Gary James' Interview With
Merrilee Rush

Merrilee Rush is perhaps best known for the song "Angel Of The Morning", a song which took her all the way to the top of the charts and a Grammy© nomination for Female Vocalist Of The Year.

That song continues to surface on soundtracks even today, like "Jerry Maguire", "Girl Interrupted", and Harvey Keitel's "Fingers".

Merrilee Rush is still singing and touring, that is, when she isn't breeding and showing Old English Sheepdogs.

Q - Merrilee, what's your background? What city are you from? How'd you get into singing?

A - Well, I'm from Seattle. I grew up in the North end of Seattle. My background in music comes from 10 years of classical piano when I was a kid. I was backing up some friends of mine. I would play USO shows and talent shows playing classical music. Then, I would backup a couple of singer friends of mine and they were getting all the applause. They got the attention, so I decided to join them in singing. We auditioned for a band that my first husband was directing. He didn't hire them, but, he hired me, who was not the great singer. (laughs)

Q - What kind of band was this?

A - It was a rock band. This was in 1960. It was a local rock band here. We played the sock hops. They were cutting a record and had auditioned us for that, but he hired me. He had a band that thought they were really hot stuff and they quit. Most of 'em quit because I wasn't that good! (laughs) So, we formed our own band called Merrilee And Her Men. We played the dances around here. I was playing pop music for a couple of years. Then we joined a rhythm and blues group, 'cause rhythm and blues was coming on real strong. That was a band called Tiny Tony and The Statics. The lead singer was a 300 pound black man named Tony. He was wonderful. Not a great singer, but, he just had charisma and moved around the stage. At that time, everybody was doing steps. They were just copying the black bands, doing the steps and wearing the clothes. It was a huge era of rhythm and blues in this area until '65. We were pretty much in the Top 3 rhythm and blues groups. Then, The Beatles came along and kind of ruined our party. (laughs)

Q - And the party of a lot of other people as well.

A - Yeah.

Q - What kind of material were you playing in Merrilee And Her Men?

A - We would do whatever was Pop. That was the era of "Duke Of Earl". I was a huge Bill Haley and The Comets fan, Little Richard and of course, Elvis. I loved the doo-wop. There weren't that many female artists putting out records that I wanted to do. So, mostly what I did was male pop songs. As soon as Phil Spector started putting out tunes, then I did every song that he released. I guess that would take me into the Sixties. I did anything that was Pop from that era.

Q - So, how did you get to record "Angel Of The Morning"? Who pitched that to you?

A - That came much later. What happened was, in 1965, we started a group called Merrilee and The Turnabouts, doing pop tunes. It was a combination of rhythm and blues and rock. To this day, that's what I try to combine, R&B and rock. More of a Southern rock feel. And when we performed in this area, we were like the hottest thing in this area. We had some very successful road men, who went on to head up tours for big acts. One of our roadies was working for Paul Revere and The Raiders. They were doing a tour in the South and he suggested they use me as a opening act. So, I went on a tour in the deep South with them at the end of 1967. We ended the tour in Memphis. They were cutting their "Going To Memphis" album. So, I happened to be along. The producer asked me to do a demo and I did and he liked the uniqueness of my voice. I went back a month later. A friend of his from April Blackwood Publishing came to Memphis and pitched the tune to us. It had already been cut by Evie Sands and I believe produced by Chip Taylor. But, she was on Cameo and they were going out of business. So, her record didn't see the light of day. But, at the same time, there was a fellow named Danny Michaels, who had cut it, and it was on the air in Memphis. (laughs) After we decided to cut this record, we hopped in the car and heard his version of it. But, it wasn't a guy song. So, we just proceeded to cut it. When I heard the song, I just thought, wow! Nobody has sung like this before. It was a pretty revolutionary lyric for that time. And, it was so beautifully said. It had that basic "Louie Louie" chord progression. The writer also wrote "Wild Thing"*. So, it's basically that "Louie, Louie" - "Wild Thing" three chord progression on the chorus. I just thought, if anybody hears it, they're gonna wanna hear it mainly because of the lyric, and I'm not a lyric person. I didn't care that much about lyrics. I was more into the feel and the beat and the chord changes. I just felt that it had it all. So, I went back a month later, in January, and cut that and a "B" side that was written by the house writer, Mark James. We got finished with it and the producer said, "Don't worry. This is just your first recording. If this doesn't do anything, we'll keep trying...and don't expect it to do anything." It really didn't do much until about May. It was released, I believe, in February. In May, it started taking off. We got a very large order out of St. Louis.

Q - What were you doing to promote it?

