Gary James' Interview With
Alan O'Day

Alan O'Day is perhaps best known for a song he wrote, recorded and took all the way up to the number one spot on the charts - "Undercover Angel" in 1977. Did you know that he also wrote "Angie Baby" for Helen Reddy, which again went to number one in 1974. And, The Righteous Brothers recorded Alan O'Day's song "Rock 'n Roll Heaven". Along the way, so many of pop music's greats have recorded Alan O'Day's songs, including Paul Anka, Tom Jones, Cher, Anne Murray, The Fifth Dimension, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughn, Dusty Springfield, Three Dog Night, Tony Orlando, Johnny Mathis, Captain and Tennille. It almost reads like a who's who in Pop music. What does it take to be a successful singer / songwriter in the world of Pop music? That is one of many questions we asked Alan O'Day.

Q - Alan, had there been no AM radio, would your songs have been as popular?

A - Wow. I have to say I don't think so. The phenomenon of AM radio being a communication of the feeling of Rock and Roll and related music of the time to people, it was like a direct line to people. An intravenous shot of exciting stuff. The fact that that was in place then, had a lot to do with most of the hits and certainly mine. FM to me, concocted more of a departure from Pop at that time. More of a Jazz, Classical, Alternative...well, it wasn't Alternative yet. Later, to be Alternative.

Q - Having written three very popular songs ("Undercover Angel", "Angie Baby" and "Rock and Roll Heaven") is better than having money in the bank isn't it? With each passing year, the songs must grow in value.

A - If we're talking financially, no. The royalties slowly dwindle. Occasionally, there's a new use that comes as a surprise to me because I am not the publisher of those songs. They belong to Warner-Chappell Music. One example is, the use of "Undercover Angel" in the first Charlie's Angels movie. Although I did try to make that happen, never the less, it was a wonderful surprise when it actually worked. If you don't mind, I'd like to make a little change on the first question.

Q - Alright.

A - I remember now that FM was American Top 40. So, I did hear some great Pop music on FM as well.

Q - Back to the second question, about the worth of your songs.

A - Financially, no. They grow in value because they become more associated with their time, and people associate them with that time in their lives. It's background music for what was happening in their lives. The way I see them as a songwriter, in people's eyes seem to grow as the years go by, even though the actual monetary compensation doesn't necessarily (grow).

Q - How is it that you can get a song to a movie producer? Is that something Warner-Chappell does for you?

A - In this case, no. Long story short. I started a year before the movie came out, asking people if they knew people who knew people who knew people, trying to fine out who the film company was, who was the music director and I even paid for some information. I was on a mission. That song should be in movie. When I finally found the person, it was like a day in infamy. I had this short phone conversation with this woman who was picking music for the movie. I started to kind of pitch the idea of "Undercover Angel" and she interrupted me and said "Oh, I bought that record when I was a kid. We're already planning to use that in the movie." So, after a year of my campaign, it happened on its own.

Q - There was a book published a few years back called "Off The Record: Songwriters On Songwriting" by Graham Nash. You're not in it. Were you approached?

A - No. I vaguely remember hearing about the book. There's a lot of wonderful songwriters. It just happens that he didn't approach me for anything. (laughs)

Q - Maybe times will change, and he'll write "Book Two" and approach you.

A - There you go!

Q - When did you know that you could write a hit song?

A - Well, I know I loved songwriting from a pretty early age, probably high-school or before. Rock 'n Roll was in vogue, the early Rock...Little Richard, Elvis. Well, Elvis came out a little later. Fats Domino...that kind of stuff, and I loved it. In fact, I would scream along with Little Richard at my house. I started writing stuff based on what I heard. Some people liked it. I liked it. It felt good. So, that's when I knew I first loved songwriting. Then, there were many years of being in bands and playing nightclubs and then returning to the songwriting eventually out of frustration with the nightclub scene and brining a song to a publisher to see if it's good. This guy happened to be a great song critiquer. He knew the ins and outs of the craft. He began teaching me what I was doing wrong and it hurt my pride, but I realized I was learning something, so I stuck with it. There was 2-3 months of critiques on the first song and finally he said "This song is good enough." And he actually got a recording of it. Now, the recording was not a hit, but the fact that I saw my name on the label of a 45 RPM record, as the writer of a song...that did it for me!

