“Teen Angel” became the first teen-tragedy song to reach No. 1 on the charts and paved the way for a distinct, though short-lived, musical genre about youths dying in car or motorcycle wrecks.
It was an unsettling tune for an unsettling time in music history. “Teen Angel” topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart on Feb. 8, 1960, almost exactly a year after music pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson Jr., a.k.a. the Big Bopper, died in a plane crash in snowy Iowa on Feb. 3, 1959.
But its release also came at a unique social moment, as teen culture began to coalesce and embrace a new kind of music. Record company executives looking for the next Elvis Presley saw dollar signs in the largely white demographic that had money to buy 45s and long-playing albums. They wanted songs that would resonate, according to John Covach, director of the Institute for Popular Music at the University of Rochester in New York and author of “What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and Its History.”
“Teen Angel” and similar hits zeroed in on the intensity of first love and embodied the “teenage idealization of death and romance,” Covach said. “In most cases, the death that occurs … is either proof of fidelity and love, or it’s a consequence of love and fidelity."
The same year that singer Mark Dinning became briefly famous for “Teen Angel” — which was written by his sister and her husband — Ray Peterson lamented another loss in “Tell Laura I Love Her.” His was the story of a boy who enters a stock car race hoping to win money to buy his girlfriend, Laura, a wedding ring, with predictably heartbreaking results. And before 1960 ended, Marilyn Michaels recorded an “answer song” called “Tell Tommy I Miss Him.”
All reflected the real life car-crash deaths of teen idol James Dean in 1955 and singer Eddie Cochran in 1960. Art imitated life on-screen as well: In the ultimate teen-angst movie, “Rebel Without a Cause,” a boy drives over the edge of a bluff in a fatal game of chicken with Dean’s character. The film was released only weeks after the actor died. He was just 24.
Other early rock-and-roll songs focused on more bubbly aspects of teenagers’ life — dances, high school and cars — because that’s what the target audience was interested in, noted Jack Hamilton, an assistant professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia. Those tunes were typically, intentionally upbeat — from “Let’s Twist Again” by Chubby Checkers (1961) to the Beach Boys’ “Be True to Your School” (1963) to “Maybellene” by Chuck Berry (1955).
The tragedy genre aimed to elicit a different response.
“It was a way for rock-and-roll to move towards more serious issues, but a lot of the songs are so sentimental and maudlin,” said Hamilton, the author of “Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination.” “They’re not all that emotionally complex. They’re kind of quaint and strange.”
Perhaps that also reflected the times, before the wrenching turmoil of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and fights over the Vietnam War and civil rights. The teens listening were baby boomers, “the first coddled generation of kids,” Covach noted. Their GI fathers had come home from World War II and tried to construct a safe bubble around their children. In some ways, the songs hinted of the darkness ahead.
“When teens discover love for the first time, it can be a powerful experience. But they have parents telling them, ‘You don’t really know what love is yet, you’re too young,’” Covach said. “So there’s a sense of trying to prove to parental authority that what you have is the real thing. And it’s so real that somebody dies for it.”
The genre peaked in 1964 with the trifecta of “Last Kiss” by J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers, “Dead Man’s Curve” by Jan and Dean, and “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las. Yet “Teen Angel” had a particular staying power. Various artists covered the song, including Sha Na Na, who performed it at Woodstock in 1969. The song also popped up in a 1973 coming-of-age film that itself became a classic.
In “American Graffiti,” however, every teen survives.
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