Just over 50 years ago, the song, “Angel of the Morning,” hit the national airwaves and turned Seattle’s Merrilee Rush into a household name.
The song, composed in 1966 and released in 1968, rocketed up the charts and has since been recorded by dozens (read: countless) of other artists. Rush, who came up in the Emerald City, singing popular teenage dances in local venues, lends her giant, golden voice to the track, which has since been placed in television and movie soundtracks like 1978’s Fingers, starring Harvey Keitel. We caught up with Rush, who recently turned 75, to talk about her origins as an artist in the Northwest, how she came to sing the iconic track and what she learned throughout her career.
When did you know you had real talent as a singer?
Oh gosh. I started out as a piano player and I was not a great – well, you know, I loved singing harmony and choruses and stuff. But I didn’t really think I was very good until later on in the late 60s – it finally took hold. But I didn’t think I was very good actually until I took singing lessons in the early 70s. I learned how to sing properly then. I was pleased with what I did.
Was there a technique you learned in those lessons that opened things up for you?
Resonating tone over the palate and not pushing. Of course, we pushed everything in the 60s. We wanted to be Wilson Pickett. I was doing teenage dances for three hours a night and we played as loud as we could and we had to sing over that. So, there was a lot of strain on the voice. When I finally took singing lessons, I had already started getting polyps on my vocal chords. So, you just back off and use proper technique and those polyps went away.
What was the most creatively inspiring thing about Seattle’s music community when you were coming up as an artist?
We had great bands and great venues. We had the teenage dances when they were in ballrooms and roller rinks and armories. But there was a band called the Wailers that were really the iconic band of the Northwest. That was really an inspirational band. At that time, it was a big rhythm and blues period in Seattle and in the Northwest. So, playing R&B, when Tina and Ike Turner and Bobby Bland and James Brown came to town, we would go see them. Every time they came to town. And every time we’d go to see these acts, the Wailers would be there too. So, we were all on the same page.
How did you get the gig singing “Angel of the Morning?”
I was put on a tour as an opening act for Paul Revere & the Raiders in the deep south. At the end of that tour we went to Memphis because they were finishing up their Goin’ to Memphis album. I was tagging along and I just happened to be asked to do an audition tape for the producer [of “Angel”] and he liked my voice. But leading up to that, there was a fellow named Jerry Williams who was tour managing for the Raiders and he came up to see me perform because an ex-roadie of ours was the roadie for Paul Revere and he suggested I be on this tour. So, they both came up and saw me work and that put me on the tour. At the end, I did this audition tape for the producer and I went back a month later and Jerry Williams had a demo of “Angel of the Morning” in his brief case and they played it for me. It was the writer, Chip Taylor, who also wrote “Wild Thing,” and he was the one doing the demo – just a voice and guitar. And he was terrible but the song was there and the lyrics were phenomenal. So, we cut it and a month later they released it. It did take about five-and-a-half months for it to take off nationally because it got a big order out of St. Louis. And Jerry Williams also hired independent promo men, which really helped at the time. If the label really couldn’t handle the promotion totally, if you put independent promo men on it around the country, they went in and pitched it big time. So, that really helped.
What did it feel like to record the song in real time?
Well, recording in the booth is nothing like performing on stage. That’s a real adjustment that I had to make because nothing is immediate and it’s very – oh, what’s the word? You don’t have the feedback from the audience. You hear the track but the building of the song as they produce it, as they create what they’re going to do. I was really lucky to be with the session guys. The session guys that were in that studio did tracks on The Box Tops and “Sweet Caroline,” they did the tracks on Elvis [records], they did “Son Of A Preacher Man,” they were just an iconic session band. And actually Reggie Young, the guitar player who you hear play the electric sitar on a lot of these tracks, he just passed away a couple months ago. But they didn’t read. They would listen to a demo and they would write down the chord numbers and then create the track that way. And they were really good. Bobby Evans, Bobby Woods, Gene Crimson on drums, Mike Leach on bass. Then Mark James, the great writer, was just coming up at that time working for the studio. He wrote the backside of “Angel” and went on to write hits for everybody. I was very lucky to be in that studio. But recording, for me, is quite an adjustment from performing on stage.
The song is about female and sexual empowerment. Did that message inspire you?
Oh yeah! But it was such a beautiful way of expressing it. It was really a very progressive song for its time. When I read the lyrics, I thought, “Well, if people really pay attention to this lyric, they’re going to want to hear this again.” Because it was really progressive. I’m very proud. I met this gal who, when in high school, they were going to sing “Angel of the Morning” for their school musical and they were not allowed to do it. And it was banned on a few stations, so I was very proud of that, too.
What did the song do for your career after it took off?
