All of Aztlan wept when it lost the angelic voice of Rosie Hamlin earlier this year in April. The singer was best known for “Angel Baby,” a youthful love song she recorded in 1961 with Rosie and the Originals. The oldie but goodie climbed all the way to No. 5 on the national charts when Hamlin was just 15 and has enjoyed an enduring legacy ever since. Moved by Hamlin’s passing, local singer-songwriter Nancy Sanchez paid tribute to “Angel Baby” with an angelic rendition of her own.
“I love oldies and ‘Angel Baby’ is a classic,” Sanchez says. “I grew up listening to the song even though she wrote it long before I was born.” The singer never thought she’d ever cover it but headed into the studio with former Oingo Boingo bassist John Avila to do just that. Together they crafted a cosmic cover that re-imagines the song with a celestial harp-strumming intro and a Mellotron keyboard that summons dreamlike sounds. The verses are traded in English and Spanish, much like Hamlin’s later version of “Angel Baby.”
The song also clocks in as the longest Sanchez has ever recorded, thanks to a sultry bridge section that recalls a little Brenton Wood and Marco Antonio Solis. She remembers her musician father listening to “El Buki” back in the day and carried a lesson from it. “He would listen to really romantic, cheesy Mexican music that would have talking parts in Spanish and I’ve always wanted to do that,” Sanchez says. “One session during ‘Angel Baby,’ I got a piece of paper and started writing.”
For now, “Angel Baby” is available as a Christmas-timed single. Even though the song isn’t on Sanchez’s new album American Novio, she closed her record release show in June with the cover. “People just started going crazy,” she says of the first time performing the song live. “They were singing, dancing and cheering…even the guys!” The singer is planning to release a music video in support of the cover early next year with filmmaker John Cantu. “This is the beginning of putting my next album together,” Sanchez says.
In paying tribute, Sanchez reached out to Joey Tafolla, Hamlin’s son, musician and OC resident, to gain the family’s blessing. The two haven’t met yet, but Tafolla recently contacted Mark Torres, Sanchez’s manager and longtime host of KPFK-90.7 FM’s Travel Tips to Aztlan, and spoke about the song. He played it for his siblings and the moment proved touching for all.
“They’re so proud of the legacy that their mother left behind,” Sanchez says. “I feel very honored with even just the idea of them listening to my cover. It’s special.”