Q - What was that song?

A - "Safe Or Sorry". The artist was Phil Felice. The man who gave me my start at learning the craft was Sidney Goldstein.

Q - I'm not recognizing that name...Sidney Goldstein.

A - Sidney Goldstein was old school. He was a fairly elderly fellow when we first met. He was with E.H. Morris Music, New York. That company owned the rights to a lot of musicals. And he was the only guy out here in L.A....he was head of the office in L.A. I'm the first writer he ever signed in twenty years of being in L.A. He passed away, but not before giving me a wonderful gift of getting me started.

Q - And the singer of that song...Phil Felice.

A - Never met him. He was probably out of New York.

Q - He never tried contacting you?

A - No. Contact is sometimes surprisingly limited between artists and songwriters, particularly back then. People ask me how it was working with Helen Reddy and I explained I wouldn't have even met her unless I'd gone to one of her concerts. The song, "Angie Baby" was given to her separate from any meeting I was involved with, because the publishers did all that back then.

Q - Do you remember how long it took you to write "Angie Baby", "Rock and Roll Heaven" and "Undercover Angel"?

A - Pretty well. I can take a stab at it. Let's start with "Angie Baby". "Angie Baby" took over three months. It started out as a song about a normal girl growing up in a normal world. Kind of like The Beatles' "Lady Madonna". I was a big Beatles fan, but when I tried to write my song about Angie, she turned out boring. I was very discouraged. This would be about three weeks into the song. So, for me, there's always that time when I put it away and come back and look at it again. When I came back and looked at it, I said to myself, what if I make her a little bit weird? So, I made her a little bit more weird and it made it more interesting. I made her more weird and it got even more interesting. Then I realized after the fact that I was writing my way toward a very bizarre story. At one point, I had the lyric written "You're a little slow you know, Angie Baby", but I took the lyric to a psychologist and she pointed out to me that people who are retarded, which is what slow would mean to most people, don't exhibit the kind of attributes that I was imbuing Angie, my character with. So, it kind of ruined my rhyme scheme. But I went back and made her crazy rather than slow, or maybe she wasn't crazy. (laughs) But anyway, she became more complex. With writing and re-writing, 'cause it's a very lyric heavy song, like I say, it was about three months. People ask me, did I know it was a hit when I finished it? The answer is no. I just knew I'd written something real interesting and real good. So, the publisher took it to Cher and Cher was not recording and they passed on it. Then Warner took it to Jeff Wald, at the time Helen's husband (and manager) and they snapped it up right away. Less than a month later, I heard the opening strings of a song on the radio as I was driving near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. It sounds vaguely familiar and the lyric hit and I realize my song is being played on the air. Amazing feeling! They recorded and released it in less than a month. They were just ready. It made my head spin, it went so fast.

"Undercover Angel" started with the title. I love the word "undercover". Looking back on it, I think the word angel was invoked because of Charlie's Angels, the TV show, but I didn't really know that then. I just put the two words together and I loved what it said and I've got to write a song "Undercover Angel". You know what? You need to ignore that and start again. I started writing the story before I knew the title. Everything I told you is true, but it happened after I started the song. So, I started writing the song, "Crying on my pillow, lonely in my bed, then I heard a voice beside me, and she softly said, wonder is your night light..." I get this idea, a little bit like "Angie Baby", that it was an out of body experience or something spiritual or mystical as well as sexual, but, I didn't know what the main point of the song was. So, then it was like searching for a title... that's when "Undercover Angel" came together for me. But, I painted myself into a corner, which I would never tell somebody to do by starting to write the song without a title. In terms of the time it took? "Undercover Angel" probably took a couple of weeks. I still have the original lyric sheet up on my wall, framed. I took it to Warner-Chappell, to the people who helped me and critiqued my stuff, and they made a couple of suggestions. At that time, the people I worked with had knowledge about how to critique songs. They had song sense. I don't hear about that as often now. It seems like the business side of the music business is less musical. But, at that time I was able to get some really good feedback on it. I agreed with it, and I finished the lyric and made a demo. Then it was done. I would say it was probably less than a month.

Q - In that time period of a month, would you have worked on the song, say, 20 minutes a day? Or, don't you think in those terms?

