march 2011

Jean Dinning, and her brother Mark: A moment’s inspiration begat a sub-genre of rock ‘n’ roll.

‘Teen Angel, Can You Hear Me?’

The First ‘Dead Girl Song’ & The Birth of a New Rock ‘n’ Roll Sub-genre

Jean Dinning

March 29, 1924-February 22, 2011

By David McGee

From late '30s swing music to late '50s teenage tragedy, Jean Dinning pretty much did it all. With her sisters Lou and Ginger (the latter her twin) she was part of the popular Dinning Sisters trio that scored a million selling Top 10 pop hit with "Buttons and Bows" in 1948, appeared on the popular, and groundbreaking, country music TV show National Barn Dance, recorded with Bing Crosby and Tennessee Ernie Ford and was still a popular attraction when they broke up the act in 1954.

In 1959, inspired by a magazine article about juvenile delinquency that posited the name "teen angels" for those kids who veered away from the dark side and made positive contributions to society, she wrote a song about a high school couple out on a date when their car stalls on a railroad track. They escape unharmed, but the girl rushes back to the car to retrieve her beau's high school ring, only to be flattened by the onrushing iron horse.

dinning1Jean played the song, titled "Teen Angel," to her younger brother Mark (born Max) over a family dinner one night, He promptly recorded it on a home tape machine. Jean later had a few 45 rpm singles pressed up and sent one to Mark. When he played it in a local record store, it drew an enthusiastic crowd to his listening booth. Having followed his sisters into show business as a singer, Mark had been signed as a country artist by producer Wesley Rose, son of the legendary Fred Rose, in 1957. With Rose's help Mark's home recording of "Teen Angel" was pitched to MGM, which had him re-record it.


Mark Dinning performs 'Teen Angel'

Released in October 1959, "Teen Angel" topped the pop charts, sold more than 2.5 million copies and validated the existence of a market for a now time-honored sub-genre of rock 'n' roll, called variously "teen coffin songs," "teenage tragedy songs" and/or, because the victims were almost always female, "dead girl songs," the latter category suggested by the late singer-songwriter Steve Goodman, who liked to perform another of these morbid classics, Ray Peterson's "Tell Laura I Love Her," in concert. ("Tell Laura I Love Her" is, however, a rare example of the boy dying in song, instead of the girl.) A year earlier, in 1958, Oklahoma rockabilly artist Jody Reynolds had landed in the Billboard top five with his self-composed single “Endless Sleep,” but in Reynolds’ scenario the singer arrives at the river in the nick of time to save his drowning girlfriend, whose voice he hears luring him to join her in her watery grave. (Way ahead of the dead girls’ curve, Reynolds had actually written “Endless Sleep” in 1956.) Jean Dinning took it one step further and actually killed off the girl in her song, and so begat a golden age.

In an interesting confluence of rock ‘n’ roll plate tectonics, all these girls started dying with or for their boyfriends in song in the aftermath of Elvis being iced, if you will, as an Army draftee, and the carnage did not end until the Beatles took the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show on three consecutive Sundays in February 1964. Fortunately, unlike the suicide craze ensuing from Jonathan Edwards’ 1735 New England revivals, the rock ‘n’ roll version of the Edwards Great Awakening was pure fiction, with a beat.

Jody Reynolds, ‘Endless Sleep,” #5 pop (1958).

A Rockabilly Hall of Fame inductee, Jody Reynolds, who died of cancer at age 75 in 2008, had no other hits after ‘Endless Sleep,’ but in 1963, while signed to the Titan label, he introduced Bobbie Gentry as a recording artist with a double-sided duet on ‘Stranger In the Mirror,’ heard here, b/w ‘Requiem for Love.’

With an eerie female chorus backing him, Dinning, singing the lyrics in a teary, slightly tremulous voice that rose to a soft, crying falsetto at the end of each verse, accompanied himself with spare, acoustic guitar strumming and delicate, fingerpicked fills. The atmosphere could hardly be more bleak, as the entire performance seems enveloped in darkness and Dinning plays the role of the bereaved boyfriend, now alone and confused, pitch perfect, right down to the closing plea to his dead girlfriend to send him a message of her enduring love from beyond.

The best ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’ video on YouTube, by cktcDE, From the demo for the FlatOut Ultimate Carnage video game on the Xbox 360. Not period cars, but cool all the same.

Adopting the Dinning template, Ray Peterson was next up on the Morbidity and Mortality Hit Parade with the Jeff Barry-penned "Tell Laura I Love Her," the 1960 tale of race car drive Tommy, who dies on the track and whispers the title sentiment as his last words. One of the best of the teen tragedy discs came from the unlikeliest source, squeaky clean Pat Boone, whose 1961 recording of rockabilly artist Chase Webster's "Moody River" recounts the death by drowning of the singer's girlfriend, who leaves a note revealing her infidelity as the cause of her decision to snuff it all. Always a fine ballad singer, Boone's arch reading hits the right emotional marks of despair and distress, and the brooding arrangement--spiked with a repeating series of eighth-note piano riffs--is properly restrained and doom-laden. "Moody River" topped the chart shortly after its release in June 1961, and marked the last of Boone's #1 singles. Incredibly, "Moody River" was later covered by Frank Sinatra (not the Chairman's finest moment, to be sure), Johnny Rivers and John Fogerty.

