Singer Rosie Hamlin's performance here in July at a benefit concert for the Latino newspaper El Sol de San Diego afforded local oldies fans a rare glimpse of the queen mother of San Diego rock 'n' roll.

In January, 1961, Hamlin's group, Rosie and the Originals, became the first San Diego rock band to crack the national pop charts with their million-selling recording of "Angel Baby."

The winsome love ballad, which Hamlin had written for her boyfriend two years earlier, when she was just 14, peaked at No. 5 and remained in the Top 40 for nearly three months.

After that, nothing more was heard from Rosie and the Originals. Several follow-up singles flopped, and, two years later, the group broke up.

Still, many a rock historian has since credited Hamlin and her cohorts with launching the "girl-group" sound of the early 1960s that was later popularized by the likes of the Shirelles, the Ronettes and the Supremes.

The late John Lennon once called Hamlin "one of my all-time favorite American artists," and his own version of "Angel Baby" appears on the just-issued "Menlove Avenue," a posthumous album of previously unreleased material the ex-Beatle recorded with producer Phil Spector in 1972.

"A few years ago, a friend sent me a bootleg tape of that recording session and right when the music to 'Angel Baby' starts, Lennon can be heard saying, 'To Rosie, wherever she might be,' " Hamlin said.

"That just blew me away. I was so thrilled that he would record my song; it's the highest compliment I could imagine."

Inspired by this compliment, Hamlin, now 40 and living in Bakersfield, is finally embarking on a comeback. She recently signed with Mountain Music Productions of San Bernardino, the same booking agency that handles veteran soul singer Al Green.

In late September, she begins a monthlong concert tour of the East Coast, followed by an extended road trip to Europe. In the meantime, she's busy recording her first album in more than a quarter-century, armed with a batch of songs she's written over the past few years.

"All over the country, there's a big renewal of interest in rock 'n' roll oldies," Hamlin said. "And ever since the Lennon album came out, I've been running into all the right people.

"So it just seems it's time for me to come back."

Actually, Hamlin never really went away. Despite her absence from the recording studio, she has made a good living on the oldies revival circuit, averaging three nights a week playing tiny nightclubs, mostly in the Southwest.

"I've been doing all right, but this deal with Mountain Music will really help," Hamlin said. "It's so much easier to find work when you have a record out."

Born in Oregon, Hamlin moved with her family to National City in 1956, when she was 11. Two years later, her mother bought her a piano, and within a few months, she was writing songs.

In 1959, Hamlin and four other teen-age musicians formed Rosie and the Originals. They rehearsed whenever and wherever they could, often in her parents' garage, and frequently played around town at high school dances and private parties.

"Eventually, we made a tape of some of our original songs, including 'Angel Baby,' and took it around to various local deejays," Hamlin recalled. "But nobody would play it because we didn't have a record deal.

"One day, we were in a department store, trying to get the music manager to listen to our songs, and when we played 'Angel Baby,' a bunch of kids standing around began making a big fuss.

"A guy from Highland Records was in the store at the time, and when he saw what was happening, he asked us for a copy of the tape and promised to make us all millionaires.

"About two weeks went by, and we began hearing 'Angel Baby' on the radio. Right away, we signed a contract with Highland, and after another month or so, it was a national hit."

On the strength of that one song, Rosie and the Originals became an overnight sensation. They toured the country with B.B. King and such early rock 'n' roll acts as Jackie Wilson and Chubby Checker. In 1962 they released their first, and only, album, "Lonely Blue Nights."

Two years later, it was all over.

"After 'Angel Baby,' we left Highland and signed a new deal with Brunswick Records, because Highland wasn't paying us," Hamlin said. "The guys at Highland were so angry that they told us they would see to it that we would never work again.

"Essentially, that's what happened. We put out several more singles on Brunswick, but we never had another hit. And by 1964, we were so frustrated that we decided to break up."

A year later, Hamlin moved to Los Angeles, hoping to start a solo career. After repeated attempts to land another record deal, she finally gave up in 1968 and moved to San Bernardino, then Bakersfield, to be closer to her family.

"The entire time, I've supported myself through singing," she said. "I've always wanted to get back into the recording studio, but until recently, I never had the chance.

"Now that I do, I hope to move back to San Diego real soon. It's such a beautiful city, and it's also where I got my start."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World