Death Rock: Teenage Tragedy Songs

The siren began its shrill, piercing wail. Some of the kids jumped, some were unfazed. All of them dropped to the floor as they had been taught and curled up under their desks. They all lie face down and cover their faces with a jacket or book or even just their hands. Children of all ages – from those as young as five to teenagers – had been taught that this “duck and cover” procedure would protect them in the event of a nuclear attack. The intense heat from a bomb exploding nearby could cause windows to shatter and dropping under your desk and shielding your face would protect you from harm. Teachers were even taught to suddenly yell “Drop!” in the middle of a lesson to see how efficiently the kids would react. Experts said that these drills taught children and adults alike to be prepared and to know what to do in case of such a catastrophe. It surely must also have horrified some children, filling them with dread. Some may even have been able to compare what they had learned about a nuclear explosion with the ineffectual shield of a desk and your hands. For many kids, the Cold War of the 1950’s and ’60’s and the threat of annihilation may have been their first exposure to a terrifying concept; death. When “the bomb” was never dropped though it may have also created a cool detachment to it. This may in part explain how easy it was for a certain type of song from the golden era to become popular; teenage tragedy songs.

November 21, 1951. Public School 152 in Queens. AP Photo/Dan Grossi.

When the “teenager” came into his and her own starting in the early 1950’s, one of the many things they did was adopt their own heroes. These included film stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean but also rock & roll disc jockeys and singers. Pictures went up on bedroom walls and in school lockers and the talk at the malt shop concerned these heroes and their latest pictures and records. As early as Christmas Day 1954, though, the kids got a dose of bleak reality when one of those early heroes, R&B singer Johnny Ace, died tragically. Memphis-born Ace was performing in Houston and backstage he began playing with his gun. Confident he knew which chamber was empty, he aimed the gun at himself, it discharged a bullet and Ace was killed instantly. His timeless recording “Pledging My Love” went to #1 on the R&B charts following his death and when it entered the Pop charts, Johnny Ace became the first artist to place a song on these charts posthumously. His death prompted a clutch of tribute records by artists like Varetta Dillard, Frankie Ervin and Linda Hayes.

The late, great Johnny Ace.

Atlanta’s Chuck Willis had written and recorded two classic songs, “It’s Too Late”, a ballad subsequently covered by scores of artists and “I Feel So Bad”, later a hit for Elvis Presley. Though plagued by stomach ulcers most of his adult life, Chuck enjoyed some popularity also scoring with “C.C. Rider” and “Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes”. His most enduring single is the heartfelt “What Am I Living For”, an R&B chart-topper that also entered the Pop Top 10. Released in March of 1958, “What Am I Living For” has gone on to be covered by countless artists including Conway Twitty, Ray Charles, Jack Scott, Wanda Jackson, the Animals, Andy Williams, the Band and Van Morrison. Only weeks after the release of this record – the first rock & roll record to be released in stereo – Willis went in for surgery for his ulcers but died on the table of peritonitis.

Suave Chuck Willis.

The most significant traumatic event though in many teenagers’ lives was the February, 1959 plane crash that resulted in the deaths of three vital stars. The crash that claimed the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper drove home for the kids – and for others – the transient nature of life. In one fell swoop the fans of three singers suffered a simultaneous loss of their hero and this cut a swath through the youth of America. As the 1950’s came to a close, kids were beginning to find their own way in life, enjoying independence and starting to navigate the highways and byways, the ups and downs. One unfortunate aspect of this was in understanding and accepting death.