A cringe-worthy moment between Lawrence Welk, Pat Boone and a nervous female fan before Pat sings ‘Moody River.’ Pat could use a tailor for that Shirt-Jac he’s wearing. Behold his last #1 single.

In 1962 came Dickie Lee’s country flavored "Patches," written by Barry Mann and Larry Kobler, a tale of lovers from different social strata whose parents nix their love affair, leading the titular character, a girl from the poor side of town, to drown herself, and her boyfriend promising at song's end to join her (Lee would revisit the M&M Hit Parade again in 1965 with "Laurie [Strange Things Happen]," a harpsichord-embroidered, horn-enriched midtempo ballad based on the always entertaining Resurrection Mary myth about the ghostly reappearance of a girl long since dead).

Dickie Lee, ‘Patches’ (1962): ‘A girl from that place/will just bring me disgrace/so my folks won’t let me love you…’

One of the monuments of teen tragedy came along in the summer of 1964 in the form of J. Frank Wlson and the Cavaliers' "Last Kiss," which had been around in recorded form on two other U.S. labels and four international labels since 1961 (when it was originally recorded unsuccessfully by Wayne Cochran), but hit paydirt when the Josie label picked it up in the midst of Beatlemania. The single soared to #2 on the pop chart and sold more than a million copies. In the case of "Last Kiss," art imitated life and then life imitated art: The song is based on the true story of Jeanette Clark and J.L. Hancock, a 16-year-old couple out on a date a few days before Christmas in 1962 when their car hit a tractor-trailer on a road in rural Barnesville, GA. A local gas station attendant helping with the recovery of the bodies did not recognize his own daughter when he helped pull the bodies out of the wreckage. The other real-life tragedy around the song occurred after the '64 recording was roaring up the charts, when Sonley Roush, band manager for J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers, fell asleep at the wheel of his car and was killed in a head-on collision with another car. Wilson, riding with Roush, was critically injured and was on crutches when the band later appeared on American Bandstand.

J. Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers, ‘Last Kiss’ (1964)

Depending on which version of the song you liked, Jan & Dean's epic "Dead Man's Curve" either ushered out or portended the demise of the teen tragedy song. The first version, with slightly different lyrics and a less ambitious arrangement, was released in 1963 on the duo's Drag City album; the second and most popular version surfaced in 1964, in a powerful, sonically brutal arrangement inspired by Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, complete with strings, horns, screeching tires and crunching metal, plus a melodramatic mid-song narration by Jan about his last memories of a horrific car crash as the end result of a race on a notorious stretch of Sunset Boulevard, the North Whittier Curve, a near-90-degree right turn. In one of rock's most tragic stories, Jan himself nearly died in a crash near that selfsame Dead Man's Curve, on April 12, 1966. He survived with severe brain damage and paralysis; though he eventually returned to performing, he was never again able to move or sing with the command he had before the accident. Jan died on March 26, 2004, at age 62.

Jan & Dean, ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ (1964)

The same year that yielded the great “Dead Man’s Curve” also disgorged Jimmy Cross’s “I Want My Baby Back,” a single that regularly rates in the Top 5 of Worst Record of All Time votes. Certainly the teenage death song was a style ripe for parody, and Cross took it to the nth power. A native of Dothan, AL, he sang/spoke his tragic tale in a Southern hick voice somewhere between that of the Andy Griffith of “What It Was Was Football” and Gomer Pyle. The story centers on a terrible crash between a brakeless car and a motorcycle (an occasion for a fleeting reference to the Shangri-Las’ 1964 chart topping “Leader of the Pack,” a Jeff Barry-Ellie Greenwich tune about Betty, a high school girl whose parents disapprove of her romance with the biker Jimmy “from the wrong side of town”; she breaks up with him, he speeds off to his demise, a victim of class warfare in a rock ‘n’ roll classic that became the title of a 1984 Broadway revue of Greenwich’s songs). The singer alone survives the wreck, only to awake and find his dead girlfriend dismembered--or, as he observes, “Over there was my baby, and over there was my baby, and wa-a-a-y over there was my baby.” Determined to get her back, he digs up her grave and climbs into her coffin, from which he sings a muffled final chorus.

Jimmy Cross, ‘I Want My Baby Back’ (no explanation for the fixation on Sal Mineo in this video). A perennial World’s Worst Record contender.

