Jean Dinning, singer who wrote 'Teen Angel,' dies at 86

Jean Dinning, left, with sisters Lou and Ginger and Hoagy Carmichael.
Jean Dinning, left, with sisters Lou and Ginger and Hoagy Carmichael. (Courtesy Of Indiana University)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2011; 6:07 PM

Jean Dinning, a singer who performed in a popular 1940s vocal trio with her sisters and achieved more enduring fame as the author of the definitive high school tragedy song, "Teen Angel," died Feb. 22 in Garden Grove, Calif. She was 86 and had a respiratory illness.

As recorded by Ms. Dinning's younger brother Mark Dinning, "Teen Angel" (1959) reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1960 - despite the initial reluctance of many disc jockeys to play the morbid tune.

In the song, a teenage couple's car stalls on a train track. They get out safely, but the girl runs back to retrieve the boy's high school class ring as a train hits the car.

The boy laments:

Just sweet sixteen, and now you're gone

They've taken you away

I'll never kiss your lips again

They buried you today

Ms. Dinning said she was inspired to write the song after reading a newspaper article about juvenile delinquency. The story proposed that good teens needed a name and suggested calling them "teen angels."

"Being a songwriter, I said that's a title, what can I do with it?" Ms. Dinning said, according to "The Billboard Book of Number One Hits."

As the song caught on, a British music trade paper proclaimed in a headline: "Blood Runs in the Grooves."

The success of "Teen Angel" heralded a subgenre of pop songs about young death. Among them: "Tell Laura I Love Her" (1960) by Ray Peterson, "Patches" (1962) by Dicky Lee, "Last Kiss" (1964) by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers, and "Ebony Eyes" (1961) by the Everly Brothers, in which all passengers on a plane die in a crash.

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