This dark theme began showing up on the hit parade. When you think about it, all the conditions were ripe for these “teenage tragedy songs” to emerge. Self-absorbed teenagers had a natural tendency towards dramatics; “If Billy doesn’t take me to the dance I’ll just die!”. Add to this the ages-old battle between kids and their parents. Often kids felt misunderstood and if a mother or father should forbid two youngsters from being united that just increased the attraction of stealing away together. An extension of this could easily be the thinking that the kids were determined to show their folks how deep their devotion went. This lead to many songs presenting these themes; “star-crossed lovers, reckless youth, eternal devotion, suicide, and despair over lost love; along with lyrical elements that teens of the time could relate to their own lives– such as dating, motorcycles and automobiles…and disapproving parents or peers”. This represents the pinnacle of teen rebellion; you’ve driven me to gamble with my life. Only after I am dead will you really understand me.

The cream-coloured 1960 Ford Consul Mark II that was carrying Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran on April 16, 1960. It hit a concrete lamppost and Cochran was killed; another death young rock & roll fans had to deal with.

Marty Robbins topped the charts with his timeless “El Paso”, a story told by a dead man who loved his Feleena so much that fear of death couldn’t keep him away. The Kingston Trio released “Tom Dooley”, a “murder ballad” based on real events. “Running Bear” written by the ill-fated Big Bopper may have sounded lighthearted but it was about two Native Indian lovers from opposing tribes who lose their lives trying to swim the river that separates them. Pat Boone’s “Moody River” is a delightful song but it’s about a young girl so overcome with guilt for cheating on her guy that she commits suicide. Skeeter Davis’ big hit “The End of the World” may not have had “deadly” lyrics but the title ties in with the exaggerated notions of heartbreak these kids loved to adopt. This mini-genre really began with a song written by the legendary team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and performed by The Cheers. “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” was probably the first “biker song” and told the story of a young girl who pleads with her biker boyfriend not to ride one particular night. He does and is hit by a train. Investigators at the scene of the crash cannot find the motorcycle or the rider – just his clothes. This 1955 tune mirrored the rise of motorcycle culture and the strange disappearance of the rider pointed the way to the drama of the teenage tragedy song.

There are a handful of songs in the true “death rock/teenage tragedy song” tradition that were extremely successful and resonated with record-buyers. Several of them reached the Top Ten of the Pop charts and a few have “lived on” – despite their themes of not living – and have become symbols of the golden era, the age we specialize in at Your Home for Vintage Leisure. Let’s take a look at the greatest teenage tragedy song hits – or “splatter platters”.

“Ebony Eyes” – the Everly Brothers (1961) #8 Pop // Phil is a young man in the service. His duty to his country separates him from his girl. Phil believes that their love can withstand the miles while he is serving and so – instead of waiting for a more opportune time or until his service is done, as his parents suggest – he gets permission to bring his girlfriend to the base so the chaplain can perform the rites. As Phil waits for her overdue plane to arrive, he hears a loudspeaker asking those awaiting passengers on Flight 1203 to gather at a nearby chapel. His stomach turns over once and he can feel the blood drain from his head, replaced by a dull buzzing. He begins to think that he’s about to get the bill and will pay a terrible price for his youthful impatience… // The Everly Brothers were already one of the biggest hit-makers of the golden era by the time they released a double-sided hit near the end of 1961. “Ebony Eyes” was technically the B side of “Walk Right Back” but both songs were Top Ten hits worldwide with the somber “Ebony Eyes” – written by John D. Loudermilk – reaching #8. “Then I felt a burning break deep inside / and I knew the heavenly ebony skies / Had taken my life’s most wonderful prize / my beautiful Ebony Eyes”

I love the graphics on this single of Ray’s issued in Italy. Looks like it depicts the very race that was entered in the song!

