When people my age think about Baby Boomer music, they remember the fun stuff — the upbeat hits, like “Do You Believe in Magic” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
But there was other stuff there on the charts, darker music. Call it — pause for emphasis, cue the funereal dirge — Death Rock. It wasn’t a major trend, but in the 10-year period from 1960 to ’70, there were — by my count, anyway — more than a dozen hits in the Billboard Top 100 in which someone dies.
We’ll start with “Tell Laura I Love Her,” which was No. 67 in 1960. Ray Peterson’s hit involved themes that will be repeated: unrequited love, and cars. Tommy wanted to get Laura a diamond ring, the stock car race offered a $1,000 prize; his famous last words are the song’s title.
Peterson, though, got run over chart-wise by Marty Robbins, whose “El Paso” reached No. 15 that year. The subject of Robbins’ country-crossover song can’t stay away from the Mexican bandit boss’s senorita, and takes a bullet or two for his troubles — really, really unrequited love.
The following year, the sad story was bigger, and more heroic. “Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean, 1961’s No. 86, told the story of a loner — a drifter who was rumored to have killed a man before he came to town — who saves his fellow miners by holding up a timber during a cave-in. Kind of improbable, but I remember my older brothers and I loved it.
By 1962, it was back to teenaged tragedy with “Patches,” which got Dickie Lee to No. 74 in the Top 100. No cars involved this time; the narrator falls in love with girl from the wrong side of the tracks, his parents nix the relationship, and the object of his affections turns up dead in “the dirty old river that flows by the coal yards in Old Shanty Town.”
The body count could have been higher in ’62, because we don’t know how things turned out on “Wolverton Mountain” (Claude King’s No. 16); the protagonist was going up there to find a wife, but Clifton Clowers was pretty good with weapons. Maybe I should have counted Liberty Valance, who got shot in Gene Pitney’s No. 63 hit, and Old Rivers, who Walter Brennan croaked in his No. 81 talking white man’s blues.
Those tugging at our musical heartstrings and jerking our tears gave us a break the following year, although there was plenty of bad news in the real world — JFK was assassinated late in 1963. But 1964 turned out to be a big year for death songs — by my count, there were three of them, although they came from different perspectives.
“The Last Kiss” got J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers to No. 9 by, again, combining love and vehicular morbidity. Unlike Peterson’s Laura, Wilson’s protagonist gets to say goodbye, sealed with a kiss (I know, I’m mixing metaphors or something here).
There was no love in Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve,” other than the lust for speed. That No. 28 hit also more neatly fit in a genre that was revving up at that time, Surf/Hot Road Music.
The other 1964 fatality was the “Leader of the Pack,” who the Shangri-Las consigned to two-wheel termination (no doubt he was operating helmetless). As in “Patches,” dating outside your social strata and consequent parental disapproval were the problems. The song got to No. 68, despite some really lame lyrics: the spoken-word intro; the “Get the picture” “Yes we see” exchange; the hokey “Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!” warning before the crash.
After that, we needed some time off from the Grim Reaper, and got almost three years. But what followed was one of the stranger Death Rock songs of the bunch: the sultry southern voice of Bobby Gentry not telling us what happened to Billie Joe McAllister. The enigmatic story song left listeners scratching their heads and reading all sorts of meaning into the lyrics, but not so frustrated that they didn’t make it a No. 1 single late in 1966, and 1967’s No. 3 overall.
The following year was 1963 on steroids, the real world providing lots of bad news: the killing of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the inner city riots, etc. But 1968 also provided us with the most insipid Death Rock tune of the decade, Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey.”
Goldsboro and songwriter Bobby Russell used just about every lyrical chain-yanker in the book, throwing in a puppy and a tree that started as a twig. But saccharine sells — it was No. 3 for the year in the Top 100.
That was it for the mini-genre in the ’60s, although James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” missed coming out in the decade by only a couple months. But Sweet Baby James’ signature song wasn’t poetic license — the deceased was a childhood friend of his, and the lyrics also address Taylor’s problems with drug addiction and the demise of his first band.
Two years later, Don McLean killed off rock and roll in “American Pie,” but that’s another murder mystery entirely. The year 1972 also left Big Jim Walker at room temperature, but his creator (and destroyer), Jim Croce, was himself dead a year later.
What can we say about the Death Rock trend? For one thing, it certainly didn’t produce the best of rock and pop; “Ode to Billie Joe” earned some Grammies, but the obvious sentimentality of most of the songs made them throwaways.
Also, recording in the mini-genre wasn’t a real career builder. Peterson had some success other than “Tell Laura,” but nothing major. The Shangri-Las never charted as high as “Leader”; one of their best sellers after that was a cover of a Peterson song.
Lee went back to the well for “Laurie (Strange Things Happen)” and got to No. 14, three years after “Patches,” but otherwise only had three songs in the Hot 100 before switching to country and western. With “Last Kiss,” Wilson and the Cavaliers had covered a song that hadn’t done well with its original artist, Wayne Cochran, and they had only one Top 100 hit after that.
Dean had several Top 100 hits before and after “Big Bad John,” but had more success as a country artist and TV and movie star, and is probably better remembered by many people for his sausages. Jan and Dean had a lot of success after “Dead Man’s Curve,” but it was mostly with the surf and hot rod music that got them there in the first place, and really inspired the 1964 hit.
Even Gentry never charted above No. 31 again, and had only five other songs in the Top 100. Regrettably, Goldsboro — although he never had another No. 1, besides what some consider to be the worst song of all time — had a number of chart hits, releasing songs into the early 1980s.