When Tony Owen, producer of The Donna Reed Show, told series stars Shelley Fabares and Paul Petersen that he wanted them to record songs that would be written into the show’s third season scripts, Fabares was terrified but Petersen thought it was a great idea. He was friends with another sitcom star, Ricky Nelson, who balanced his acting career with a successful run on the pop charts – and Ricky seemed to get all the girls. Petersen already had some singing experience. “I performed at the Hollywood Bowl Easter sunrise service before I was eight,” he tells Billboard. “And I was hired as a Mouseketeer because I could sing and dance.”
Petersen’s first single for the Colpix label was the novelty song “She Can’t Find Her Keys,” which peaked at No. 19 in 1962. He followed it with a Carole King-Gerry Goffin composition, “Keep Your Love Locked (Deep in Your Heart),” which Paul first heard when King played it for him on her piano. The single only went to No. 59. But in early 1963, Petersen had his biggest hit with a Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil song, “My Dad.” “Barry and Cynthia handed me this precious song that Barry wrote for his father. I was instantly in tears.”
In an emotional Donna Reed scene from an October 1962 episode, Petersen sang the song while his TV father Carl Betz proudly looked on. “Carl and I could hardly contain ourselves,” Petersen remembers. “The song is magic. We knew it then and we know it today. To this day I get some of the most heartwarming messages that the song will always have a place in people’s hearts.” Just as he was when he first heard the song, at the end of the scene Petersen’s character Jeff Stone is in tears. Billboard wanted to know if that was acting or a true emotional reaction. “It was both genuine and acting,” Petersen reveals. “Genuine in my sentiments for Carl Betz and acting when it came to takes two and three.”
After “My Dad” peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100, Petersen returned to the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil songbook for “Amy,” which went to No. 65 in 1963. Another single, “The Cheer Leader,” stalled at No. 78. One of Petersen’s last singles for Colpix was “She Rides With Me,” an obscure gem co-written and produced by Brian Wilson.
After the Colpix label folded, Petersen declined to sign with the successor imprint, Colgems, and in a surprise move, joined Motown. His first single for Berry Gordy’s company was “Chained,” in 1967. Although Petersen’s version didn’t chart, Marvin Gaye’s remake appeared on the Hot 100 a year later. In 1969, the Jackson 5 recorded the song for their first Motown album.
For the last three decades, Petersen has been an activist for children through his non-profit foundation, A Minor Consideration, created to provide guidance and support for young performers, past, present and future.