Thus the history born of Jean Dinning’s moment of inspiration in 1959. Suffering from a respiratory illness, Ms. Dinning died on February 22 at her daughter’s home in Garden Grove, CA. She was 86. Dinning is survived by her sisters Ginger and Dolores; children Shay Edwards, Cynthia Wygal, Howard Mack, Ronald Surrey and David Surrey; eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Her brother Mark, whose only hit was “Teen Angel,” died of a heart attack in 1986, at age 52.

sistersOne of nine children, she was born Eugenia Dinning on March 29, 1924, in Grant County, OK, where her father lost the farm in the Depression and became a Maytag salesman who moved often. There were five daughters and four sons total in the musical family, and all sang in the church choir. While in their teens the three Dinning sisters won several amateur singing contests, and starred on their own 15-minute local radio show. Later they toured as part of Herbie Holmes orchestra. In 1939 they received a five-year contract with NBC in Chicago, and were regular guests on such shows as Gary Moore’s Club Matinee, the Bowman Musical Milkwagon and the National Barn Dance. Regulars on the Chicago club circuit, the sisters made it to the upper echelon of the Windy City’s nightspots as a featured act at the Latin Quarter. They were the highest paid radio act in Chicago at the time.

The Dinning Sisters, 'You're a Character Dear'

In addition to their million-seller version of "Buttons and Bows" (from the 1948 Bob Hope-Jane Russell movie, The Paleface), the Dinnings other hits included “My Adope Hacienda” (#9, 1947); “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” (#12, 1947); and “Beg Your Pardon” (#12, 1948), all recorded for Capitol. Tennessee Ernie Ford, one of the Sisters’ Capitol labelmates, was pushing the boundaries of country on his early ‘50s recordings, and he brought the Dinnings into the studio to join him on one of his early rockin’ country numbers, “Rock City Boogie,” in 1951.

Tennessee Ernie Ford & The Dinning Sisters, 'Rock City Boogie' written by Joe Allison and Anita Kerr, released December 31, 1951

Lou Dinning left the trio in 1948 to get married, and subsequently embarked on a solo career that produced a steady stream of singles over the ensuing decade. She was replaced in the sister act by Jayne Bundesen. After three years, Ms. Bundesen departed, worn out by the traveling and wanting to raise a family, and was replaced by the youngest Dinning sister, Delores, also known at Tootsie. In 1954 the sisters disbanded in order to concentrate on raising their children, but all maintained semi-active careers in music. Jean cut a few solo sides for the Essex label before turning to songwriting, and also sang with a barbershop quartet, the Sweet Adelines. Tootsie spent a quarter of a century with the Nashville Edition vocal group that was a fixture on Hee-Haw; and Ginger continued to sing with a local barbershop quartet in her New Jersey home town.

Jean Dinning’s daughter, Cynthia Wygal, said her mother wrote two versions of “Teen Angel.” To Ms. Wygal and her siblings the hit record was “the gruesome version.”



Swim, Kiss And Drown

Johnny Preston

August 18, 1939-March 4, 2011

A variation on the “teen tragedy” formula, Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear” centered on the ethnic warfare between opposing Native American tribes in its story of a boy and a girl who fall in love, but, because they are not from the same tribe, can only dream of a day when they'll be together. Eyeing each other across a river that separates the two tribes’ land, they finally let their passion get the best of them, dive in, swim to each other’s arms, kiss, and drown, ascending in connubial bliss to “their happy hunting ground.” The song was written by J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and Richardson and young George Jones supplied the Native American background chants over the thumping beat, as Texas-born Johnny Preston applied his honey tenor to the tale at hand. Preston, born in Port Arthur, TX, of Cajun descent, was a student at Lamar University leading a rock ‘n’ roll band called The Shades when Richardson offered him a shot at recording his new song “Running Bear.” They cut the record in Houston in 1958, but by the time it was released in the fall of 1959, Richardson had been killed in the plane crash that had also claimed the lives of fellow rockers Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens.

Johnny Preston, ‘Running Bear’ (1959)

“Running Bear” started slow after being released in October 1959, but it soon picked up steam. In January 1960 it was #1 in the U.S., and by March it had topped the chart in England. Total sales exceeded a million copies. Preston’s next single, “Cradle of Love,” peaked at #7 in the U.S., #2 in England; a third 1959 single, “Feel So Fine,” topped out at #14 U.S., #18 England, but two 1960 singles failed to chart at all. In 1961 Preston had two more low charting singles in a cover of Little Willie John’s “Leave My Kitten Alone” (more famous as a Beatles cover that was excluded from the Fab Four’s first album and did not surface again until it appeared on The Beatles Anthology) and “Free Me,” which barely made it into the Top 100 at #97. It was Preston’s last charting single. He continued to perform, appearing at Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Theater in Branson, MO.

Preston underwent coronary artery bypass surgery last year, according to his son Scott Preston. He died of heart failure in Beaumont, TX, on March 4 at age 71.

johnny preston"He was my best friend in the world," Scott Preston told KFDM News, Channel Six, in Beaumont. "We were just friends. He was a great family man. He was the moral compass for the whole bunch of us. His persona was always pretty cool. That was him in real life, too. He never got rattled."

Preston is survived by his wife, Sharron; his sons, Scott and Michael; daughters Leslie and Lisa; and a number of grandchildren and great grandchildren.


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