A - I don't think in those terms, but if I was looking for the number of hours...probably 12-15 hours, because most of the writing I do is re-writing. The writing that comes first from inspiration is like grabbing the muse while you can and going for the ride. The stuff you write down is sometimes brilliant, yet very flawed. Then you come back and become a different persona, put on your glasses like the song critiquer and say "Let's take a look at this now and make sure it makes sense. (laughs) You go back and mess with it. If you give it a day, you're not sure what you meant the previous day. So, if you're not sure what you meant, then your audience won't be sure and you go about clarifying. It's a process of being turned on by what you wrote and then giving it back to the song.

"Rock and Roll Heaven"...the title was not written by me, it was written by a guy named Johnny Stevenson. Johnny brought the song to the publisher. One of the publishers, whose name is Artie Wayne, recognized the potential of the song and brought me in on the song. So, Johnny and I wrote the song with Artie overseeing the writing. And, the first version of the song was completed, but the people who were mentioned in the song had passed away in the 50s and early 60s like Buddy Holly...Ritchie Valens. That was what meant the most to me, 'cause that was my era. I grew up in the 50s. So, I think it was recorded that way, by a group called Climax. In fact, I know it was...Sonny Geraci and Climax.* It didn't do well at all. I thought "that's the end of the song. It was a nice try." It was discouraging. A couple of months down the line, I heard it through the publishers, from two hot producers, Lambert and Potter, that were interested in using this song as a song to bring back The Righteous Brothers. We went to the Righteous Brothers to record it. The Righteous Brothers had had a long series of hits, but were cold right then. They said "the names you're referring to, of people who passed away, are kind of out of date." They suggested and actually wrote the lyric of some of the newer names. They did not ask for writing credit. I always respected the fact that they weren't trying to get in on the writing of the song. They added their ideas and we used them, but they didn't ask for writing credit. So, I would say "Rock and Roll Heaven" took about two or three weeks when Johnny and I wrote it the first way.

Q - You were actually born in Hollywood, California?

A - Yes, I was.

Q - Now, that's a first for me. Most people I interview are trying to move to Hollywood to get into the entertainment business.

A - My Dad and Mom were working in a newspaper and I was born in Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital.

Q - I have it that your mother was a schoolteacher.

A - She wasn't a schoolteacher when I was born. She became a schoolteacher in order to keep food on the table after my Dad had a severe stroke.

Q - Did she approve of your show biz career?

A - Yes, because she loved the fact that I could write and perform. We didn't think of it as a show biz career. I was mostly a songwriter up until "Undercover Angel", then I became the songwriter / artist...I mean in terms of having a hit.

Q - What group were you in that performed on The Ed Sullivan Show?

A - Oh, (laughs) that'll take me a second to remember the name. It was about 1961 and it was Alan, Bob and Denny. That was the name of the group.

Q - Was that a Folk group?

A - No. We were a trio that did rock 'n roll at local nightclubs here in L.A. But, our agent, whose name was Bob Leonard, also handled a wonderful ingénue from the 40s. She was a comedian who would do a dead pan version of songs that were funny. I'm trying to bring her name back, and the thought is not available. Anyway, this gal was managed by Bob Leonard. In turn, this gal happens to see Ed Sullivan when he was having lunch one day and asked Ed if she could be on his show and Ed Sullivan said yes. Then she went to Bob Leonard and needed a band to back her up. So, these three young punks called Alan, Bob and Denny got the thrill of their lives rehearsing with her and being flown to New York and being on the Ed Sullivan show in front of millions of people, in the audience and on TV.

Q - Who was on that Ed Sullivan show besides you guys?

A - Oh, Bert Lahr...we met Bert Lahr. Oh, and Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Q - Gerry and the Pacemakers wouldn't have appeared on the Ed Sullivan show until 1964 at the earliest. They were part of that whole British Invasion.

A - OK, then the date is wrong. I know we went to a nightclub when we were in New York and The Young Rascals were playing and they were looking up to us 'cause we had been on the Ed Sullivan Show. They were just getting started. Oh, the name of the comedian was Virginia O'Brien.

Q - You recorded for Dunhill Records in 1966. As a part of a group?