“Tell Laura I Love Her” – Ray Peterson (1960) #7 Pop // Ray’s a young man with dreams. Most of them center on his girl, Laura. His folks tell him to go slow but Ray is sure that he and Laura are forever. He desperately needs money as he foolishly thinks Laura wants an expensive engagement ring. He sees a sign for a stock car race with the winner getting $1000. Ray and his friends are always fooling around with their rails and he knows something about racing. And he could give Laura everything he thinks she needs with that much money. He calls Laura on the phone to let her know what he is planning but she is not at home when he calls. If she had been, she would have assured Ray that all she really wants is his love. Ray arrives at the track and enters the race. He notices not only is he the youngest but the other drivers look almost professional. He may be in over his head. Ray wipes his forehead once more and grips the wheel, waiting for the green flag… // Noted songwriter Jeff Barry had written “Tell Laura I Love Her” as a story about a rodeo rider. RCA told him to rewrite it as an automobile tragedy so as to capitalize on another death rock song that had recently gone to Number One. The label’s England branch decided not to release the song as in that country it was considered “too tasteless and vulgar”; they went so far as to destroy 25,000 copies they had already manufactured. “Tell Laura I Love Her” was a worldwide hit for Ray Peterson who managed four Top 40 singles including “The Wonder of You”, later a 1970 hit for Elvis Presley and a regular for the King in concert. “No one knows what happened that day / how his car overturned in flames / But as they pulled him from the twisted wreck / with his dying breath they heard him say / tell Laura I love her…”

“Patches” – Dickey Lee (1962) #6 Pop // Dickey’s parents aren’t exactly wealthy but his dad has worked hard at the mill to make a good life for his family of five. Dickey’s town is severely divided; he lives among the middle class, factory workers, the merchants, the salesmen. Shanty Town is where those less fortunate live. Dickey has school friends that live there and he sees little difference in them. Sure their clothes may not be as nice but they seem to be good people from families that may have had more difficulties than others. Dickey had an old maid aunt that would always say “there but for the grace of God…”. One of his friends has a sister. Patches, they call her. Dickey has fallen in love with her, her quiet demeanour, her fair skin, her bright blond hair. Dickey was shocked by his parents’ reaction when he first brought her home. He soon learned a hard lesson about his folks. They seemed a little too concerned about the clothes Patches wore, where she lived or what her old man did for a living. They were really shook when Dickey said they planned to marry and they put a stop to it quick, so quick that Dickey couldn’t get to Patches to tell her what had happened. One day soon after, Dickey overhears a neighbour talking to his father. What he hears makes his blood run cold… // Prolific songwriter Barry Mann co-wrote “Patches” and Dickey Lee put it on his album, The Tale of Patches, released on Smash Records in 1962. I’ll admit I had never heard of this song before my wife mentioned she heard a sad song on The Doo-Wop Express called “Patches”. I said, yeah, it’s sad. Before the guy’s father dies he says he’s depending on him to look after the family… I thought she meant the Clarence Carter song by the same name. Dickey Lee later had another “tragedy” hit, “Laurie (Strange Things Happen)” in 1965 and would go on to a solid career on the country charts. Starting in 1971, he regularly placed songs in the top 40 of that listing. Lee (born 1936) wrote the country standard “She Thinks I Still Care” and started his career recording for Sun Records. “A girl name of Patches was found / floating face down in that dirty old river…it may not be right / but I’ll join you tonight / Patches, I’m coming to you”

Lookit how Dickey sings most of the teenage tragedy songs on his record. This must’ve been a great one to spin at a party.

