Behind the Song: Merrilee Rush on “Angel of the Morning” by Chip Taylor

On February 7th, 1968, Bell Records released the swelling, sweeping ballad, “Angel of the Morning,” recorded by the stunning vocalist, Merrilee Rush. The song, which was written by Chip Taylor, hit #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and, over 50 years later, has amassed more than three million YouTube views. Since its release, a number of artists have covered “Angel of the Morning,” including Evie Sands, Juice Newton and even The Pretenders. But it’s Rush’s version that hit the airwaves first and has since survived the test of time.

We caught up with the powerful-voiced performer to talk about the song’s release, how she came to sing the empowering lyric, what it’s like to be partially responsible for a timeless hit, how it affected her career and much more.

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AMERICAN SONGWRITER: You grew around Seattle and you live outside the city now. But over the weekend, Seattle’s legendary broadcaster, Pat O’Day, who is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, passed away. Was he an influence on you and the success of “Angel of the Morning”? 

MERRILEE RUSH: We knew each other very well over the years because when he was on KJR starting in the mid-60s, they had the teen dances. We had the best teen dance circuit in the country, as far as I know. We had the biggest, most wonderful teen dance circuit and Pat played a major role in that. And then when “Angel” came out, I took the record to him. We’d had local recordings back then and, you know, they’d get smatterings of airplay. But we took “Angel” to him and he listened to it and he goes, “Now this is a hit!” And he said, “Go get in your car and turn on the radio.” And he put it on the air. But, yeah, he told that story like, “Yeah, you finally brought me a hit record.”

When and how were you first introduced to “Angel of the Morning”?

Back in those days, we played the dances and Paul Revere & the Raiders were, you know, one of the bands that played this circuit and we’d run into each other once in a while. Back in the early 60s, we had a roadie named Jimmy Johnson, fresh out of high school. Well, he went on to work for Paul Revere. And Paul was doing a tour in the Deep South and Jimmy said, “Well, why don’t you use Merrilee as an opening act?”

So Jimmy and the road manager at the time came up to see us work and went, “Oh yeah!” So, I was on that southern tour through the Deep South and they were cutting their Goin’ to Memphis Album in Memphis at American Studios.

After the tour was over, I just tagged along and went to that studio where they were finishing up that album and the producer, Chips Moman, asked me to do a demo tape for him to listen to my voice. He liked my voice. I went back a month later to American and we sat down and we were listening to some demos and the road manager at the time pulled “Angel” out of his briefcase. He’d been carrying it around for a long time and it was a demo by the writer, Chip Taylor. That demo was just him singing and playing guitar. But, as we’re listening to this demo and reading the lyric, I’m going, “Oh my God!” It was a basic “Louie, Louie” progression. It was so accessible to listen to and sing along with and the lyric was really something.

So we recorded it. And those session guys on that record were the same session guys – that core five guys – who did Elvis recordings, all the Box Tops recordings, “Son of a Preacher Man,” B. J. Thomas, Neil Diamond – brought him back from the dead. So, you hear those sessions, that very significant sound that they had. Reggie Young, the guitar player, was using an electric sitar so you hear that on the Box Tops records, you hear that on the Elvis cuts and he used it on my cuts, too. “Angel” had also been cut by Chip Taylor’s protégé on a pretty significant label. But they went out of business right then. So, it became mine [Laughs].

What sticks out from actually recording the song, “Angel of the Morning”?

The problem I had recording is that no producer I had ever worked with saw me work. So, they didn’t know who I really was. So Chips Moman wanted me to sing – to really pull it back and sing soft. So, what I didn’t realize is that he was going to have me continue that M.O. throughout the whole album we recording. That’s what was disappointing. I thought, “Yeah, on ‘Angel’ we can do that and do it with a sexy voice and pull it back.” But we continued with that throughout the whole album and that was disappointing to me because I never really got to let fly. In fact, over the years, that’s what happened to me.

What then did recording “Angel” do for your career?

It just opened up a whole new spectrum of entertainment. I did a lot of TV in L.A. I did a lot of TV shows, a lot of pilots. One show I was doing was The Original Stars of American Bandstand. There’s actually still footage out there of Dick Clark introducing us.

It opened up new opportunities?

The recording business was very disappointing because I had no control over what was happening to me in recording. The recording business is the creative part, where you cut the songs, and then after that – oh my gosh. One of the reasons “Angel” took off was because somebody hired independent promo men around the country to go out and get that distributed. They took it to the radio stations. The label was not able to do that – they weren’t a big label. You cut the record and you’re pretty much out of the loop, it’s pretty much not in your hands anymore.

What is like now to know that you’ve made a song so famous, that you made an ever lasting hit?

It’s very surreal. You’re watching a record climb the charts and people are recognizing you. It’s surreal! It’s like you’re standing back and watching them but you’re not really taking part in it, you don’t feel involved in it. Yeah, things are happening out there but you’re not a part of it. I don’t know if that makes any sense at all! Even when I was doing the TV work down in L.A., you’re just getting through it You’re just doing it. Where you feel, where you really feel a part of it, getting the feedback, is when you perform live. And you don’t get that when you’re in a four-walled studio. It’s hard to get the excitement in a track that you would get if you were on stage performing in front of people.

It’s the same thing for movie actors. They would much rather do live plays because of the audience. That’s why I just went, “Screw the record industry. I’m going back to the Northwest to perform!” Because I had control over that and that’s where I belonged, really.

It’s interesting that you talk about the idea of control when it comes to “Angel.” Because that song is all about taking ownership of yourself, taking control of your situation with a sexual partner. What did it feel like in the moment to sing about this type of sexual empowerment?

It was such a revolutionary lyric for that period. I met a gal who, back in high school, wanted to perform with her friends in a talent show at school and the school said, “No, you can’t do that!” [Laughs]

But why?! Because the lyric was so beautifully done. It was really a veiled way to say it. So I got to say, “Hats off!” to Chip Taylor, who also wrote, “Wild Thing,” which was not veiled at all! Actually, it’s the same song. It’s the same progression. You can interchange both of those songs with that progression. When you get to the chorus, you can interchange “Angel” and “Wild Thing” back and forth because it’s the same chord progression.

Did you ever do that live?

Yeah! [Laughs] Yes I have!

There are many great versions of “Angel.” Do you have a favorite and is it Shaggy’s version?

I like Shaggy’s because it was totally different. It wasn’t trying to do the same thing. Juice Newton, I could not listen to her version because she changed a little bit of the melody and I’m a great mimic and I could not listen to somebody else’s version like that because I would start singing that way. But Shaggy’s version was fun! He took away the whole meaning of the song and made it something different. I saw him perform that on Letterman and he went out into the audience – he was delightful!

When you think about “Angel of the Morning” now, what stands out to you most prominently about the song?

Well, I’m amazed at the durability of that song. How it’s played over decades and remained a really wonderful lyric that describes something that everybody can relate to. I’m just amazed at the durability of the song. It amazes me! [Laughs]

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