Rosie Hamlin, the teenager who crooned the eternal classic “Angel Baby,” passed away last week. The lead singer of Rosie and the Originals died on Thursday of undisclosed causes. A statement from the family on the band’s website noted Hamlin was 71 when she passed in her sleep and didn’t perform in her later years because of health concerns.
“It’s been difficult for us these past few days and we are heartbroken from our loss,” Joey Tafolla, Rosie’s son and longtime Orange County resident, told the Weekly. “We are so overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support by so many people who she has touched with her music. It’s truly amazing how the song ‘Angel Baby’ touched so many people’s lives in a positive way.”
According to an online autobiography, Hamlin was born on July 21, 1945 in Klamath Falls, Oregon to a white father and Mexican mother. She grew up in Anchorage, Alaska before moving down to National City, California with her family. The singer got her start in music at 13, albeit by fibbing to a country western band about being 16 before taking the mic. But Hamlin’s first, and most revered, hit wasn’t too far away.
“When I was 14, I wrote a poem about a teenage love called Angel Baby,” Hamlin wrote on her website. A group of her musician friends decided to drive to San Marcos to record the tune at a makeshift studio inside an old airplane hanger. After about 30 takes, the band had a demo in “Angel Baby” to shop, but few record companies gave the song the time of day at first.
Rosie and the Originals decided to take “Angel Baby” over to Kresge’s Department Store in San Diego and convinced the manager to play the song over loud speakers. A Highland Records representative just happened to be at the store when he heard the tune and tracked the band down. They handed the demo over and soon after KDAY-LA played the song over the radio before it shot all the way to No. 5 on the national charts. Hamlin was just 15 at the time, but the band later broke up over a Highland Records contract that didn’t list her as songwriter. She later married Noah Tafolla, the band’s guitarist whom she recorded a full-length album with, and started a family.
The day following Hamlin’s death, KPFK-FM 90.7’s Pocho Hour of Power paid tribute to the singer, with host Lalo Alcaraz announcing news before any media penned obituaries. Since then, Billboard and Rolling Stone both noted the late John Lennon’s professed love and cover of the “Angel Baby” in their pieces. But Hamlin’s teenage love tune immediately struck a chord with Mexican-Americans who’ve kept the “Oldie But Goodie” alive for decades ever since.
“Although Rosie and the Originals had a national hit with ‘Angel Baby,’ it was the Mexican American community that embraced her and showered her with love,” writes Ruben Molina in Chicano Soul: Recordings & History of an American Culture. With the first big hit of the 1960s for a Chicano artist, Hamlin also gave young Chicanas their first anthem, Molina adds. The whammy bar-bending opening notes cast a spell that Hamlin’s angelic vocals accentuated with her youthful innocence.
The doo-wop “Angel Baby” lived on at gymnasiums where high school couples slow danced in its heyday to Sunday barbecues today where oldies provide the soundtrack to socializing. It’s a perennially requested love song on the Art Laboe Connection, a fact acknowledged by the legendary radio host himself. “Your signature song, #AngelBaby, we must have played a million times since it first came out,” Laboe wrote on Facebook upon learning of Hamlin’s passing. “Your artistry and music has touched so many Rosie and you will be missed.” Laboe had always sought to bring “Angel Baby” to his recent concerts, but Hamlin’s fibromyalgia prevented her from appearing.
The singer leaves behind three children and a legacy that will endure. “My mom had a tremendous influence on me,” Tafolla, also a musician who was in OC on Sunday and saw “Angel Baby” covered by the Creepers, adds. “I met so many of the musicians that helped shaped pop music while with her and I’m grateful for that. By the time Hamlin left music, and this life, behind, she worked with giants like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Freddy Fender, Malo, Tierra and countless others. Hamlin also became the first Latina honored by the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Rest in peace, Rosie.