its success definitely had a whole lot to do with the momentum from “It Wasn’t Me.” Shaggy had made hits before “It Wasn’t Me,” but that song really moved Shaggy to the center of the mainstream zeitgeist. Shaggy’s pop-star moment didn’t last long, but he took advantage quickly, releasing “Angel” as a single while “It Wasn’t Me” was still climbing the charts. In the US, “Angel” wasn’t physically released, but it still earned enough airplay that it briefly ooched past Crazy Town’s “Butterfly” to spend a week at #1. I didn’t really notice back then, but spring 2001 was really the heyday for silly pop songs that compared women to flying creatures.

“It Wasn’t Me” and “Angel” are very different songs. “It Wasn’t Me” is a knowingly silly novelty, while “Angel” is relatively sincere. It’s a down-the-middle love song that’s blissfully free of irony. But Shaggy’s two chart-toppers fit together. Both songs translate dancehall into something that would make sense to American pop audiences. Compared to the records that were coming out of Jamaica at the time, Shaggy’s two #1 hits are relatively soft and edgeless. On both, Shaggy leans hard into his baritone growl, but he eases up on the patois, to the point where his lyrics are pretty comprehensible, even to the kind of listeners who turn on the subtitles when watching The Harder They Come. Both tracks also pair Shaggy up with light, airy tenor singers who deliver their lyrics without any real accent. It’s not a formula, exactly, but the two songs do make sense together.

Shaggy’s “Angel” is a slight song, and it’s got very little of the pathos that I hear in most versions of “Angel Of The Morning.” But there’s still plenty of charm in Shaggy’s version. It’s warm and pleasant and undemanding. The bassline from “The Joker” keeps things playful and fleet-footed, and it prevents the track from ever sliding into melodrama. Shaggy’s “Angel” might be built from spare parts of better songs, and it leaves very little lasting impression, but I was never sorry to hear that song when it was still big, which is not something that I can say for “It Wasn’t Me.”

I have questions about the “Angel” video. It’s mostly Shaggy and Rayvon looking like ballers. Small planes freak me out, and the fetish for private jets is some gross money-worshiping shit that is definitely fucking our environment up. Just once, though, I would like to step off of a private jet and throw some triumphant hand gesture from the top of the staircase. It looks fun as hell. Parts of the “Angel” video take place in an all-white dream-space that looks like a Victoria’s Secret ad, and those parts might be in there for storyline reasons. At one point in the video, Shaggy and Rayvon are driving in a convertible, and Shaggy looks away from the road to check out a beautiful woman walking. As a result, Shaggy misses a red light and plows straight into another convertible that’s being driven by another beautiful woman. One cut later, Shaggy and that woman are happily cavorting in that white space. So: Did they die? Is that heaven? If I’m reading it right, the woman seems awfully forgiving about the fact that Shaggy just negligently killed her in a head-on accident. She doesn’t even seem to mind sharing him with like a dozen other women. She really is an angel.

“Angel” was Shaggy’s last real hit. On the strength of “It Wasn’t Me” and “Angel,” Shaggy’s album Hot Shot went sextuple platinum. After “Angel,” though, Shaggy didn’t appear on the Hot 100 for another 13 years. Shaggy’s next album, 2002’s Lucky Day, stalled out at gold. Within a few years, he was mostly recording for indie labels. But Shaggy racked up enough hits that he can cruise on their momentum for the rest of his life. Every once in a while, he’ll do some weird shit like his goofball 2018 odd-couple collaborative album with former Number Ones artist Sting, and he’ll suddenly have a public profile again.

A quick story. Flatbush has this great free summer-concert series at a park called Wingate Field. Those shows don’t get a huge amount of publicity, but they draw enormous crowds. One night in 2007, I went to see the Trinidadian soca star Machel Montano play Wingate, and that was an extremely fun night. People went off. One of Montano’s openers was Morgan Heritage, the long-running trad-reggae band. During their set, Morgan Heritage shouted out some dancehall heroes: “Do you love Luciano? Do you love Sizzla Kalonji? Do you love Buju Banton?” All those names got big cheers. And then: “Do you love Shaggy?” I was confused. From where I was sitting, Shaggy and Sizzla occupied vastly different places in the reggae spectrum. (I didn’t know that Shaggy had started his career in Flatbush.) Then, Shaggy himself walked out on that stage and bellowed a couple of bars from “Boombastic,” and I lost my mind. It turns out that I really do love Shaggy.

In the time since “Angel,” Shaggy has only been on the Billboard Hot 100 once. In 2014, Shaggy teamed up with the Congolese-Swedish singer Mohombi, the Lebanese-Australian singer Faydee, and the Romanian singer Costi on a sort of tropical house track called “Habibi (I Need Your Love).” That song has lyrics in English, Arabic, and Spanish, and it blew up in the Middle East and Europe before reaching #66 in the US — a nice little comeback moment for Shaggy.

Shaggy is still around and still working. Earlier this year, for instance, Shaggy competed on The Masked Singer as the Space Bunny and then accepted an honorary doctorate from Brown University. I don’t think too many other people have done those two things in the same year. Comeback moments can only happen if you keep working. Don’t be shocked if Shaggy gets another one someday. We probably won’t see Shaggy in this column again, but it’s not too much of a stretch to say that he helped dancehall become a major force on the American pop charts, and we will see more dancehall.

GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: These days, Stereogum is an independent company. (Become a member! Please!) Until fairly recently, though, Stereogum was owned by the same big media company that owned a bunch of other publications, including Billboard. Every once in a while, we’d do these Stereogum sessions where artists would stop by that company’s New York office and play short acoustic sets that would be broadcast live on Facebook. I don’t live in New York, so I wasn’t there for any of those sessions, except for the one that the Pains Of Being Pure At Heart played one time when I happened to be in New York. Most of the bands who played Stereogum Sessions were indie types, but in 2018, when they were promoting their collaborative album, Sting and Shaggy came up and played a Stereogum session. One of the songs in their set was “Angel,” with Sting doing Rayvon’s part. Here’s the video of that whole session:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: On Daddy Yankee’s 2020 single “Bésame,” the Dallas production duo Play-N-Skillz used the bassline from “The Joker” and the melody from “Angel Of The Morning,” just like Shaggy before them. Here’s the video for “Bésame,” which also features Zion & Lennox:

(Zion & Lennox don’t have any Hot 100 hits as lead artists, but they got to #81 as guests on Enrique Iglesias’ 2017 single “Subeme La Radio.” As lead artists, Play-N-Skillz’ highest-charting single is the 2004 Krayzie Bone/Adina Howard collab “Freaks,” which peaked at #69. As producers, Play-N-Skillz will eventually appear in this column. Daddy Yankee will be in the column, too.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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