Ahhh…the early days of rock n’ roll. Those guys knew how to make you feel bad about teen love and dying for what you believed in. This type of ballad-style song, also known as splatter-platter or death rock, was popular between the late fifties and sixties. They are usually sung from the viewpoint of the dying person or the person who lost their love. Here are five of my favorite, heart-warming songs of death.
Tell Laura I Love Her (Ray Peterson)
This song is about an inexperienced race car driver, named Tommy, who is trying to buy his girlfriend (Laura) a wedding ring. It was released in 1960 and reached #7 in the United States and #1 in the U.K. (the Brits really love their Nascar). The song has been downloaded and purchased more than seven million times and was a hit in 14 countries, which goes to prove that everyone likes to see a wreck on the race track.
Running Bear (Johnny Preston)
This song was hugely popular in the United States. It was performed by Cajun-singer, Johnny Preston, but written by J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, who suffered his own tragedy by being one of the people aboard the doomed aircraft that also killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. The song about is two Indians (named Little White Dove and, of course, Running Bear) who have a Romeo and Juliet romance. Their tribes hated each other and they are separated by a raging river. In the end, just like in the Bill Shakespeare-version, both of the Indian kids share a lovestruck suicide pact and drown in the river. Ain’t love grand?
Teen Angel (Mark Dinning)
This song, combines love and stupidity for all things material. It was released in 1960 – the year for teenage death – and written by Mark Dinning’s sister, Jean and her husband. The song reached #1 in the United States and #37 in Britain after being banned by the BBC (this was some hardcore stuff for teenagers in the 1960s). Even in the U.S., the song was banned by many radio stations – no wonder it went to number one with the kids. So what was all the hoopla about? The song tells the story about a couple out on a date when the driver decides to get his car on the railroad tracks. He and his date leave the car in time for a train to miss them, but the silly girl runs back and gets killed. Why? She left his high school ring in the car. What was it doing off his finger? Hmmm….maybe parents weren’t as worried about her overdrawn sense of materialism and were diving into the reality of what they were actually doing. In any case, it’s a great song.
Leader of the Pack (The Shangri-Las)
Every girl likes a bad boy and the Shangri-Las knew how to capitalize off of this with their song, Leader of the Pack. In 1964, this all-girl group turned their song of rebellion into a number one hit in the United States. It was banned in the United Kingdom, due to its death theme. It’s about a girl who falls in love with a vicious motorcycle gang leader, named “Jimmy” (who she meets at a candy store – so I am really doubting how tough he really was). She breaks up with him because her parents demand it and then he drives off like a maniac and gets himself killed. What’s a girl to do? As an interesting side note, Billy Joel claimed to have been the session piano player on this song. However, the producer denies that Joel ever played for the Shangri-Las. The motorcycle sound is real. They drove it up the stairs in the hotel where they recorded the song…
Last Kiss (Wayne Cochrane and the C.C. Riders)
This song you probably know. It has been covered dozens of times, most recently by Pearl Jam in 1999 and became their biggest hit. It was originally released by Wayne Cochrane in 1962. The song is about a real incident on a stretch of highway in Georgia, near the place Cochrane lived. He wrote the song over 5 years and dedicated it to a sixteen year old girl who was killed in an accident when the car another boy was driving struck a logging truck. The song wasn’t really successful until other bands started covering it. It’s a classic!