“Endless Sleep” – Jody Reynolds (1958) #5 Pop // Jody’s a bit of a roughneck; his Christian name sometimes gets simplified to “JD”. He talks and acts tough and rolls with a tough crowd. He never knew his mother and his old man is a hopeless drunk. He doesn’t always make it to class but at school he’s got a teacher, old Mrs. Nolan, who can see through the splintered wooden exterior. Jody’s got a girl named Lana and she, too, can see the little boy inside. Only she knows about the nightmares he’s suffered since he was a child, the voices he sometimes hears. Her friends don’t get it; especially seeing as Jody is such a hothead. He’s often mean to his girl and they have terrible fights. One rainy night, Jody goes too far. He drives off in a huff and leaves Lana stranded at some juke joint down by the sea. Feeling guilty and hearing a warning from a disembodied voice, he returns to the bar but it’s shrouded in darkness. By the light over the Coke machine, he can make out her footprints. They lead down to the water. He calls to her… // Uniquely, Denver’s Jody Reynolds actually wrote his one hit, “Endless Sleep”. A rockabilly artist enamoured of Elvis Presley, Reynolds was heavily inspired by Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” when penning this tragic tale. And speaking of “tragic”, you’ll notice that the final lines of this song are “I saved my baby from an endless sleep”. Reynolds had written a sadder ending but his record label demanded the tweak to the final lines. Jody’s song was one of the earliest teenage tragedy songs to scale the heights but Reynolds could not duplicate its success. Much later, Col. Tom Parker signed Reynolds to a publishing deal in the hopes that he would provide songs for Presley to record but the King died before that could happen. Jody Reynolds died in Palm Desert in 2008. “The night was black, rain fallin’ down / looked for my baby, she’s nowhere around / traced her footsteps down to the shore / ‘fraid she’s gone forever more…why did we quarrel, why did we fight? / why did I leave her alone tonight? / I heard a voice cryin’ in the deep ‘come join me, baby, in my endless sleep'”

“Teen Angel” – Mark Dinning (1959) #1 Pop // Mark’s girl, Samantha, likes shiny things. For years she’s watched her lush of a mother harangue her father. Her mother always wants more and better; more money, more jewels, a better home, a better car. Without even knowing it, Samantha has become the same way. Many boys had asked her out but she wouldn’t date them before she knew about their families and where they stood in town society. Mark’s father is the assistant manager at the bank; Samantha likes that. Additionally, she has to admit that Mark is a sweetheart. Hopefully he’d be able to give her the sort of presents she would like. His class ring was a good start. Especially considering Mark was class president and had lettered in three sports. Her girlfriend’s were jealous of that ring and it had become a significant shiny bauble in her life, a portent of things to come. One night, Mark and Samantha are out in Mark’s car. It had been giving him trouble lately, he told her, and this was a concern for her. She didn’t want to be driven around in some heap. She fingers the ring on the chain around her neck again. At least I’ve got this, she says to herself… // Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel” was not only the biggest teenage tragedy song hit, it was also one of the most successful records in the “one-hit wonder” category. It was the first death rock tune to top the charts, unless we’re counting Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear”. Others that followed later include the Shangri-La’s “Leader of the Pack” (1964) and “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry (1967). Another song banned from radio for being “too sad”, “Teen Angel” was co-written by Mark’s sister, Jean, one of the singing Dinning Sisters. Mark Dinning released some two dozen singles in his ten-year career but none made any impact. Poor Mark didn’t handle his lack of success well and died young, at 52. “That fateful night / the car was stalled / upon the railroad track / I pulled you out and you were safe / but you went running back…they said they found my high school ring / clutched in your fingers tight…I’ll never kiss your lips again / they buried you today”

Now, if you’re ready for an antidote for all this sadness and death, I’ve got just the thing. Country music songwriting legend Boudleaux Bryant wrote “Let’s Think About Living” in 1960. Recorded by Bob Luman, the song was a Top Ten hit on both the US Pop and Country charts. The song pokes fun at the teenage tragedy song and the gunfighter ballad and states that, if all these people keep dying, Luman will be the only one left making records. Which, no doubt, is fine with Bob!

"In every other song that I've heard lately
some fellow gets shot
and his baby and his best friend both die with him
as likely as not...
Let's think about living
let's think about loving
let's think about the whoopin' and hoppin' and boppin' and the lovey, lovey dovin'
let's forget about the whinin' and the cryin'
and the shootin' and the dyin'
and the fellow with a switchblade knife
let's think about living
let's think about life.
We lost old Marty Robbins
down in old El Paso a little while back
and now Miss Patti Page or one of them
is a-wearing black
and Cathy's Clown has Don and Phil
where they feel like a-they could die
if we keep on a-losin' our singers like that
I'll be the only one you can buy"

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