Teenage Tragedy (The Lost Ballads)

“What was it you were looking for
that took your life that night
They said they found my high school ring
clutched in your fingers tight

Teen angel, can you hear me
Teen angel, can you see me
Are you somewhere up above
And I am still your own true love

Just sweet sixteen, and now you’re gone
They’ve taken you away.
I’ll never kiss your lips again
They buried you today

Teen angel, can you hear me
Teen angel, can you see me
Are you somewhere up above
And I am still your own true love”

-Mark Dinning, “Teen Angel” (1959)

The “Teenage Tragedy Song“, also known as “Death Ballad” or a “Splatter Platter,” is a style of ballad popular between the late 1950s and early 1960s. The “Teenage Tragedy Song” laments the premature deaths of young, star crossed lovers, either sung from the viewpoint of the dead person’s sweetheart, or sometimes from the viewpoint of the dead – or dying – lover.

The most popular motif in the “Teenage Tragedy Song” is auto-wrecks or motorcycle accidents, most popularly exhibited in songs such as “Leader of The Pack” by The Shangri-La’s and “Dead Man’s Curve” by Jan & Dean. One of the most recognizable “Teenage Tragedy” songs is the infamous 1964 one-hit wonder, “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers, which is based on the lamenting of a mourning lover.

“Last Kiss” is a perfect example of songwriters (in the case of “Last Kiss,” Wayne Cochran) attempting to cash in on the hit-parade of “Teen Tragedy” type songs. Knowing that this sub-genre was trendy amongst a young demographic, Cochran enlisted the help of some of his fellow musician friends (Joe Carpenter, Randall Hoyal, and Bobby McGlon) to aid him in writing a “teenage tragedy” song. The original version was recorded in 1961 for the Gala label, but failed to receive any buzz or acclaim.

In 1964, the song was rediscovered by promoter, Sonley Rousch, and brought to one of the acts he managed, J. Frank Wilson. Rousch quickly put together a backing band dubbed “The Cavaliers,” and the song was recorded during a tense 4 hour long session. Apparently, J. Frank Wilson was not keen on the song, and did not believe that The Cavaliers were a suitable backing band for him. This led to an argument with Sid Holmes, lead guitarist of The Cavaliers, who didn’t believe Wilson had any right to criticize The Cavaliers. Holmes left the band shortly afterwards.

In an ironic twist, “Last Kiss” would become not only the most popular song J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers recorded, but also the only one to earn the band a gold record and a spot on the Billboard charts (The cover was released in June 1964 and reached the Top 10 in October. It eventually reached number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts). Furthermore, life would reflect art when, in transit to a concert in Ohio, the band’s car collided with a truck, killing Roush and severely injuring Wilson.

Listen to it HERE: J. Frank Wilson & The Cavaliers – Last Kiss (1964)

Perhaps the “teenage tragedy” songs of the 50’s and 60’s were as popular as they were because there is something inherently tragic about being a teenager. It’s a period of life filled with melodramatic sentiments that the “teenage tragedy” songs exploited and capitalized on.

While the classic examples are still celebrated to this day, there are many other relatively unknown “teenage tragedy” songs that deserve to see the light of day. Below are some of my favorite “teenage tragedy” deep-cuts. Check ’em out:

Listen HERE: Jody Reynolds – Endless Sleep (1958)

Listen HERE: The Fleetwoods – Tragedy (1961)

Listen HERE: Bobby Goldsboro – Honey (1968)

E.

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