A - I wasn't doing anything to promote it. I went back and worked like I had always worked. You know, doing the weekend dances. But, the fellow who was kind of the manager for the Raiders at the time, hired independent promotion people 'cause it was on Bell Records. They evidently weren't doing the job, so when he hired independent promo men, that really gave it what it needed for exposure.

Q - How far up the charts did it go?

A - Depending on whose chart you're looking at, it went to, I think number one in Record World or Cashbox. Billboard, I think it was three.** I never really paid attention. In other countries like Australia and Japan, Germany, did well, but I never got to perform it in Europe. Nobody ever put me over there.

Q - How did life change for you when "Angel Of The Morning" became such a hit?

A - I was, unfortunately, signed to the William Morris Agency.

Q - The best in the business.

A - Well, they were the best in the business...for TV. They got me a lot of TV. They had no idea what to do with me on the road.

Q - What TV shows were you on?

A - I was on The Joey Bishop Show, Glen Campbell, a lot of syndicated shows like Steve Allen, Della Reese, Donald O'Connor, The Johnny Cash Replacement Show, The Everly Brothers. I was on (American) Bandstand three times. Then, I did The Happening Show that The Raiders did.

Q - How about Ed Sullivan or The Hollywood Palace?

A - No. I was very disappointed in William Morris, what they were able to do with me. And, I wanted to perform. I wanted to tour the country. They had no idea what to do. In fact, they had to go with an agency in Chicago to put me out in the mid-West. I was this artist from the North-West and it's pretty isolated here. I was so green as far as the show-biz part of it...the recording industry. The recording industry shocked me. It was so ugly. (laughs)

Q - What do you mean by that?

A - I was sexually harassed every time I made a move and I had to move on.

Q - By who?

A - Producers. (record producers) It was basically, if you don't do this, forget it. (laughs)

Q - That blunt?

A - Well, they didn't say that, but, when it didn't happen, basically, the relationship ended. It was just so horrific.

Q - You're talking big name record producers?

A - Yup.

Q - So, if you named them, I would know their names?

A - You should.

Q - I don't expect you to name names. I guess the world will wait until you write your autobiography.

A - (laughs) I'll tell you this, it happened with the first producer I worked with... At this point, our relationship is fine. I gave him a dog years ago, and that was like the most wonderful thing that happened in his life. He loved this dog. I spoke to him last year. I'd speak to him again, it's just that I don't have time for all the relationships that are out there for me to deal with. He basically just dropped me and I was left with the co-producer, who was a sweetheart of a guy, but, at that point, there was no co-operation. I had a manager out of LA who said "I could put you on Scepter", so, I just left that situation. It's just so shameful that this had to happen, because there was no capitalization on this hit.

Q - That would explain why there was no follow-up.

A - There was a follow-up, but, there were no independent promotion men following up. I eventually went to his label for the last 2 or 3 cuts that I did and they went bubbling under. There was no promotion. No care. It was just "see you later." Then I went with them just as they were losing Dionne Warwick and they released one song of mine and then went out of business. It was a Carole King song called "Child Of Mine". So, the manager I was with knew Vegas, but he didn't know the recording industry. It was just a horrible situation. I just didn't know anything. I knew how to perform and that's what I've done all these years. I knew what to do when I got on stage, but, to deal with the business end of it, the industry part of music has always baffled me. And now, it's worse than ever.

Q - What makes you say that?

A - It's worse than ever because everybody's scrambling and trying to figure what to put out. The industry is in huge trouble. I'll tell you, the music is not worth paying the money for. So, if they want a cut off an album, they're gonna download that cut. They're not gonna go out and buy an entire album of bad music. This started, I think, probably around the mid seventies, just a bunch of crappy music on albums that you had to buy to get one cut that was a hit or was decent. In the old days, you could play the flip side of records and get hits. I just feel the music was better. I think the sales are showing now that the music is not what it should be. What's going on now is money-grabbing, but, there's nobody staying in power at record labels long enough. There's just this re-cycling of people because this person doesn't have the answer, so we fire him and go on to the next person. I don't want to sound bitter, because I'm not. I just let it go. I do try to pay attention to see if there's anything decent coming along.

Q - How many dates a year do you perform?

A - That varies because of the type of performing I do now. I don't do anything local because I have to charge so much money 'cause I have my own band here. I have a wonderful band. It's a good size band. What I do is oldies shows. I go around the country doing oldies combination shows.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

* Chip Taylor wrote "Angel Of The Morning" and "Wild Thing".*
**"Angel Of The Morning" rose to number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 during a 12 week chart stay.