By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2011; 6:16 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.
Before her songwriting career, Ms. Dinning sang with her twin sister, Virginia "Ginger" Dinning, and their older sister Lou Dinning as the Dinning Sisters, a harmony trio modeled on the Boswell Sisters and the Andrews Sisters.
The Dinning Sisters had a top-10 hit with "Buttons and Bows" (1948), which had also been popularized that year in the Bob Hope film "The Paleface."
They were also adept at standards, such as a smooth version of "Once in a While" and goofy novelties such as "Clancy." They appeared on an NBC country music show, "The National Barn Dance." As one of the first acts signed to Capitol Records, the Dinning Sisters accompanied other singers on the label's roster, including Tennessee Ernie Ford and Tex Ritter.
Eugenia Doy Dinning was born March 29, 1924, on the family farm near Enid, Okla. She and all eight of her siblings sang in a church choir that was directed by her father.
An older brother, Wade, chaperoned and tutored the underage singers as they performed in contests and on radio shows. They joined the musical staff of NBC Radio in Chicago in 1938 and later appeared in the 1942 musical "Strictly in the Groove."
Lou Dinning left the group in 1946 to pursue a solo career. Other replacements followed before the trio disbanded in 1954. Ms. Dinning pursued a second career as a soloist and songwriter. The group briefly reunited later and recorded "Rhinestone Christian" (1993), an album of spirituals, with the Jordanaires.
Ms. Dinning's marriages to Howard Mack and Alex "Red" Surrey ended in divorce. Her third husband, Joel "Red" Beasley, died in 1994.
Survivors include four children from her first marriage; a son from her second marriage; two sisters, Virginia Lutke of Oakland, N.J., and Dolores Edgin of Springfield, Tenn.; five children; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. Her brother Mark died in 1986.
In the Billboard book, Ms. Dinning said she and her second husband had agreed to share song credits, giving him co-authorship of "Teen Angel."
"When we were divorced, 'Teen Angel' was turned back over to me as part of the settlement," she said. "It didn't seem like a hot property at the time and was past its peak."
Soon after, a friend called and told her "Teen Angel" was on the soundtrack of George Lucas's hit 1973 film "American Graffiti."