A - Yes. That was still the same three guys, Alan, Bob and Denny, but they game us a name. Pierre Cossette's little boy heard the record and said "Call 'em The Turtles, Daddy!" I think that's how it happened. Steve Berry was the producer. The song was "Tonight You Belong To Me" and we were The Turtles. Now, we were not The Turtles that made it. I don't think the record was ever released. The other side of the song...funny how things come back to you...I don't remember the name of it, but it was written by Steve Berry and Phil Sloan. Now, Phil Sloan is well known as kind of a Bob Dylanish, protest kind of writer from that era.

Q - When "Undercover Angel" went to number one, how did your life change?

A - When it first hit, I was in a schizophrenic existence of just living at home and having a normal life, while this artist, Alan O'Day was traveling up the charts.

Q - Did you tour behind that record?

A - Eventually, yeah. It was a surprise to everybody that it was gonna make number one. We didn't have the album ready to follow it. These things just don't happen very often. They happen to other people. It just kept climbing the charts and it passed up all the major labels. I wasn't the only artist on the label. This was Pacific Records which had been set up by Ed Silvers and Mel Bley at Warner - Chappell, actually Warner Brothers music back then. They were my publishers. He wanted to start a record company and asked me to be an artist on his label...Ed did. Pacific Records was kind of a boutique label under the Atlantic group. It's no longer around. There we were with a little song on a little record label and it just went past everybody and it ended up at number one. It was number one for two weeks. It's kind of a state of shock that hits you. You're happy, but you don't know what to do about it. Do you drink wine? Do you drive faster? Do you go buy new recording equipment? What do you do? You just ride it out because it's the wheels of the industry. In some way, it has something to do with you and in someway, it has nothing to do with you. I remember driving in Westwood in Los Angeles, stopping at a signal and a guy walking across the street saying "I know you. You were on American Bandstand." They'd played the American Bandstand that morning and happened to remember my face. (laughs) And I wave. It's the little things.

Q - What kind of places did you perform in?

A - I didn't have a band. I toured by myself and I toured radio stations. I can't remember all the places we went. We just want all across the country.

Q - No one seems to be writing songs anymore that tell a story.

A - I kind of agree with you in the Pop field. I do see a lot of the best writing, in my opinion is in Country right now. In fact, I'm currently writing in that vein...Country / Pop. Country is kind of taking the place where Pop was back then. If you want to hear good writing lyrically, listen to Country. Not all of it, but some of it. I mean, there's just some wonderful, wonderful songs.

Q - Back in 1997, you bought the Tony Robbins Personal Power II cassettes and it changed your life. So, why aren't you a spokesperson for Tony Robbins?

A - Oh, my God. (laughs) I didn't know that information was public. I have nothing but positive (things) to say about Tony Robbins. I bought his tapes and he did put me on a path of pushing very hard and thinking of a lot of ideas. Very helpful stuff. I've been through the cassettes twice and it helped. Still, every day's a challenge.

Q - What are you doing these days?

A - I'm writing Country / Pop for the most part, occasionally writing children's songs for an organization called Songs Of Love. They enlist the help of songwriters to create personal songs for terminally ill or seriously ill children.It's very fulfilling. I can't point to anything that's on the radio, but I can tell you I still love songwriting. I write for the process of writing. My life is usually pretty content. Although I don't do it officially as a job, I try to help beginning songwriters and offer tips about the craft of writing and to the small extent I know about living...the craft of living. So, I'm just a pretty grateful person. And, in this business, the cool thing is, you never know what'll happen. Somebody could find "Angie Baby" and make a movie out of it. "Rock and Roll Heaven" could be a theme about rock 'n roll heroes. I wouldn't recommend the music business as a stable kind of life, but I've managed to be able to forge a pretty wonderful life out of it.

Q - Yeah, you've done alright for yourself.

A - I have...and the nicest thing is, I still get to be here.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

"Rock and Roll Heaven" was a Billboard #3 hit for The Righteous Brothers in June 1974
"Angie Baby" was a Billboard #1 hit for Helen Reddy in November 1974
"Undercover Angel" was a Billboard #1 hit for Alan O'Day in May 1977.

*Climax (featuring Sonny Geraci) scored a #3 hit with "Precious And Few" in January 1972