Put a gun to my head and I still couldn't remember a single note of 1957's "Angels Are So Few," by David Spradling. But it had a profound impact on me and some of my buddies in the Teen Tones dance band that year. That song made the world seem smaller, more accessible, something we just might be able to tackle after all. That's asking quite a lot from one song.
David Spradling was the pianist for Oklahoma City's Teen Tones, a pretty good musician with a flat-top, a fiery case of acne and a mother/manager straight out of "Gypsy."
Mrs. Spradling (if she had a first name we sure weren't allowed to use it) was convinced that David had written a hit; he just needed a little promotion. And in fact, in those days rock was still something of a cottage industry. An enterprising (and in this case, unbelievably focused) person could cut a record, put a hundred of them in a cardboard box in the trunk of her car, and drive from town to town begging (and sometimes paying) for air play at the local radio stations. And getting on the air was a lot easier then than now. There was no "top forty" format, no Casey Kasem, just home-town disk jockeys who were actually looking for local talent. There were lots of regional hits, and Mrs. Spradling was determined that "Angels Are So Few" would be one of them.
So she bought the band matching silver lame' shirts with collars wide enough to take flight, and started booking the band anywhere that would take us. She made us practice like crazy and would only let us play three songs- "Tequila" a regional hit by a group called The Champs, "Tonight You Belong to Me," another regional hit by two girls named Patience and Prudence, and of course, "Angels Are So Few," with David singing solo.
Not only was rock in its infancy in 1957, so was television and to our surprise Mrs. Spradling got us on quite a few shows. We did "Oklahoma Bandstand" up in Enid, "Uncle Buck's Sock Hop" in Tulsa, and then the absolute big time- Pat Boone's "Malt Shop" on WBAP in Fort Worth. Pat Boone, who was only a couple of years older than we were and on the cusp of his own monster career, put his hand on David's shoulder on the air and said "I think you and the Teen Tones have a hit on your hands." We found out later that Pat was prone to say this to almost every act, but that day we were speechless with joy.
All the way home Mrs. Spradling would make us stop at record stores and radio station where she would leave a stack of 45's. She even got a bunch of little stand-up posters with David's picture (sans acne), the name of the song and the words "As featured on Pat Boone's 'Malt Shop' on WBAP." In Ardmore a girl asked David for his autograph.
We kept playing- amusement parks, sock hops, birthday parties. We were sick of those three songs by that time, but Mrs. Spradling kept pushing. Every week she would come to practice to tell us that we'd sold so many at this record store, so many at that one, they had promised to play it on "The Voice of the Prairie" in Guymon, and so forth. It helped a little, but honestly I was getting bored. David was getting some publicity, but I was feeling like a Cricket to David's Buddy Holly.
Then it happened. Mrs. Spradling showed up at practice one night with a reporter and a photographer from the Harding High School newspaper. "You've done it fellows," she said, making a special effort to include all of us. 'Angels Are So Few' by the Teen Tones is number five in Fort Worth."
We had a top ten hit. We yelled and screamed and punched each other on the arm(the deepest display of male-on-male affection allowed in 1950s Oklahoma). We promised each other that this was just the beginning, next stop Ed Sullivan.
It was the end, of course. Two months later David and I both got drafted, and the Teen Tones were forgotten. But for a flickering moment I felt the satisfaction of success. Even though I can only recall the final six notes of "Angels Are So Few," it will remain my favorite song.
Causes Jack Shakely Supports
International relief through Operation USA (board member)
Center for Philanthropy and Public Policy, University of Southern California