Toward the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties a short-lived death theme appeared in several popular songs. Within the popular teenage ‘coffin’ song arena, automobile accidents and airline crashes constitute events that entail the unexpected loss of life. Death interrupts anticipated continuity. The studies of these ballads explore youthful experiences with either accidental death or suicide. Sociologist R. Serge Denisoff, a perceptive music analyst, alleged in 1983 that the popularity of love-lost-through-death songs was due to rapid cultural and political change at the end of the decade.
Songs which recount self-inflicted death are numerous, melancholy, and somewhat mysterious. Most often, an act of suicide is described by a forlorn lover, by a remaining relative, or by a sad and confused friend. (B. Lee Cooper, Popular Music Perspectives, 1991, p.85) Lovers mourn the loss of mates in Endless Sleep, an Indian couple produce a watery Romeo and Juliet death scene in Running Bear, and after Patches commits suicide her forsaken lover, in spite of his parents disapproval, joins her the next night.
Here are my choices for the dozen best teenage death songs from the 50s and 60s:
I’d Rather Die Young by the Hilltoppers, 1953
Endless Sleep by Jody Reynolds, 1958
El Paso by Marty Robbins, 1959
Running Bear by Johnny Preston, 1959
Teen Angel by Mark Dinning, 1960
Tell Laura I Love Her by Ray Peterson, 1960
Ebony Eyes by the Everly Brothers, 1961
Moody River by Pat Boone, 1961
Leah by Roy Orbison, 1962
Patches by Dicky Lee, 1962
Last Kiss by J. Frank Wilson, 1964
Terry by Twinkle, 1965
It is especially ironic that while there were popular fifties and sixties songs that glamorized death, tragic deaths actually took the lives of several popular singing stars. Sam Cooke died in an altercation with a woman guest and the night manager at a seedy motel where he was shot to death while allegedly trying to attack the manager. Jimmie Rodgers suffered severe head injuries in a controversial incident involving a Los Angeles police officer. Fifties singer/actor Sal Mineo, who co-starred with James Dean in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ was stabbed to death. Country music’s greatest legend, Hank Williams died in 1953 as a result of drinking and drug use, Johnny Ace died backstage at a show in 1954 in a game of Russian roulette, and singer/actress Judy Tyler, who played Elvis Presley’s girlfriend in ‘Jailhouse Rock’, died in an automobile accident shortly after the film’s completion. The most shocking event at the end of the decade was the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, singer Ritchie Valens, and rock ‘n’ roll singer the ‘Big Bopper’ in 1959. Tommy Dee, Carol Kay, and the Teen-Aires eulogized the event in their top-ten song Three Stars.