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'Teen death' songs were a key part of pop music in the late '50s and early '60s

Teen death songs were popular recordings in the late '50s and early '60s.
Teen death songs were popular recordings in the late '50s and early '60s.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of three articles taking up the topic of "death discs" of the late '50s and early '60s, and this item considers songs dealing with auto and motorcycle death.]

From the late 1950s through the 1960s, one of the most unusual and unconventional pop music cycles took place in the form of a "death rock" genre that featured songs in which the protagonist or a loved one met an unfortunate death.

The teenage tragedy songs that fit into the "death rock" theme -- sometimes referred to by terms such as "death discs", "splatter platters" or "tear jerkers" -- were noted for their sound effects and romantic views of death, and sometimes by spoken-word bridges.

Whereas the genre's cycle is considered to have run from the late '50s to the mid-'60s, the first such song ("Black Denim Trousers" by The Cheers) was released in 1954 and became a hit in the summer of 1955. The Shangri-Las' chart-topping "Leader Of The Pack" in late 1964 was one of the last major "death rock" hits, but several lesser hits appeared through the remainder of the decade.

The songs were sometimes performed by mainstream pop music artists such as Jan & Dean, Pat Boone and The Everly Brothers, and some were performed by less-famous artists or one-hit-wonders. And many of them reached the upper echelons, or even the top rung, of the Billboard Magazine pop singles charts.

The term "death rock" re-emerged in 1979 in connection with music performed primarily by West Coast punk bands, but this article focuses on teenage tragedy songs that impacted the Billboard Hot 100 between 1955 and 1969, with the death lyrics involving cars, trucks or motorcycles, and to hear any of the songs (with the year and top chart position listed), simply click on the title.

  • "TEEN ANGEL" (Mark Dinning, No. 1, 1959): One of the most-popular teen tragedy songs, "Teen Angel" encapsulates the "car crash" subgenre. The lyrics -- written by the singer's sister, Jean Dinning, and her husband Red Surrey -- center on a protagonists's girlfriend who seals her fate when attempting to retrieve a high school ring from a car stalled on a railroad track. Because quite a few radio stations refused to play the record at the outset, due to its morbid contents, the song was slow to gain traction on the charts, but it finally reached the No. 1 position on Feb. 8, 1960. The singer was a native of Drury, Okla., and his sisters had success as The Dinning Sisters vocal trio.
  • "LEADER OF THE PACK" (Shangri-Las, No. 1, 1964): The performers were a girl group from Queens, N.Y., consisting of sisters Mary and Betty Weiss and twins Marge and Ann Ganser. Co-written by the record's producer, George Morton, along with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, the song is archetypal as a teen tragedy number. The lyrics are about a girl who falls in love with the leader of a motorcycle gang, who speeds away, crashes and dies after being forced to end the relationship when the girl's parents don't approve. Part of the song's appeal comes from the "Look out, look out" climax.
  • "LAST KISS" (J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers, No. 2, 1964): This well-known tragedy number, based on a true story, was written and initially recorded by Wayne Cochran in 1961, but it was made famous two years later by a band formed in San Angelo, Texas. The actual car-train accident took place near Grand Prairie, Texas, on June 25, 1961, involving the tragic death of 16-year-old Carol Ann Tarver. For years, it was mistakenly assumed that the song was based on an car-truck collision that killed three teenagers near Barnesville, Ga., on Dec. 22, 1962, but that couldn't have been the source of the lyrics because the song was penned in the summer of 1961.
  • "BLACK DENIM TROUSERS" (The Cheers, No. 6, 1955): As the first significant "teen death" recording, it contained many of the metaphors and expressions that would be seen in later death discs. It featured a leading character who died in a vehicular accident and a girlfriend who grieved for him after begging him not to go out that night. A case could be made that songwriters Jerry Leiber (music) and Mike Stoller (music) in essence invented the genre, and in a way, the plot resembles the chart-topping "Leader Of The Pack" nine years later. The performers were a vocal trio from Los Angeles, consisting of Bert Convy, Sue Allen and Gil Garfield, backed by Les Baxter's orchestra and chorus.
  • "TELL LAURA I LOVE HER" (Ray Peterson, No. 7, 1960): The vocalist, who hailed from Denton, Texas, began singing when being treated for polio at a Texas hospital in his early teens. The song, written by Jeff Barry and Ben Raleigh, tells about a young man who enters a stock car race in order to earn money to buy his girlfriend some nice things, including a wedding ring. But according to the storyline, as a young, inexperienced driver, the tragic consequences were inevitable.
  • "DEAD MAN'S CURVE" (Jan & Dean, No. 8, 1964): The hit single, about a teen street race gone awry, was written by Brian Wilson, Artie Kornfeld, Roger Christian and Jan Berry, and the song concludes with one of the drivers relating his final memories of the fatal event to a doctor. Berry, of Jan & Dean, later suffered a near-fatal incident in 1966 when he crashed his car into a parked truck in the vicinity of the "dead man's curve" area depicted in the lyrics. The singers, Berry and Dean Torrence, formed a group called The Barons at a Los Angeles High School, and the duo later charted 15 Billboard Top 40 hits.
  • "THE BEGINNING OF MY END" (The Unifics, No. 36, 1968): Al Johnson was the lead singer of this soul quartet formed at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Originally called Al & The Vikings and The Unique Five, the group had numerous lineup changes. Their manager, Guy Draper, wrote the song, which was a tear-jerker about a young girl who quarrels with her lover before driving off and dying in an auto accident.
  • "CONDITION RED" (The Goodees, No. 46, 1968): This was the only Billboard charter for a Memphis girl trio consisting of Kay Evans, Judy Williams and Sandra Jackson. In many ways, the recording resembles the chart-topping "Leader of the Pack" by The Shangri-Las four years earlier. The girls started singing together in high school, and after winning a local talent contest, they earned an audition with Stax Records, and soon thereafter, they were signed to the label's HIP subsidiary.
  • "BALLAD OF THUNDER ROAD" (Robert Mitchum, No. 62 in 1958 and No. 65 in 1962): The film star wrote and performed the song, with music composed by Jack Marshall, and it was the theme song of the movie "Thunder Road." The record appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 in both 1958 and 1962, The lyrics relate the story of a bootlegger (played by Mitchum in the movie) who hauled moonshine at dangerous speeds to avoid government agents, but in the end, "The Devil got the moonshine and the mountain boy that day."

[You may subscribe to Bill Herald's oldies pop music columns -- free of charge -- by clicking on "Subscribe" near the top of the article, after which you will receive e-mail notification each time a new item is published.]

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