It is with sadness that I learned of the death of musician, songwriter, and Southern California native, Alan O’Day from brain cancer this weekend.
O’Day covered a lot of ground in the music industry, from playing in garage bands in the 1950s and 60s to writing songs for television in the 1980s and 90s, but he is best known for the string of hit singles he wrote for other artists in the 1970s, and for writing and recording one particular song that made him the One-Hit Wonder of 1977.
O’Day’s songwriting credits include “The Drum,” recorded by Bobby Sherman, “Rock and Roll Heaven,” recorded by the Righteous Brothers, and perhaps his best song, “Angie Baby,” recorded and taken to No. 1 in Dec. 1974 by Helen Reddy.
However, Alan O’Day achieved his greatest level of fame when his quirky (some would say novelty) song, “Undercover Angel,” released with little fanfare in early 1977, unexpectedly shot to the top of the Billboard charts by the summer of that year.
1977 was the year I started my long relationship with music radio, and I placed extraordinary importance in the value of the weekly Top 40 countdown then, keeping careful track of which songs gained ground over the previous week and which ones lost ground.
Because Alan O’Day ruled the charts at the time I started following the charts, his legacy, not to mention his single “Undercover Angel,” have stayed relevant to me until this very day, never fading from memory as they did for the general public. Also, O’Day spent his early childhood years in the L.A. neighborhood of Mount Washington, the same place I happened to live as a child when “Undercover Angel” was all over the charts.
O’Day’s songs could be described as novelty-esque, stemming from what might be called an eccentric or at least whimsical view of the world. He suffered from bronchial pneumonia for much of his childhood and had to remain indoors and alone a lot. At the same time he developed a keen interest in exotic instruments like the xylophone and ukulele and became “hooked” (in his words) on Spike Jones’ combination of music and humorous noises.
“Angie Baby” is regarded as a serious song, a haunting look at mental illness with a hint of stranger danger thrown into the mix, while “Undercover Angel” is pure whimsy. Yet, the two songs really describe the same basic scenario: A grey zone between fantasy and reality where a lonely person in her/his bedroom is visited by a strange apparition of the opposite gender, and life-altering drama ensues. “Angie” is the story told in a minor key, while “Angel” is the story told in a major key.
O’Day had always been a natural studio whiz, and his follow-up single to “Undercover Angel” was “Skinny Girls,” a catchy tune that Spike Jones might have written himself had he had access to a synthesizer and other 1980 music studio accoutrements. Unlike O’Day’s previous single, “Skinny Girls” never made it beyond the Dr. Demento show.
In the 1980’s, O’Day transitioned to television, where he co-wrote over 100 songs for the “Muppet Babies” program.
Here is a link to a 2012 Helen Reddy performance, in which Reddy calls up her friend Alan O’Day from the audience to help her with some of the lyrics to “Angie Baby.”
I’ll refrain from mentioning that if you believe in rock and roll heaven, they just gained a hell of a gadget man. Instead, if you really want to appreciate the world of Alan O’Day, look up “Skinny Girls” and give it a listen.