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The Story Behind the #1 Hit: Alan O'Day and Angie Baby

We get a lot of mail asking our mentors about their hits. Because Angie Baby is one of those songs that caught my imagination when I was kid, I am especially pleased to present Alan O'Day's personal recap of the song and how it came to be. Thanks to Kerri for asking the right question at the right time to spur on this article, and thanks to Just Plain Folks Mentor Alan O'Day for giving us a peak behind one of the most mysterious #1 songs in music history!

Q: I'm sure a million people have asked this, but I will try again. What is the real story behind your #1 Song Angie Baby? What is the meaning? I have never known the answer and am very curious. Thanks ahead of time for your reply, Kerri

A. Dear Kerri, Thanks for your email question. Here is my response:

The inspiration for "Angie Baby" came to life from three separate sources. First of all, when I was a kid I was sick a lot, and being an only child, I turned to the radio for diversion. In fact, I was absorbing lyric & musical elements of popular songs, although I didn't realize it back then.

Later, in my 20's, we lived next door to a single mother & daughter, the daughter being about 13 years old. She had some minor physical impairments, & I noticed how that isolated her from other kids. I got the impression that she spent a lot of time with her radio & record collection (remember records?). Just in case you're wondering; no, I never knocked on her door & said, "I'll show you how to have a good time!"

And finally, in 1974, I was inspired by the Beatles' song "Lady Madonna." I was trying to write a song about a young woman coping with the busy pace of life. The problem was, after several rewrites, the character in my song was "normal," & boring! I was frustrated with my lyric. And out of that frustration came the idea of making her abnormal, weird, mysterious.

At first my rewrites painted her as retarded. But then I showed my work in progress to a psychologist, who pointed out what now seems obvious: that a retarded girl would not have the complexity of reactions with which I was imbuing my heroine. There went some of my rhymes!

Wondering if I were going to spend the rest of my life writing one song, I nevertheless continued working with the concept. "You're a little slow, you know" became "you're a little touched, you know." Sacrificing the sound alike word for a word pivotal to my story: touched. Making her crazy (maybe...), seemed to open up possibilities.

I wasn't sure how my story was going to turn out. But I sensed that if the boy in the song takes advantage of Angie, that's too expected, given her initial description. No twist, no intrigue. But if this supposedly vulnerable girl suddenly exhibits some kind of magic power... Well, that could be an interesting turnabout. I didn't realize then that it would follow "I Am Woman" as a perverse tale of women's liberation.

So at about the 3 month mark, I finished my lyric & played the demo for Warner Brothers Music, where I was a staff writer. I kind of had Cher in mind as the artist, but Cher was not currently recording, so Warners took it to Helen Reddy's husband & manager at the time, Jeff Wald. They went nuts over it, & it was recorded & released within a month. As you probably know, it became my first number one song, selling approximately two million units.

OK, as to the story: One of the lessons I learned from the experience of "Angie Baby" was about clarity of story elements. To me as the writer, the story was perfectly clear. Of course! I was comfortable blurring the lines between fantasy & reality. Everyone thought Angie was crazy, but it turns out she possessed some very special abilities. So the dude with sexual intentions found himself shrunk in size & placed in Angie's radio, a slave for HER gratification whenever she chose. But how many people interpreted it that way? Not Ms. Reddy, who described him as becoming a sound wave. Not a certain disc jockey, who called me at about 5:30 one morning proclaiming that he had solved the "riddle" of the song: the guy was actually a disc jockey! In the radio, get it? And not the general public, who seemed to compare the song to "Ode To Billie Joe." "What happened to the boy?" ...was like "What was thrown off the bridge?"

But while I belatedly noted the results of my lack of specificity, I also saw that the hazy storyline left room for interpretation on the part of the listener, which in some ways was a plus! So I've always deferred from detailed explanations, preferring to ask, "What do YOU think it meant?" The answers continue to fascinate me, & they remind me to take creative chances as a songwriter.

I hope this sheds some light on your question, Kerri. Best wishes! Alan

ŠAlan O'Day Email: Mentors@jpfolks.com