Well, it took me nationally. I did a lot of TV in L.A. It took me to places that I would not have gone outside of the Northwest. But, all in all, what I really enjoyed was coming back to the Northwest and playing the dances. It took me across the country, playing cities that I would probably never go to. TV was an experience because TV is so professional. They’re so good at what they do. In music, it’s kind of loose. But in TV, these are professional people who know their place and their job and they do it really well. I got to meet people that I never would have met.
What did you learn about yourself as you went through all the success?
The more experiences you have meeting other people and going to places you never would have gone, you expand. You expand your horizons. So, I found out that, boy, I had not grown. I realized the extent of my growth at that period and at that time. We are a culmination of all our experiences through life. So, I was a fledgling even though I’d been playing dances for, you know, eight years at that point. That was my experience over and over again but it was a wonderful experience. The Northwest just was the most wonderful playground for playing in front of hundreds of kids at these dances. And they were all over the Northwest. That was the most fun because my recording experience with producers - after Memphis I went on to record in New York for Scepter Records then I went on to do an album for United Artists in L.A. But the problem with recording is, I found that I didn’t have much control of what I was doing. In fact, the United Artist album, we picked tunes that were pitched to us but the tunes that were pitched to us weren’t tunes that I would prefer. I was very proud of this album because it was an incredible production. And I was able to put a 10-piece horn band together to do a showcase at the Troubadour for the United Artists staff and family. And after I did the show, the producer came up to me and said, “Oh my god, we’ve been cutting you all wrong.” I never felt that was something I could complain about. I just did the recordings. But if I could have complained I would have said, “This isn’t me.” In fact, you hear me doing a lot of ballads on recordings but that’s not what I did live.
What did you do live?
Rock. R&B. We did R&B in the early 60s but then we had to leave the R&B circuit and start a pop band because when the Beatles came along, they killed R&B. Just killed it. R&B was really big in this country but the Beatles came along and made it a pop world. So, we had to leave the R&B behind and go pop. That was a big transition from doing stuff that we really loved doing rather than doing it more for the audience, going pop for the audience. But what I always like to do is keep that R&B feel when doing pop. Tina Turner was my idol. What she would do, she would do pop tunes with an R&B feel. That’s what we tried to do.
Was it difficult being a woman at the top of your game in 1968?
Well, I found that there was sexual harassment in the recording field. Really, at that time, if you were a woman and you were sexually harassed, you could not talk about it. You would endanger your career because other people might not want to work with you after you expose somebody. So, that was another major problem that I had with the recording industry. It was a relief when I was able to come back and work on stage because that’s what I had control over. I did not have control over what I did in the recording world. It was very discouraging. I know that I could have done a lot more if it weren’t for that but everything happens because it’s supposed to. I could hold a grudge forever but, no, I have a great life. So, those things lead you to other things that you should be doing. So, that’s fine.
When you look back on those years, what memory first comes to mind?
Bigger audiences! Bigger audiences around the country. And being in L.A. was a groovy time. At that time, Hollywood, Sunset Strip, The Whiskey and Hamburger Hamlet - the lobster bisque at Hamburger Hamlet - I really have some wonderful memories about Hollywood at that time. Going back to Hollywood is not the same. It’s different. It’s kind of dingy. It’s not what I remember it being. It’s a different look. It’s, like, you can’t go back. But my memories of Hollywood at that time, it was still a cool place to be. But there was also a brashness about some of the people that I wasn’t ready for. Coming from Seattle - Seattle is, we’re mild people. We’re laid back and we’re not angst about anything. Whereas, Hollywood, there was a lot of that in the shopkeepers. I went into a shop one time and this woman was so pushy with me, I ended up buying the ugliest outfit I have ever bought in my life because I couldn’t say no to this woman! It was brown with big giant orange flowers on it. It was bellbottom and puffy sleeves like something Cher would have worn. It was awful! But that was [the down side] of L.A. Otherwise, it was all good. It was all feeding my journey.
Did you ever hear Shaggy’s version of “Angel?”
I love his cover! It really was a whole different take. It took the whole meaning out of the song. He completely changed it. The only thing that was left was, kind of, the melody. But I loved his version because he did something with it. The Juice Newton [version], I only could listen to it a couple times because I tend to hear something and then sing it that way, so I had to not listen to her version of it. She did a couple different things with it that I was in danger of singing. But the song was covered many, many times by country artists and others. And that’s great.
Do you ever sing “Angel of the Morning” around the house these days?
God no! “Angel of the Morning” has one of the biggest ranges - it’s like singing “The National Anthem.” You have to start fairly low and go very high. So, I don’t. In fact, if I’m out and about playing music and somebody asks me to sing it, I really have to decline, unless I’m really warmed up. It’s one of those tunes you just don’t sing out of the blue.
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